What Does Simony Say? An Interview with Ian Bogost
Ian Bogost’s newest game, Simony, offers players an “illuminated manuscript style of the game” with an “auditory experience of the lutes and chants.” To really play it, you should get on a plane and go to Florida where you can climb the dias and play it on the iPad in the installation For those of us who can’t make it to Florida, we can all download the game from the app store.
For more background on the game, I would suggest reading Leigh Alexander’s nice piece, Gamer’s Paradise: Worshipping At The iOS Altar. Given the historical theme of the game I thought it would be interesting to chat with Ian about making a game for the iPad in Latin that looks like a rather stylish religious manuscript.
Trevor: So Simon is a matching game, and Simony is the buying and selling of Church offices. What prompted you to stick these two things together?
Ian: I’d thought about making a game that addresses the topic of in-app payments and free-to-play games for some time. Like Cow Clicker had done for Facebook games. But I also wanted it to be more serious than that, not just a send-up or a parody. I set the idea aside in my mind.
Then I was given the opportunity to create a game for the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville’s Project Atrium series. The museum has a large, 35′ tall white atrium space in which they host new works. When I visited the space for the first time, the vaulted space felt cathedral-like to me in its height. But, like a minimalist, modernist, white gallery cathedral. Almost like the merger of an Apple Store and a church.
Knowing I wanted to create both a digital game that could be played anywhere and a site-specific installation, I started playing with different ideas that connected the themes of church, technology, museum, and gallery, and it was then that I returned to the f2p theme.
Trevor: The title of the game points to the past. It’s a term outside our everyday vocabulary. What prompted you to bring this historical concept into the game and how do you think the game makes use of the past?
Ian: For one part, Simon/Simony is a pun or a joke that almost felt like it didn’t deserve to be turned into a real product—that could remain conceptual. But I sort of abhor conceptual art, and I wanted to take this idea that might as well have remained just an idea, that surely would have done if it had been Dada or Fluxus, and really carry it out completely and wholeheartedly. So, one reference to the past is a reference to the last century of art history, to the idea that ideas are sufficient, and the unseen consequences of that notion.
For another part, of course, we have the reference to church history, both the idea of selling office, and the more basic idea of worship and sin. In today’s culture, we tend to think that we’ve moved beyond religion, that we’ve replaced it with science and technology. But then we line up at the Apple Store for the latest iPhone, like it’s the eucharist. We worship technology and we justify that worship with the same sorts of mysticism once used in religion.
Trevor: The game looks like a medieval manuscript. Most of the game’s text is in Latin. But underneath that it’s Simon. What role does this historical veneer over the existing game do for the experience of the game?
Ian: It looks like an illuminated manuscript and sounds like a monastery. And if you play the game, it’s really quite beautiful, somewhat haunting, with the chanting and the lutes and whatnot. But of course, you know all the time that it’s also “just Simon,” just a derivative of a silly, gaudy toy. So there’s a sense of history there, already, the history of games and toys, and the matter of evolution or reinvention in games—or maybe the lack of evolution and reinvention. In fact, Simon wasn’t an original game, itself. Ralph Baer revised an idea that Atari had marketed as Touch Me in the late 1970s, which is ironic given Baer’s animosity toward Atari for “stealing” his idea of a television ping-pong game. There’s more I could say about this, including the surprisingly adult nature of games in the 70s. I mean, a game called “Touch Me” is a clear double-entendre, and coin-op games of this era were largely marketed to adults for play in bars or bowling alleys.
Anyway, If you play the game on your iPhone or iPad, you’ll get this sense of a conflict between a real, legitimate, serious ritual object and a simple toy, and that dissonance is by design. Visually, the game is riddled with Christian symbolism, which interested players can research if they choose. But playing it at the MOCA Jacksonville installation is much more striking. You ascend a 10′ high dais and the music reverberates all around you, and you are on display, turning the gallery space into a place of worship and a place of transaction. In that context, the institutions of church, museum, and corporation sort of overlay upon one another, which hopefully further accentuates the themes in the piece.
That feeling is accelerated by the gambit the game places on the players: at the end of the exhibition at the museum, the top 10 players worldwide will form a “Jury of Ten,” who will decide what to do with the game’s proceeds on behalf of the museum. So, the piece tries to draw together the cultural, ritualistic, and artistic functions of the church, the museum, and the tech company and cast all three as iterations of a common pattern.
Trevor: Simony is, in general, a dirty word. Historically, it names a crime. Simony amounts to religious cheating. What kinds of connections are you trying to draw between corruption in the history of religion and corruption of the purpose of purity of games?
Ian: The curious thing about free-to-play games is the friction point at which they become “pay-to-win” games. Why play a game when you just intend to “buy out” of really playing it? Even if the payment just “helps” you along your way, isn’t it illogical to opt into an experience only to then bypass the experience? Likewise, in the historical case, if the idea of holding church office is to earn and then carry out the good works of the righteous, how can one justify buying out of the righteousness part of the bargain? We also see this in the context of the museum: the donor, the philanthropist who supports an organization financially in order to exert influence upon the art world, and once more money seems to trump values or ideals.
Or does it? Was there ever purity in the church, in games, in corporations, in design, in technology, in religion, in art? Differently put, were we ever really “outside” of transactions, or did we just fool ourselves into thinking we were? Is there a naturally parasitic relationship between any exchange and virtue or creativity? Is even a dollar enough to poison something? These are questions that I can’t answer, but perhaps Simony will offer some perspectives on the matter.
Trevor: Given that you coined the phrase procedural rhetoric, I would be curious to hear you describe what you see as the procedural rhetoric of the game. It’s simon, with buying a point multiplier, but it is also part of a kind of performance art thing where the people at the top of the leaderboard
Ian: It’s Simon with a point multiplier and a pay-to-complete-the-sequence button. But the procedural rhetoric isn’t just in the game itself, which is really just an arbitrary ritual you have to perform to earn your rank, your station—your office if you will. In that respect, it argues that all rituals are arbitrary, and playing Simon is really no intrinsically more or less weird than reciting rosaries. But even more so, the rhetoric is in the dynamics of choosing or refusing to pay. There’s a kind of prisoner’s dilemma at work in the game: so long as no one commits the sin of Simony—or so long as no one thinks other players are doing so—there’s little incentive or demand to pay. But once someone starts, everyone is on the hook. And that process can become strangely compulsive quite quickly.
Trevor: So why is the text all in Latin? As I don’t know Latin, my first experience with the game involved clicking on things I didn’t understand. I knew about enough to know that “ludens” likely ment play. Why put text in a game that players can’t read? Given that many religious traditions involve sacred languages I would be curious to know how the illegibility of the text fits into the message of the game.
Ian: Remember that before the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Catholic mass was still held in Latin, although Pope Benedict XVI has been advocating for certain returns to Latin traditionalism. Anyway, the idea of a language of the church that was not accessible to the laity is both a bug and a feature of Catholicism: for one part it made it difficult for speakers of modern languages to know what was going on, but for another part it gave the church a better method to uphold its traditions without dispute or discussion. This is just how it’s done. When you think about it, every practice has these secret languages—whether it’s church Latin or the purportedly “intuitive” touch gestures on an iPhone. By refusing to descend to the player’s lowly, vulgar linguistic demands, the game demands that it be taken as a relic, right from the start, as something that is unfamiliar and rarified.
As for the game, it could have been much worse. The instructions are still in English, and in the museum the cues for swiping a credit card, entering an email address for a receipt and so forth are also in English. But as you discovered, it’s quite easy to figure out the game’s language even though you don’t know it by relying on your existing knowledge of interaction design for apps and games more generally.
Trevor: The game has a very serene feel to it. Between the flipping pages of the manuscript, the iconography on the simon tiles, and the harp music I found it to offer a rather peaceful experience. Beyond this, the repetitive memorization nature of the game brought with it a meditative quality. I’m curious to know if this was something you were designing for of if it was an emergent quality of the design? Is it supposed to move the player into a more peaceful state of mind, if so what are you trying to say with that?
Ian: The repetition is serene for a while, but it’s also brutally boring after a time, particularly for players who chose to pay their way to higher scores. I wanted that feeling of repetition to mimic the sense of ritual practice we find in any ceremonial activity. Is it “boring” to check email or Facebook or Twitter? To wait in line at the Apple Store? To perform the stations of the cross? To recite the rosary? In a sense, Simony tries to put the game on parity with these other sorts of ritual activities, knowing that it will never match them in historical or cultural relevance. And yes, there is a strange balance between tedium and relaxation in these cases. This is far more the case at home with the iPhone than it is in the museum, but of course the museum visitor always knows he or she can download the game and play at home.
Trevor: I took a quick look at the leaderboard and it looks like you have some dedicated players toping the charts. Already, (at that point) just a few days in, it would seem that to make it to the top users are likely needing to buy the most expensive bonus multiplier and be very good at the game. Did you anticipate the leaderboard looking like this? If so I would be interested in your thought process, if not I would be interested in hearing about anything that has been surprising.
Ian: As far as the game qua installation goes, remember that the top 10 players are all treated equally, as members of the Jury of Ten who get the same temporary rights of office in the museum. So in that respect, I expected the game would see a couple of outliers, but I wasn’t sure how many. As it stands, it’s still very possible to get a top ten score through both “good works” and through “sin,” although it was always necessary that sin make things easier. But even then, what does “easier” really mean? It’s still quite a bit of work to “earn” those ranks by paying for them rather than just by playing for them. Today, it seems, we pay for the privilege of working to play as much as we play to escape the demands of working to live.
Trevor: When you were designing the game were there other ideas or concepts for it’s mechanics that you considered incorporating? If so, I would be curious to hear what prompted you to change your mind. I would be particularly curious to hear about any other historical concepts or components of the historical act of Simony that you considered.
Ian: It’s important to remember that I designed this game for the physical installation at the MOCA Jacksonville, and I knew that lots of different kinds of people would encounter it for just a few minutes at a time. I figured that everyone would either remember a memory game like Simon or be able to learn it quickly.
I did try a number of variants of the gameplay, and several variants on scoring. The problem wasn’t that they weren’t compelling, but that they were almost too interesting that they risked making the game more important than the metagame. I kept one of them, an occasional disruptive spin, which I called O Fortuna after the 13th century Goliardic poem about fate. As it stands, Simony exists in a kind of conservative relationship to the game design tradition, which is perhaps apt for a game that owes so much of its origin to the Catholic church.