Transcendent Gaming

Ian Bogost wears a lot of different hats. He’s an artist, writer, academic, video-game developer, game theorist, researcher, Georgia Tech professor, contributor to “The Colbert Report” and a business owner who’s considered the top dog in his industry. Bogost designs and makes games for political, social, educational and artistic uses.

The 35-year-old Atlanta resident came to Jacksonville for the launch of “Simony,” an interactive art installation exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, which opened on Nov. 17 and continues through March 10. The video-game exhibit is the latest in the museum’s Project Atrium series.

“I grew up in the ’80s and was always interested in computing and culture,” explained Bogost, who earned his masters and Ph.D. from UCLA. “When I was in school, you had to choose between engineering and the arts. A lot of my career has been about bringing those two things together.”

Bogost is the Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in media studies and professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also the author or co-author of seven books, including an upcoming title named after a single-line Commodore 64 BASIC program (“10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10”), and has shown his video games everywhere from the Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah to the LABoral Centro de Arte in Madrid.

“He does pretty much everything tongue-in-cheek,” MOCA communications manager Carl Holman said of Bogost. “He uses video games as a sense of rhetoric. Ultimately, maybe it can motivate change.”

Bogost works under two guises. He’s the founding partner at Persuasive Games, where he works independently, and does consulting work for “high-end, very public tech projects.” Past video-game projects have included airport security, disaffected workers, the petroleum industry, suburban errands, tort reform and the spread of H1N1 flu.

More than a half-hour into the interview, it’s clear that Bogost is a stream-of-consciousness talker. He’s covered “the ambiguous relationship between achievement and commerce” and how the iPhone and iPad are reverential symbols with which we interact as one would rosary beads or a Bible, but we haven’t gotten too deep into how “Simony” actually works or even what it is.

“Simony,” the interactive art exhibit, explores the question of buying versus earning achievement. Historically, the term “Simony” is the act of paying for sacraments, holy offices or for positions in the hierarchy of a church. The act is named after Simon Magus, who appears in the Acts of the Apostles 8:9-24 when he offers disciples Peter and John a payment for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Upon entering the cathedral-like exhibit, museum visitors ascend a carpeted staircase to a 10-foot-high platform on which an iPad kiosk rests. They can play a religious-themed video game consisting of a sequence of images that must be memorized and mimicked. In the game, players are given the choice to either earn or purchase their way to the top of a stained-glass-looking leader board projected on the wall.

“A round in the game consists of the device lighting up one or more buttons in a random order, after which the player must press the buttons to reproduce that same order,” according to a description of the exhibit from MOCA. “The raised platform, the illuminated manuscript style of the game and the auditory experience of the lutes and chants while being played enhance the cathedral-like atmosphere.”

The game itself is relatively easy to play. It’s the way humans react to the game that interests Bogost. “I’ve seen this trend of monetizing games,” he says, referencing Facebook’s Farmville. “In ‘Simony,’ the leader board becomes a sort of proxy. Nobody will know if the leaders paid or earned their way to the top.” The game will also be available in the Apple app store, so people outside Northeast Florida can play it.

Upon the exhibit’s completion, the top 10 players will be given the chance to decide where all of the money collected will go. This will be done either in person (if it’s feasible to fly all 10 to one place) or via video-conferencing. Either way, they can choose to keep the money for themselves, donate it to charity or put it toward creating more artistic, thought-provoking video games.

“It’s pretty cool,” Holman said. “Some dude in Bangladesh can play and have his score up on the board. You either play well and earn your way to the top or bypass it altogether and pay for the honor.”

Kara Pound