Video Games for the Mind

Persuasive Games are designed for instruction and activism, all while attempting to make things fun. Ian Bogost, the game's creator, offers Tell Me More a test run in this week's Next Big Thing - Part I.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, just in time for summer, the latest in sneakers. But first, at TELL ME MORE we're always looking for the next big thing, and today we're bringing you a little something so you can goof off and maybe do some good.

We're going to talk to a man who believes that videogames don't have to be brand candy; you might even trick yourself into learning something. He joins me from Denver. Ian Bogost is head of Persuasive Games, one company that is developing serious videogames.

Ian, good to have you.

Mr. IAN BOGOST (Persuasive Games): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Are these educational games? People think of maybe Scrabble as an educational game or something like Leap Frog, which is for...

Mr. BOGOST: Right. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...little kids, to teach kids how to spell. Is it like that, or is it different than that?

Mr. BOGOST: Well, you know, the software industry got really burned in the entertainment era of the '80s and '90s, and a lot of people don't like using the term, and a lot of people don't like to hear it when they're getting ready to play something, right? You don't want to - the kind of chocolate-covered broccoli syndrome. You know, arguably all games and all media are educational in the sense that they're talking about some aspects of the world and trying to present a perspective on it. And I think that's something we don't give games credit for.

MARTIN: Tell me about some of your games. I'm going to play one in just a minute, but tell me about some of the games.

Mr. BOGOST: Most of the games we create at Persuasive Games are about social and political issues, and we've done everything from games for political candidates. For example, we did the first U.S. presidential election game for Howard Dean back in 2003, if you can remember those days. And lately we've been working on a series of games that we call newsgames, which are sort of the videogame equivalent of editorial cartoons. And one example of a game we did was about the liquid ban in airports, and it's a game in which you've got to work as a TSA agent trying to keep up with some sort of satirical version of rapidly changing security policies.

MARTIN: Now why would somebody want to do that? I mean isn't that the kind of thing you think, I'm just so glad I don't have to do that for a living, poor guy?

Mr. BOGOST: A lot of our games are kind of - give you - give the player the opportunity to take on these roles that they might not normally think they want to be a part of. We've also done a game about working at Kinko's, for example. And I actually think that people are very eager to kind of play a role that's different from the one that they ordinarily experience. Most videogames, though, the roles that we play in them are these kind of roles with tremendous power, right? You're a pro-ball player or you're a space marine. The experiences that other people have that are actually very mundane are untapped in games, so we've been trying to tap them.

MARTIN: Well, let's look at one of your games. It's called "Oil God." I'm going to launch it here...

Mr. BOGOST: Sure.

MARTIN: ...on my computer. Tell me about "Oil God." What's it about?

(Soundbite of game)

Mr. BOGOST: So "Oil God" is a game about - it's essentially the politics of global oil. We wanted to show that the relationship between the gas prices at the pump and the way that the oil industry worked was actually quite complex. And in particular the features I wanted to highlight in this game was that simultaneous kind of geopolitical unrest and natural disaster, and so in this game you take on the role of this sort of, this sort of oil god, right, who wields a hand over this toy world and can launch wars and alien invasions.

MARTIN: Okay, I'm going to start. That music that you hear was the music from the game, and it says to choose your difficulty level. I can be regular, unleaded, super unleaded, premium. Oh, I'm definitely going to go for regular. And I see - oh, let's see - the goal is to - why is - the goal is to increase the price of oil. Why is that the goal?

Mr. BOGOST: Yeah, yeah. Right, so one of the things I like to do in these games is let people do things that they would normally not think of as goals, right? So the idea of doubling gas prices in a target country is the goal in "Oil God." You want to know not what it would take to make gas really inexpensive but rather what are the factors that are making it really expensive.

MARTIN: And I have some choices here. I can change the politics of a country. I can change the economy of a country. I can start a war. All right, let's - what should I do first?

Mr. BOGOST: Well, I mean, you know, one good strategy is to try to take out the oil supply. So disrupting the supply itself will usually drive up prices. So - and maybe you want to start a war between some of the oil-producing countries...

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. BOGOST: ...that are represented by those oil derricks (unintelligible) sort of tools at the side with the war icon.

MARTIN: Okay, start a war. Notice how I just blithely said, yes, start a war.

(Soundbite of game)

Unidentified Man: War sure is exciting.

Mr. BOGOST: So that's the voice of our "Oil God."

MARTIN: Okay. Let's see what happens.

(Soundbite of game)

Mr. BOGOST: If you have multiple factors that are at work at once, then, you know, this will affect the oil future's market that we've modeled in the game in a more substantial way. So you may want to try something else.

MARTIN: Okay. Let me try - let me change the economy.

Mr. BOGOST: One strategy is to introduce socialism in your target country, to raise taxes...

MARTIN: Yeah. That's my thought.

Mr. BOGOST: ...and you know, the totalitarian governments usually have a tighter control over their production exports.

MARTIN: Exactly. Okay.

Mr. BOGOST: Try an alien invasion. If you...

MARTIN: Oh, I didn't see alien invasion. Oh, there's earthquake. I can't do an earthquake.

Mr. BOGOST: So you know, there's some humor in these games too, obviously.

MARTIN: There's hurricane.

(Soundbite of game)

MARTIN: Tornados.

(Soundbite of game)

MARTIN: Volcanoes.

Mr. BOGOST: Yeah, the natural disasters are interesting to use because they can disrupt, you know, refineries and distribution. So if you try a hurricane at hall, I mean, this is...

(Soundbite of game)

Mr. BOGOST: This exactly what happened with Rita and Katrina right in the southern U.S. is that these strong oil refining distribution centers were disrupted and they actually remained disrupted to some extent today.

MARTIN: I'm too soft hearted. I can't go for a flood. I think I'm going to go back to some political - well, simple war, that's not right. Oh, I think definitely alien invasion. There they are. Now we're getting somewhere. We're going up - but not that bad. It's almost $3. It's only got up like 50 cents.

Mr. BOGOST: The way the game works is that you actually have to have multiple conditions working at once. This is the argument that we wanted to make in this game.

MARTIN: Okay. Oh, game over. My score is zero.

Mr. BOGOST: Yeah, you must have ran out of time.

MARTIN: Ian, I'm a mess. I'm a loser.

Mr. BOGOST: It's a tough game.

MARTIN: It is a tough game. Well, thank you, (unintelligible) close that out. It is a tough game, but you're right, it does make you think. It makes you think, oh, the situation is never static. But what's the end game, if I could use that term? I mean what do you hope to accomplish at the end of these kinds of games?

Mr. BOGOST: Right. What we want people to do is kind of reflect about the opinion that we've presented, just like an editorial or written editorial or an editorial cartoon might do. And really I just want to kind of insight some thinking about these topics and some response to it.

MARTIN: What about a game to attack racism? What could it potentially look like?

Mr. BOGOST: You know, one way to do a game about racism would be to let people experience racism itself. One thing I would be particularly interested in doing if I were to make a game about racism would be to look historically at different kinds of racism, right? You know, not just what present-day racism is like, but maybe what racism is felt like over the last couple of millennia, kind of contextualizing that idea in something that we really have always had to address.

MARTIN: Have you got any problems that you're trying to work out through a game?

Mr. BOGOST: Oh, gosh, I've got lots of problems. The things that interest me and that I usually end up kind of working on in games, everything from kind of - you know, poverty to geopolitics, it's really all across the board. And where I'm trying to focus is on social issues, and you know, thinking about what - what a better world might look like and trying make games that would model some possibility of that.

MARTIN: Ian Bogost is founding partner and game designer at Persuasive Games. You can learn more about serious games at our Web site, npr.org/tellmemore. Ian, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BOGOST: Thank you.

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