/ 4k Formalism: An Interview with Ian Bogost


Aaron McCollough interviews author, programmer, and critic Ian Bogost about his recent book of “machined haiku” (including a game poem programmed by Bogost for the Atari 2600 VCS) and about the intersection of poetics and games studies more broadly.

Ian Bogost’s work initially came to my attention through his blog. At the time, I was just beginning to think about the curious, myriad world some call “digital humanities,” and I found Ian’s blog congenial, smart, and interesting. Given my own background as both a literature scholar and a Rhetoric and Composition instructor, I found myself strongly attracted to the claims Ian was making for the role of persuasion in gaming contexts.

Ian is currently a Professor at Georgia Tech. He is the author of many influential critical works (including Unit Operations and Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames). He is also a game designer (including art games, commercial games, research games) and the founder of a game design studio (Persuasive Games), which is dedicated to making games about social and political issues. In August 2007, he was a guest on the Colbert Report, where he encouraged Stephen to think about games as ways to “model complexity” (a concept Stephen predictably said made his “brain hurt”).

Among Ian’s many recent efforts is the fascinating collection of “game poems” and “machined haiku” published under the title A Slow Year. In the following interview, I got a chance to talk with Ian about A Slow Year, and his thoughts on the subject of digital poetics more generally.

Aaron McCollough: You’ve written extensively about the rhetorical dimension of games (or the “procedural rhetoric” by which games often make arguments and may shape the thinking of their players). Would you say poetry’s rhetorical potential is the same as that of video games or related by some kind of analogy? In other words, how do you imagine procedural rhetoric working in poems that are not explicitly games (as opposed to the way A Slow Year explicitly is a game [or has game DNA])?

Ian Bogost: Procedural rhetoric was never meant to be a theory specific to videogames, or even to computation, even if I do connect those two forms to the idea in Persuasive Games. Procedural rhetoric is a kind of argumentation and expression that represents processes or systems with processes or systems. In that sense, it has possible use well outside of games. . . certainly in computation more generally, but also in domains that use modeling as their representational mode. That can include physical models, for example, or demonstrations, or perhaps even scientific experimentation, to name a few. I’m currently working on some new writing on procedural rhetoric that extends its reach beyond videogames in particular and computers in general. I’ll admit that I’m a little confused that I have to do this, since I thought it was somewhat clear in the book. That said, it is a book about games, not just about rhetoric, so it’s reasonable that I might have to do some additional work to advance the idea of procedural rhetoric in the general sense.

To return to your question, once we start thinking of procedural rhetoric as a general theory of process-based argumentation and expression, then there’s no reason that it has to apply only to games, or only to traditional games, or only to software even. That said, the procedurality is still the dominant feature of videogames for me, and in that respect, game poetry (or game-like poetry, or playable poetry, or whatever you’d like to call such things) exhibit process insofar as they embrace some behavior as their mode of expression, and insofar as they can be operated by a reader/player in order to explore that procedural expression.

That said, traditional poetry feels game-like to me not because it is procedural, but because it is highly condensed—the encapsulation of symbols and ideas is strong in both forms. I’m a comparatist by training and all my literary background is in poetry. I’ve always been confused at attempts to compare videogames to narrative forms like the novel or the cinema when poetic aesthetics like condensation, metaphor, and structure present themselves as alternatives.

AM: Your account of procedural rhetoric also has affinities with the “reader response” literary critical approach popularized by Stanley Fish and others in the first wave of post-structuralist hermeneutics. Your claim that “to play with the makers of our games is to play with the ghosts that once animated the systems they leave us” (SY, 7) reminds me of Fish’s contention that the poems of George Herbert’s The Temple work as “a strategy . . . drawing from the reader a completing, or correcting, or, in some cases, a mistaken, response . . . not simply at the end of the poem, but at every moment in it” (LT, 27). The emphasis there is on the transactional nature of literary meaning. Can you say a little about how introducing video games to the conversation changes that conversation and leads to new insights about both games-as-poetry and poetry as such?

IB: Many objections to reader response theory make appeals to anarchism—when you can say anything you want about the reader experience, why does the text matter? Such objections oversimplify the theory, but they do have a point: literary criticism (and critique in general) became a kind of free for all in which the critic applied his or her favorite theory to a work and found just enough textual evidence to make a critical argument stick.

The thing about games is this: They have to be operated. They are not static objects, but active devices, machines rather than texts. This is why I find the archaeological metaphor more productive than the literary one. The player is unearthing a system that has some function, although its purpose and sense may not be entirely clear. The player or critic could make appeals to authorship or origin, but such an act isn’t necessary—it’s equally satisfactory to reflect on the role of a strange, unfamiliar machine.

AM: I want to ask you about graphic design. In “How to Play” and in “My Slow Year” you recapitulate some of the history of early video game packaging and value adds or “feelies,” observing that “packaging and printed matter . . . extended the experience of a game, making it possible to peruse and contemplate the title away from the computer.” One of the first things that struck me about A Slow Year was the cover art with its faithful reproduction of Atari 2600 graphic design tropes, including an engrossing (and bizarre) painting that somehow manages to hyperbolize the 4 kilobyte world of the game into a 1980s transcendental fugue. You really capture something I remember viscerally about studying the Atari game catalog, fantasizing about games I wanted, and even fantasizing about the games I wished were delivered by the cartridges I already had. You also talk in “Provocation Machines” about the way certain games “offload . . . simulation into the minds of players” (SY, 4). Can you talk more about how you think packaging and other externals of the gaming experience are related to poetics?

IB: As I discuss in the text that accompanies the game, I really made a 180-degree turn with respect to packaging and art. I’d always held the position that the packaging and the manuals and other paratexts were very important to videogames, particularly during the heydey of “feelies” in the 1970s and ’80s. But when it came to Atari’s cover art paintings, I previously thought they were hubristic and misleading attempts to cast an abstract game as a concrete one. In particular, in our book on the Atari, Racing the Beam, Nick Montfort and I celebrate the more “accurate” box and cartridge art of Activision’s games as compared to those of Atari.

Now I feel just the opposite. The realism of these painted box covers and cartridge labels does real expressive work. It helps players triangulate between some concrete system in the world and the abstract, representational system in the game. The cover paintings provide a reflective hook, an apparatus by which to begin to consider the sorts of procedural rhetorics that might be present in the game.

Extending this a bit further, I think it’s ironic that scholars and critics tend not to think about the form and presentation of their own work, even as they may embrace the study of paratexts themselves. A Slow Year got me thinking about this idea in greater detail, and I’ve developed it further in a theory of philosophical “carpentry,” which appears in a forthcoming book titled Alien Phenomenology. But that’s a topic for another day.

AM: Slowness is to “experience” as rushing is to what? You’ve emphasized aspects of videogame play that subvert their stereotypical identification with hand-eye coordination and attention-deficit. To what degree would you say videogames offer us some of the “truth and beauty” Keats tells is all we need to know? Is that the kind of experience on offer in A Slow Year if we take your invitation to avoid rushing?

IB: Videogames are deeply sublime; they just address the mathematical sublime more than the natural sublime. Very abstract games like Go or Tetris are best at this, because they allow players to rub up against the strange sensations of infinity. I don’t know if A Slow Year succeeds at merging that kind of sublimity with natural awe, but at least it juxtaposes them. That’s the reason I included the computer-generated haiku, by the way. Even if the games seem simple at first, easily explored in a few moments, the hundreds of strange poems created by means of the mathematical sublime inspire other angles from which to experience them.

AM: Questions of poetics often can’t help becoming entwined with questions of ethics and politics. How would you characterize the ethical or political implications of a poetics of slowness, or prolongation, where player observation and patience feature so prominently?

IB: The prolongation in A Slow Year isn’t necessarily a critique of speed and progress, although those themes are of interest to me. But not for the sake of political or social ends alone; rather for aesthetic purposes, too. This is a complicated subject, but in the technology industry, creative progress is assumed to emerge from increased efficiency, power, and invention. By choosing the Atari, a purportedly “obsolete” machine from more than three decades ago, I’m asking what we miss when we throw our platforms away so quickly. Today, we’ve come to expect that our platforms renew and turn over very quickly. Buying a new iPhone or laptop every year isn’t atypical. What do we miss when we fail to plumb the depths of these weird machines? Might we feel differently about them? Ought we to do? Such questions have complex answers, but I hope seeing a surprising and perhaps even beautiful work of art made to run on a 33-year-old computer with 128 bytes of RAM might conjure such questions.

AM: You favorably cite Imagism and haiku as poetic traditions where “ideas [are] boiled down to their essence,” and you express reverence for the solitary game programmers of the Atari-VCS era. From one perspective, these emphases might reflect a “traditional” or conservative view of the nature of truth and authorship, but the book’s “machined haiku” would seem to reflect the opposite view. Would you say there is a rhetorical position in there regarding the status of individual subjectivity (and the bourgeois exceptionalism often associated with notions of the “unified self”)? Have you thought about A Slow Year’s oscillation in this regard with respect to other poetic practices and procedures engendered and fostered by broadband-networked information culture (e.g., Flarf, retyping projects, appropriation projects, etc.)? It seems to me that your work could offer a critique of ethical polarities in digital poetics.

IB: I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I probably don’t know enough about all the current trends in digital poetry to make an effective comparison of my work to those approaches. But I will admit and embrace the characterization of traditionalist. I suppose it may seem ironic to some, the videogame designer and critic who finds haiku, lyric poetry, and high modernism completely satisfactory influences. I’m perhaps speaking out of turn, but I find most digital poetry to have more in common with net art and conceptual art, and I’ve had the further sense that digital poetry isn’t really terribly interested in delving deeply into the computational nature of machines. Those are aesthetics that interest me deeply, and the comparisons between formal limitation in more traditional forms like trochaic or iambic meter, syllabic rule, or semantic efficiency feel like birds of a feather with the strange and sometimes challenging constraints of the 6502 microprocessor or the Television Interface Adapter.

Poetry generation is nothing new, of course, but many digital poetry generators don’t have a strong reason for existing beyond novelty or arbitrary aesthetics. It’s my hope that the machined haiku that accompany the games in A Slow Year fill in the blanks between a machine-as-poem (the games) and poetry as meaning-machines (poetry in the ordinary sense). By generating haiku to support the work, I hope to foreground a different kind of authorship and to embrace it as viable and interesting. When one writes software, one builds a machine for producing a variety of results, rather than a single result fashioned and polished by hand. The outcomes are unpredictable, surprising, and sometimes even broken. That’s what it feels like to make a game, too.

Whether or not this position amounts to a critique of contemporary digital poetics. . .that’s a question I’ll leave to my critics, if I should prove fortunate enough to earn them.

AM: I wonder if you could talk a bit about the publication model behind A Slow Year and some of your other small press style works (the rationale but also the marketing and economics of it)? What works and what doesn’t in this domain? You resist identification with “hipster nostalgia” (fair enough) but some sort of nostalgia is inevitable here (at least for people who grew up with Atari). Is nostalgia an impediment to what you want to accomplish or is there something we might be able to learn about the role it plays in attracting an audience, etc.?

IB: Both poetry and strange independent videogames make for difficult marketplaces for creators. It may seem like indie games are the darlings of contemporary culture, but in fact only a few are truly sustaining for their creators, and in that respect being an independent game maker is a lot like being a poet. But if you add to that situation the fact that the game in question is made for the Atari, then things get even squirrelier.

It was very important to me to release this game in exactly the manner I did, rather than as a digital download or an App Store product or the like. I wanted it to be a physical product, and I wanted it to be a book, because I wanted to take the idea of “game poetry” to its logical conclusion. I also hoped (and still hope) that this work might appeal to the poetry community as much as the game community.

From there I decided that I wanted to support both an ordinary edition that could be played anywhere and a numbered, limited edition that would include an Atari cartridge. The economics of this decision are complicated, but probably bear much in common with any sort of numbered edition and standard edition. If I can sell a thousand books or twenty-five limited editions, then I can reinvest that in other experimental projects which have the freedom to operate outside of the standard methods for book or game distribution.

Nostalgia is indeed inevitable, and it need not be rejected entirely. I simply want to eschew nostalgia as a rationale for pursuing the creation, ownership, and use of games for older systems. I’d like to rescue the Atari from nostalgia, and to show that it is still alive, that it still has something to teach us.

Whether or not I’ll find an audience for this work is an open question! Interestingly, sales of the $500 limited edition have been far easier than sales of the $20 paperback book. And I’ve experienced a strong negative reaction from the Atari homebrew and collector community, which initially didn’t know what to do with the fact that a “hobbyist” project was being treated as an art object. But to their credit, that community has taken the opportunity to engage that very question with A Slow Year, and I’m grateful to see a debate about originality and nostalgia erupt in places like the AtariAge forums.

I have the luxury of holding a tenured full professorship at a respectable institution. It only seems appropriate that I would reinvest some of the privilege of that position in risky creation—not just aesthetic risk, but financial risk, too. I suspect some of my critics have the sense that I’m getting rich off weird Atari games, but the truth is just the opposite. Games are a tough sell in the fine art market still, even as that market becomes more amenable to digital art. I’m trying to help build that market, not for the sake of the art world, but to explore the pros and cons of different contexts for games. We’ll see how it goes.