A Microinterview with Ian Bogost
This issue features a microinterview with Ian Bogost, conducted by Michael Thomsen. Bogost is a designer, philosopher, and author who’s helped shape the artistic and intellectual scaffolding of video games over the last decade. He has designed games about political policy, meditation, the ennui of a Kinko’s worker, and, in Cow Clicker, his most recent and somewhat controversial work, he’s satirized Facebook games and the players who keep coming back to them. He is the author of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, one of the foundational histories of commercial game design, as well as Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames and Newsgames: Journalism at Play. His most recent book, How to Do Things with Videogames, is a collection of essays that describe the unconsidered variety and depth of a form capable of addressing anything from poetry to pornography.
THE BELIEVER: What is a video-game poem, and how do you go about making one?
IAN BOGOST: The game poem is an attempt to continue the poetic tradition in video-game form, not necessarily using language, but still embracing constraint and condensed symbolism. With A Slow Year I took two fixed endpoints: the Atari 2600 platform on one side, and, on the other side, the poetic traditions of imagism and haiku, forms that precisely and concisely capture a particular idea or image in a small measure of language. I asked myself: If you take these two things and use them like the ends of a jump rope, what does it feel like to use that apparatus as a designer? What does it mean for a player? In my case, the Atari 2600 already had the prebuilt material constraints that haiku has, because the hardware is incredibly rudimentary.
BLVR: A proceduralist might argue the true poetry of games comes from the elegance of their rules, not their images. Were you consciously rejecting that idea?
IB: Despite the Atari’s visual simplicity, A Slow Year communicates through images as well as through its rules. The games are simple yet difficult, and playing them relies entirely on visual observation. In that respect, the proceduralist preference for rules over images is somewhat upset. One of the great things about the present moment in games is that we’re finally beginning to admit that there are different styles. It’s not a matter of someone being right and someone being wrong, of one design strategy being more productive than another. Instead, we’re letting a thousand flowers bloom and seeing what happens. We’ll likely see conflicts erupt around this diversity. Anytime you have wildly different ways of approaching artistic expression, you also have wildly varying opinions about the results.
THE BELIEVER: Your recent game Cow Clicker is a satire of Facebook games. How does one go about making a satire using video games?
IAN BOGOST: Satire is a type of caricature. Caricature is only possible when its subject is entrenched and familiar, when it’s real enough that it can be mocked by overaccentuating its features. Facebook games feature repetitive, timed activities that often feel challenge-free. Clicking is the absurd amplification of this process. In games like FarmVille you choose what to click on, and there are different reasons to click on different objects at different times. When I made Cow Clicker I flattened those distinctions, such that there’s only one thing you can click on—a cow. It also presents temporalized opportunities that make you feel like you’ll lose out if you don’t take advantage of them. I wanted to amplify that obsession—that contraction of time where you fret about the game when you’re away from it and want to get back to it—until it became a caricature.
BLVR: Is there something fundamentally insulting about satire? Is it possible to do it affectionately?
IB: There is something about satire that tends toward the ridiculous, that takes a subject and shows what is stupid about it when it’s pushed to its limits. Satire tends to be insulting, but it’s an affectionate disparagement, one that embraces reality but presses it for something more than it currently provides. In that respect, there’s also something political about satire. It addresses how we spend our time, the things that we invest in, the reasons why, for example, the social game trend is popular, and what that popularity says about ourselves and our present moment. It’s a scenario much bigger than just games. Obsession and compulsion are built into most of our online activities.
THE BELIEVER: Death is one of the most common ways to communicate player failure in games, yet you’ve never made a game with death in it. How would you make a game about death?
IAN BOGOST: What do games have to say about death? Perhaps that we’re terrified of it, and because of this anxiety we want to foreground it and replay it over and over again. We want to have as many video-game deaths as possible, because we can only ever have one real death of our own. If I were to make a game about death, I would try to make it so you had as many deaths as possible. I’m not really thinking about dramatic deaths, like falling off a cliff or crashing an airplane. I would be interested in multiplying the variety in the ways of ending something mundane, and using that context to think about the constant risk we’re always in, and all the hypothetical branching timelines that come from it.
BLVR: So in video games, death is more of a set of connected probabilities than an isolated event?
IB: Games are systems of interlocking contingencies that invite us to live for a while in a different model of the world. They are particularly compatible with possibility and randomness—the strange permutation of accidents that have made things the way they are in space and time. We can roll the dice, run the random-number generators to produce scenarios and characters in which we can experience something singular that, nevertheless, is there for us to experience again and again. What we see in a game is not the singularity of an experience but the patterns that produce all of those singular experiences. Games are machines that produce patterned experiences. I don’t think that’s easy to do in other media.
THE BELIEVER: You have a bachelors degree in philosophy. How can you philosophize in video games?
IAN BOGOST: Among the outcomes games offer that might be interesting for philosophy, the most promising are behavior and systematicity. All philosophies are systems, and games make it possible to model those systems. People can experience a
take on how the world works in a role, in the first person. This view could be that of a person or an animal or a rock or the universe itself. It’s contextualized in some way, and the player experiences it in a concretized manner in a game, not just in the
context of language and wordplay, the obsession of twentieth-century philosophy. Can you imagine a video game that actually presented a position on ontology, ethics, metaphysics, or phenomenology? It doesn’t seem any stranger to me than a book about
any of those topics. Perhaps the book, rather than the video game, will someday appear absurd as a medium for philosophy.
BLVR: Are there things video games are more philosophically adept at portraying than language is?
IB: If you think of philosophy as a practice of thinking about being—thinking about how to think about the world—you’ll realize it’s a practice without a natural medium. Yet if you’re a philosopher, it’s assumed you will be productive through writing. Language is supposed to express positions, theories, or argumentation. In my next book, Alien Phenomenology, I suggest the term carpentry to describe the practice of doing philosophy with different materials. Can we imagine philosophical cookery, cabinetry, or automotive design? It might seem perverse or ridiculous, but once you realize that philosophy has just assumed writing is the most rational means of carrying out the work, you realize other options are possible. I’m convinced that in different situations, different materials will be appealing for doing philosophical work.
THE BELIEVER: There have been a number of video games that could be classified as pornography. How do you make a game about sex that isn’t pornographic?
IAN BOGOST: For several years now, there has been an interest in these so-called “rules of seduction” books, from both a male and a female perspective. They’re kind of atrocious and sexist and reductionist, but they’re also remarkable attempts to build systematic accounts of social behavior and response. There’s something truthful about the search for a method. What’s the best way to find a partner? How do you meet someone? How do you talk to someone with an interest in making him or her a partner? If you imagined that efforts like these are trying to provide a set of behaviors and responses, that’s a space where a game could work well. Such a game might represent social choices and their consequences within the context of somebody’s approach to seduction, or physical pleasure, or long-term sexual happiness in a relationship.
BLVR: Sex often requires you to heighten your sensitivity for what another person is experiencing. Is there any way a game could do the same?
IB: Video games are possibility spaces. They put us in a role, which makes us subject to a set of circumstances, conditions, and behaviors. It’s a shame that we so often mistake that opportunity for fantasy alone. It could be profoundly interesting to put yourself in the shoes of your partner. Even just putting yourself in the shoes of some random person whose perspective on sex and love is different from yours—that is a process that produces empathy. You would never consider thinking that way, but once you’re forced to do so, you might realize it’s not a crazy way to think. It’s just different.