Video game innovation amounts to more than concocting new ways to kill computer-generated bad guys. In his book How to Do Things With Videogames (University of Minnesota Press, $18.95), Ian Bogost explores the multitude of ways video games can be used to create art, educate kids and grown-ups, play pranks, foster empathy, provide exercise and even achieve Zen-like relaxation. A Georgia Tech professor and award-winning game designer, Bogost has become the gaming-world equivalent of Roger Ebert or Lester Bangs, arguing that video games are attaining maturity as a medium, like movies and popular music.
When you were younger, were there particular video games that put you on your current career path?
I played a lot of games as a kid, but the one that really influenced me was Life and Death, which came out the same time as SimCity. You were an abdominal surgeon, in the same way you were a city planner in SimCity. You even had to talk to patients and tease out what was wrong with them before performing the surgery. At the time, that was most fascinating to me. It provided a view into a world that you wouldn't think about otherwise.
What arguments do you explore in the new book compared to your earlier ones? Is it meant to be more accessible to the non-gaming readership?
It would be fine for me if the game industry and game enthusiasts weren't that interested in this book, because a lot will be familiar to them. In my previous books I talked about how to use video games to do politics or journalism. Here, I want to encourage interest in every possible use of the medium. Games will be accepted when they can do all the things within their potential.
Do you feel the need to correct the popular perception that games are just entertainment, even sophisticated games like Red Dead Redemption?
I think that's what people think. It's like people thinking the only kind of movies are Michael Bay action movies. My evangelism is not that popular games are art and that we should be satisfied with Left 4 Dead or Halo or whatever your favorite is. It's that there's this giant, weird family of video games out there, from games about learning complex systems to games about relaxation and boredom.
In your first chapter, you answer film critic Roger Ebert's critique that video games can never be art.
What Roger Ebert's really saying is "I'm Roger Ebert. I really like films, and video games aren't film." It's like, if you walk into a modern art museum and expect to get your teeth cleaned, you're in the wrong place. The art thing is such a mess, anyway, because we don't really know what art is any more after all the different 20th-century art movements. Why would we care that Roger Ebert gets to be a gatekeeper? It's about cultural validation — it's not really about art. When he chooses to write about something, that gives it credibility. Games have dozens and dozens of applications, not just the pursuit of art. Maybe worrying about that uses too much of our time as creators and developers, and we could focus on the little things.
Do you personally have to spend a certain amount of time a week or month playing new video games just to stay current?
It's impossible. And I love that, because it means that we have so much material that we have to specialize. You can be an expert in horror films or particle physics or whatever, and you can dive deeper in those areas. That means you have to ignore lots of other stuff, because otherwise you'd just go crazy. As a video game critic or a creator, you have to make decisions — what do I want to know and advocate for? Some are interested in pornographic titillation. Some guys are interested in political education and advocacy.
Do students ever take your course expecting it to be an easy A?
I teach an undergrad course in computational media and the students are very serious. They know that making games means knowing how a computer works and making it do stuff, and that making a computer work isn't always obvious. We do play games in class, but they also have to figure out how the games work. They know that they'll get their asses kicked if they think they'll just play video games all year.