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Ian Bogost Replies: Deep Thoughts On Gaming 37

A few weeks back, you asked gaming-world academic and game designer Ian Bogost questions from the business, philosophical, and aesthetic sides of gaming; below, find his responses. Thanks, Ian!
Is it all just absurd?
by Anonymous Coward

You satirize the meaninglessness of compulsive-click based games, but what would you say is your larger point in doing so? Do you think that "big" video games (for instance, ones with complex plots and characters, cooperation among players, etc) are all that much better, or would much of the same critique apply?

(Sure, they're not quite as mindless, but they still mean that people are spending time and money to withdraw from reality to some extent, and substituting made-up, arbitrary goals for interacting with other people. Is it purely happenstance and convenience that means you've made a certain point with social games, rather than, say, remade
Catch-22 as a FPS?)

Ian Bogost: In my original essay about Cow Clicker, written when the game launched in the summer of 2010, I made a similar observation about "big" videogames: they seem to destroy time. (My exact words were, "Many of today's console games exert a time crush. They demand tens or even hundreds of hours of attention to complete, some or most of which often feels empty"). As I see it, one difference between "traditional" games and social games is that the former don't try to infect the time we spend away from them as well as the time we spend with them. Surely there is something compulsive about console games too, but at least the end. The service-oriented component of social games, along with the fact that companies like Zynga require regularly renewed attention to make money, these are important differences that may not seem fundamental at first.

Still, some cultural trends are more like cracks in a wall than like monuments. It's likely that Cow Clicker is more akin to picking away the plaster to find the veins of a complex structural issue than it is like uncovering a simple fact about its foundation. I don't think that structural issue is limited to games. Whether we noticed or not, we've created a media environment driven by compulsion. Email and instant messaging are examples unbound to specific companies, but Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram — all of these services and many more build value by monetizing our repeated and regular attention, and now we have so many different ways to ask, "Is something new? Am I missing something?" that it's possible never to stop asking those questions, all day long.

Procedural Rhetoric in morally-gray big name games?
by siphonophore

What do you think of AAA studios exploring more moral grey areas (e.g. hostage shooting airport level in COD:MW2 ) as a form of procedural rhetoric? Do you think players' natural tendencies of (in this case) non-violence toward innocents is solidified or shaken by simulating such acts?

IB: For those who don't know the reference, "procedural rhetoric" is a concept I developed in my 2007 book Persuasive Games . We have verbal and written rhetoric, which uses speech and writing to make arguments or express ideas, and we have visual rhetoric, which deals with the way images do so. I suggest procedural rhetoric as a way to describe the use of systems and models to make arguments. Videogames (and software in general) are media that are built largely out of processes, and so we can use this framework to design or evaluate how games make arguments.

Of course, the commercial games industry hasn't been very interested in making arguments with games, in taking strong positions on topics of any sort, let alone controversial ones like politics. We have begun to see some efforts to push harder at this boundary COD:MW2 is one example, but so are Deus Ex, Homefront, Farcry 2, Bioshock. I'm glad to see this progress, but of course I'd like to see more. In particular, we only seem to get the very faintest sense of an argument or position in these games. It's almost like it's just there for the publicity, but not too much publicity, because that might turn some players off.

In fact, that's the usual explanation for why we don't have AAA games with strong positions. They're expensive to make and the publishers are said to be conservative. It's true, of course. I was recently talking to some of the team responsible for securing the publishing deal for Bioshock, and they told me that even they had trouble, and that's for a game that's really just another sci-fi shooter with a very thin layer of contra-Ayn Rand dystopianism wrapped in gorgeous art deco environments.

But to believe that "the market" is the reason we don't see more of these games doesn't tell the full story. The truth is, the AAA game industry doesn't really have much to say about politics or social issues. Not only is traditional sci-fi and fantasy entertainment in books and movies far more political than the average game, even children's animated films are more political than the average game. I mean, there's more political commentary in Wall-E than in the last decade of AAA games. I'm generalizing, but game developers and executives are technolibertarians rather than artists. For them, what's good for the world is what people vote for with their wallets. And once we get enough of that position fed to us over and over again, it's no wonder that AAA shooters risk becoming just the empty power fantasies they are sometimes accused of being.

Skinner Boxes
by Catiline

I have long described both MMO gaming and Facebook social games as being a "well-padded Skinner box" for their staggered/random reward system. Do you see any possibility for anything else to eventually replace this model?

IB: I don't know. Certainly the gold rush associated with a very bare version of these mechanics isn't helping. If anything, the Skinner boxes seem to be finding their way into other genres. I haven't played Diablo III yet, but someone who tried the beta opined that it's "Farmville for hardcore gamers." Then again, I suppose we might have said the same thing about World of Warcraft half a decade ago. These features have always been in games, but there's no question that we've begun refining them in the way one refines oil, making them more pure and useful to drive the engines of commerce rather than experience.

We can't just will ourselves out of this situation. It's not simply a matter of developing a new design philosophy that will replace the old one through pure unfettered rationalism. Since the games industry responds only to economic incentives, perhaps what we need is an implosion. Just as the housing bubble was burst by the revelation of inviable lending and the related artifice of constantly-inflating property values, so perhaps something similar needs to happen to the behaviorist bubble. It may already be starting, thanks to the apparently disappointing performance of Zynga's IPO. Still, it's worth remembering that the founders and executives of today's big tech companies have been enjoying the privilege of making liquid parts of their equity on secondary markets, so the tech investment community may not have the same deterrent to bubblethink that the market in general does.

In any case, this trend should remind us that the whole media ecosystem has been built on this promise of high-leverage value derived from the aggregated behaviors of a very large base of patrons who are actually the product of these services rather than their customers. Google and Facebook are the obvious examples, but Zynga derives all of its revenue from 2.2% of its players. The remainder are there as viral marketing infrastructure. Is it even possible to opt out of this situation? Not if you also want to live productively in contemporary society.

Interesting Mechanics?
by spektre1

Hi Ian! Can you comment about game mechanics that you wish designers explored in more depth?

IB: Certainly I have my own tastes. I've said a bit about them here, such as my interest in games that offer political opinion or commentary. And I tend to prefer "systemy" games to narrative games. But at some point, all of that is just a matter of taste. And as the aphorism goes, there's no accounting for taste.

So instead of specific mechanics or styles or genres, what I'd most like to see is more earnestness and more personality in games. I'd like to see more of the creators expressed in the works, not because I want to "receive" the "messages" they are sending, but so that I can feel like the work is not being stamped out by a machine in a factory. Part of that process would have to include more conversation about and framing of games. If you compare games to other forms of creativity, there's just far less deliberate, public discussion of games than there is of painting or novels or films or even sports. Filmmakers go on talk shows, novelists give interviews in magazines. What do game makers do? They send their lowest-common-denominator PR agencies out to put words in the mouths of the enthusiast press.

I'm often more engaged by games with styles I don't particularly like, for example the games of That Game Company or Tale of Tales, because those creators make an effort to frame and personalize the work, to give players a sense of how they might approach them, an invitation to care about the logic of their weird, tiny world. There was a time when Activision shipped their videogames with photos and notes from their creators. True, that was a time when the equivalent of "AAA" games were created by individuals, but the point stands. Indie games have a greater capacity for this sort of thing, thanks to their smaller and more compact teams, but that doesn't make independent games automatically more inviting than AAA games, either (a lot of indie games are starting get that stamped out in the factory feel, too). In the AAA scene, I think Naughty Dog, Valve, PopCap, and Blizzard offer examples of culturing a style and a design sensibility.

Persuasive game elements
by Anonymous Coward

My question revolves around trends in the "gamification" of tasks as used by government, corporations and others. I am curious what you feel about the persuasive elements that may or may not be used in these endeavors. I've noticed this holiday season to some sites seem to have attempted to use some gaming elements in very persuasive ways. I haven't really looked to closely into government sites lately, but I'm sure governments around the world are already starting to adopt them. Understanding the power of this is kind of disturbing, particularly when you see how governments, etc. can abuse this. So my question is what, if any recommendations would you give to social activists looking to develop counter-gaming or ways to identify and inform others about these elements? Given the subtle nature of some of these elements, how difficult a task is it to identify these elements in games?

IB: I've been a pretty vocal critic of gamification, which I think is bullshit, and which I've suggested we reframe as exploitationware. In both of those articles about the trend, I point out that the thing governments and corporations and other organizations like best about gamification is its facility, how rapidly and undisruptively it can be integrated into their current practices. Whereas, when I write about persuasive games and procedural rhetoric and the like, I'm interested in the idea that games might be particularly useful frames for complex issues, precisely because good games make complexity and ambiguity and trade-offs central, embracing them rather than rejecting them. Systems rather than soundbites.

The problem is, most governments and even most social activists don't really want to concede that point—that hard problems are hard, that simple answers are usually wrong, and that solutions are less likely than messy, stochastic progress. Instead, they are more concerned with reproducing the conditions of their own existence. For example, I've written before about the White House's "Apps for Healthy Kids" contest. On first blush, this effort looks like an earnest attempt to create games and software about an issue of great concern and great complexity—health and nutrition. But the results are trite and meaningless, just more bad kids software about choosing the carrot instead of the candy bar. They contain no admission of the entrenched, intractable issues at the heart of healthy eating, like food subsidies, industrial farming, population growth and density, socioeconomics, and so forth. And that's because the White House didn't really launch the contest to solve anything. They launched it to make themselves appear contemporary, engaged with the current "app economy," able to make websites with big form fields.

So, the most important lesson for governments or activists or anyone else is that the subtlety is very rarely there, in fact. So either we have to show the reasons why explanations are insufficient and not just "earnest attempts" at a reasonable solution, or we have to create the subtlety in our own media, be they games or books or blog posts. We have to do that in the games themselves, but also in relation to the medium of games, which we ought to position as a medium against simplicity in the first place.

Places where 'gamification' is good?
by oneiros27

At the closing plenary for the 2011 IA Summit, Cennydd Bowles called out the whole 'UX' (User Experience) community as a whole, in that the role that most of them play is in trying to get people to spend more time on websites and buy more stuff, rather than doing stuff that really improves the world. You've taken a similar stance on 'gamification', but there's at least two groups (Zooniverse [] and FoldIt []) using it for good as they're helping to advance science. Can you think of any other situations where we could use video games to improve the world at a grand scale, and not just simple 'edutainment'?

IB: Sometimes general explanations are helpful, and other times more specific ones are required. So despite everything I just said about the games as windows into complex systems, there are other ways to think about the usefulness of games. In my most recent book, How to Do Things with Videogames , I try to make this case, showing a couple dozen or so different applications of games, from art to tools.

Zooniverse and FoldIt are what you might call "games for work." They are games deployed in the pursuit of specific outcomes in the case of both of those titles, the outcomes are identification and analysis in very large scientific data sets, for which automated (computational) analysis is unlikely to be successful. Some people have used the name "human computation" to describe this process, and Louis von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon is probably the best known proponent of it. Others use the term "playbor," and they usually mean it derogatorily.

That mind, here's a question: does human computation in games really improve the world? I know what you're thinking: how could scientific progress not be good? Well, projects like FoldIt and Zooniverse are also massive distributed outsourcing efforts, offering free labor to the research establishment. Sure, you could make a utilitarian argument for why such work is progressive and not exploitative. And it may seem reactionary and dystopian even to intimate that collaborative work might lead to a nightmarish prison state in which tiny doses of satisfaction replace both gainful employment and crafted distraction. Or it may not.

This leads me to my answer, which may disappoint: the world gets improved in fits and starts, in small ways more than in large ones, and thanks to the unseen, unthought infrastructures that undergird it more than the civic or scientific or artistic victories we celebrate in the streets or in the theaters.

Start with a 'Facebook' game or a regular website?
by Anonymous Coward

I lead an enthusiastic clan of RuneScape players, and they tend to have a pretty broad interest in gaming and game development. As the lead programmer/IT guy for the clan, I'm frequently asked about programming and how to go about doing it.

I'm considering setting up a fairly basic Mafia wars type of game for them to expand and update, coded in python/html5 and running on google app engine for simplicity's sake. Python has a huge amount of self learning resources out there, and putting a python project on GAE is my go-to method for getting a project up and running quickly.

Should I encourage them to move into building a Facebook app, or should I encourage them to keep it a standalone website?

On the one hand Facebook gives better potential for expanding their user base, but on the other there's the 30% fee for using Facebook credits and their horrible API documentation. While I want to keep things as straightforward as possible for them, I would like to see their game accumulate a decent number of players so they can show it off.

IB: A pragmatic question! For those of you who haven't developed on the Facebook platform, let me tell you: it is a fucking train wreck. Badly documented (really, the worst documentation I can imagine), works in fits and starts, infrastructure changes constantly, updates roll out weekly, features constantly deprecated and removed, support non-existent, opaque bug and issue reporting. It's a nightmare. It's the Great War of software development, with tangled barbed wire and constant cross fire.

But, in exchange for tolerating that terror, you get access to some 800 million people and the promise that the small fraction of those you can reach will bring their friends. The 30% take for Facebook Credits is a lot compared to a credit card transaction fee, but the entire system is automated and works without any need for special merchant accounts or fears of PayPal retribution. Facebook is a piece of infrastructure, and the benefits it offers as infrastructure are undeniable even if the platform's viral free-for-all days are over.

Which to choose? It sounds to me like you can get your project working without Facebook, and then consider strapping in the social and payment features as you need them. That makes you less reliant on the platform, but also allows you to explore its benefits for your situation, if indeed there are any. In any case, I think being reliant on Facebook is a terrible situation for anybody to be in, whether they are a large company or independent creator.

Tabletop Gaming?
by Anonymous Coward

Is there a bridge between tabletop gaming and video gaming?

I design tabletop games and RPGs, and sometimes when I'm designing something I realize it would all work better as a video game. Do you feel the same way sometimes when you're designing real time games to want to make them turn based or tabletop games? Is there a link between the two industries in a professional way? Can workers from either industry cross over?

IB: There are a few different ways to think about videogames. One situates them in the long history of games, from folk games through wargames through tabletop games on to videogames, and to find similarities in design, use, and application. Another places them in the history of computing, asking how videogames relate to other kinds of software and hardware media for productivity and expression. Another compares them to creative media like literature, film, art, theater, opera, puppetry, and so forth, finding opportunities for adaptation across material form, or obstacles to such adaptation. Another asks how videogames participate in cultural traditions of play, like festival, conflict, sport, and ritual. These are just some of the possible vantage points from which one could seek to understand or design games. And of course, they are not mutually exclusive.

There is a fairly strong tradition of inspiration between tabletop games and computer games. The relationship between Dungeons & Dragons and certain genres of videogames, especially adventure, RPG, and MMOs is well-known. But tabletop wargames (like those published by SPI and Avalon Hill) also inspired many computer game designers, as did the type of strategy games sometimes called German-style board games. Games like Carcassonne and Puerto Rico used to be unheard of among the general public, but thanks to the success of Settlers of Catan, thoughtful tabletop games are becoming increasingly popular, even in this age of computerization.

All of which is just to say that there are a number of successful game designers who take the tabletop-to-computer spectrum as their primary creative axis. Rainer Knizia has created many successful tabletop games as well as videogames (many of which were adaptations of his board game designs). Designers like Greg Costikyan, Brenda Brathwaite, Eric Zimmerman, Nick Fortugno, and Frank Lantz are also frequent players and designers of other types of games — not just tabletop but in some cases large-scale "big games" played in urban spaces, and installation games played in museums or galleries. And many other developers in the videogame industry also play and make non-digital games in their spare time.

There's also a technique called paper prototyping advocated by designers like Raph Koster and Stone Librande, which draws a strong material connection between tabletop and computer game design. Designer and USC professor Tracy Fullerton's book Game Design Workshop is based on this method, and a game design workshop is held every year at the Game Developers Conference that uses non-digital materials exclusively. So, in short, there is a lot of cross-over, even if that crossover isn't always expressed through published tabletop games.

What do you think of James Franco?
Anonymous Coward

I understand you may be working on some sort of joint project with him in the academic world. Is he the rockstar that he appears to be?

IB: Perhaps one day I will be fortunate enough to have James Franco nap in my classes. Until then, I'll have to be satisfied to click on his likeness in the post-cowpocalypse version of Cow Clicker.

Re:Yo, Ian!
by Hatta

I actually read your book Racing the Beam. Fantastic book. The only thing I really want to know is when we can expect the NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis to get the same treatment.

IB: Thanks for reading! For those who haven't yet, Racing the Beam is a book I wrote with Nick Montfort about the ways the hardware design of the Atari Video Computer System (VCS, aka the Atari 2600) influenced game design. The book was the first in a series Nick and I edit called Platform Studies []. Books in the series discuss the relationship between the hardware and software design of computer platforms and the creative works produced on those systems. These books are meant to be technically detailed but in an explanatory and accessible way, one that doesn't require any particular background to read.

We have a number of new books lined up in the series. Two books will be published this spring: Codename Revolution: The Nintendo Wii Platform by Steven E. Jones and George K. Thiruvathukal, and The Future Was Here: The Commodore Amiga, by Jimmy Maher. Other books at various stages of progress do include the NES, SNES, Flash, and a number of other more esoteric platforms. We're actively looking for more books and authors, so if any readers here have projects that match our vision for the series, please get in touch. Keep in mind that we're interested in computer platforms of all kinds, not just videogame systems.
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Ian Bogost Replies: Deep Thoughts On Gaming

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  • an intriguing line (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot.hackish@org> on Monday January 30, 2012 @02:55PM (#38867421)

    Not only is traditional sci-fi and fantasy entertainment in books and movies far more political than the average game, even children's animated films are more political than the average game

    That's definitely noticeable, that even sci-fi videogames seem more about the sci-fi setting than any of the deeper ideas that characterize good sci-fi. I wonder how much of it is just the pervasive focus on "fun" in games. A successful game is a fun game, whereas calling a novel a "fun read" is a much more ambiguous statement, even a bit backhanded as a compliment. A good sci-fi novel is somehow a deeper idea than a fun or entertaining novel.

Machines that have broken down will work perfectly when the repairman arrives.