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Ian Bogost wants to trouble you: The Destructoid interview

7:38 AM on 09.10.2007 // Leigh Alexander

Anytime someone says that games aren't art, we're up in arms burning straw effigies of Ebert. Any time someone says games are destructive, we want blood. Half of us want to pretend that games are only toys, and the other half of us devote thousands of our best thesaurus words to dissertations on the validity of our medium. We want to be taken seriously -- and yet, every time we see a game that isn't meant to be strictly fun, we dismiss it out of hand.

Lots of gamers don't really get Ian Bogost, and that's fine with him. His company, Persuasive Games, isn't designing for you. But if games are more than just toys to you -- if you're a proponent of the view that games are powerful experiences that shouldn't be relegated to some "violent teenage emo kid" niche, and if you appreciate the possibilities in the medium of gaming beyond breast physics and the pew-pew-pew, then you can't afford not to get him.

And by the way, in addition to being a freakin' genius, Ian's just all-around a completely rad guy. Hit the jump to be enlightened. Otherwise, the next time some desperate politician or mass media fathead dismisses gaming, you best sit down and shut up. 


What's the aim of Persuasive Games, and how are the games you design different from consumer games?


Persuasive Games makes games meant to influence people's opinions. Usually that means games about social and political issues, but we've also done work in advertising, learning, and corporate training, among others. The primary difference between our games and traditional consumer games is that our work might be encountered in different situations from those games. For example, you might play a game about an organization's public policy positions when you're thinking about how to vote, or a game about workplace behavior in the context of a job. That said, not all our games are solely about work or learning ... there's a great deal of blurred boundaries. A lot of our games are snide and satirical rather than overt and pedagotical. You might think of our work as bearing some resemblance to non-fiction books or cartoons or documentary films. 


What do you think makes gaming an ideal vehicle for this kind of work?

Games are an excellent medium for modeling and experiencing complexity. Most social and political dynamics are complicated, interrelated mangles of different influences, conditions, motivations, and institutional constraints. Videogames are a useful medium for creating experiences of complex situations and subjects.  


You've said that games don't necessarily need to be fun -- isn't fun part of the definition of a game? If not, how do you quantify its efficacy?

The first thing that's fundamental to a videogame is modeling -- creating a set of rules that represent some aspect of human life. The second thing that's fundamental to videogames is a first-hand experience of that model, stepping into the shoes of someone who is subject to the rules of the model. For example, what's it like to live the life of a single mother below the poverty line, or a refugee, or a slaughterhouse worker? Most videogames, which rely on fantasies of power as their primary draw, but experiences of all kinds can be compelling and revealing.  

As far as efficacy goes, I'm not into quantifying anything. Remember that scene in Dead Poets' Society when Robin Williams has his students tear the page out of their poetry book, the one that tries to graph human expression? The same is true for games. I want to see players talking about the questions I raise in games. but I don't need -- nor do I want -- scores on scales of ten or ratings on MetaCritic. 


Consumer designers obviously want the number one takeaway for gamers to be fun. What's the most important thing you want players of your games to get out of the experience?

Perspective. Specifically a different perspective than they might have coming in. And, if I'm lucky, empathy for the situations the games model. And if I'm really lucky, one or more bothersome questions that dig into the player's skull, either right away or sometime in the future. I want to trouble players, not amuse them. 


What designers have you learned the most from? Is there any designer/game that you think is a good model for the kind of work you do, and what elements make this so?

Chris Crawford's early work, for its unapologetic political positions. Sid Meier and Will Wright, for their focus on sandboxy simulation and the creation of emergent systems. Tim Schafer, whose quirky humor is too rare in games. Warren Spector and Peter Molyneux, for attempting to make moral choices an integral part of gameplay, and for revealing the limits of such an idea in the process. Allan Calhamer and Alexey Pajitnov for their reminder that simplicity and elegance will always remain strong design values. Noah Falstein for sticking with the medium since coin-op and advocating its potential to change and expand in form. Don Daglow for Utopia. Warren Robinett and David Crane for drawing attention to the hardware platform as a constraint and an opportunity. Yasuhiro Wada for proving that mundane everyday life is a viable subject for games. And ... as much as I enjoy his games, Shigero Miyamoto for helping me see what I don't want to emulate, namely a focus on empty leisure at all costs (the exception is Animal Crossing, which I admire in the same way as Wada's Harvest Moon series).

As far as a model, I admire designers who dig deeply into problems and topics and then try to figure out how to represent them in games to explain their operation in detail. One of the things you'll notice about, say, Will Wright's work, is that all of his games were inspired by reading books by smart thinkers in different disciplines. 


What's your future prediction as far as the increasing permeability of the market for serious games in general?

I think serious games have the potential to expand the possibility space of games. Serious games won't just look to expand the market for commercial games, but also they will find new markets that currently don't exist. Some of these are obvious and are already happening. Brain Age and related products for mental acuity -- whether or not they really help your brain, people feel good about the idea. Dance Dance Revolution and other physical interface games for exercise and the like. But some are much less obvious. I've been talking and writing for a while about the possibility space of games. I don't mean the design space -- new game designs or mechanics -- I mean the places and contexts in which games are used. 

One of the reasons I resist the name "serious games" is because its a phrase that has become associated with very specific contexts -- in my book, Persuasive Games, I argue that serious games are primarily games by and for institutions, like governments, corporations, and schools. Often serious games are opposed to entertainment games for this reason. I'd much rather think of videogames as one flexible medium that has a wide variety of possible uses and contexts, not just two opposing ones.

Leigh Alexander,
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