Interview with Ian Bogost

© Ian Bogost and Figure/Ground
Dr. Bogost was interviewed by Laureano Ralón. June 25th, 2011.

Ian Bogost is a video game designer, critic and researcher. He is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a founding partner at Persuasive Games. His research and writing consider video games as an expressive medium, and his creative practice focuses on games about social and political issues, including airport security, consumer debt, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, pandemic flu and tort reform. He is the author of Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames as well as the co-author of Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System and Newsgames: Journalism at Play. Bogost also recently released Cow Clicker, a satire and critique of the influx of social network games. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and comparative literature from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree and Ph.D. in comparative literature from UCLA. He lives in Atlanta.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

I became a professor by accident. This probably requires a bit of explanation.

I was a student during the very start of the 1990s technology boom. When I started undergraduate school, I knew I wanted either to study computer science or philosophy. At the time it was clear that this was a choice—one or the other—although I now realize that unseen institutional and disciplinary structures somewhat artificially amplified the separation. Eventually, somewhat dramatically, I chose philosophy over computing, at least for my scholarly pursuits.

See, this was precisely the moment when the World Wide Web had transitioned form a the curious invention of a physicist to a fledgling global communications infrastructure. It wasn’t very hard to get involved with it, and the unique access to servers and workstations afforded by a university made it even easier. So I decided to pursue my interest in computing professionally, working for a variety of interactive development and advertising firms in the Los Angeles area through most of undergraduate and all of grad school.

Despite the incredibly trendy and lucrative nature of that moment, I nevertheless went to graduate school. I don’t remember why—it seemed like the right thing to do, the best way to realize the aspiration of intellectualism. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that pride was also involved. I’ll probably earn no empathy for saying this, but working in the tech industry was easy, whereas rising to the level of my scholarly mentors was hard.

Clinging too tightly to my background in philosophy and comparative literature, I spent an abortive year as a student at Cornell, where the oppressive greyness of Ithaca along with the disconnectedness of the scholarly climate made me realize that it wasn’t an intellectual life I was after so much as one that was of the world, not disconnected from it. Cornell became a symbol of this detachment for me, even more than it deserved: an Ivy on a hill, looming over a hopeless, failed rust-belt town. It lorded its aristocratic status like a medieval sovereign with one hand while stroking intractable tomes about populism and revolution in the other.

I returned to Los Angeles with the intention of completing my PhD at UCLA, but I quickly became embroiled in the technology and entertainment industries again. Part of that draw came from my earnest interest and commitment to computing as a medium—that had always been a part of me. But another part was pragmatic. I had a young family and my graduate stipend seemed unworkable in an expensive city like LA. I also feared I was missing a moment, choosing to run from rather than face my then-contemporary reality. It was too easy just to read poetry. So I decided to try to have it both ways—to do a humanities PhD and to be a creator of computational media.

That may seem very ordinary now, but it wasn’t then, even if then wasn’t so long ago. There were all manner of practical obstacles, not the least of which was my own rising level of truculence, a virtue necessary to contend with the reality of business in business and especially in Hollywood. This only got worse as I became more professionally successful. But more complex was the question of what it would mean to complete a PhD in my unique circumstance.

Eventually I concluded that it wouldn’t be possible, and I tried to punt, submitting a wonky dissertation prospectus about European modernism. Mercifully, my committee called bullshit and failed me—the best thing they could have done for me at the time. My mentors Emily Apter and Ken Reinhard in particular told me they’d support my pursuit of the degree only if I’d take seriously the connection between computation and media that they somehow knew I was capable of. Thanks to the two of them as well as Kate Hayles, I managed to eke out what felt like a novel comparative media take on computing, much of which became my first book Unit Operations.

But the most important factor in my becoming a professor was plain dumb luck. Even as I was finishing the PhD I was convinced that finding a place I’d be happy as a scholar was unlikely. I wasn’t willing to take any old job no matter the location just so I could call myself Professor, and I was fortunate enough to have other options. That’s not so uncommon in the sciences and engineering, but it’s pretty rare in the humanities. Up to the end I suspected I’d go back into industry.

The fact that Georgia Tech happened to be hiring that year, and that its program was so weird and unique, so unlike anything else at the time (but not anymore, mercifully) made me think there was hope. Again I’m going to sound churlish and ungrateful for saying this, but I think I was a viable candidate to be a professor partly because I didn’t have a fixation over whether or not I pursued such a life.

In retrospect, I’m immensely grateful—and very, very lucky—that I’ve been able to find a way to blend my interests in philosophy, media, and computing in a truly synthetic way. But I also want to resist claiming that “I can’t imagine doing anything else” or that I was “meant to be” a professor. There are so many contingencies in our lives, who are we to say that we are their masters?

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

Even in the short time I’ve been in the academy as a student and a professor—less than two decades—the undergraduate degree has become an assumed asset of the middle class—even more than it already was when I entered school. At the same time, primary and secondary education in the United States was contorted to focus on simplistic outcome-based education on the one hand, while productive vocational programs have been all but obliterated on the other. All of these factors makes it increasingly unlikely that college freshman have considered the question of whether or not they even ought to go to college, and if they ought to why they should. More recently, Silicon Valley’s incredible power over contemporary culture has resulted in a perverse techno-libertarian overcorrection that suggests that college is useless and young people should just invent pointless technologies for financial leverage—or alternately to work as servants for the wealthy, presumably.

Unfortunately, many professors in the humanities have responded to these circumstances by decrying the “neoliberalism” of the contemporary university, particularly after the global economic crisis of 2008 only further accentuated the extent to which it seemed that free-market capitalism risked driving all decisions within our institutions.

But that’s a particularly facile answer. It’s also an answer that allows its respondents to resort to the same old, tired critiques of contemporary culture that have festered since the 1960s. It’s an answer that justifies endless glimpses back over our shoulders, realizing our jealous desperation to restore “a respect for the liberal arts” a notion I’ve come to believe is as mythical as it is seductive.

Overcoming this obsession with the endless idea of the ending of a particular historical moment—surely that must be the most dramatic role-shift in the job of the university professor. We have been forced to strip the tweed from our elbows and descend from our keeps, and to re-enter the world we have for so long criticized from our safe havens. We are now more than in a very long time of the world rather than sheltered from it by the shield of the “low faculties.” This is a cold and soggy and terrifying feeling.

There are dirty aspects of being forced into the outdoors, having to root for sustenance in its wilds and adapt practices that seemed simultaneously unbroken and beguiling. Few are ready to face it, and few realize that facing it doesn’t mean accepting censure or reverting to old ways. But it is time to stop “critiquing” and “interrogating” and to begin inventing something new.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an “age of interruption” characterized by fractured attention and information overload?

I teach computational media, which is a hard task, because expertise demands mastery of so many different skills: close reading, critical writing, technical proficiency, and background knowledge in a diversity of areas. Unlike more traditional disciplines, students enter our field with widely varying preparation and interests. It is tempting to allow each to work to his or her skills and interests, but this is a wrong-headed approach. For example, game studies and design require both breadth and depth, and the only way to inspire desire for such knowledge is to set the bar very high, to incorporate earnest questions into every classroom, and to see one’s students as colleagues rather than as disciples. Three values then: expectations, problems, and apprenticeship.

Expectations: Good teachers demand extremely high performance.  Every field is different, but for me, that involves critical writing, history, technical adeptness, creative lucidity, and public speaking. It’s easy for faculty to gripe about grade inflation and attention deficit and privilege, but it’s fairly easy to combat these challenges just by setting high expectations. When you do, students respond by reaching beyond their abilities, learning to seek help when they require it, and iterating on ideas rather than settling for the first one. I offer students a clear path to “doing fine”—a perfectly reasonable goal—and give them a strong incentive to strive for excellence. I have a whole lecture about this that I use on the first day of my lower-division courses, in which I explain why I will award the grade of “C” to students who do what I ask them for.

Problems: universities are stupidly structured, suffering still under the disciplinary separateness of departments and colleges that compete under nested shrouds of complex institutional politics. Kate Hayles once suggested an alternative in which students might declare “problems” instead of majors, and in fact I suggested a related approach to “networked research” in the final chapter of my book Unit Operations. In the absence of a solution like the ones Hayles and I (and others) envision, I’ve tried to put this practice to work as best I can within the existing infrastructure of the institution. At a place like Georgia Tech there’s a lot more flexibility to do this—one of the benefits of working at a technical institute over a traditional university.

Teaching has to center around problems rather than material, and good teachers inviting students to ask a question along with them. Whenever possible, I purposefully design my courses  around questions for which I myself do not have definitive answers, but about which I have earnest curiosity. The approach not only helps me learn from my students, but also allows my students to learn how scholars approach research—and how professionals approach creative and technical problems.

Apprenticeship: The best teachers strive to pursue an apprenticeship model for teaching and advisement. In addition to problem-based instruction, I work closely on research with my graduate students, including extensive collaborative writing and publishing. While it is common to collaborate with the students one is bankrolling in the lab environments of the science and engineering disciplines, it is less common to work productively with students in the humanities and social sciences. And even in the sciences, graduate students are treated more like employees in a research lab than like equals.

I’ve tried to develop close working relationships with my graduate students, collaborating with them on published research as much as possible. This is a serious pursuit and not merely an occasional sideline; for example, I have recently co-authored a book on games and journalism (Newsgames: Journalism at Play, MIT Press 2010) with two of my doctoral students, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer. Such efforts pay off particularly well early in a graduate student’s career, since the student takes away concrete lessons on producing extensive, professional scholarship. Teaching becomes a process of developing colleagues, not of training up underlings.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?

Be contemporary. Have impact. Strive for it. Be of the world. Move it. Be bold, don’t hold back. Then the moment you think you’ve been bold, be bolder.

We are all alive today, ever so briefly here now, not then, not ago, not in some dreamworld of a hypothetical future. Whatever you do, you must make it contemporary. Make it matter now. You must give us a new path to tread, even if it carries the footfalls of old soles. You must not be immune to the weird urgency of today. This lesson applies no matter the subject of one’s interest and expertise, whether it be videogames or Hittite or chansons de geste or whatever else.

Some will object that to respond to current trends assures instrumentalism, a foolish desire to remain ever more current at the expense of true values and virtues. But why must it be an all or nothing gambit? I often wonder why scholars in the liberal arts seem so reviled by the tiny slice of the universe fate has cut for them that they want so desperately to escape back into a favorite yore or up into a notional abstraction.

A piece of specific advice in this regard for graduate students in particular: if you’re not experiencing tension with your advisor, you’re doing it wrong. To succeed, you have to scrape off some tiny sliver of novelty and whittle it into treasure. Paying homage to a committee’s collective comfort may appease them, and it may even ease your burden in completing the degree. But it won’t lead to success. Success comes from breaking free of the past—even the very last sunset—and forging on elsewhere. While some considerable measure of pragmatism must be mustered in order to get through the whole ordeal, don’t shy away from the discomfort of disapproval. Embrace it.

You are a Professor at The Georgia Institute of Technology, where you work in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture. Is video games theory typically housed within Literature and/or Communication Departments across North America? Should video games be regarded exclusively as a “text”?

Perhaps the weirdest and loveliest thing about game studies is that we really have no disciplinary home. Unlike film or literature or art history, there are very few departments of game studies, and those that do exist are usually agglutinated of a variety of semi-related areas under the overall rubric of interactive media or computation or something similar. In my case, the Graduate Program in Digital Media, of which I am the director, is housed in the School of Literature Communication and Culture, which is already a pretty unusual academic unit.

On the one hand, this produces a tremendous anxiety of place and of method. But on the other hand, it prevents game studies from collapsing into a singular practice. We come from philosophy, literary studies, sociology, media studies, computer science, anthropology, electrical engineering, film, performance studies, and many more backgrounds. We’re always sort of scraping by, trying to make room for ourselves, to establish ourselves, to stave off accusations of prurience, to chase that eternal dream of institutional legitimacy. But maybe the beautiful thing about games comes partly from their prurience, their illegitimacy. They force us to focus on specific problems instead of on fields or objects or disciplines.

What theories and methodologies are commonly used in video game research generally and in your own research specifically?

Within game studies, our failure to agree upon methods has produced a number of historical quarrels. The most famous involved a dispute over whether games ought to be treated as a form of narrative, so as to accommodate literary or filmic methods of analysis, or treated as its own subject “ludologically.” Another involved the question of whether the game artifact or the players’ behavior ought to be the subject of inquiry. As I write this a number of scholars find themselves disagreeing about whether the experience of the game is of greater concern, or if its material structure is of greater import. Yet another, ongoing concern asks what the relationship between game theory and game design and development. On the technical side of things, there’s a question about whether new methods of design arise from computational invention, or whether the reverse is true. Within computer science specifically, there’s a tendency to use games to “sexy up” more mundane research in AI or graphics or other areas, an approach the computer scientists focused explicitly on games find instrumental and insincere. And since we’re dealing with a computational medium, there’s the ongoing question about what (if any) level of technical expertise is required to study these works effectively.

I’m sure an outsider will quickly realize that none of these disputes are really either/or propositions, but of course scholars need something to dispute, and conflict is a sign of a healthy, productive topic of inquiry. But sometimes we do get stuck in discpline-on-discpline brawls, and it can seem silly and frustrating.

As for my own methods, I’m particularly interested in video games, which is just to say, a particular kind of media that runs on computers rather than on cards or boards. There’s much for the game scholar to learn from non-digital and folk games, just as there is from the plastic arts and architecture and literature. But I tend to focus on the ways the computer has facilitated the particular features of this medium. In that respect, I’m not only interested in the representational aspects of games and how those resemble and differ from other media like television or novels (the subject of my first two books, Unit Operations andPersuasive Games), but also on the unique material construction of videogames—including the differences between particular hardware and software platforms.

The latter subject is the topic of a book series I co-edit at MIT Press with Nick Montfort, called Platform Studies. It’s not limited to games, either, but to any computational platform. The series invites books that look at the relationship between the design of hardware and software platforms and the kinds of creativity that those platforms make possible. Nick and I wrote the first book in the series about the Atari Video Computer System (Racing the Beam, 2009). We’ve got forthcoming books in the series on the Wii and the Amiga, with even more coming soon. 

I am aware that you are currently working with Levi R. Bryant on a book about Marshall McLuhan. What can you tell us about this project? How does your interpretation of McLuhan differ from that of Media Ecologists?

Levi and I are still really planning this project, but we’re both very excited about it. The gist of the book is simple: we’re offering a perspective on McLuhan as a first principles metaphysician rather than “just” as a media theorist.

It’s well known that McLuhan thought of media in a very general way, as anything that extends the human senses. We’re making both an interpretation of and a revision to this premise. First, we understand a “medium” simply to name any thing that exists—an object. Then, we understand extension not only to refer to humans, but to any other object whatsoever. In other words, a medium is just a thing, and a thing can extend and influence other things in numerous ways. We frame this theory primarily through a new reading of the tetrad.

Writing about this makes me look forward to really digging into this project with Levi. He and I both have so many irons in the fire, it might be tempting to see us as bricoleurs who are promising more than we can deliver. But really we just have a lot of work in us  yet to come out.

Did you read McLuhan systematically as a graduate student? What attracted you to his work in the first place?

Not systematically at all. McLuhan was certainly not on the syllabi of the theory and methodology courses I took in philosophy and comparative literature. I do sometimes wonder how different the world would be if all the critical theory types read McLuhan instead of, say, Deleuze and Guattari. Maybe better?

I think I only came to McLuhan through Neil Postman, and only by accident at that. I’m not sure when I finally returned to McLuhan in earnest, but I suspect it was only after I’d transitioned my trajectory from philosophy and literature to media theory, where McLuhan is held more dearly.

But anyone who studies popular culture eventually discovers that they owe a debt to McLuhan. He’s got to be the most underrated thinker of the twentieth century, even with the enormous following his work has deservedly earned. I suspect some day we’ll look back on the period between the 1960s and 2000s and wonder why we spent so much of it reading French theory.

Well, actually, McLuhan wasn’t too impressed with computers, although the so-called “computers” of his time were quite different from what they are today. Still, we know that the man was concerned primarily with the TV medium/environment. How do you think McLuhan’s general media theory bears upon computer science research generally and video game research specifically?

McLuhan made some bad bets about which media forms would be most influential in the twentieth century, but he got a lot right too, even if in a slightly transmuted way. In any case, it doesn’t really matter because he left us with such a useful general theory of media: that the properties of a medium are important objects of interest. That’s a premise that’s very easily extensible to computers, as I think Nick and I show well in Racing the Beam. In fact, we go to great lengths in that book to show how closely the computer was designed around the operation of the television.

The problem has been that very few scholarly or popular writers have taken that charge seriously enough, either because they don’t possess the technical expertise to really understand the properties of computing writ large or specific computational apparatuses in particular, or because it’s so easy to get positive attention for celebrating or decrying a medium for its effects.

In fact, I begin my next book (How to Do Things with Videogames, forthcoming in September from University of Minnesota Press) with a discussion of just how ubiquitous the media ecological approach has become, whether or not those who deploy it draw inspiration from McLuhan specifically. While that might seem like the greatest possible victory for media ecology, it’s also a liability: we have become so focused on looking for the macroscopic effects of media on society that we don’t bother to look at the more particular effects of specific media on specific practices. I offer an alternative in the book, which I call “media microecology.”

In one of your books, you talk about the “expressive” power of video games. What exactly is that power and where do you see the future generation of video games heading toward?

That’s the subtitle of Persuasive Games, which is a book about how video games (and computational media more broadly) make arguments and express ideas. In that book I offer a theory I call procedural rhetoric, which argues that video games and other computational media express in the unique and powerful form of the computational model: games make claims about how things work by building computer models that depict the operation of simple or complex systems. Given that our world is full of complex systems—from climate to economics to health—and given that we’re so inclined to ask for simple answers to the complex problems those systems generate, I argue that games offer themselves up as a medium uniquely positioned to increase rather than decrease our understanding of and tolerance for complexity.

In How to Do Things with Videogames, I expand on this theory, suggesting that in addition to procedural modeling, video games have the secondary properties ofroles—putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, someone subject to the rules the model constructs, and of worlds—providing meaningful context for the operation of a model and the experience of it in a particular role.

As for the question of where games are going, a great deal of attention has been paid to the “pro-social” uses of games, for education, for activism, for “changing the world.” I’m myself responsible for some of those arguments, and they’re all well and good. It’s certainly easier to get good press and good grants by waving those flags.

But there are far weirder futures for games. In How to Do Things with VideogamesI argue that the breadth of use of a medium is one way to measure its impact and maturity, and the book is comprised of short accounts of those various uses. I’m hopeful that this perspective may yet win out. Video games aren’t just entertainment nor are they just education. They’re capable so many different things—from education to art to pornography to tools to marketing to music—just like any other medium.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve already mentioned How to Do Things with Videogames, which I hope will hit the streets by late August. The book offers a tiny McLuhan-influenced media theory accompanied by twenty short pieces that characterize the many different uses of video games.

I’ve also recently finished a more unusual work, A Slow Year. It’s a set of “game poems” for the Atari VCS which also includes a set of essays about games and poetry and a series of computer-generated haiku that relate to the themes of the games. I was fortunate to have it selected for both of the major independent gaming festivals, and it even won two awards at last year’s Indiecade festival. The work has been available in a paperback edition with CD-ROM since late 2010. I’ve just recently finished a hand-made, signed, numbered limited edition that comes with Atari cartridge, hardbound book, and is packaged in a fancy leather box. This is my go at creating an “art game,” a topic far too charged to say much more about this late in the interview.

I have another book coming out late this year or early next, my contribution to the corner of Speculative Realism known as Object-Oriented Ontology. That book is called Alien Phenomenology, and it’s about the ways things perceive and encounter one another. The book also offers a theory of philosophical “carpentry” (a term I borrow from Alphonso Lingis via Graham Harman), which proposes a new approach to philosophical creativity beyond (but not excluding) written texts.Alien Phenomenology is certainly the most traditionally philosophical book I’ve written, but it also includes a great many interpretations of specific objects, including media objects.

As a follow-up to the Newsgames book, I’m working with my UC Santa Cruzcolleague Michael Mateas on an authoring system for small-scale current event games, which are like the videogame equivalent of editorial cartoons. That work is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight foundation, and we should start testing the system with news organizations later this year. It will be released as an open-source platform in 2012.

Apart from those, I’ve got a number of other projects in their early stages. One is a collection of video game criticism I’ve been squirreling away over the years. Another is a video game about arbitrariness and choice that features computer-generated characters and gameplay. Another is a book on sports video games. And yet another is my attempt at a popular non-fiction trade book, the details of which I’m going to leave mysterious for now.

Oh, and then there are the cows.

© Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ian Bogost
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Ralón, L. (2011). “Interview with Ian Bogost,” Figure/Ground. June 25th.
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