Having read Ian Bogost’s recent piece in The Atlantic several times now, I think I’ve managed to digest what he’s saying and figure out how I feel about it.
First off, I feel the piece is trying to do too much. Bogost opens by eulogizing Maxis, and celebrating the studio’s impressive contribution to our medium, but hitched to that wagon is a larger statement Bogost is making about the kinds of games we make, the kinds of games we could make, and the kinds of games we ought to make. The eulogy is fine; I don’t have much to say about that. But I feel like the rest of the piece makes a claim (I think unintentionally) about how we might categorize games that I have a really hard time agreeing with.
Bogost laments that we (as players and as developers) have become fixated on characters in games, and suggests that we would do better to design games that allow us to explore and examine systems that are larger than ourselves. The effective unpacking of his title is that there are games that try to be about individuals and games that try to be about larger conceptual structures – social, political, economic and cultural ideas – and that games about these larger structures are better. Better, to Bogost, seems to mean at very least that the medium of games is more suited to present those ideas and thus games about them achieve better outcomes, but even beyond that, he implies these things are somehow qualitatively more valuable as things for us to explore.
Now, I strongly agree we should make games that afford us the opportunities to play with and thereby deeply understand the higher order systems that we exist within. I agree that games are uniquely suited to expose these sorts of large, complex systems which – outside of the context of a game are typically obfuscated, hard to isolate, hard to read, and impossible to examine objectively.
However, I disagree that games about characters preclude the sort of examinability of higher order domains or formal structures or patterns that Bogost wants to see more of. I feel like Bogost is presenting a false dichotomy: that there are simulations that can speak to the higher order constructs of our culture, and that there are stories of the journeys of individuals that cannot, and that we must choose between them. Bogost is saying there is SimCity – which allows us to examine Wright’s Americanized synthesis of a range of sociocultural theories – and then there is The Last of Us which allows us to examine – at best – a few small relationships between a few poorly simulated individuals. Bogost’s lament is that SimCity’s perspective on the forces that shape our culture is elevating, while The Last of Us is at best an inferior novel. Without saying it directly, Bogost is making the claim that there cannot exist a category of game that allows the player to understand and feel and engage with those higher order systems while also undertaking an individual journey through them. I think this is already demonstrably untrue.
Molleindustria’s Unmanned provides fascinating perspectives into the banality of automated war-fighting, the proceduralization of violence, and the impact of ethical siloing on interpersonal relationships, and it does all of these things from the perspective of an individual character on a journey. Unmanned is a comparatively simple game, and it does not allow me to directly touch the sliders that embody the relationships between those higher order concepts – but it does enable me to feel that those sliders exist and are interrelated.
Bogost, I am sure, would argue that a novel or a film would do a better job of both providing me with that simple, authored perspective, and with taking me on that journey. Surely, taken as a whole, Syriana – which deals with all of these themes and more – does a better job of communicating them than Unmanned. I would agree – but not because games about individual journeys cannot also be about higher order constructs – rather, I would agree because Unmanned is just a very small game, and Syriana was a $50M film with an excellent script, a solid director and amazing actors to bring it together.
In terms of its themes, Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is similar to Unmanned. In Papers, Please, I embody a character, and I go with that character on a personal, transformative journey that I control in large part. The game also gives me perspectives on the higher order structures of our culture: the numbing banality of bureaucracy, the deresponsiblizing power of distributed systems, and their impact on how individuals judge and treat one another. Papers, Please does not let me directly manipulate the sliders that control how oppressive or violent the State of Arstotzka is. It doesn’t allow me to objectively observe how the cost of food and gas affects the behavior of a border guard with insufficient training and ever-increasing pressure to process travelers quickly under ever more byzantine constraints.
Playing Papers, Please, I do not build and test the hypothesis that subsidizing the price of gas would diminish stress on border guards, and thus lead to more ethical outcomes in terms of how people are evaluated at the border, which in turn would reduce violence, increase regional stability and lower gas prices – removing the need for subsidies, giving my state more economic stability, and simultaneously increasing happiness. But at the same time, I feel that Papers, Please helped me understand those things the way Bogost seems to claim a game about characters could not. In fact, it helped me understand those things better than Syriana did.
So again, I think that Bogost has presented a false dichotomy by suggesting there are games about characters and there are games about higher order cultural constructs and that as game developers and as players we need to choose between them when we make a game or when we play a game.
I think that a game like Crusader Kings presents a model of complicated human interpersonal interaction, and a simulation of how the implicated personalities and their relationships drive human culture. In fact, Crusader Kings stands out to me as an exemplar of a category of games that Bogost seems to want to wave out of existence by asserting we have to choose between one of two categories into which Crusader Kings does not fit.
Admittedly, Crusader Kings is significantly closer to SimCity than Papers, Please is, but perhaps from Bogost’s perspective the ‘embodied characters’ are really abstract constructs and to him Crusader Kings is just another SimCity. That might be a fair stance.
But further out from Crusader Kings is Shadow of Mordor, where you clearly and undeniably embody a character, and yet at the same time you interact directly with an interactive simulation of the politics of succession, leadership and authority within Orcish society. Now, I will be the first to admit that the kind of ‘cultural takeaway’ Bogost seems to want players to receive from the games he is talking about is not going to be much informed by a more sophisticated appreciation of the Rites of Succession of the Uruk-hai, but subject matter is irrelevant if what we’re looking for is existence proof. There is no reason this kind of higher-order simulation of sociopolitical brinksmanship, applied violence and the consequences thereof could not be stood-up in a context that is relevant to the world we live in. Swap the Outcasts for some ex-patriate mercenaries, Orcish warlords for African ones, and Mordor for a failed African state, and suddenly you might find a game where good and evil, race and creed, partnerships and politics are significantly less cut-and-dry, and significantly more informative of the kinds of larger cultural forces that shape the lives of millions of people (if you succeeded - which no one yet has).
So yes, I think we already have numerous, though tentative examples of these kinds of games; games that are both about the journey of an individual, but also about the big ideas of the culture (fictional or otherwise) in which that individual exists. I will admit that along a number of axes we have mostly done a fairly poor job of achieving the goals Bogost implies. Bogost wants us to truly understand and feel the consequential interdependency of large scale, richly interconnected, sensitive systems, and it is definitely true that accessing the sliders that move those systems by using the guns or swords of our embodied characters to shoot or stab them up or down a notch is a clumsy interface at best.
But I don’t think we should bury the idea along with Maxis and throw our arms up in the air. I think there is a huge undeveloped space here for us to explore as designers, and a fruitful landscape of discovery here for players. I feel that if we make these sorts of games well, and continue to refine them, we can begin competing and innovating on the axis of ‘how my embodied character influences the sliders’.
I personally hope that we can evolve the play experience over time from one where you play the mercenary/assassin who tips the balance by killing the right people, to one where you play the spy with much finer grained control who murders rarely or not at all. Eventually, perhaps, we can play the diplomat, the senator or the lobbyist constantly challenged to overcome and manage her interactions with other players and characters in a dynamic, empathic exploration of these higher order cultural systems in a way that presents them as complicated - not because they are harder than shooting an AK-47 at a moving target through the jungle, but because humans are just really bad at them.
And maybe then, if these games are good, and we play them a lot, maybe we’ll get better at them, and maybe we’ll be empowered to confront these problems not as a bunch of sliders to be optimized, but as the messy interpersonal problems they are; mired in doubt and fear and weakness and frailty. Those sound like fucking spectacular games to me.