I’ve just closed Water Cooler Games, the blog about “videogames with an agenda” that Gonzalo Frasca and I started in 2003. I have also archived the site in its entirety here on Bogost.com, and all existing links to pages on watercoolergames.org will forward correctly in perpetuity.
When Gonzalo and I first started Water Cooler Games, the very idea of “videogames with an agenda” was novel. Sure, there had been much earlier examples of educational games, like Oregon Trail and even earlier examples of political games, like Balance of Power and Hidden Agenda. The Serious Games Initiative and conferences had not yet begun. Brain Age and Wii Fit were years away. The field of academic game studies, a hotbed for the study of games like the ones we covered on the site, was about to hold its first major conference. It was a wilderness.
But a more important factor was at work in my decision to close the site. Since 2003, the widespread application of games to learning, news, politics, health, business, advertising, and other uses outside entertainment has become much more common. The very idea of our project was novel then, in a way that it is not now. Isn’t that what we wanted all along?
Certainly others sites, including Game Politics and Adverblog had begun devoting more time and resources to covering topics like games in politics and games in advertising, two of the areas Water Cooler Games had originally taken up. Indeed, I had even begun writing about such topics more extensively in my monthly features on game trade website Gamasutra.
It got me thinking: do blogs end? When they do, most often it is unintentional. Blogs more often disappear or cease to be updated, rather than coming to a natural close. And when they do close voluntarily, such action (or inaction, more properly) is almost always considered failure.
But from my perspective, the Water Cooler Games project was very much a success. The fact that so many venues now exist for discussing of what we coyly called “videogames with an agenda” speaks at least in part to the influence we exerted.
More so, the site had been immensely useful in helping me conduct research. My 2007 book Persuasive Games drew many examples from titles we covered on Water Cooler Games. Our coverage of newsgames also prefigured my current research in journalism and games at Georgia Tech.
A few years ago, Blogging author Jill Walker Rettberg compared blogs to diaries, drawing on Philippe Lejeune’s work about the ways the latter sort of writing ends. Citing Lejeune, Jill notes that the same rationales readily apply to blogs:
a) a voluntary and explicit stop (to a journal that has not been destroyed);
b) the destruction of a diary (an energetic and definitive closure);
c) a rereading (subsequent annotation, table of contents, indexing);
d) publication (a transformation that assumes some sort of closure).
Given this framework, the closure of Water Cooler Games is a combination of (a) and (d). But such a summary misses something. More than just voluntary ending and republishing, closing WCG opens up new opportunities for my writing, on this site and elsewhere. While I’m sure I’ll continue to write occasionally, on Bogost.com, in my Gamasutra columns, or in other articles about political games, advertising and games, and other topcs covered on WCG, the truth is that I’ve said most of what I want to say about them, generally speaking. I wrote a long book on the topic. My new work on games and journalism is certainly related, but it is also directed at a different audience and a much more specific subject. It makes sense to transition them from a project now six years old to a much newer one.
There’s at least one difference between the diary and the blog, one that Lejeune’s take on diaries doesn’t account for explicitly: the traditional diary is has finite edges. It’s pages run out. It can conclude simply by filling itself up, completing the volume.
I have an ongoing interest in constraint, and philosopher Graham Harman and I have recently exchanged thoughts on the matter as it relates to writing. Writing a book on a dense subject in 50,000 words is an interesting challenge. So is writing a diary entry constrained to a half-page, no more and no less. But unlike books or diaries, blogs resist the very idea of edges, and so they tend to avoid inviting closure in the first place.
This strikes me as a detriment overall. The page you are reading now is on my personal site, and as long as I persist in the world I can imagine writing here about whatever is presently on my mind. But a project like Water Cooler Games is much more specific. It had a goal, although an implicit one: to advocate for the uses of videogames beyond entertainment through coverage of specific examples. It joined other initiatives in that regard, and overall, I think the result has been successful, even if there remains much work to be done.
But back in 2003, blogs were still a relatively new phenomenon. It did not occur to us to set a goal, such that we might be able to determine if we had successfully reached it. We were just figuring out how to use the form. Over time, subject blogs with a readership became digital magazines by default in the eyes of their readership, but not necessarily in the eyes of their authors.
I think the same thing happened to my friends at Grand Text Auto; in 2003 a group of colleagues with similar interests got together to write online. By 2009, they discovered that while their interests remained, their community didn’t, and they turned the site into an aggregator for their own personal or research group blogs, all of which have more specific purposes for each respective author.
Things are different now; blogs aren’t new and we think of their uses in more sophisticated ways. The Georgia Tech Newsgame blog is a research tool, and although it will continue to exist online as a part of the requirements of our grant, it will change form and be presented in a more definitive way, corresponding with the book we are writing on the subject.
Furthermore, the availability of other ways to share offhand comments, including sites like Facebook and Twitter, seem to exert torsion on the form of the blog. In addition to open-ended diary-like musings, now blogs have a reason to be much more specific, to offer a way to pursue a particular task, one with a goal. It should remind us of one of the features of print books that we ought not to forget as writing becomes more and more digital: the front and back covers that make sets of pages a unit.
As a final note, I should admit that the most well-trafficked article by far on Water Cooler Games over the years covered Orgasm Girl, a pornographic web game. Let this be a lesson, I suppose: sex searches as well as sells.