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Digging for Gold in a Turd
My "Fuck this Jam" Keynote
November 10, 2012

Rami Ismail and Fernando Ramallo have organized a game jam called Fuck This Jam, in which participants are invited to build a game in a genre they hate. Given our experience making games in genres we hate, Rami and Fernando invited me (Cow Clicker) and Zach Gage (Spelltower) to deliver short keynote videos for the jam.

You can watch the entire keynote video embedded below or in HD on Vimeo. My bit starts at 6:30, or if you don't feel like watching, I whipped up a more-or-less-accurate transcript below.

 

Hi everyone, I'm Ian Bogost, and I'm a game designer and an author and a professor and a bunch of other things. Even though I've done a lot of things in my career, I'm now probably best known for a game called Cow Clicker, a Facebook game in which you click on a cow every six hours—or even more often. Cow Clicker was a send-up of everything I hated about Facebook games—or at least it started that way. Eventually the game became much more than that, and to be honest I'm not really sure what it is anymore.

In fact, one of the things that's bothered me about some of the coverage and discussion of Cow Clicker is the continued insistence that it's a satire, or even worse, "just a satire." I've seen this in some of the conversations about Peter Molyneux's new game Curiosity, for example. Everybody knows that Molyneux has a penchant for taking things far too seriously, but in the case of Curiosity, is clicking repeatedly on cubes really so different from clicking repeatedly on cows, or on the place where cows used to be? It's not so much that Peter is more serious about his experiment, more fond of his object of creation. Rather, it's that he represents the other side of the coin. Cow Clicker is both stupid and profound, and so is Curiosity.

Satire and earnestness are very close cousins. Maybe they are identical, or even weirder, maybe satire is even more earnest than genuineness. A philosopher friend of mine named Graham Harman has suggested that things never really encounter the true, real versions of other things. Instead they translate, distort, or caricature one another. And if every interaction between anything whatsoever really amounts to a caricature, then maybe it's best to own up to that fact and stop pretending that anything is more than a travesty of its intended subject.

Likewise, hatred isn't really that different from love. Both hating and loving something require you to take it seriously in a way that might not be possible if you were indifferent to it. In fact, as a precursor for design, hatred might be better than love, because hatred erases the careless mistakes of fondness. Hatred forces you to look closely at your subject, to try to understand it deeply and fully even thought you cannot bear to look at it or even think about it. It's a bit like method acting—taking on a character fully and completely, allowing it to envelop you and fill you with what it really is, rather than with what you want it to be. You're embarking on something similar, a kind of method game design.

Several years ago, the game designer Frank Lantz made a game called Chain Factor. It was an Alternate Reality Game produced as a tie-in to the really just downright awful television show Numb3rs. I don't want to speak for Frank, but I'm pretty sure he hates ARGs. But his team at Area/Code delineated the genre fully, and then embraced its features—distributed clues, narrative puzzles, and so forth. At the center was an elegant abstract puzzle game that was originally conceived as a kind of glue to hold the narrative together. That puzzle game became Drop7, which is perhaps one of the best examples of that genre to emerge in recent memory.

And likewise, a new game called Simony that I'm about to release next week was profoundly inspired by my experience with Cow Clicker. It's not so much that I stopped hating Facebook games... instead, I realized that you can still learn from and be inspired by something you hate, even if you have to squint to do so in spite of yourself.

So sometimes hatred leads us to new discoveries. It's not polishing a turd so much as digging for gold in a turd. I hope you brought gloves. Good luck!

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