<p>Ian Bogost’s <i>Simony</i> exhibition combines smartphone gaming, Kickstarter-style funding, and religious imagery.</p>
In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she'll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
It makes me uneasy to see infants and iOS devices together. It's not just the wrongness of chubby, spit-slick little fingers reaching for sleek, pricey gadgets, the nuh-uh-uh. It's the way the rectangle of light looms so large in their eyes, the look of wonderment, the appetite in even the clumsiest child to swipe at the screen, to touch and stare.
Game designer and academic Ian Bogost says the iPhone is a bit like a rosary. I have this way of refreshing my Twitter feed even when it doesn't need reading, thumbing the touchscreen with a tactile pull-and-release, a sort of nervous lozenging that makes a popping noise when I let go.
Bogost was recently commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville to do an installation for their Project Atrium series. When he saw the gallery space, it reminded him of two things simultaneously: First, an Apple Store. Secondly, a church.
Increasingly, the economy for mobile games and apps is shifting toward a free model monetized through in-app purchases. Players can buy more turns, better items, and a better chance at moving up the leaderboards—the looming fear, founded or otherwise, in a free-to-play gaming economy is that it ends up being a pay-to-win system.
Pay-to-win culture was once a problem for the church, too. In Dante's Inferno, people are consigned to spend eternity head-first in holes with their feet on fire for the sin of simony—buying or selling sacraments or positions within the church. To play Bogost's MOCA installation game, Simony, one enters the gallery space and ascends a dais, where an iPad awaits like a holy book.
"I was interested in trying to make some connection between religion and technology," says Bogost, who made headlines last year with Cow Clicker, his playable critique of the design and economy of popular social games on Facebook. We’ve sort of replaced technology for religion," he says.
The game itself, illustrated in the fashion of an illuminated manuscript, is a sequence-repetition memory game (think Simon, from the 1980s), but you can buy victories through boosting moves with a paid multiplier, or by paying for the game to complete the sequence for you if you've forgotten it. It's mostly in Latin. On Simony's high, glassy altar, alongside the iPad is a credit card reader to take payments—and a leaderboard is projected on the wall in the fashion of a stained glass window.
And the exhibit will actually ultimately fund the museum. The top entrants on the leaderboard will form a jury that decides how the game's earnings will be spent on behalf of MOCA, which means playing the game and spending money on it is essentially a way to buy influence in the museum itself. Even players that don't attend the installation itself can play along by downloading the Simony app, which goes live on the App Store this Friday.
Will people pay? That games can pose questions like that for their players to answer, act as matrices for behavior that can be studied, is part of their potential as art. Another designer, widely-reputed dreamer Peter Molyneux, recently took to the App Store with Curiosity, a game where players pool their efforts to erode a plain cube layer after layer, in a race to be the single one who discovers the "life-changing secret" at its center.
Molyneux has a legacy of leading games like Populous and Black & White that allow players to act as gods.
"Game design is about having a god complex," Bogost points out. "We think we have left God behind these days, but then we worship gadgets, and we want worlds we can’t control with lowercase-gods in charge of them."
Simony's traditional Christian stylistic imagery illustrates the duality inherent in Christianity: "Everything can either be righteousness and good works, or sin," Bogost explains. "That's the whole gambit of Christianity, the tension and slippage between righteousness and sin. We need them both."
Similarly, he says, we need prideful benefactors in order to have art museums; maybe we need free-to-play games so that we can appreciate making the decision to decline to pay. "Do we go to church because we believe? Or do we go to church in order that we have some structure that demands belief?" he continues. "Do we buy iPads because they change and improve our lives in positive ways? Or because we need something we can believe improves our lives?"
Simony’s exhibition space at MOCA
Even the idea of an iOS game on display in a museum as art presents an interesting duality. "In the whole 'games as art' thing, we want games to be art, but we don't want to have to do any work," Bogost says. "Games want it both ways."
Wanting it both ways is really what the exhibit seems to be about, even beyond the idea of tech as an object of worship and paying to win as a "sin" in the economy of play. Modern Westerners want to reject religion but worship tech. They want to be challenged but they also want to buy their way out of challenge; they want the ability to buy assistance while decrying corruption. People want art institutions, but don't want to fund them—or make funding selfish and competitive, a game you pay to win.
Visitors to the Simony installation will take away with them an "icon"—not a painted tile with an image of the Christ or Mary, but an actual picture of an App Store icon with directions to further information about the game.
Apple approved Simony for release on its store this Friday. "I'm terrified they'll change their minds," says its creator.
November 17th is also when the installation opens, and visitors to Jacksonville's MOCA will be able to pray at the altar of the App Store through March 10, 2013.
Previously: Kickstarter's Retro Gaming Boom