Ian Bogost makes video games. But more than that, he thinks about games: what they mean, how we engage with them, and how they shape our behavior. His company Persuasive Games explores how games can inform and educate people. He’s also a professor at Georgia Tech and the author of several books on games and culture.
Jesse James Garrett: I don’t want to spoil anything, but tell us a little bit about what you’ll be talking about at UX Week.
Ian Bogost: As you know, I work in games and simulations. And over the years games have become increasingly more prevalent as a kind of touchstone for design more broadly. So the project that I’m working on now that I’m going to talk about is an attempt to generalize from my experience in game design to almost anything else.
I am also drawing from my background as a creator in other areas. My Ph.D. is in comparative literature actually, so all of my training was very traditional, and literally speaking, it was all in poetry. For me, my interests in poetry and in photography and in games and in computational media, generally speaking, have always been of the same piece. But I haven’t, before now, tried to articulate them all at once. And so the ideas that I’m working on now are some principles that work in creative design and creative expression that can be applied to anything.
And the second theme is the idea of fun or enjoyment, and that’s the subject of the talk that I’m going to do at UX Week, which is to try to show a different perspective on what I think fun is. Among game designers, when we talk about the aesthetics of games, we use this word indiscriminately. “Oh, games should be fun.”
And I come to the conclusion that we actually don’t know what that word means. It almost is meaningless, like a placeholder for actual meaning. Fun isn’t really about enjoyment to me; it’s about this sense of discovering something in a thing, not in you.
JJG: This is a really interesting idea for me. For our audience, who are primarily digital product designers, fun is not often a criterion for success in the design, although there is more and more talk about the role that emotion plays in experiences. We don’t often talk about fun as an outcome, unless it is explicitly an entertainment experience.
IB: Game designers still like to think of their work as a form of creative expression, not a form of solution engineering. There is some sense among game designers that there’s a conflict between user experience design and game design, because a game is something that doesn’t need to exist. It’s excessive, as opposed to a user interface for your medical apparatus or something.
But increasingly, the things that need user experience design are also excessive. They don’t need to exist. They invent new kinds of activities that we can choose to do, and they are all a kind of entertainment. This is an unfair overgeneralization, but it’s also not entirely wrong.
JJG: It’s true. If you counted the number of digital products that somebody engaged with on a daily basis six years ago, it was very different from what you see now. There’s been this sort of mushrooming of the whole range of things that people engage with everyday. And so much of that is what I think of as lifestyle software—it’s not a tool, it’s a hobby for people, like Instagram.
But people are having so many of those kinds of quasi-entertainment experiences that they inevitably start to bleed into their expectations for all of the other, more tool-like things that they engage with. And so that then causes designers to turn their attention to the question of how you get some of that flavor of fun into these otherwise utilitarian contexts.
But as this other stuff starts to bleed into the experience that a tool creates, as its designers demonstrate more sensitivity to the emotional texture of the experience that the user is having and the psychology of that experience, the tool becomes a vehicle for culture in a way that previously was the domain of media. It starts to become more like a movie and less like a hammer.
IB: I think that’s right. But I don’t think this is a lesson that the designers of these kinds of tools have taken to heart yet. It seems like a very simple lesson, but it’s quite complex as it turns out. And part of it is because Silicon Valley has been at odds with the media entertainment complex for so long.
It looks down upon Hollywood, and to some extent looks down upon other forms of the arts, because they are not creating tools for other people to make stuff with. They are creating the stuff itself. But one of the things that we miss, of course, when we look at things that way, is that both sides want to create experiences that result in some sort of response, some sort of cultural response, some sort of emotional response.
So we are almost facing a crossroads now where we can say, well, are we going to make e-mail clients that are just about the experience of doing e-mail? And now e-mail has become just a thing that we do for its own sake in the same way that we play games or listen to music for its own sake.
JJG: I don’t know. I find myself wondering to what extent there is an actual risk of that happening. I feel like the human element in the equation is likely to self-correct and that when people catch themselves doing e-mail for its own sake, they’ll push back from the desk at some point.
IB: I don’t want to paint a tragic deterministic picture of a future dystopia. I think it’s more complicated than that. But I also think these things are harder to see and react to than we think they are. The kinds of behaviors we tend to get ourselves into are hard to recognize in the present tense. We may not understand where we’ve gone wrong until it’s too late.
JJG: Yeah, that’s a real possibility.
IB: So I wonder how we can make things that themselves are kind of brutally honest about what they are in some way. It seems to me that there may be interesting design solutions to these problems in which we create experiences that resist us, that are not simply allowing us to move through them fluidly and in a frictionless way, but that stop and agitate.
JJG: I’m interested to know what you think about what has happened with social games in the post-Cow Clicker era. It seems like the kind of authenticity that you’re talking about that was so glaringly absent from those products has caused people to get wise to their tricks and step away.
IB: And one of the reasons they got wise to it, I think, is that there was a mismatch between the experience and the idea of the experience.
When you go to a casino, you know you’re being pilfered. We know what’s happening, and, yet, we do it anyway. And we do it because the experience we want to have when we gamble is really not that of winning, but that of putting ourselves at risk.
There was always this social game experience in which you were taking advantage of your friends and you were kind of using them as resources. And the game was pretending to give you something for free. But then it was kind of pulling it back and saying, oh, actually now that you really want it, now I’m gonna make you want it more and I’m gonna make you lay out more and more time and more and more money.
And, weirdly, when that is done in a kind of upfront way, it actually feels better than the claim that it is “just entertainment.” One of the lessons I learned from Cow Clicker was this: it was more of a social game than the games that it was reportedly sending up because I was so blatant about what it was. So these games kind of have to own the manipulation in order to be moral, in some strange reversal.
JJG: Right. And so when I talk about somebody realizing that they are engaged with a non-game experience for purely experiential reasons, and disengaging from it, I wonder if the sharply declining popularity of these types of games is a precedent for that disengagement.
IB: Yeah, it is. But I don’t know that that’s a conversation that we have yet had in any detail in the software design community.
JJG: Thanks Ian, and we look forward to seeing your talk at UX Week!
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