How Games “Speak”: Procedural Rhetoric

Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games is a fairly well known book, and he’s a fairly well known figure in the field of game studies. This book is a lengthy 340+ page tome full of interesting and well-written information. I’m kind of torn by this characteristic of the book because on the one hand, Bogost is very thorough with his background information and examples, but on the other hand, there’s just too much information to sift through, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking to gain from the book. Before ever touching on procedural rhetoric, which is what persuasive games rely on and excel at, Bogost breaks down what he means by rhetoric, and what he means by procedural, and what he doesn’t mean. What I mean to say is that, in the process of reading this book, I learned way more than I meant to about topics that I’m not particularly interested in. However, that’s not to say that all the extra information is uninteresting or unrelated to persuasive games; everything Bogost mentions and relates back to his main topic is downright fascinating. I just wasn’t looking for that much information.

I don’t regret it though. It was a great read. I just had to get that off my chest before I started discussing procedural rhetoric and persuasive games, as I understand them.

Procedural rhetoric is a concept that deals with the characteristics of certain models of the world, the best example of these models are videogames. The characteristics of the these models allow a user to interact with a set of procedures, or rules, or material conditions, and through the user’s interaction with these procedures, certain claims about what the model represents are made.

If you want some examples, Bogost has a more than enough in his book, but they’re all pretty complicated. The simplest one describes procedures as the gears in a wristwatch, and taking the gears apart to see how the watch works is something like questioning the procedural rhetoric of a model, except that watches aren’t trying to persuade us, but yeah. (He does a better job than I do. I promise).

Procedures make up the inherent logic of a model, and persuasive games “deal with the exposition of the fundamental structure of existing situations intended to invoke support, doubt or debate about their validity or desirability, or universality” (58). Persuasive games do this by allowing players to become aware of the procedures that existing situations rely on and then allowing the player to “interrogate” them, or think critically about how and why things work a certain way.

I’m starting to realize why Bogost uses so many examples. Without them, this is all really hard to conceptualize. On the other hand, I just summarized the first 60 + pages of the book. The next 250+ pages are broken down into three sections: politics, advertising, and learning.

Bogost uses political games as examples of persuasive games by demonstrating how a game can be a “compressed version of the campaign’s policy position”(142). Persuasive political games allow players to understand the position of a certain political campaign, put their policies into action in a simulated environment, and then analyze and interrogate the results. Bogost’s most notable examples of these types of games are The Howard Dean for Iowa Game and Taking Back Illinois. Moreover, he states that, “as a culturally relevant, procedurally replete medium, videogames offer a promising way to foreground the complexities of political issues for the lay person” (143).

Persuasive advertising games are best summed up in a nice, long quote, so why strain my brain trying to reword it? Adver-games and anti-adver-games “demonstrate claims about the function (or dysfunction) of products and services, giving the player a first person account of how the features and functions of those products and services intersect with his wants and needs. The player’s evaluation of those claims as depicted in the game’s rules opens a simulation gap, a space crisis in which the persuasion game plays out. By offering a space for discourse about the use or value of a product, these advertisements encourage critical consumption: the reasoned and conscious interrogation of individual wants and needs, rather than manipulated subservience to corporate ones” (230).

Not bad, right? As a side note, allow me to elaborate a little on what Bogost means by “simulation gap.” A simulation gap occurs when the player identifies the procedures that make up a particular situation and goes on to question or test the validity of these procedures, either in the game or in their mind. Bogost describes this moment of questioning as a crisis during which a player can interrogate the model, the world, and their own assumptions.

In the learning subsection of the book, Bogost discusses and relates a variety of topics, just like he does in the other sections, and this makes it hard to summarize what he talked about, so I’m just going to give you the best quote from this section of the book.

“Videogame players develop procedural literacy through interacting with the abstract models of specific real or imagined processes presented in the games they play. Video games teach biased perspectives about how things work. And the way they teach such perspectives is through procedural rhetoric, which players “read” through direct engagement and criticism”(260).

Ok, so basically, I’m a fan of Mr. Bogost and his persuasive games. The potential for games to persuade, inform, and incite interrogation is definitely powerful and something I hadn’t really considered before. In spite of the fact that procedures are ultimately tied to or represent situations outside the game itself, I believe that this method of analysis is more ludology friendly as it remains focused on how the procedures that make up the game work together to create a model. Initially, the focus is primarily on in-game structures, but Bogost doesn’t limit himself to the hermeneutically sealed game as these procedures ultimately represent and comment on the world outside the game and are interpreted by players. Ultimately, for Bogost, videogames have the potential to “seed changes in our attitudes, which in turn, and over time, change our culture…the logics that drive our games make claims about who we are, how our world functions, and what we want it to become”(340).

I wouldn’t say all that, but it’d be nice. I mean, why not? On a less idyllic note, I just summarized 340 pages in about 1000 words. BOOM!

TL,DR: I recommend this book. (TLDR stands for Too long, Didn’t read).

links to the book

Ian Bogost’s blog =]

hyperlinks aren’t working on wordpress right now for some unknown reason =\


About Alphabet1

always already is
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2 Responses to How Games “Speak”: Procedural Rhetoric

  1. says:

    Interesting. I am reminded of Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows” in that he points out how reading has changed and that those who read on the web, and write on the web find long nuanced ideas difficult to concentrate upon. I understand his point, and yours about the length of a book, but, to comment that the thoughts put forth are expansive beyond what one might necessarily want to read used to be a great compliment in that this was indicative of showing scholarship. Now it seems that following this argument is a challenge to the reader. Anyway I think this might be a book I will pick up. I’ll write back to see if I can finish it. – And I’m not sure I can.

  2. Alphabet1 says:

    Bogost is an exceptional scholar, and his writing shows that he has a strong background in various fields. If I was less busy of a person, I would have enjoyed absorbing this book a bit more, but unfortunately, it seems as if we’re all busier and more distracted in this day and age, which makes meatier books like this one harder to digest.

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