Q&A with Ian Bogost
The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) recently interviewed Ian Bogost, Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, to gather his insights on video games. Bogost’s latest book, “How to Talk about Videogames,” explores the medium’s unique storytelling ability and examines game critique as both serious cultural currency and self-parody.
- Thanks for speaking with us, Ian. Could you introduce yourself and your work?
I’m an author and game designer, and a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I’ve authored or co-authored a bunch of books on games, computing and culture, including “Persuasive Games,” “Racing the Beam,” “How to Do Things With Videogames,” and the new follow-up to that book, “How to Talk About Videogames,” which has just been published. I’m also a contributing editor at The Atlantic, where I write on technology, business and culture. As a game designer, I’m known for my supposedly serious games work at Persuasive Games, and my independent work on titles like the IndieCade-winning A Slow Year and the infamous Cow Clicker.
- You’ve been involved in the game industry for quite some time. How did you first become interested in working with video games?
I didn’t. Some people have these stories about how they always knew they wanted to work in games, they’d been designing games since a young age, they’d been playing them with fervor and relish on tabletops and computers and consoles. I wasn’t like that. I played games, sure, and I tried my hand at making them early, too. But my fundamental interest was some combination of the arts and computing. I didn’t know it at the time, at least not in those terms. But I was interested in the fine arts, in painting, in literature, in philosophy, and then also in computing. Those of us who grew up in the early days of the microcomputer were lucky, because it was possible to wrap your whole head and hands around the simplicity of computing at that time. That’s where we start in the arts, too, at the beginning, at first principles. Anyway, I knew I wanted to put those two worlds together somehow, and later games suggested themselves as an ideal place.
- What is it about your day-to-day job that you enjoy?
I have a weird job, or even, a lot of jobs. I teach, I write, I edit, I code, I consult, I speak. But I think the thread that runs through all of these to produce excitement on a day-to-day basis is the sense that we haven’t discovered everything there is to know about the world. I don’t mean that in a disruptive innovation, hail all novelty, damn the torpedoes, into the future sort of way. Most often I’m looking back, or looking down at all the things we don’t notice or notice only in passing. So, care and attention to detail and respect and wonder for the world. Nothing that has anything to do with technology or games, actually.
- Where do you see video games in 10 years? What broader applications across society can we expect in games’ future?
I’ve spent the vast majority of my career advocating for broader applications of games. In education, advertising, business, politics, journalism. In my 2011 book “How to Do Things With Videogames,” I argued that the real maturation of games comes not from the numbers of players or the quantity of dollars-worth of sales, but from the diversity of uses to which they are put. When games are as ordinary as photographs and writing and moving images, then they will have arrived. But the truth is, we’re still nowhere near that inflection point. Games are far too obsessed with technical innovation, and we end up recycling the same ideas and the same uses in the same contexts every handful of years or so. Ten years ago it was physical interfaces like the Wii and Kinect. Now we’ve forgotten about all that, and virtual reality is the next novelty. So we tend to jump from trend to trend as if they were Super Mario platforms, except we don’t realize that they’re the kind that vanish underfoot. We have to keep running just to keep up with ourselves. But the real work starts when the platforms and the technologies become boring and ordinary and everyday. The smartphone is starting to do this, although we keep racing to keep up with it, too. I don’t see this changing too much in the next 10 years. A decade from now, you’ll ask someone like me the same question, and he or she will give the same answer, having forgotten that we even asked it 10 years earlier.
- What trend, either in the industry or in creative applications of game technology, do you think people should pay more attention to?
The most important thing that creators, players, and critics of games can do is to care deeply about many other things that have nothing to do with games. It doesn’t even matter what it is. Knitting or car racing or woodworking or small-batch spirits or historical preservation or soccer or German Enlightenment philosophy or cinema or gardening or anything else. And ideally many things. And not just your own, either. The gravest worry I have about games writ large is that we are too cloistered, too internally-directed, interested mostly in ourselves and not enough in other things. And there are enough of us now who are interested in games that it feels like we are “winning,” whatever that would mean. But really we’re not. Games used to be a niche, and now they’re a bigger niche. Nothing against niches, mind you! But we need to connect more with the world in all its nooks and crannies, to make games a part of more conversations with a greater number of domains. These are some of the themes I’ve tried to address in “How to Talk About Videogames”. Pay attention to anything but games, and then connect those interests to games, and vice versa.
- OK, now a fun one. What is your favorite video game and why?
Pac-Man was the first game I really loved. As a kid, there was just something about piloting that circle around, amid the din of the arcade. It was so different from Donkey Kong, which felt awkward, bumbling, like piloting the world’s dumbest robot. Later: Lode Runner, Turbo, Mario Bros. (ordinary and Super), Rygar. Rygar! What was even going on in Rygar? Games like these were ordinary and extraordinary, but mostly they facilitated total submission, a complete acceptance of the preposterous world the game asked you to operate. Even later: Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon and Shenmue for the boredom, which is an obsession of mine. Maybe the most esoteric: World Court Tennis, a TurboGrafx 16 game that hid a crazy JRPG inside an unassuming, ordinary tennis game. So insane. That was the game that taught me that games could be about anything.
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