"Reality is alright, it’s just messy and weird": An interview with Ian Bogost on videogames, social awareness, and the future of gaming

“Will innocents be caught in the cross-fire? Oh, yes. But when your secret weapon is a random act of kindness, it’s only cruel to be kind to other players….” Cruel 2 B Kind is an experimental game by Ian Bogost and Jane McGonigal. Here, Bogost, author of How to Do Things With Videogames, answers questions about videogames’ potential for cultural transformation, among other things.

Award-winning videogame designer, media philosopher, and professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology

What central question does How to Do Things with Videogames tackle?
The book is about why videogames are a mature mass medium, how to understand them as such, and how people of all kinds are using games for many purposes. The book argues that videogames are everywhere, and I try to show the variety of uses in twenty short chapters, each of which takes on a different use. Those uses are very broad in scope, from experiencing music to politicking, from doing exercise to appreciating art.

When you talk about games, are you also always talking about technology?
Games have many material influences—many things that make them what they are. When we’re talking about videogames, computers are always a part of the picture, although there are lots of ways for a game to be computational, from a game played on a minicomputer in a laboratory in the 1960s to a game played by computerized automated voice system over a mobile network. But videogames also derive their form from other games—folk games like chess and go, parlor games like cards and billiards, games of skill and chance like pinball and midway games… not to mention the fact that games have been strongly influenced by other media, particularly narrative media like film and novels.

Instead of thinking about games as technology, it’s useful to think of them as media, in Marshall McLuhan’s sense of the word—an extension of the senses. Videogames alter the way we experience the world, but they are also made up of other kinds of media, other materials, like stories or chance or fine motor action. And the materials out of which something is made have an influence on how they work and what we can do with them.

How would you convince a doubter of the game’s potential to make the world better?
I start one of my earlier books, Persuasive Games, with an example from the 1970s, a game made for a then-popular educational computing system called PLATO. The game is called Tenure, and it was meant to be played by students graduating with teaching certificates, to give them a sense of the trials a new high school teacher might face in the first year on the job. In the game, the player has to get hired, organize a classroom, manage students, and also deal with institutional politics and interpersonal relationships in the school. The means of interaction is very simple—a series of scenarios, each with a set of choices—but the end result offers a very effective portrayal of the dynamics of a secondary school, one in which classroom teaching is often secondary to the various organizational politics taking place between different constituencies.

Education is one of many applications of games, but the interesting thing about Tenure is how it presents the problem of learning the ins and outs of school politics. It presents the player with a model of a part of the world, focusing on the system of school politics, on how they work. Then it offers the player a role to take on, one constrained by that model. You’re playing a green teacher, but you can’t do anything you want—you’re subject to the simulated social conditions of the school. And then it provides a context for that role, a situation in which the decisions you make matter.

So, games don’t make the world better by solving our problems for us. There’s no magic wand we can wave that makes the world better. Yet, games can give us a different perspective on the world than we’re accustomed to, one focused on the way things work, even when that way is a messy way.

You created the game Cruel 2 B Kind (a game in which weapons are acts of kindness) with Jane McGonigal. What new ground did you break with this game? McGonigal’s research also focuses on the future of games, and she asks the central question “Why doesn’t the real world work more like an online game?” How do you see your work as being similar to or different from hers?
This is related to the problem of making the world better. Jane believes that “reality is broken” and that we can learn from the ways games give us gratification to make our lives more gratifying. But I see things just the other way around: reality is alright, it’s just messy and weird. We can’t “fix” it even if we wanted to. But we can become more at one with the uncertainty and strangeness and contingency of that world. Games offer a particularly effective way to conduct that exercise. Games help us stop looking for simplistic answers and start realizing that once you touch one part of a problem, something else changes and you have to reformulate your strategy. So for me, the real world is not the problem. The problem is how we’ve refused to allow the rusty gears of that world to appear beautiful and gratifying to us. Without acknowledging complexity, we can never make any progress.

Cruel 2 B Kind is an interesting example of that outcome, because it’s a game all about interacting with strangers in public. You play in a public setting, usually a crowded urban environment. And you capture other players with acts and words of kindness, but you have to deduce who might be playing in order to succeed. And in the process, you’re likely to do nice things for random people without realizing it. So to me, Cruel 2 B Kind helps us trace the social rifts between our public and private lives. It doesn’t suggest that we should just be nicer people in a saccharine way. It creates a kind of wormhole between the world we inhabit and another way of imagining that world.

What do you make of a game like Flower (a video game that aims to make players peaceful and relaxed)? Are there other games right now that aim, similarly, to relax the gamer?
There’s a chapter in the book on Relaxation, and I talk about games like Journey to Wild Divine, which uses a sensor that measures skin galvanic response and heart rate, and that’s the interface to the game. You have to relax yourself physiologically to progress. And I’ve made a strange experimental meditation game called Guru Meditation, which is played on an old 1983 Amiga peripheral called the Joyboard—the goal of that game is to sit still for as long as possible; it’s a game you don’t play, I suppose. But the most common relaxation games are probably ordinary casual games like Bejeweled. These are the games we play just to pass the time, just to clear our heads. They’re a bit like doodling on paper while on the phone, or knitting while waiting for the doctor. The purpose of the system is just to help its players unwind.

A lot of people cite Flower as a relaxing game, but I actually find it pretty nerve-wracking! Its setting and appearance are beautiful and idyllic, and those features definitely suggest relaxation—the petals of flowers gliding on the wind. But the experience of play to me isn’t relaxing, it’s just another action game, albeit a somewhat slow one. This will sound strange, but for me Flower has more in common with Grand Theft Auto: both of those games are about being somewhere, about the details of a three-dimensional environment, and about ambling (or driving, or floating) through it.

What is your favorite game?
I’ll admit that I’ve always been terrible at picking favorites, and I tend never to have an answer when someone asks. But in the context of How to Do Things With Videogames, I finally have an excuse to refuse to pick: the really interesting and promising thing about videogames is their potential to become ordinary, to become commonplace. Sure, we’ve got big blockbuster games like we have summer movies or popular novels, and we an always talk about those in terms of our aesthetic tastes. But when we have games for advertising and games for health and games for public policy debate and games as collectible trifles and games as a way to practice parallel parking, then talk of favorites makes less sense.

Where do you think the future of gaming is headed?
Everywhere. As a general-purpose medium, games are increasingly going to be put to use in all the places we use more familiar media like writing, images, and film. That’s why technology of specific genres or styles of games, like better real-time 3D graphics or more intuitive interfaces, is less important than the uses to which games are put, large and small, momentous and forgettable. But there’s a consequence to this future: as games become a general-purpose medium, they also become a domesticated, familiar one. And that’s a bittersweet success for those who have enjoyed videogames as an esoteric lifestyle or identity. No longer will games be strange and unusual. But it is a success nevertheless.

What would a book-as-game look like?
There are several kinds of books, and the game “equivalent” (if indeed there is one) for different genres or styles might look different. In my earlier work I’ve argued that games can make arguments, and that certainly corresponds with many non-fiction books, scholarly or trade. Idea that are particularly systemic are the most susceptible to being made into a game. For example, many people (myself included) have compared Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel to a game like Civilization.

Then we also have fiction, of course, and the truth is, games are less adept at telling stories than they are at depicting systems (despite the commercial game industry’s insistence on copying the styles and themes of Hollywood motion pictures). I’ve wondered if games share more in common with poetry, and one of my recent games, A Slow Year, tries to make that connection explicit: it’s a kind of playable Imagism for the Atari VCS, which I purposely released as a book to make the connection to poetry explicit.

And there are lots of other kinds of books: you could think of the example of Tenure as akin to a textbook or self-help book even. And there are games like Cooking Mama, which are at least something like cookbooks, even if far more abstract.

I suppose the fundamental difference between books and games is that books are textual, at least primarily so. As we think about new ways of conveying ideas and creating experiences, perhaps we’ll see more experiments in hybrid media, in chimera that are part-book, part-game. Of course, we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of off-shoots or promotional tie-ins, like we see with some iPad books today. Those can be interesting, but usually they are just gimmicks.


Ian Bogost is an award-winning videogame designer and media philosopher. He is professor of digital media at Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. He is author or coauthor of several books, including How to Do Things With Videogames (Minnesota 2011), Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, and the forthcoming Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (Minnesota, April 2012). His videogames have been exhibited internationally and played by millions of people; they cover topics as varied as airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, and tort reform. His most recent game, A Slow Year, a collection of game poems for Atari, won the Vanguard and Virtuoso awards at the 2010 Indiecade Festival. For more information, go to http://www.bogost.com.

“What can you do with videogames? Play pranks, meditate on politics, achieve zen-like zone-outs, turn the act of travel back into adventure, and describe how to safely exit a plane—among other things, as Ian Bogost explains in this superb, philosophical, and wide-ranging book on the expressive qualities of games.”—Clive Thompson, columnist for Wired and contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine

“(This) collection of essays on videogames confirms Bogost as one of the most penetrating, erudite and original thinkers around on the topic.” —The Guardian

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