Reviewed by Kevin Moberly and Brent Moberly (firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com)
Ian Bogost is a professor of Digital Media and Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of a number of scholarly works on gaming and gaming culture. He is perhaps best known, though, for making bad games worse, but for good reasons. His most celebrated game to date is Cow Clicker, a spare send-up of such overtly Pavlovian and consumerist games as Zynga's Mafia Wars and FarmVille. Cow Clicker did little to protect our collective news feeds from the spam generated by FarmVille and the like, but it did allow us an extent of ironic, if not self-righteous, reflection on the situation. Bogost's latest game, Simony, takes up where Cow Clicker leaves off, but with a decidedly more medieval mien, invoking the specter of “ecclesiastical politics” to critique what is, arguably, Zynga’s enduring legacy—unashamedly profit-driven game design that increasingly and deliberately conflates paying with playing.
Simony is a difficult game to review. Employing a double-edged irony that seems, at times, less a means of critique than a defense against it, its interface, art, and sound design are clever and compelling. Yet for all of this, Simony is not particularly successful. It promotes itself as “a medieval church politics-themed game about earning your station among a community,” but it only realizes these ambitions in the most cursory and abstract sense. (fn.1) Moreover, its gameplay is subordinated almost entirely to its critique, which means that it very quickly becomes impossible to play. These shortcomings could, perhaps, be excused if the critique were more substantial. Simony’s satire, however, is not directed at the practices of companies like Zynga or even Gameview Studios, whose Tap Fish has provoked the ire of countless parents whose children have paid dearly to bring their dead, virtual fish back to life. Simony’s critique is, instead, directed almost entirely at its players. Adopting a strategy that is similar in principle to Tap Fish and its ilk, Simony is designed to make players suffer and, ultimately, pay for their sins.
There are two games at the heart of Simony. Most immediately, there is the actual game itself, a reworking of the 1978 Milton Bradley electronic memory game, Simon. As in the original, Simony flashes increasingly complex sequences comprised of four differently colored tiles with corresponding tones. Players gain points by reproducing these sequences, etc. In the longer term, though, there is the game of maintaining one’s relative position on the project’s tabulae ducum, or leaderboards. In March, the game’s ten top-scoring players will decide how to spend the game’s proceeds on behalf of the Jacksonville, Florida Museum of Contemporary Art, which commissioned the project. For those seeking instant gratification, there is also an in-game fenestra ducum, which renders leading players’ pseudonyms and scores as a virtual stained glass window.
Where Simon meets simony, the oft-denounced medieval vice of bartering, to paraphrase Aquinas, “spirituals” for “temporals,” is in the acquisition and dispensation of favores, or in-game credits that allow players to either multiply their scores at the outset of a game or to forestall defeat by having the game complete its sequences automatically—essentially, by having it play itself—but still award the resulting points to the player. Simony is free to download, and all players start the game with ten favores. (fn.2) Additional favores, however, can only be purchased for real-world currency from the Apple App Store.
The game’s interface takes the form of what, at least among academics, is perhaps the ultimate medieval fetish object—not the sword (thankfully), but the illuminated manuscript. As with actual medieval manuscripts, there is a tension here between access and exclusion, order and dissent, indulgence and consequence, and the effect is, if not breathtaking, then most certainly seductive. Players navigate between the various pages comprising the game's interface by means of rubricated hyperlinks, but these hyperlinks, like most of the game's text are in Latin, including the option to pipi hunc honorem, or “tweet one's score.” While a full page of instructions in English does exist, this is secreted behind the phrase “quomodo ludo?” on the game's title page. For those worried by the anachronistic (and vestigial) question mark here, these instructions are, thankfully, rendered in modern English, not some attempt at “ye olde Englishe.”
Here and throughout, the game's text is constrained by definite rulings and bordered by illuminations, but the illuminations often complicate the deliberate balance of the pages, simultaneously mimicking and, at times, subverting the careful rigor of the text. An ivy vine, for example, frames the novus ludo, or “new-game,” page, but its trunk is entwined around the body of a long, white snake, and its leaves morph into dollar bills as they creep up the left border of the page. Similarly, an acanthus bearing gilded globes and, from its snail-shell base, strawberries occupies the left margin of the Dies Irae, or “game-over” page. A hand emerges from the foliage proffering an apple. Thus are the fruits of one's labor mixed with those of temptation.
The game’s sound design is almost as good as its interface. Most of the game's pages have their own musical scores, and as players transition from one page to the next, the themes fade into each other. It is possible to disable the game's soundtrack by touching an animated series of neumes in the upper-right corner of the title page, but Simony is a lot less compelling without sound. Nowhere is this more true than within the actual game itself. As with the original Milton Bradley version, each of the four tiles produces an accompanying tone when activated. In Simony, though, each round takes place against a musical backdrop of reverberating chant. As the game activates each tile, the notes produced compliment the chant, and as you complete each series of tiles in turn, you feel as if you yourself are one with the performers. If you complete a series of tiles successfully, you are awarded with a small flourish. If you spend favores, there is another flourish of sorts, and ever so often, the game enters O Fortuna mode, treating you to an interlude of sorts as it flashes its tiles in counter-clockwise, wheel-of-fortune fashion. When the O Fortuna sequence ends, however, the game reshuffles itself, and you are faced with remembering, mid-round and at an accelerated pace, an entirely new series of tiles. If you fail here, or if you fail to complete any other sequence of tiles correctly, the chorus emits a final droning groan, and there is an audible crack, and you are shuffled over to the Dies Irae page for a final reckoning of your abilities, or, in our case, lack thereof.
The medievalesque glories of the game’s interface and sound design are relatively fleeting, as Simony refuses to allow players to remain in the medieval for very long. For example, while it is possible to imagine that you are holding a medieval manuscript, you soon notice those dollars bills sprouting from the marginal foliage, or the figures on the frontispiece wearing hoodies and holding various iDevices, or that the twitter pigeon on the game’s final, Dies Irae page foils the regal hawk perched proudly atop the game’s title page. Similarly, the illusion that you are following the lead of a stern, though still somewhat reasonable choir master is only good for the first two or three turns of the game. By the fifth or six round it becomes very clear that you up against a machine, and that this machine, like the game itself, has been engineered to be unbeatable. Even if you are endowed with superhuman reflexes, your achievements will always be tainted by the suspicion that your score is more of a testament to your financial resources rather than your dexterity and capacity for pattern recall. And, of course, you can be sure that most, if not all, of your fellows in the Jury of Ten bought their seats at the table and that at least one of these will be higher on the leaderboard than you are. Sigh.
Of course, the point of Simony is not to immerse players in the medieval, but, as with Cow Clicker, to critique a mode of gameplay that the audience is presumably also supposed to see as less than desirable. Yet it is often difficult to gauge the boundaries of the critique. For example, the ruthless, frenetic engine that lurks at the heart of Simony is most certainly intentional, meant to demonstrate the extent to which things fall apart when the only goal of a game’s design is to entice you to spend money so as to avoid losing so badly, again. This aspect of the critique certainly works, but perhaps too well, since unlike Cow Clicker, Simony isn’t really a game that you will want to keep playing. But then again, the original Simon wasn’t a game that you wanted to keep playing either, and subsequent virtual versions of it— including the one in World of Warcraft’s Ogri'la Mountains—haven’t been much better. (fn.3)
But what of the game’s medievalesque patina, which seems so carefully applied, yet always peeling away to reveal the machine underneath? We imagine that this is intentional as well, not necessarily, though, as part of some larger critique, but rather as a defense against it. In a recent New York Times piece, Christy Wampole writes that the allure of ironic living is primarily defensive: “It pre-emptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack,” she writes, “can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself."(fn.4) The same applies here: Simony simultaneously stages and undermines its own medievalism in a deliberate, ironic strategy of deferral, allowing it to lay claim to the medieval without actually having to own up to it. For the cynical, this is a means of promising a “medieval church politics-themed game” without troubling to research or reproduce either the church or its politics, but for the more charitable, the project seems genuinely uncomfortable in its medieval garb, as if it borders on being perhaps too earnest. Earnestness is itself a cardinal sin in these ironic times, but earnest medievalism is something more terrible yet—creative anachronism, academic fervor, or some combination thereof.
The medieval normally doesn’t fare so well in these arrangements, but here, if it doesn’t exactly prevail, it at least gives as much as it gets. The illuminated interface is an excellent example of this, since it proves far more compelling than the game itself. There is also, however, the specter of medieval accounts of simony, which resist easy appropriation here, undermining and ultimately rendering the critiques at the core of the project suspect. Bogost constructs the vice of simony as a relatively transparent and egalitarian endeavor, one which is clearly delineated by a fixed schedule of costs and relatively accessible to anyone with access to the prerequisite iHardware. But for the medievals, simony was a much more opaque and secretive vice. Thus, Rudolph of Saint Trond argued, in part, that it was not simony for the monks of Saint Panteleon to require that the families of oblates donate to the monastery because such “donations” were made openly and publically, whereas simoniacal transactions were decidedly more clandestine. (fn.5)
Beyond this, though, Bogost casts simony as an issue for those who would buy rather than “earn” their way to the top of the leaderboards. “Is glory and achievement,” asks the project’s promotional text:
…something you earn, or something you buy? Is it more right (or more righteous) to ascend to a rank or office on the merits of your actions than on the influence of your connections, or the sway of your bank account? For that matter, which offices are worth earning (or buying) in the first place? [our emphasis throughout] (fn. 6)For the medievals, though, the problem was not so much one of “buying” or “earning” as it was of “selling,” “spending,” “plundering,” or worse. At its heart, simony was an insider problem, facilitated by those who were all too willing, as Chaucer’s Parson puts it, “to putten in theves that stelen the soules of Jhesu Crist and destroyen his patrimoyne” (I.789). (fn.7) As John F. Plummer notes, the Parson’s formulation is fairly standard. As “theves,” those seeking to gain entry into the church via simony do come in for a degree of criticism, but not as much as do those who let them in or those who, once established, exploit their offices for personal profit. (fn.8) “Swiche yeveres of chirches putten out the children of Crist,” says the Parson, “and putten into the chirche the develes owene sone” (I.790).
Simony omits such feverish rhetoric of illegitimacy and misspent patrimony, and this is probably for the best (or is it?). Also missing, though, are the explicit and sustained critiques of systematic, institutional malfeasance and corruption that characterized medieval accounts of simony. Invoking one of the most pernicious tropes of the information revolution, the game suggests that the digital high technology of things like IPads and medieval-themed computer games is a fundamentally spiritual affair, and, as such, demands a requisite amount of devotion on the part of the people who, unwittingly or not, find themselves in its presence. This much becomes clear from the way that the Simony exhibit is staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville, Florida. Employing much of the same defensive irony we noted earlier—irony that allows the game to both associate technology with the divine and to disavow the association—a “lone, hallowed” IPad running Simony is positioned atop a raised dais in an arrangement that, as described on the museum’s website, suggests that visitors to the exhibit are as much playing as worshiping at the game:
Players who encounter Ian Bogost’s Simony installed in the MOCA’s Haskell Atrium will enjoy the full experience—ascending a ten foot dais in the cathedral-like gallery to play the game on a lone, hallowed iPad. In this context, the game’s additional themes become apparent: the relationship between technology and religion in a secular age, and the uncomfortable ambiguity between virtue and vice, merit and acquisition in institutions of all kinds. (fn.9)Simony does indeed conjure “institutions of all kinds,” but all are uncannily empty, devoid of the self-interested, institutional actors who figure so prominently in medieval critiques of the vice. At the heart of Simony the game is the machine, and at the heart of Simony the exhibit is the machine. This is a church without a priesthood, regulated by a binary logic that is post-human and, at least as far as the machine is concerned, post-sin. Perched atop its “ten foot dais,” the “lone, hallowed iPad” acquires because it has been programmed to acquire. But where are its programmers? Given that iPad conspicuously displaces both preacher and the Bible here, such a question seems dangerously akin to inquiring about the authorship of the scriptures.
The fraught question of whether or not technology and religion are becoming interchangeable, or whether or not we are simply meant to believe that this is happening (and construct ourselves accordingly) is beyond the scope of this review. However, the degree to which Simony plays on (and with) this trope is suggestive, as it requires that players consider themselves not only as religious subjects, but also, and by extension, as sinful, which is to say, post-lapsarian, subjects. Interpellated as such, players find that with the chance to fiddle with the divine comes ultimate temptation: the chance to purchase their way into the presence of the Godhead Himself, the legendary Ian Bogost who created Cow-Clicker, who appeared (bonus!) on The Colbert Report, and who, in his wisdom, offers them the chance to “earn” a coveted position at an impromptu conclave / last-supper of sorts. There, as one of his only ten disciples, they will decide how to redistribute the wages of sin for the perhaps less dubious purposes of Art. Who can blame these poor souls if, upon discovering that their corporal flesh is inadequate to the task of playing their way to the top, they resort to the more expedient, if less glorious path of paying their way? They are only human after all.
And this, we argue, is what is ultimately most problematical about Simony. It is not that the game takes liberties with the medieval—after all, it would be very surprising, and, perhaps very dull, to play a medieval-themed game that does not take liberties with the period. Nor is it that the game has pretensions of being art; as we acknowledge above, its concept is clever, and its graphics and sound design more than make up for a model of game play that, self-consciously or not, can only be called derivative. It is not even that the game implicitly constructs its players as fundamentally corrupt vessels who must work (play) through their incessant desire to triumph even when doing so requires questionable means. What is troubling about Simony is that it levels this critique at players without simultaneously considering that the source of all this corruption—the pay-per play model that is so egregiously manifest in Zynga’s games—has been a staple of computer games since the glorious 8-bit days of the arcades, when players who were not equal to the task of conquering increasingly difficult waves of pixilated opponents could extend their virtual lives indefinitely by pushing quarters into the slot.
Even in 1943, when Adorno and Horkheimer penned their influential essay on the culture industry, it was problematical to portray participants in mass culture as ideological dupes who did not have the wherewithal to grok what was happening. (fn.10) But at least then the insulted parties (those who preferred to spend their money at movie theaters or jazz clubs rather than the symphony) had the solace of recognizing that Adorno and Horkheimer made more than a few salient points about the systems of production that, factory-like, churned out such delicious, though nefarious pleasures. In Simony, however, only the players come in for critique. Given the choice of playing or paying, their interactions with the game are endowed with a larger, almost larger allegorical significance, as Bogost makes clear on his website:
Players can either choose an ordinary game (ludus) for free, or spend favors for a one-game bonus multiplier. Vie for the greatest rank (ordo) by playing a game of memory. At any time, use the gilded center button to complete a sequence automatically—if you have favors enough to spend. Need more? Visit the market (mercatus) and pay to stock up. Unless you decide doing so would be degenerate. But then again, if everyone else is doing it, do you have a choice? (fn.11)Such rhetoric of choice is, of course, disingenuous. Simony, like so many of the games it critiques, has been engineered to confer significant advantage to those who are willing to pay for the privilege. Here, though, it is only the players who bear responsibility for the inevitable moral decline (the “degeneracy”) resulting from such arrangements. Desirous of the glories the technology promises, yet unwilling, or, in the case of Simony, unable to meet the challenge, they demand accommodations and, accordingly, create a market for the practices that Bogost satirizes with Simony: games or other applications of technology that, in catering to the lowest common denominator, ultimately serve worldly rather than spiritual purposes.
The result is invariably a sort of lopsided morality tale that, working through the pretense of art, seeks to make players more conscious of the wages of their sins. The problem, though, is that Simony is not ultimately about ethics or morality, or even about glory, achievement, rank, office, or any of the things with which both Bogost and the museum are so desperate to associate it. Simony is about consumption. The original Simon, after all, epitomized the few-to-many relationship that characterizes contemporary mass media. Celebrated as the “ electronic game that started it all,” it was designed by a handful of people, yet mass-produced and distributed to millions. (fn.12) Accordingly, it spewed out a sequence of colors and sounds that players were expected to digest and regurgitate with mechanical precision in a test of skill that was as much about their memory and hand/eye coordination as it was their ability to consume and reproduce by rote a ceaseless and, arguably, senseless barrage of digitally produced sound and fury.
Bogost’s Simony contrasts this mode of consumption with a second mode of consumption: one that allows players to purchase the status associated with the first without suffering its inconveniences. Although we are certain that Bogost wants us to believe that this second mode of consumption is markedly more “degenerate” than the first, we are not convinced that one is really any different than the other, much less worse than the other. But perhaps this is because we have spent too many hours enjoying the sort of commercially produced (medieval-themed or otherwise) games in which players who do not possess the leisure time, the hardware, the hand-eye coordination, or some other arbitrary attribute are explicitly constructed as being less elite—that is, less human—than those who are more fortunate.
As ugly as it is ubiquitous, this elitist dynamic is difficult enough to stomach in mainstream games. Somehow, though, it feels even worse to encounter it in a game like Simony—a game whose satire seems to be aimed almost exclusively at the people who enjoy the so-called “casual” games that have become enormously popular in recent years. Designed to run on web browsers and mobile devices, these games are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the originators of the pay-per-play model that Simony demonizes. As we noted above, this innovation can be traced back to the earliest arcade games, and perhaps even predates these in the sense that the ability to play computer games has always been predicated on an investment in digital technology of one sort or another. What differentiates casual games, then, from the vast majority of mainstream games that preceded them is not how they make money, but to whom they appeal: populations that had heretofore not been seen as worthy or desirable by the mainstream gaming industry. As is also the case with Cow-Clicker, we believe that this is the cardinal sin that has made casual games a target for Bogost’s satire: the fact that, for all their warts, they are designed for, played, and enjoyed by scores of people who are not considered elite or hardcore enough to participate in the digital ecstasies of the sort of “authentic” computer games that Simony implicitly constructs in the negative image of everything that it is not.
Understood in this sense, perhaps Simony is more of a medieval-themed game than it appears at first blush. Carefully crafted and intricately armored in layers of irony, the game nevertheless evidences a secret nostalgia for a time when computer games were somehow more pure, more spiritual and more true—a time before the pressures of the marketplace forced open the gates of the sacred temple to let in all of the unwashed multitudes, the digital peasants who have defiled the once pristine touchscreens of the holy of holies with their grubby little fingers. Simony is, as such, a sort of shrine to one of the most troubling aspects of not only of computer gaming culture but of arguably, the larger mass culture of which computer games are but one aspect: our desire to make ourselves appear better, more pure, and more valuable—that is, more “hardcore”—by denigrating the tastes and pleasures of others. Of course, Simony is not the only shrine to this discourse, nor is it the most elaborate. What makes it unique, however, is that it is constructed by a scholar who, having made a career of studying and designing so-called “serious games,” should be more cognizant of why such a design is problematical—cognizant enough, we believe, not to attempt to sell it to us as art.
Old Dominion University
1) “Ian Bogost – Simony,” Ian Bogost - Videogame Theory, Criticism, Design, accessed February 2, 2013, http://www.bogost.com/games/simony.shtml.
2) For a discussion of Aquinas’ definition of simony and its limitations, see N. A. Weber, A History of Simony in the Christian Church: From the Beginning to the Death of Charlemagne (Baltimore: J. H. Furst Company, 1909), 1-12.
3) Players can earn faction points with the Ogri'la orges by completing a daily quest that requires them to repeat a sequence of colors and tones by clicking on the appropriate pillars. More information about this quest can be found at: http://www.wowhead.com/quest=11080
4) “How to Live Without Irony” New York Times, November 17, 2012, accessed February 12, 2013, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/17/how-to-live-without-irony/.
5) Joseph H. Lynch, Simoniacal Entry into Religious Life from 1000 to 1200 (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1976), 87-88. As Lynch notes, however, Rudolph was considerably more troubled by the compulsory nature of the gifts in question.
6) “Simony: What is the Jury of Ten?,” Moca: Museum of Contemporary Art, accessed February 2, 2013, http://www.mocajacksonville.org/simony.
7) All citations for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
8) John F. Plummer, “Hooly Chirches Blood: Simony and Patrimony in Chaucer's "Reeve's Tale," The Chaucer Review 18:1 (1983): 50-52.
9) “Simony: What is the Jury of Ten?”
10) “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Dialectic of Enlightenment, (New York: Continuum, 1993).
11) “SIMONY: An art installation and iPhone/iPad game about earning or buying station,” Bogost.com, accessed February 2, 2013, from http://www.bogost.com/games/simony.shtml.
12) “SIMON: 'The Electronic Game That Started It All' Turns 25,” Hasbro Corp. Press Release, February 10, 2003, retrieved February 9, 2013 from http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=68329&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=380652&highlight=.