Ian Bogost's iPhone game mirrors real life. But is it any fun?
(Fortune Magazine) -- Apple's iPhone app store sells tools for counting calories, cooking perfect eggs, and performing voodoo on digital dolls. Game designer Ian Bogost thought he'd add to that eclectic mix by making a "newsgame" about airport security. (Fun!)
A newsgame is like an interactive editorial cartoon, and Bogost, a 32-year-old associate professor at Georgia Tech, has emerged as one of the leading creators of such digital fare. Persuasive Games, a company he co-founded six years ago in Atlanta, has produced desktop pastimes such as Points of Entry, in which players compete to win green cards, and Fatworld, an exploration of the politics of nutrition.
The popularity of Apple's (AAPL, Fortune 500) iPhone offers Bogost a chance to reach a broader audience for his unique brand of reality-based games: This year he launched Jetset, a $3.99 iPhone app that lets travelers pretend to be TSA agents. Players can strip-search travelers or confiscate dangerous items like pressurized cheese.
Bogost's goal is to help players look at society and current events in a new way. "I want to make meaningful, interesting things about the world as I see it, not just gimmicks for idle hands," he says, adding, "The world has enough zombies and aliens."
Jetset will test whether consumers will pay for Bogost's newsgames. Grant money from sources such as the Public Broadcasting Service funded most of his previous games, which are available free. Bogost says he has sold "a couple thousand" units of Jetset so far. (In contrast, Ocarina, the application that turns an iPhone into a musical instrument, has sold more than 700,000 units.) Bogost says he'll be in the red until more than 4,000 units are sold.
His products may not be as accessible or amusing as, say, Penguin Attack, but the designer is keenly interested in making money from his games. "I don't think social critique and profit are mutually exclusive," he says.
That said, some of his other projects have a distinctly more commercial ring. He's built a game that helps hotels train employees in customer service; he's also building an app for stressed-out road warriors. And in the spring he'll unveil an iPhone game that explains to players the perils of piling up debt. For some consumers that would be money well spent.