Electron Dance
15May/12Off

The Company of Troublemakers: Ian Bogost

This is the fourth article in the series The Academics Are Coming.

Ian Bogost

Dr. Ian Bogost is one of the more well-known figures of games studies. He is the father of proceduralism, which is a way of reading and designing games with the "mechanics as the message".

He's written books, such as Racing the Beam, the definitive tome on the Atari 2600, with Nick Montfort. He's grown a studio called Persuasive Games which makes games from a proceduralist perspective and recently unveiled the Game-O-Matic for the rapid generation of journalistic games. He also developed the Facebook games critique Cow Clicker and a couple of titles on the Atari 2600 platform: A Slow Year which he calls a set of "game poems" (see the recent Kill Screen review by Tommy Rousse) and Guru Meditation.

I wanted to find out what Bogost had to say about being both an academic and a games developer.

HM: Welcome to Electron Dance, Ian. There is still much scepticism regarding the value of academic research so... why become a game studies academic?

I never intended to get into academics at all. Or, more accurately, I had assumed that if I did, I would be forced to work in a traditional field like French literature or something (my PhD is in comparative literature). I was always interested in both computation and arts & culture, and I wanted to find a way to pursue the two together. That's the intellectually noble part.

The other part is this: academics is a great career. You get to set much of your own agenda, work on your own problems, and really affect the world – if you choose to be one of the scholars who makes that a priority, as I have tried to do – while earning a good, stable living.

One more thing: the creation of videogames is much derided as a career too so I'm in good company. In any case, I'd much prefer to be in the company of troublemakers than the uncontroversially respectable, no matter what I were to do.

HM: What was your goal in setting up Persuasive Games?

Persuasive Games was set up to develop and distribute games about social and political issues. The whole idea of the studio from day one was to make games that served persuasive ends (advertising, education, politics and so forth) while also trying to make a business of it. That is to say, we had game design and social/political goals as much as we had entrepreneurial ones.

HM: Is there any link between Persuasive Games and Georgia Tech? Are you allowed to schedule your hours between the two as you see fit?

There's no link; it's been important to me to keep the two apart for legal and professional reasons. Georgia Tech allows faculty staff a minority portion of their time for consulting and other outside projects, and I use that for working at the studio. That said, a lot of ideas I get in the studio turn into research projects. For example, our early work on newsgames at Persuasive Games inspired the newsgames research at Georgia Tech that's led to a book on the subject and a new authoring system (Game-O-Matic), both funded by the Knight Foundation.

HM: Were A Slow Year and Guru Meditation spare-time projects?

Persuasive Games is a commercial studio; I also make games as an independent artist. A Slow Year and Guru Meditation were made with that hat on. I don't know if I'd call them "spare time" projects, since a good deal of time went into them, particularly the latter. They're more akin to my books, which I write under the aegis of my name rather than my institution.

HM: What was the purpose of A Slow Year? A demonstration of theory, an experiment or simply a creative outlet?

It's art, first and foremost. It has theoretical and experimental undertones, but mostly they theorize or experiment with what would make games art, or what it would mean for games to participate in certain aspects of the art world. But mostly it's a work to be judged on its own merits, not by those I set up for it.

HM: Did CowClicker emerge from beneath your academic hat, artistic hat or Persuasive Games hat?

My academic hat, for sure. It was a research project, or a critical project at least, first. In fact, the original idea for Cow Clicker was presented at an event hosted at NYU about social games, and I chose to make a game instead.

HM: Are there commercial tensions resulting from working on Persuasive Games and being an academic? With more academics going down the development route, could this be an issue?

It's so incredibly common for academics in the science and engineering disciplines to move between industry and academia, whether in the course of a week's work or as shifts back and forth during a career. So this is really quite common already, it's just less common in the arts and humanities, where the closest examples are usually dual-careers like those of novelists or film-makers, who are simultaneously involved in both industrial and academic careers.

HM: Should we consider academics to be a sort of "third channel" of game development? Mainstream churns out the crowdpleasers, indie garage bands do their thing - and now the academic experimenters are on the scene? Is it possible for academic developers to distinguish themselves from indie experimentation?

No. The way most academics are doing that is through grant-funded game development, and most of them do not have the expertise, experience, patience, or context in which to do it. I think the comparison to poets and novelists and painters is a good one: the academic affiliation is a place for research and education around a chosen medium, while the practitioners also work in their chosen medium.

HM: Finally, do you think it's possible you could be persuaded to leave the academic world and go fully indie?

Anything is possible, certainly! I think this is one of the interesting aspects of game design as an academic field, the viability of non-academic positions puts interesting and perhaps productive pressure on universities.

HM: Thanks for your time, Ian.

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Posted by Joel Goodwin

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  1. Interesting read indeed. Mind you, I would like to point out that those Persuasive Games systematically avoid anything that actually challenges the dominant societal ideas.

    (sits back and waits for more)

  2. @gnome: For the purposes of these interviews I’ve mostly steered away from getting into actual development questions and more on motives and problems. (There’s a good reason for the word “mostly” here.)

    I don’t disagree with your analysis; I didn’t find the games in the Persuasive Games stable revelatory or challenging. But then again: was Sweatshop?

  3. Hmmm, interesting question that… I think, and do stress the word think, that for certain parts of the west Sweatshop must have been quite an eye-opener. At least for those eyes that wanted to be opened. Then again, it too played politically safe and failed to address the main causes responsible for both sweatshops and child-labour. Frankly, though I do like political art that is connected to reality, I do prefer the subtle and thought-provoking ways of, say, Jonas.

  4. There’s a larger topic here which I’ve been itching to research for some time. Do games that are meant to bring about change… actually do anything? Do they raise awareness? Are such games largely played by an already engaged audience- that is, preaching to the converted? I’ve been skirting around this topic here and there in the odd comment. There’s also the thorny topic of whether “meaningful” simulations serve up reality or serve an author’s goals – a la Fate of the World.

    Too many unruly and conflicting thoughts on this right now. Maybe later.

  5. I read and enjoyed this interview when you posted it last week, HM, but I didn’t really have anything substantial to say. I still don’t really, but after seeing this mini-discussion between you and Gnome, I’m inclined to mentioned that I’ve been struggling with this kind of question myself lately. Is there some inherent flaw in the design philosophy of the type of game that’s supposed to “raise awareness” or persuade people to become more invested in some issue? Or is it simply a problem of execution? Or is it just my problem, since I play too many games?

    I haven’t played any of Bogost’s studio’s Persuasive Games, so I can’t speak to them, but I think there’s definitely something to your observation that this type of game is often “preaching to the converted.” I think at some point Michael Abbot made the observation that most of these games are the equivalent of someone shouting their message at you with a megaphone, another analogy I like. They’re just not very affecting or effective.

    I’ve been reading Anna Anthropy’s book, and one of the ideas she puts forward that I like is that videogames (as a medium or whatever) are especially good at conveying ambiguity, which in my experience is one of the things most lacking in political games, games for change, persuasive games, or whatever you call them. They lack ambiguity, subtlety and any sort of self-awareness or sense of humor. These are all characteristics I see in The Desert Bridge, which I was reminded of when Gnome mentioned Jonas earlier. But that might be an unfair comparison, since I would assume that Jonas’ ambitions are more artistic than persuasive.

    It feels very cynical and dismissive to say that these games aren’t useful, so maybe I wouldn’t take it that far. But I can’t help but thinking that without subtlety, ambiguity or humor, most of them aren’t likely to have any more effect than some pamphlet or one of those employee training videos.

  6. Argh… as you know I’m completely utterly out of time, but will get back to this discussions asap! Mind you, I ‘m not necessarily asking for propaganda games, but mainly about games that feel connected to real politics, real problems, real people; just like Anna Anthropy’s and Jonas’.

    Be back after a bundle :)

  7. @Alex, for all of these pensive reasons I tend to be muted when looking at games that are activist in nature. They share the same problems that all such media can have: that they appeal to its very special demographic, but they are not the target.

    I watched the movie of “The Shock Doctrine” (not read the book) and it irritated me. I wanted to feel a little more concrete than what was on offer; too wrapped up in conspiracy. I think the observation that people in power use catastrophe to steamroll through change that would otherwise be rejected is important – take one look at how the credit crunch and the subprime/derivative-fuelled financial crisis were deftly re-framed in mainstream media as a problem of profligate governments to be solved with austerity and deregulation (i.e. not temporary measures). Yet the movie left me unimpressed with its attempts to tie everything together; *everyone* appropriates events for their own benefit.

    Uh, wandered off there. What were we talking about?

  8. You should read The Shock Doctrine, HM. Books are always superior to films when trying to present that sort of historical argument, not least because of greater detail, information density, and reference to primary and secondary sources. I find films a lot more enjoyable when they’re trying to present an unusual opinion on a historical narrative ala. Adam Curtis’ films.

    I’ve not watched the Shock Doctrine film so can’t comment on it at all.

    That’s all a bit of an aside. Some interesting tidbits in your interview with Bogost although it’s a shame you didn’t manage to tease more out of him regarding his current projects. Did you have any questions relating to the proceduralist/narrativist conflict you outlined in an earlier post? Your post on the subject was the first time I’d seen the clash clearly outlined.

  9. Shaun, I should read books. This would be a good thing. Kind of lost my way with the paperback around the time Electron Dance started up. No, hang on, maybe back when the Little HM was born.

    I like Adam Curtis because he builds up this train of thought, almost dispassionately, and is absolutely gripping, making you see things in a different way. The Shock Doctrine film was just weak; it was jabbing at emotional buttons rather than persuasive ones.

    As for the interviews… I think all of the interviews going forward are dense. My focus has been academic game development – why, how, what – so I wasn’t interested in digging up stuff about narratology/ludology or any other particular academic theories.

  10. I can’t pretend that my reading hasn’t also fallen by the wayside today. It’s a crying shame but there is only so much (free) time in the day…

    I’ll skip the Shock Doctrine film then. You have just reminded me of The Corporation, however, which I think balances the film and book far better. The film is primarily made up of interview snippets and although everything is feeding into the main thesis there is some balance of perspectives.

    Fair play on the different theories. I look forward to the rest of the series!


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