Public Thinker: Ian Bogost on Games, Doorknobs, and General Readers

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
Particularly with the advent of the handheld device, digital games now seem a ubiquitous part of our culture ...

Particularly with the advent of the handheld device, digital games now seem a ubiquitous part of our culture. Ian Bogost has examined the life of videogames, considering how they are tools for play and learning. He has done so in the trade book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games (2016), as well as in a series of academic books, including Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2007) and How to Do Things with Videogames (2011). In addition, he has been a proponent of object-oriented ontology, notably in Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing (2012), and he coedits the book series Object Lessons, for Bloomsbury.

Alongside his academic work, Bogost is a game designer and founding partner at Persuasive Games LLC. In the past several years, he has also taken a more public role as a contributing editor for The Atlantic, commenting on Silicon Valley, technology, and politics.

This interview took place in Atlanta, GA, on November 9, 2018.

Jeffrey J. Williams (JJW): You’ve written, especially in your recent book, about the power of playing games. What defines a game?


Ian Bogost (IB): To me, a game is like a broken machine, and the thing that you do as a player is fill in for the broken part. You’re there to make it operate—if it’s operating well, then there’s no need for you. One of the strangest things about games is that there’s a kind of mystery to them. There’s a discomfort, not a social or political discomfort but a moment-to-moment material discomfort, like trying to hold a heavy door open or trying to put together an apparatus when the screw is not successfully meshing. What you want in a game is a system that resists you. Inspired by John Ruskin, William Morris, the founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, has a good quote on this: “You can’t have art without resistance in the materials.”

A game is a system that imposes arbitrary restrictions that the player accepts solely in order to have the experience of facing those arbitrary restrictions. In golf, why would you hit the ball down the fairway trying to get it in a hole? You could just walk up and drop it in.

So, games are not like cinema or novels; they’re doing something very different. They’re more like strange organisms or broken machinery that you’re trying to put back together. To me, what was always interesting is that it’s a problem that you’re trying to solve for which there’s no solution, but you struggle toward solving it anyway. What you realize is not how to solve it, but what it feels like to go through that experience and to have that process made evident.



JJW: It seems like there’s a hopeful aspect to your work about the prospects for games and technology. You criticize techno-libertarians in some places, but you don’t express the common skepticism about games as addictive or the like.


IB: One of the problems I’ve always felt about the humanistic study of cultural forms is that it generally falls into two camps: either we’re desperately in love with our object of study, so we can’t look up from it, even when there’s a reason to question that affinity; or we trash it.

I think that goes for Shakespeare as much as it goes for The Wire. Henry Jenkins has this concept of the “acafan,” a person whose immersion in and love for the work help to produce deep knowledge about it. I think that’s right, up to a point, but if you become too immersed in a subject as a fanatic, you can’t see it as clearly.

At the same time, one of the problems in Silicon Valley–style approaches to solutions is that they don’t necessarily ask, “What is it for?”—because the answer is assumed: it’s either for the pursuit of some technological feat, which is its own end, or else it’s to rapidly create speculative value as a business.

In that respect, I’m very much on board with the kind of critique you would hear in the mainstream humanities. It’s just that that doesn’t mean that all business is evil. There are different kinds of businesses, for different reasons.


How to Write about Videogames

By Matt Margini

JJW: You’ve defended videogames, and one of your main points is that they are distinctive in that they foreground procedures, both formally, in following codes, and thematically, in showing how you might build a world, as in Minecraft, where you build a house or city. So, you call for the study of procedural rhetoric. What is procedural rhetoric?


IB: Back in 2006, when I wrote Persuasive Games, digital rhetoric had become a notion, but no one really knew what it meant. They would say, “Well, blogs are digital, so it’s digital rhetoric.” But the mechanism by which you make an argument with software is different from the way you make one with words or with images, in oral or written or visual rhetoric.

It’s like building a model. One of the examples I use is how planetary motion works; you can demonstrate that by building a model of it rather than describing it. That’s kind of what you’re doing when you make a software program or a game. It is a system that behaves in a way that, its creator contends, some aspect of the world behaves.


JJW: So, it’s a kind of modeling. How is that distinctive to games?


IB: There’s nothing about the concept of procedural rhetoric that is necessarily tied to games or even to software. The term could apply to anything that’s process oriented, that’s about behavior rather than about image or about language.

But one of the points I’m trying to make is that there is something intrinsic to games that’s trying to be creative, or expressive, or to make a cultural mark in the way that other forms—like cinema or like the novel—are trying to do. They’re a computational form that is also an expressive form.


JJW: How did you come to the idea?


IB: I started in industry, and when I was working in the dot-com sector in the 1990s, one of the ways computing touched culture was in advertising. We were building websites and CD-ROMs, but games also came up, the sort of advergames that were popular then but fell out of favor afterward.

The idea was that games might not necessarily get people to buy things, but instead might help them find attachments to brands or to certain desired lifestyles. There’s a lot of anxiety about that kind of marketing, called “associative marketing,” and for good reasons.

So, I wondered how games could do the opposite: give people an experience of products or services and make the case for using them, in the way that demonstrative advertising of an earlier, now outmoded era did.

That was the seed of the idea. If it could work for the ad industry, which picks up everything sooner than anyone else, how could this be used more broadly in politics, in education, and in business?


JJW: What did you do in the industry?


IB: I had been doing work in game development and in politics and education, and I had this studio that was also called Persuasive Games; we did the first game for a US presidential candidate, in 2003, for Howard Dean.

I thought this was one of the futures that was going to pan out, and we were going to see lots of people and organizations making games and doing procedural rhetoric. Let’s say I wanted to convince you to vote for me or on my candidate’s platform, maybe I would present you with a simulation of the world that I am promising if I take office.

That idea seems preposterous today, but I was making predictions to the press that, by 2008, every major presidential candidate would have a PlayStation game that represents their platform. What we got instead was YouTube, and then Facebook, and the rest is history.

Other forms of computation took over the cultural role that I thought games might have. Facebook was founded in 2004; Google didn’t go public until 2004; the iPhone didn’t exist until 2007. But, at the time, I was betting that games were going to be a more important cultural form than they ended up being, at least in terms of a general-purpose medium, not just as an entertainment medium.

JJW: You have a background in philosophy, and recently you have been affiliated with object-oriented ontology. I can see how it dovetails with thinking about games and their processes, which seem to have their own life. How did you come to think about OOO?


IB: In computing, we had the phrase “object-oriented,” so I was interested when I came across Graham Harman’s first book, Tool-Being, which came out in 2002. I don’t think I fully processed some aspects of the object-oriented philosophy at that time, but I struck up a conversation with Graham, and we became friends. Working on the idea that became the Alien Phenomenology book, I was thinking about some of the relationships within machines—how computer systems worked, and how their parts related to one another, and to the creators and users of those systems. After that, I generalized those relationships to entities of all kinds, which was a full move into the OOO space.

There was a lot of anxiety about the human-decentering maneuver being somehow violent or meaning that human agency is less important than fire or computers or whatever you put there. There were accusations that it was an immoral ontology. I understand those objections, but I would call it an invitation to think about that problem space.


JJW: There are not a lot of people inhabiting object-oriented philosophy. To put it in a contentious way, some might say that it’s a philosophy for techies who don’t deal well with people, and thus want to say that things are more important. How would you answer that?


IB: If you read not just my writing but any of the object-oriented ontologists’ writing, I think you’d have a hard time not coming back around to your humanity and having it bolstered.

By giving attention and deep thought to the notion that anything whatsoever has an existence deeper than the way you or another human uses it can’t help but be an empathetic tool, right? It exercises this muscle of recognition. If there’s presence in entities beyond human entities, we are not denying that we are writing for human beings who are of course particularly concerned with our human lives.

Sometimes people have the sort of Andy Rooney critique: “Oh, you’re just looking at doorknobs! What kind of weirdo is so interested in doorknobs?”

But isn’t that what we want people to do with ideas and subjects? Isn’t that the whole invitation behind the humanistic project? To pay this deep careful attention and be able to uncover and derive meaning not just from the entities who are human subjects, but from the entities that haven’t been followed?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is a social justice project, but it’s a way of recognizing that there’s a deep hum of existence that’s much bigger than what we recognize.


Being Data

By Tamara Kneese

JJW: In the past few years, you became a contributing editor at The Atlantic. That’s probably not common among people who do coding, although clearly you write a lot and in a forthright, accessible way.


IB: I used to have a lot of anxiety in the 1990s about philosophy and theory at the level of prose—the turgidity of it, and the effort to read it, and the celebration of the effort required to move through it.

When I started working in industry and dealing with people there, it was a very different reality and communication was very different. There was a disconnect: this critical-theoretical writing purported to be very important for the sociopolitical world, and yet was not consumable by people in that world. That seemed like a strange irony to me.

If you start writing about videogames and it reads like French theory, it just feels weird. It’s incommensurate. Also, because I was writing about games, I had the opportunity to write for some more general readership outlets. Some of those were trade publications for the game industry, and some were game enthusiast venues. You start doing that work as a critic and the question of what you’re doing and why comes to the fore.


JJW: How did that come about?


IB: When I wrote Racing the Beam,1 people were saying things like, “Oh, I just finished Racing the Beam and it was a really great read.” It was the “I just finished” that stopped me dead in my tracks. I realized that I didn’t hear anyone say that about a book that I had written before.

So, I reflected on my own practice as a scholarly reader, and that made me think that I needed to be more concerned about writing than I had been. Then The Atlantic happened—the magazine republished a piece that I’d written on my website in 2011, and then I talked to Alexis Madrigal, who was the technology editor at the time, and one thing led to another. They made me a contributing editor in 2013, and now I’m really in the newsroom—not physically, we do it online, although I go up to the offices in DC pretty frequently. That is a very important intellectual community for me.


JJW: I know you’ve been doing workshops for a National Endowment for the Humanities–funded project on writing for a general audience. What basic advice do you give?


IB: One of the great things about writing for the general reader is that the writing has to exist for a reason. When you write a scholarly article or a book, it doesn’t need to exist.

I know that sounds cynical, but what I mean is that you are producing academic writing volitionally in order to advance your career and also to enter into a discourse in a discipline or disciplines where those ideas are circulating and people are obligated to look for them.

But for the ordinary everyperson, they’re just trying to get through the day. So, you need to be giving them something for their use, not just buffing your smarts or your platform.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus. icon

  1. Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost, Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System (MIT Press, 2009).
Featured image: Ian Bogost (2014). Photograph by liftconferencephotos / Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0