Ian Bogost Is Persuasive (But First, Rambling)

But First, Rambling

In my post-Red Steel 2-launch phase, I have found myself short on topics rampaging through my mind that I can discuss freely on these, them thar Webs.

There’s been a lot of activity, to be sure: the first sales figures have been being discussed widely, there have been several marvelously supportive articles written by journalists who seem to be ‘in our corner’, so to speak, and in general the “what’s next” question has been foremost in many minds.

Alas, all of those topics fall under the “not in my job description to broadcast” category.

That is to say, were I to share all my personal reflections on the sales figures, it would (as I have learned) likely be quoted as a “statement from Ubisoft” – and that likelihood means that I can’t talk about such things here.

Now, don’t get all weird on me. I’m not complaining about that. Sit down, sit down. It’s okay. I actually think it’s awesome that people are so interested in these topics, and I very much enjoy talking with the press about just about anything they wanna discuss. However, as we all understand, the nature the relationship itself coupled with my role as a Ubisoft Dude means that I gotta watch what I say, man.

So, I’m left to sit and stew silently on these topics, while the world races by.

That is not my style.

The previous post was one attempt to overcome that void. Discussing other people’s games is always fun, in particular when they are destroying my mind. Ultimately, though, it has proven to be not terribly satisfying.

So. Right here, I’m going to try a different tact. One that, hopefully, will both bore and confuse you. Simultaneously!

Ian Bogost Is Persuasive

One of the things I do “between projects”, seemingly, is to immerse myself in the literature, media, and whatever, surrounding the topic I hope to address next.

Now is no exception. At the GDC this year, I picked up a book called “Persuasive Games” by one Ian Bogost.

If you aren’t aware of it, there is something like an early renaissance (a “naissance”, perhaps?) in the intellectual discussions surrounding video games. For many, many (many, many, oh god, it was so long) years, the writing on games and their meaning was pretty thin. Recently, however, things have improved, and quite measurably!

Even so, it’s still sort of sketchy territory out there. We don’t have anything like a common grammar yet, and the academics in the field who are considered the go-to people have often been in their role for less than 10 years… often less. We’re young, people.

So, then, Mr. Bogost, and his Persuasive Games. This is a book about meaning.

Red Steel 2 was a success in many ways, but the, er, ‘polemic’ aspect of the title was, perhaps, not our primary focus. Ahem.

In fact, if there was “meaning” to be taken from Red Steel 2, it was probably something like “whacking bad guys with a sword is good fun!” Perhaps this was not the most high-falutin’ message ever presented… but when laid against the backdrop of the work(s) we were inspired by, it seems fitting.

Even so… it’s something I’m thinking about a great deal, now, ‘between projects’: games and meaning.

Mr. Bogost has titled his book “Persuasive Games”, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s primarily a step-by-step breakdown of how a series of games that operate in the “persuasive” zones (politics, advertisements, satire, others) make their case – the structure of how meaning is made in an interactive work, and how audiences respond to that meaning. It’s fascinating shit – if you can handle academic writing, of course. The book does not pretend to be a ‘page turner’ – he’s making a point, man, and intends to back it the fuck up. With, like, facts.

While this is great stuff, at the end it is not the distinction between “persuasive” and “non-persuasive” games that has made a lasting impression on me.

Uh, did I mention that the book has made a lasting impression? It has. It’s (in fact) messing with my head, quite nicely.

What I found interesting in this book is not that Ian (if I may call him Ian – we both have beards, after all) has laid out how to make more persuasive games. Rather, it is that he has, through implication, laid out a quite convincing structure for the method by which games construct meaning in their audience (re: Holy Grail).

And, people? It’s fucking weird.

Weird, like, throw out all your ideas of interpretation of meaning from cinema, TV, and books, weird. Like, time to start over in having a common language.

However, he’s right. That’s the problem.

[ASIDE] For the record, he’s not necessarily the first dude to pull this off – he’s just the one I have read the most recently, and he made a particularly good case. There’s lots of other folks out there doing great work in this domain. Just so y’all know. And so that y’all know that I know. And, etcetera.

But, hey, Bogost has a beard, man.[/ASIDE]

Hmm. Tell you what. Let’s see if the darklorde can actually illustrate what the fuck he’s talking about, and demonstrate that he has actually learned something from this here book thing.

EXAMPLE! James Bond.

In Casino Royale The Movie (and, arguably, in every Bond movie ever made) one can say that the “message” or the “meaning” comes from the struggles the character(s) undergo, and their various relationships to each other.

The chain of events that transpire in a Bond file generally reinforce an idea that is something like “Villains will be punished, the weak should be defended, and heroism should be rewarded.” With Bond, there’s also something in there about how a mix of danger and sophistication is appealing in a man… but let’s just pick one example for now.

Does that make sense to you? Bond’s enemies are bad, bad dudes – and they always (always) meet an untimely end. In fact, we know this will be true before we enter the movie. It’s sort of one reason why many of us go in the first place – to see Bond bring the Hammer O’ Justice down on those vile fellows.

So, it follows that some part of the “meaning” in the film is that “villains will be punished.” We see bad dudes doing bad stuff, and then Bond comes and kills them.

Similar logic applies to the other ideas (“the weak” is whatever starlet Bond is tasked with protecting/saving/being saved by – and he *always* defends them, even if he fails in the end and they die… he still tries).

See? Make sense? Kinda?

It’s a little bit of a mind bender, but I hope so. If not, uh…

…well, keep trying. It’s tricky. 🙂

Okay, now let’s look at Goldeneye The Game.

Extracting “meaning” from such an experience is tricky – at least with the language we have from the movies. I mean, who am I, really? There are ‘villains’, sure, but the story in this kind of game is a thin veneer at best.

The game’s meaning is defined by what I (the player) can do in it. Primarily, this means shooting dudes, opening doors, and completing misssions – the amount of personal interaction I have with characters in that game is almost zero (as it is in most shooters).

So, to generate “meaning”, what we do is this: we imagine the game world as meaning.

It’s a world in which hundreds of bad guys are trying to kill me, and I mow my way through them victoriously, all falling before my gunfire, ultimately confronting (and killing) the Big Bad in the last level. What does a world like that mean for it’s protagonist (the player)?

From what I took from this “Persuasive” book, blended mercilessly with My Way Of Thinking™, the ‘meaning’ behind a game like Goldeneye can be described as something like “You can be an action hero.” (There’s also a lot of detailed meaning in there that focuses on gun tactics and the use of space in combat – which, perhaps, is the *actual* ‘meaning’ of a game like this – but again, let’s just pick one thing and move on.)

In fact, this particular ‘meaning’ is common to probably 50% of the games out there. Maybe more. As an example, I interpret the ‘meaning’ of Zelda to be “You can save the princess, and the world!” (in addition to the manipulation of space, doors, keys, and the other ‘puzzle’ elements).

Okay, does that make sense?

It’s tricky. Tricky, for many reasons:

  • It’s tempting to look beyond such simple ‘meanings’, and look for something more related to morality or ethics. Personally, I don’t see that in most games today – and hallelujah to that.
  • We’re used to “meaning” being expressed in absolute, third-person terms. Games must, by their nature, have meanings that are somehow related to the primary actor – and thus are probably better expressed in second person. Weird.
  • Looking at a game system and leaping up to what that system, with all it’s possible variables, “means” is a big leap. It’s doable, but… ya better bring a trampoline or something.

In essence, what I have taken away from The Bogost-inator’s book, and ultimately what I want to share with you today, is that meaning does exist in games – it exists in every game, in fact, just as it exists in every other expressive medium.

Now, many high-minded people, when confronted with a ‘meaning’ phrase like “You can be a hero!”, may take it up themselves to shake their head sadly, and make wise-sounding statements about how we “should be aiming higher than that” – that our culture is suffering under the weight of such pap, and that such ‘low-brow’ concepts are devoid of cultural value.

To all the people who feel that way: Blow me.

With that problem nicely out of the way, I can share with you the Big Thought that I’m chewing on here.

What I have derived from this Book O’ Bogost-ity (see what I did there?) is that, as creators, we can choose what meaning we want our games to have, by reverse-engineering our system of meaning.

Today, this is something we often do without thinking about. With Red Steel 2, as an example, I think I chose a meaning for our game that was something like “hitting bad guys is fun!”… but it wasn’t so much a ‘choice’ as it was a natural outcome from a whole variety of choices we made along the way.

I think I’d enjoy being able to exert more deliberate control over the “meaning” of my games than I have in the past, and Ian’s book has handed me one big, bright, shiny key to help me out with that endeavor.

Mr. Bogost: gracias. I hope to live up to the aspirations your work implies to me – even if, ultimately, the result is still “pure entertainment”, it will be hopefully better and more intentional because of your writing.

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3 thoughts on “Ian Bogost Is Persuasive (But First, Rambling)”

  1. Really? Nobody has commented on this yet? Unbelievable. Does anyone even read this thing anymore?

    So… meaning in games. Tricky indeed. Especially for someone who is more inclined to believe that games convey systems, not meaning. It’s tempting to impose meaning ONTO a system. As humans we are, by our very nature, meaning-makers. It’s just how we make sense of the world. And just as we readily impute actual intent or malice to a randomized AI script, we are eager to overlay a bare system with our own mythic interpretation.

    Consider, for a moment, Brenda Brathwaite’s game about the middle passage. There is a system for keeping track of units, and food, and turns. It could be anything. We MAKE meaning for the game based on our cultural understanding. What would an inuit make of that game? Perhaps they would interpret the “ship” as an “igloo”, and the point would be people in the igloo trying to survive a harsh winter with limited food. Instead of “putting people in the water”, the people who leave the “igloo” may be honored elders nobly walking into the cold for the greater good. Now, the game in no way favors one of these interpretations — it’s all culturally imposed. Is it fair, then, to talk about games “meaning” things and how we as designers go about influencing meaning when all we really do is create a system of play?

    This is certainly generalizing the issue, and given our ability to contextualize our games through setting, art, etc. it may even be a spurious claim. However, even Brathwaite would say that what she had created was a system, albeit one particularly applicable to the middle passage. As designers, should we even care about meaning? I’m not so sure. Our job is to create the “magic circle”. What players do there, and what they make of it, is best left for them to decide. I, for one, am content to be a game-maker — not a meaning maker.

  2. And before you throw “train” in my face, think about what makes it “about the holocaust”. It’s ALL context. The broken glass, the yellow markers, the fact that the units of conveyance are trains…

    I wonder, then, if making meaning in games is less about making a compelling game and more about marrying the correct system to the correct context. That approach seems dangerous, as a designer runs the risk of making decisions in service of “meaning” instead of “fun”.

  3. Hi, hi – long time reader; first time commenter. I’ve been reading some of the things you said at GDC Europe. While there are so many things I would eventually like to ask you about your experiences in and theories on game design*, I’ll start with a question about the following comment:

    “My recommendation to you is that you should ship on multiple platforms. Nobody will want you to. Sony won’t, Microsoft won’t, Nintendo won’t. But the market will…”

    I’ve heard this way of thinking stated a million times, but, if I’m interpreting you correctly, I’ve never heard it from this perspective. It seems you’re encouraging multi-platform releases as a means of expanding the audience for genuine motion controls. I’m all for the growth of real motion-controlled games, but I have very strong reservations when it comes to multi-platform games.

    This is an oversimplification, but I rarely find the quality of multi-platform games to match the quality of single platform games. Obviously, good design is good design, but designing for one system is exponentially simpler than designing for two or three, right? Particular in the face of technology as new and complex and motion controls. How difficult was it to design Red Steel 2 for Wii Motion+? I can’t even imagine what it would be like to add in support for Move, Kinect, or a standard Wii Remote, and that’s not even accounting for the vast and inherit differences in the consoles, themselves. The problems Wii developers encounter just adding something like Classic Controller support are insane. Should they really attempt to support multiple consoles and control schemes in high quality motion-controlled games?

    There are numerous other issues I have regarding the safety and alleged logic of multi-platform releases (you haven’t even gotten me started on the financial questions), but I think I’ve done enough rambling. I guess my big question is this: Do you believe in your quoted statement? If you were in charge, would you follow that advice, or was it meant more as an inflammatory remark? Is it practical, or more of an abstract way of saying that developers and publishers must make meaningful efforts to make true use of the frightening powers afforded us by motion controls?


    * Do you mind if I continue to ask you questions? I promise I can be more concise than this (though I’m always up for a good ramble if you don’t too terribly mind that type of thing).

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