Ian Bogost: Worthwhile Dilemmas

July 03rd, 2012 | Category: Interviews

Partially fueled by Jane McGonigal’s bestselling Reality is Broken (Penguin, 2011), “gamification”—that is turning mostly menial tasks into games through a system of points and rewards—became the buzzword of 2011 and diluted and/or stigmatized videogame studies on many fronts. Gaming ungamed situations is not all bad though. Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies (1975) were tactics for gaming a stalled creative process. In an interview with Steven Johnson, Brian Eno explained, “The trick for me isn’t about showing people how to be creative as though they’ve never been like that before, but rather trying to find ways of recontacting the natural playfulness and curiosity that most people were born with.” When it becomes exploitative, it becomes a problem.

Enter one of the most outspoken, prolific, and creative videogame scholars working today. Ian Bogost is a professor at Georgia Tech and co-founded videogame design company, Persuasive Games. Among his many books are  Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism (MIT Press, 2008), Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (MIT Press, 2010), and How to Do Things with Videogames (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), as well as A Slow Year: Game Poems (Open Texture, 2010), the latter of which which includes four videogames and many meditative poems about the Atari 2600. His latest is Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), which calls for an object-oriented approach to things as things and for thinkers to also become makers.

Roy Christopher: While reading How to Do Things with Videogames, it occurred to me that videogames really are the medium of the now. They encompass so much of everything else our media does and is. Was this part of your point and I just need a late pass?

Ian Bogost: Maybe it would be more accurate to say that videogames are the least recognized medium of the now. In the book—in the first chapter even—I argue against the conceit that games have not achieved their potential. That’s true of course, but what medium has achieved its potential? But in that context I was speaking against researchers, critics, and designers who talk about everything videogames are not, but could be: akin to film, or novels, or textbooks, or what have you. The book tries to show that videogames are already a great many things, from art to pornography to work to exercise.

But all that said, videogames are hardly a dominant medium. What is instead? Some might say “the Internet,” but that’s wrong too, although the reasons it is wrong are surprising. As Marshall McLuhan taught us, media contain other media. But weirdly, even though we access the Internet on computers, the former actually has relatively little to do with the latter. The Internet contains writing, images, moving images, sound—all “traditional” media in common parlance. McLuhan’s idea of the Global Village was meant to rekindle the senses overlooked thanks to the age of print, and in that sense TV and the Internet have succeeded in realizing that vision. But the result turns out to be just the same as TV and radio and print, except any of us can create the equivalent of a publisher or a broadcaster.

Videogames, by contrast, have different properties than these other media. They model the way something works rather than describing or showing it; they offer an experience of making choices within that model rather than an audiovisual replay of it, and they contextualize that model within the context of a simulated world. Now, to be sure, that sort of approach is very “now” in the sense that we SHOULD be interested in the complex, paradoxical interrelations of the moving parts in a system. But at the end of the day, it’s just easier to watch cat videos on YouTube and spout one-liners onto Twitter. In some sense, videogames both are and aren’t other media. They do what other media do—and some things they do not—but they do them differently.

RC: The idea of attaching rewards to menial tasks is understandable, but the current buzz around gamification seems to miss much of the point by filtering out what’s actually good about games. You’ve been quite vocal about the ills of this trend. What are we to do?

IB: If videogames both have and haven’t arrived as a mature medium, then the proponents of gamification want to pretend that the work is done and now we can settle in to the task of counting the profits. The basics of this phenomenon are simple enough: marketers and consultants need to surf from trend to trend, videogames are appealing and seductive but complex and misunderstood, so the simple directive to apply incentives to all our experiences both satisfies the economic rationalists and ticks off the “game strategy” box for organizations.

The irony, not lost on many, is that as virtual incentives like points and reward programs have risen, so tangible incentives have gone into decline. We used to provide material incentives in the form of things like compensation, benefits, perks, and so forth. Now we use JPEGs and 32-bit Integers.

In fact, just as I was writing this response, a friend told me about a novella someone wrote that appears to be an introduction to gamification. It’s called “I’ll Eat This Cricket for a Cricket Badge,” written by a marketing consultant with the improbably-parodic-sounding name Darren Steele. The description reads, “This is the story of Lara, a senior director at Albatron Global. Today she learns she has 24 hours to prepare for a once-in-a-decade meeting with ‘The Brotherhood,’ the triumvirate of terror that founded the company.” Imagine if these gamification shills spent even a fraction of the energy and creativity they devote to swindling on the earnest implementation of worthwhile ideas. In fact, I can’t even tell if the novella is serious or not, the world has become that ambiguous.

As with most things, knowing what to do about it is harder than mere critique. And in that respect, it’s always dangerous to fight against marketers and consultants. Though often stupid, they are also very smart. Or better yet, they often use their savvy to appear stupid or simplistic, so that we’ll let them into our homes and our minds.

In that respect, one possible strategy of opposition is to infiltrate the consultancies and corporations themselves. To create our own highly leveraged solutions-oriented roll-out for it-doesn’t-matter-what service. It’s too laborious and time-consiming to convince people to make games in earnest, so to combat gamification we need to seed a distraction, a new trend that will dissipate this one. Media theory as consultancy counter-terrorism.

RC:  A set of tactics like Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” seems a better tack for bringing gaming ideas into other areas of creative problem solving.

IB: Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies were originally meant to spur ideas for artists, but now we see similar idea cards being used in design and business too (the famous design firm IDEO released something similar a few years back). And given our Facebook-status and Twitterified media ecosystem, there seems to be a strong interest in aphoristic world views. And for that matter, Jesse Schell developed a series of cards around his theory of game design, which he calls “lenses” in a textbook called The Art of Game Design. So there are some precedents for bits-and-pieces idea generation around games.

But there’s a chicken-egg problem at work here too. In order to be susceptible to the surprising solutions of idea generation, you still have to be conversant enough in those ideas to give them life. For example, many of the phrases on the original Oblique Strategies cards are meant for musicians (the deck’s original creative context), and if you are not a musician, it’s hard to imagine understanding how to “mute and continue” or “left channel, right channel, centre channel” unless you were already well-versed in musical concepts. Admittedly, these are pretty basic ideas, basic enough that even a layperson can grasp them, but that’s only because the experience of recorded music is so universal. The basics are shared as a literacy. But that literacy had to come from somewhere, and until the literacy is developed for games, design tools for their increased application will remain mired in ignorance. To use games, we must know games, but to know them we must have used them.

This is why progress will be stochastic. In How to Do Things With Videogames I argue that games will have arrived through incremental examples altering, increasing, changing our ideas of what games can do. I didn’t use this language there, but it’s a kind of accretion, in which the medium grows bit by bit over time, eventually developing a larger and larger gravity. This process is both recursive and compounded, in the sense that individual successes feed back on our overall comfort and knowledge, becoming candidates for the kind of idea generation that Oblique Strategies exemplifies.

RC: Cow Clicker is like your hit song that won’t stop playing. People’s missing the point seemed to prove its point further. Even with its persistence, did you accomplish what you set out to do?

IB: Cow Clicker is so much bigger than me now, it’s not even possible to know if it did what I set out for it to do, or if that’s even a desirable outcome. There’s an Internet adage called Poe’s Law, that says that it’s often difficult or even impossible to tell the difference between extremism and its parody. It was originally coined in relation to discussions of evolution within Christian forums, but it’s been generalized since: a parody of something extreme can be mistaken for the real thing. And if a real thing sounds sufficiently extreme, it can be mistaken for parody.

The best example of this phenomenon these days is The Onion. There’s a whole website, literallyunbelievable.org, that collects reactions from readers who mistake Onion articles for the real deal, such as the fuming reactions from folks who took seriously headlines like “Planned Parenthood Opens $8 Billion Abortionplex.” And then on the flip side, it’s become common to hear people say of undeniably real headlines, “Is this an Onion article?” The lines between reality and absurdity have blended.

So, it’s clear that Cow Clicker is far weirder than my original intentions. Rather than reflect more on whether or not I succeeded, I’ve started asking other questions. What happened? is certainly one of them, and I’m not sure I’ll ever wrap my head around it. Perhaps more interesting: What can I learn from it? or even What’s next for Cow Clicker. The latter question just terrifies me, because I’ve tried so hard to distance myself from the madness that running the game entailed. But it’s also short-sighted. After all, Cow Clicker was popular. It still is. People like clicking on cows! What can I do with that observation, what can I make that takes that lesson in a direction unburdened by the concerns of obsession and enframing? Is it even possible? In any case, I’m not giving anything away when I say that I don’t think I’m done with Cow Clicker yet. Or better, I don’t think Cow Clicker is done with me.

RC:  Video games inform most of your work, including your new title, Alien Phenomenology. Tell us about your foray into object-oriented ontology and its link with video games.

IB: Object-oriented ontology seems like an obvious match for media studies. Any scholar or creator of media interested in the “thingness” of their objects of study has something to gain from OOO. In addition to (or even instead of) studies of political economy and reception, we can add studies of the material history and construction of computational devices. In other words, “materialism” need not retail only its Marxist sense, but also its realist one: not just political economy, but also just stuff.

I suspected there would be productive connections with object-oriented philosophy, and I remember waiting for Graham Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Open Court) to be published in 2002 so I could read it and apply it in my dissertation. I’d been following the emergence and growth of speculative realism with interest, but from afar.

Then two things happened. First, I started thinking about the idea of a “pragmatic” speculative realism, one that would embrace some of the first principles devised by the movements’ true philosophers, but that would put them to use in the service of specific objects, but looking beyond human experience. That thought was in my head since 2005 or so.

The second thing was the Atari. Several years ago, I learned how to program the 1977 Atari Video Computer System (VCS), the console that made home videogame play popular. Nick Montfort and I were working on a book on the platform (Racing the Beam; MIT Press, 2009), about the relationship between the hardware design of the Atari VCS and the creative practices that its designers and programmers invented in those early days of the videogame. The Atari featured a truly unique custom graphics and sound chip called the Television Interface Adapter (TIA). It made bizarre demands on game makers: instead of preparing a screen’s worth of television picture all at once, the programmer had to make changes to the data the TIA sent to the television in tandem with the scanline-by-scanline movement of the television’s electron beam. Programming the Atari feels more like plowing a field than like drawing a picture.

As I became more and more familiar with this strange system, I couldn’t help but feel enchanted by its parts as much as its output. Sure, the Atari was made by people in order to entertain other people, and in that sense it’s just a machine. But a machine and its components are also something more, something alive, almost. I found myself asking, what is it like to be an Atari, or a Television Interface Adapater, or a cathode ray tube television? The combination of that media-specific call to action and my broader interest in object-oriented ontology more generally catalyzed the project that became Alien Phenomenology, a book about using speculation to understand the experience of things, of what it’s like to be a thing.

RC: What’s coming up next for you?

IB: There’s a concept in sales, the sales funnel. It’s a structured approach to selling products and services that helps salespeople move opportunities from initial contact through closing by structuring that process in a number of elements. Those might include securing leads, validating leads, identifying needs, qualifying prospects, developing proposals, negotiating, closing the sale, of course, and then managing and retaining the client.

In sales, it’s always best to keep the contacts and leads elements at the top of the funnel very full, because those opportunities will winnow away through attrition, disinterest, loss, and other factors. You tend to have far fewer proposals and negotiations than you do contacts.

I often think about my upcoming creative work through a similar kind of structure. The “creative funnel,” we might call it. We can even use some of the same language: leads, opportunities, commitments, publishing, and support, or something like that. In any case, I tend to throw a whole lot of stuff at the wall (lead and opportunities), because I know that far fewer of those ideas will actually be realized.

In the leads and opportunities column, I’m currently working with my co-editor Nick Montfort to support a number of new books in the Platform Studies series, the series we began with Racing the Beam. Those include both popular and esoteric game consoles and microcomputers. As for my own writing, I’m trying to identify which of a number of books I’ll pursue next… I’ve got one planned on game criticism (a series of critical pieces on specific games), one on games and sports, one on Apple, a book on McLuhan and metaphysics (with Levi Byrant), the crazy kernel of a follow-up to Alien Phenomenology, and a book on play that I would call my attempt at a Malcolm Gladwell-style trade book. Who knows which if any of those will ever come to fruition.

As for commitments, Levi and I are finishing a collection called New Realisms and Materialisms, which we hope will paint a very broad portrait of the different ways of thinking that take those names, applied to a variety of domains, from philosophy to art, architecture to ecology. I’m also desperate to make some new games… I’ve got a small iOS puzzle game in the works, and a larger, weirder piece that should open at the Jacksonville Museum of Contemporary Art in the fall of 2012 and see a general release shortly thereafter.

And I’m closing, if you will, on a big game infrastructure project, the Game-O-Matic authoring system. It was funded by the Knight Foundation two years ago as a tool to help journalists quickly and easily make games about current events without specialized game design or programming knowledge, and it’s just about to release into beta. The system is sort of magical: it takes a concept map (a diagram of nouns with verbs connecting them) and turns them into a playable game. Folks can sign up to use it for free.

I’m currently struggling to take seriously my own idea of “carpentry,” the practice of making things that do theory (described in Alien Phenomenology). I’m trying to expand my theoretical output beyond books, but I still love reading and writing, so I hope I’ll end up with an interesting menagerie of new little creatures over the next few years.


Bogost, Ian. (2011). How to Do Things with Videogames. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

Bogost, Ian. (2012). Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Pres.

Eno, Brian & Mills, Russell, with Rick Poyner. (1986). More Dark Than Shark. London: faber & faber.

Eno, Brian & Schmidt, Peter. (1975). Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas. London: Brian Eno/Peter Schmidt.

Harman, Graham. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Open Court.

Johnson, Steven. (2011). The Innovator’s Cookbook: Essentials for Inventing What’s Next. New York: Riverhead.

McGonigal, Jane. (2011). Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: Penguin.

Montfort, Nick & Bogost, Ian. (2009). Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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