Douglas J. Eng Photography
The top 10 players of Simony will decide the fate of a museum – or maybe not, the creator isn’t sure
Game designer and researcher Ian Bogost poses a lot of questions with his latest creation, Simony. To name a few: Can a museum's art exhibit be a social experiment as much as it is a work to be enjoyed? How does experiencing an exhibit inside the museum compare to holding it in your hands in the grocery line? Is there such a thing as a true meritocracy? Does power actually corrupt? Simony won't answer any such questions, mind you – that task falls to the player.
The definition of pay-to-win
Simony is a simple memory game with medieval church aesthetics – complete with menus written in Latin. It presents you with a sequence of flashing lights, and then tasks you with re-creating it. You earn more points the longer a sequence gets. Two points for a sequence of two light flashes, three points for a sequence of three light flashes, and so on. Simple, right? But Simony doesn't just look like a medieval church, it operates like one, too. The Catholic church offered what are known as indulgences during the Middle Ages. Indulgences would shorten the length of time a soul spent in purgatory, before they went to spend eternity with God. However, it was alleged that some in the church were also selling indulgences; using them as a quick and dirty way to absolve sinners of crimes against the faith while lining the seller's own pockets. Simony works much the same way: you can pay real-world cash for favors, which can be used in two ways. When you start a new game (novus ludus), you have the option to play for free (ludus vulgaris) or pay favors for a one-game multiplier. Five favors will double your score, while 20 favors will give you a 10x bonus, and 50 favors will net you a 25x bonus. You can use a favor to automatically complete a sequence, no matter which version of the game you choose. The kicker is that there's no balance to the game play. For example, if you want to pay 99 cents for 10 favors and start up a game that will double your score, you can use the remaining five favors to breeze through the opening sequences. Congratulations, you just earned 30 points by spending money! You can literally pay to win in Simony. “If you think about the idea of earning your rank on a leaderboard, or earning your position in a community or earning your station inside the Catholic church, rising through the ranks of clerics, all of these things assume that merit is the way we rise to glory,” Bogost told the Report. “But then there's this not-so-secret secret that, well, actually, merit is often a way to hide the fact that preference and nepotism and straight-up bribery are at work in the way that we interact with our institutions.”
The altar of technology
This hidden, double nature of the world is another theme present in Simony. Bogost said that the world is a strange and ambiguous one, where we often want things both ways. Indulgences allowed sinners to be sinful yet pious, but that's just one example. “We think virtue is earned, but then we're happy to buy and sell it, whether in the minor form of a game leaderboard or in the more grandiose manner of a cultural institutional patron,” Bogost explained. Even the game's aesthetic invokes a sort of duality. Each of Simony's buttons has a picture on it: a cow on blue, a crowd of people on yellow, a fish on green, and a hawk snatching up a hare on red. Bogost explained that in Christian mythology, birds are often represent the soul, yet a bird of prey – like the hawk – is seen to represent wickedness. The hare likewise has a dual nature: due to its defenseless, non-aggressive nature, it can symbolize a person who has put their faith in Christ. But rabbits also tend to… well, have a lot of sex, so the rabbit can also symbolize lust. So is the bird of a positive nature, ridding a person of their lust? Or is it a symbol of something evil and harmful, come to devour the poor bunny? Maybe it's both. “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,” Bogost said. “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.”
The museum's leaderboard
Simony doesn't exist just in virtual space, on the iOS app store – it's also on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville. The museum commissioned the game from Bogost, and the space it occupies is almost church-like, with a high, vaulted ceiling and shining white walls. Bogost said the space itself was one of the largest inspirations for the game. “I had these kind of two impressions from being in the space: one, that it embodied the kind of architectural sensibility of modern spaces; museums, but also commercial spaces like malls, or the Apple store,” he said. “Secondly, it felt like a cathedral of sorts. It felt like it had a relationship to a house of worship to me. Part of this is because it's so narrow and tall, and that was where I started.” “So I was thinking of contemporary issues in game design that would be interesting to bring to both a new audience, but would also allow me to explore this tension between the modern gallery and the church, the church and commerce, and that was when I started thinking about the theme that I ended up settling on,” Bogost told me. “The idea for the game was less, 'Oh here's this thing I want to say, and really needs to come out of me,' and more of a negotiation between the themes that the space and the specific installation tried to present.” “The idea of even going to the museum, or contributing to the museum, of getting your name on the wall because you're a patron of the arts, you do that partly because you're interested in the arts and partly to be a certain kind of person, to be acknowledged in a certain way.” Bogost likened the thought process to a video game leaderboard. In the same way a game's leaderboard seems to say, 'Here are the best players,' a donor wall might say, 'Here are the best partrons of the arts.' “Sometimes, they're even ordered in that way; gifts of $1 million and above or whatever.” Simony is exploring what it means to earn your way to the top versus buying your way, and hammers its point home by making the theme it explores personal and powerful. The players with the ten highest scores will be gathered together at the end of March to decide how to spend the game's earnings. Keep in mind, you don't have to earn your place on the leaderboard, you can just pay money to farm points.
Bogost explained that this group, referred to as “the jury of 10” will have almost total freedom with how they choose to spend the money the game earns. Anything the museum can legally use the cash for is “free game,” he said. “They could commission a new artwork, they could throw a party, they could cash it out and throw it into the street, they can do whatever they choose to.” “This is experimental. We have no idea if this will work or how it will work but somehow, at the end of the installation, we'll get those people together – physically, virtually, we don't know – and allow them to ask the question, 'Now that we have this pool of money, which might be large and might be small, what are we gonna do with it? What statement do we want to make about contemporary art or contemporary game-making or neither in the context of this particular art museum?'” Bogost said he's excited for the results, even though he has no idea what they'll be, and he doesn't want to sway the voting one way or the other. Even when he described what would happen should the voting turn against him, Bogost sounded happy. “What if someone decided, 'This is nonsense? The whole installation is a waste of time and money, why did the museum put this together? I'm gonna make sure I'm on that jury so that nonsense like this doesn't happen anymore. Games are not art!'” he said. “The fact that we don't know… maybe that's where the art part of it really lives.” You can see Simony on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Jacksonville, or download it for free on the iOS app store. May the best souls win.