Simony, Ian Bogost’s site-specific video game installation for MOCA Jacksonville’s project atrium, is a work with very specific rhetorical goals. Chief among these is to compare the current trend of simple, leader board-based, free-to-play games with the dictionary definition of Simony, to buy promotion in the hierarchy of the Catholic church. In an interview with Trevor Owens, Bogost says: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?
This comparison is represented very literally, existing throughout the physical and digital components of the installation, including in the work’s title. The installation consists of an ipad, on which the simple matching game Simon can be played, sitting atop a raised dais, facing a large balcony. This bears resemblance to a church altar, with the balcony standing in for the congregation. The game’s text is in Latin and the soundtrack consists of harps and lutes, evoking the sounds of medieval times. This comparison is a clever observation and, in line with Bogost’s past work, he comments on a type of game through that game type’s language. But the gameplay of Simony is not what makes it an effective piece of persuasive media.
A Complex System of Interaction
Simony is a formally complex mixed-media work, with a complicated system of viewer interaction. MoCA Jax is an open-space gallery, divided into three floors. Simony resides atop a pedestal in a large atrium immediately beyond the museum’s main entrance, and in plain view from the balcony of the second and third floors. Above the player are two large projections. The first lists the Simony leader board, alternating between daily, monthly and all time high scores. The second projection shows the current player’s game, with four artistically represented squares lighting up in pattern, inviting spectators to watch the action.
This setup turns Simony into a two part experience. To fully engage with Simony is to be both player and spectator, and whoever is in one role impacts the experience of the person in the other. This is a strong contrast to a typical museum experience, where the act of viewing is singular and generally undisturbed by the presence of others. Instead, Simony thrives on the dual-interaction, forcing players to watch others play the game and rethink their participation as a player.
Several design choices, including the soundtrack and the position of the game, guide the museum’s visitors through this system of interaction. Simony is immediately visible from the museum’s entrance, and visitors are given a pamphlet devoted specifically to the work as soon as they purchase admission to the museum. A red carpet beckons the player directly up to the ipad, making playing the game an instinctive first interaction.
We are drawn to Simony’s second interaction after we stop playing, and move on to the museum’s other galleries. The game and player are both in clear view from the museum’s main stairs and from the art space of the second and third floors. (View from Balcony) One can’t help but oversee whoever is playing Simony even as he looks to peruse the other works on display. Moreover, the music of the game can be heard from every corner of the museum space, calling the visitor back to view the installation.
The large projections further facilitate viewing, as we see a more artistic representation of what the player sees on the ipad. With the ipad set so the player faces the balconies, rather than the projections, it is clear that they are designed for an audience, not for the person playing the game. This set up also forces the player to look at the spectators, creating an odd contradiction. Succeeding in the game requires concentration, but the player must view an open room full of potentially distracting museum-goers. This breaks the player’s immersion within the game world, and lowers her ability to succeed in the game.
By designing Simony to be both played and viewed, in that specific order, Bogost encourages players to reflect on the purpose and merits of the game. When we’re playing the game at home, unmonitored by the eyes of strangers, we get lost in its simple movements and scoring mechanism. When we put it down, we are unlikely to think of it again. But in the hallowed space of the contemporary art museum, as we see an audience staring down at us, we become reflective and questioning. For the moments we play, we are the center of attention. But the game they are seeing is so simple that it hardly deserves the attention it garners. Then, as spectators, we watch others partake in that same ritual, and we become fully aware of the triviality at hand. As a player, we worked hard to score as high as possible, but as a spectator we acknowledge that the next player could easily beat our score just by paying 5 or 10 dollars. What’s the point of this giant projected leaderboard if it only measures our willingness to spend? We knew all of this before we started, but we still chose to play. The period of reflection makes this reality impossible to ignore. And in that moment of self-reference, Bogost’s goal, to make the viewer question the function of these free-to-play games, is realized.
For Simony, the interplay between player and spectator is profoundly influential to the player’s experience and the game’s success as a persuasive artwork. All interpretive artwork takes the risk that viewers may neglect to interpret it. This problem occurs routinely in museums, as we spend just a short moment looking at each work before we move onto the next. We have no time to reflect on each experience, no time to think about how it made us feel or what it sought to accomplish. After seeing 25 or 30 paintings in an hour, they start to jumble together in our mind. Bogost has cleverly designed Simony to encourage this reflection, and make viewers take stock of the game they just played. To some degree, this is endemic to games displayed in the public space, as there will always be an opportunity to watch another player. But often games will place participants in the spectator role before they play the game. If we are watching first, we get lost in the mechanics, trying to figure out the rules of the game rather than thinking about how playing the game effected us. And as videogames are more and more becoming about cultivating an experience beyond gameplay, critics and designers must think about the whole of the experience, and how games can encourage their audience to interact with the work even after they have stopped playing.