Ian Bogost: Persuasive Games

[Readings] (12.17.08, 6:06 pm)

Persuasive Games is about procedural rhetoric, and exploring the use and potential of rhetoric in games. To Bogost, rhetoric is much more integral to games than expressiveness, or rather that expression is dependent on rhetoric. In my own analysis of games and systems, I use the term model, and in this context, models can be thought of as rhetorical systems. Rhetoric is about persuasion, which in turn uses (implicitly or explicitly) assumptions and relationships, which are the stuff from which models are made.

The context of Bogost’s work is the struggle of videogames for legitimacy. For reasons that echo Sutton-Smith, games have faced problems with acceptance because of two causes. One is the misperception that games are for children, which is overtly false. The second is a quandary that games are trivial and inconsequential. This misperception construes that games are trifles and do not have the weight of traditional media (citing James Newman). Henry Jenkins has argued that the struggle for legitimacy is characteristic of a new medium. Bogost argues that legitimacy must be obtained by a critical analysis of the rhetoric of videogames, which must explore how they work. How games work addresses the level of mechanics, but also the levels of expression and representation. This critical analysis is what Bogost calls procedural rhetoric. Serious and political games must explore procedure rather than content.

Procedural Rhetoric

Discussing an example of procedural rhetoric, Bogost explains the game “Tenure” (created by Owen Gaede in 1975). This is about high school education, the player is a teacher, and is faced with various options and choices throughout gameplay, which reflect choices that a real teacher might need to make. It reveals issues of interpersonal dynamics (with school faculty), and with the demands and expectations placed on new teachers. What is interesting to note, is that while the game makes many simplifications, and is not necessarily realistic, it makes claims about teaching and illustrates those claims. “Tenure makes claims about how high school education operates.” (p. 2)

Bogost examines procedurality in several senses. Procedure calls to mind computational procedures, but there are also human procedures, which are made prevalent by customs of practice and bureaucracies, and so on. A human procedure given is the way a retail clerk might handle a customer asking to return an item that is past the normal time that returns are accepted. Computation is symbolic and representative. Procedures are expressive with respect to representation. They reflect cultural values, because they are situated in a culture. Human procedures (such as the store return) are very flexible, whereas computer procedures are relatively inflexible. However, the human flexibility is not a flexibility within the procedure itself, but a way of accounting for and transferring to other procedures which might bear more strongly on the situation. When faced with procedures of any nature, a standard human reaction is to investigate its operation. We ask “how does this work?” and we explore procedures in order to explain them.

Rhetoric is inherently about persuasion and here is a review of rhetoric deriving from the Greeks. The term “rhetoric” is derived from the same root as “oratory,” and the term classically applied to the manner of speech used in political speeches. Historically, rhetoric has extended to literary and artistic practice. In these contexts, rhetoric means “effective expression” (p.19). Kenneth Burke is influential here, who argues that identification is the center of rhetoric, not persuasion. This echoes with the notion of shared assumptions and understandings. The term Burke uses to characterize identification is “consubstantiality”, which in its etymological root suggests that rhetoric encourages the speaker and audience to share the same stance or substance. A central principle of rhetoric is the enthymeme, which is a syllogism with the assumption omitted. It is omitted because it may be assumed to be shared. This assumption requires filling in the missing gap on the part of the listener. This can also be argued as the important shared substance on which both the listener and speaker form their identification.

A strong example of procedural rhetoric is Molleindustria‘s McDonald’s Game. This is a strong example because the game has a message (that corruption is a necessity in fast food, and that there are inherent problems with the practices used by fast food corporations), and it communicates these through illustration and simulation of how these processes work. This last step communicates because it presents a model of the system that it represents, and the messages emerge as logical conclusions when one plays the game. Other games with ostensible educational interests fail to effectively use this demonstrative illustration. Bogost gives two examples of games of this sort: “G!rlpower Retouch” and “Freaky Flakes.”  These are problematic because they illustrate the content of their message, they fail to connect the procedures in game to the procedures which they are attempting to represent. This critique in mind, procedural rhetoric seems to be about obtaining a synchronicity of process, representation, and message.

Regarding interaction and procedural rhetoric: Bogost gives several examples of interaction in games. One of these is in Chris Crawford’s game “Balance of the Planet,” which gives the user affordances for manipulating variables that affect the simulation through sliders. Another example is Grand Theft Auto 3, which enables the player to “do anything” within the “parameters of the game.” The claims of freedom are suspect because of the restraints of the due parameters. A player may assault anyone whom he likes, but cannot approach a random person and engage in conversation. However, this restriction is a form of expression within the model presented by the game. What is omitted from the model is just as important as what is present, and that omission may be seen as making a claim about the world represented in the game. It is important to remember those assumptions, though, as a subject of critique.

Chris Crawford has described interactivity as a tight loop of listening, thinking, and speaking. Games may be examined and judged based on how they listen to the player (what the player’s engagement may be), the complexity with which it interprets those inputs, and the expressivity with which they talk back to the player. Sophisticated interactivity is not necessarily more or more frequent interactions, but ones in which input, model, and representation are all tightly linked. Sophisticated interactivity yields an effective enthymeme. The simulation gap is posed in terms of rhetoric. It is the players’ synthesis, filling in the gap of the enthymeme. “A procedural model like a videogame could be seen as a system of nested enthymemes, individual procedural claims that the player literally completes thorough interaction.” (p. 43) Increased persuasion would be increased coupling of the model and representation. Crawford’s take on interactivity are all important for rhetorical argumentation.

There are two kinds of analysis: black box and white box analysis. A concern is with the lack of visibility in black box analysis. This is exemplified by Sherry Turkle’s critique of Sim City. The argument is that the game is a black box, and the model is not externally visible, so one cannot see how the game works. However, players can see how the game works through playing the game. However, what is missing is whether players will be able to make sense and observe objectively the claims and mechanics of the game. This ambiguous element is procedural literacy.

Procedural Literacy

Looking at games and learning, a predominant trend is to use principles of reinforcement from behaviorism. The behaviorist perspective is that games teach “basics” of represented material. For example: Flight Simulator, Sim City, Ninja Gaiden, GTA. Behaviorism forecloses the simulation gap, assumes that playing a role necessarily implies validation. An alternative view is constructivist, which comes from Montessori education and references Papert.

With constructionism, enthusiasm is a factor in play, but it is not in the sense of play as progress, but rather play as creativity (in regards to Sutton-Smith). James Paul Gee argues that games illustrate higher order thinking (essentially metacognition). This idea claims that games teach strategy, not individual actions. Bogost challenges this perspective as well, because it overemphasizes the general (that games teach mechanics and strategy), and that they forsake the importance of individual games and the expressive capability of their models.

The idea of procedural literacy comes from Papert (after Piaget), but also Perlin and Flanagan, and Mateas. Bogost wishes to discourage the idea of procedural literacy as merely programming. Programming is a relevant skill, but it alone does not imply literacy, nor does literacy imply being able to program. Expanding on Mateas: procedural literacy should not be limited to understanding how systems work in the abstract, but it should also be used to interrogate, critique, and use specific processes.

Systems that are strongly representative (like Playmobil as opposed to Leggo) encourage a stronger cultural reference and link into representative systems of meaning. Combining representations, or tying representations to systems allows for interpretive creativity. When performing this sort of creativity, the interpreter constructs models of the new combined system. “When a child constructs a Playmobil scenario combining HAZMAT-crew parts and pirate parts, he constructs an argument for how such a character would behave. This argument is carried out though the rules of play itself, the types of behaviors the child chooses to encourage or prohibit.” (p. 258)

To say procedural system, this implies something malleable and participatory, rather than just an artifact. Literacy involves reading and writing, and these tie into the sense of interaction, freedom, and play with the system itself. To be literate requires more than the ability to read alone, but the ability to write and create within the medium. Creation of models is natural, but procedural literacy demands a certain awareness in how one creates models, and how they are created generally. Procedural rhetoric asks the following questions: (p. 258)

  • What are the rules of the system?
  • What is the significance of these rules (over other rules)?
  • What claims about the world do these rules make?
  • How do I respond to those claims?

Bogost concludes the section with an excellent summary:

At the start of this chapter, I asked: if videogames are educational, what do they teach, and how do they teach it? To summarize the reply given here: videogame players develop procedural literacy through interacting with the abstract models of specific real or imagined processes presented in the games they play. Videogames teach biased perspectives about how things work. And the way they teach such perspectives is through procedural rhetorics, which players “read” thorough direct engagement and criticism. (p. 260)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBogost, Ian
TitlePersuasive Games
Tagsspecials, digital media, games, media theory
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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