September 22, 2005
Wednesday, I decided to take advantage of the non-devastated condition of the mid-Atlantic. I hopped on a train and took a spur-of-the-moment trip down to Baltimore to hear Ian Bogost (of Water Cooler Games and Georgia Tech) give a talk at the University of Baltimore, a talk that was hosted by Stuart Moulthrop and Nancy Kaplan’s Information Arts and Technology program. The full title of Ian’s talk was “Designing for Reproach: Videogames and Consumer Advocacy.”
I want to mention first off that Ian busted out demos of two new games, premiering Disaffected! — a slick, isomorphic anti-Kinkos game in which you have to drive disgruntled employees, service obedient and exasperated customers, and sort through all sorts of stacks of papers — and Airport Insecurity, a game for mobile phones. Ian talked about some ideas that are discussed in his book Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, which is coming in the spring from MIT Press; he has another book in the works about rhetoric and gaming.
Some notes on the talk follow.
Ian began by talking about “serious games” and described why the concept was troubling to him. He enumerated several sense of “serious:” solemn, consequential, grave, highbrow … all of which distinguish something from the trivial and unimportant. The phrase, and movement, is a way of reinforcing structures in our society: the classroom, politics, the military, “first responders,” and so on. (Fortunately, those of us dealing with textual, hypertextual, and cybertextual work on the computer don’t have to worry about people flinging around terms like “serious hypertext.”) The problem is that “serious games” of this sort don’t question these structures — they just reinforce them. So Ian doesn’t consider his work to be serious, if this is what seriousness means.
The first game that was up for discussion was Breakaway Games’s A Force More Powerful, which was shown at GDC and which attempts to procedurally model democratic, non-violent revolution. Ian described it, though, as “a model for our own fantasy of democratic revolutions,” and wondered what it might tell us — not what it might tell foreigners living under a totalitarian regime — about our own political thinking. He also discussed Biochem FX, which uses fluid dynamics, weather models, and terrain data to predict, for instance, how Sarin gas would disperse on the UC Berkeley campus. Ian mentioned questions that aren’t asked by this simulation: who do you save in this case? The old but successful Nobel Prize winners or the freshmen? Who do we care about — or do we care at all, as we might be spurred to ask by Hurricane Katrina?
In trying to reformulate the “serious games” any something useful, Ian suggested the senses of serious as “reflective,” and also as “substantive.” (The sense of “serious” as meaning “substantive” usually involves the word “dude,” as in “dude, that is a serious cheesecake.”) How can games allow us to reconfigure our world, and give us a new perspective?
Well, the full answer will have to await Ian’s Unit Operations, but it involves the philosopher Alain Badiou and his perspective on situations, events, and subjectivity. Ian gives the name “unit operations” to the way individual elements can be recombined and reconfigured. Serious games, then, in this new sense, are those that involve restructuring situations. Designing and playing these games should be a crisis, not “fun” in the usual sense.
With this as prelude, Ian introduced his example of “anti-advergaming.” I will leave the operation of Disaffected! to the reader’s imagination, rather than attempt to describe it in detail — but it should be out soon. One of the issues with Disaffected! is that trademark, slander, and libel protections make it difficult to comment on Kinko’s. The game begins with a verbose disclaimer at the beginning; whether that will prove to be enough remains to be seen. It does present a rather tedious work environment, somewhat reminiscent of Burgertime.
Ian also showed Airport Insecurity, a game designed to be played on a mobile phone in line at airport security. It simulates standing in line, and tries to call attention to the emptiness of the mind in an airport security line. (There is an “endless queueing” mode in which all you do is stand in line.) People have weapons which they can choose to throw away or keep with them. There are models of average wait times and of the effectiveness of security at different airports. The point is not to show that it’s easy to get past secuirty at the Salt Lake City airport or something, but to heighten people’s awareness of the processes they are taking part in.
I’m very glad I went down to Baltimore, as Ian’s perspective is a very powerful one and his thoughts are quite relevant to the finishing touches I’m trying to put now on a game of my own, Book and Volume. Hopefully we’ll see Disaffected! and Airport Insecurity in the wild before too long.