Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames

Review by Yuejiao Zhang

Ian Bogost. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge: MIT P, 2007.

[1] If it is a game lover's dream to see the videogame labeled as a cultural form and an art, Ian Bogost has taken another solid step toward making that dream come true with his new book, Persuasive Games. This book is about how videogames can influence players by making rhetorical arguments. Referring to the 2,500-year history of rhetoric, including theories of visual and digital rhetoric that have been developed in recent decades, the author suggests that we can understand videogames through the old tools we have long been using for analyzing verbal and visual discourses. He argues that videogames afford a new type of persuasive power because of their fundamental property: "procedurality" (the computer's ability to run rule-based representation and processes). He calls this new rhetorical form procedural rhetoric.

[2] Bogost adopts the idea of "procedurality" from Janet Murray, who sees all digital artifacts as sharing four essential qualities: procedurality, participation, spatiality, and encyclopedic scope. For Murray, procedurality refers to the computer's ability to execute behaviors based on a series of algorithmic rules. Because of this ability, the computer creates representations of processes. Building on this definition, Bogost suggests that procedural rhetoric is more general and inclusive than the procedural programming paradigm in computer science. The procedural expression in videogames entails not only a series of computational instructions, but constructs and interprets "a symbolic system that governs human thought or action" (5).

[3] The author allots three pages in the first chapter to reviewing visual rhetoric. Although these three pages form less than one percent of the book's length, they are essential because they argue for the necessity of using procedural rhetoric as an evaluation criterion for videogames. Just as the study of visual rhetoric emphasizes images as rational expressions of cultural meaning, the study of procedural rhetoric should focus on videogames as processes that convey arguments.

[4] Over the past decade, the popular view of videogames has evolved, especially among the group of researchers who study serious games. No longer do we think of playing videogames as a sheer waste of time; instead, as players, developers, and critics of videogames – particularly serious games – we have started to see their value. The author acknowledges that the underlying structure of serious games is also that of procedural representation:

The notion of the serious as the underlying structure of a system is particularly compatible with the concept of procedurality. Procedural representation depicts how something does, could, or should work: the way we understand a social or material practice to function (58).

However, Bogost doesn't limit his examples to only serious games. He also speaks to readers about numerous commercial and non-commercial videogames to show how they may generate procedural rhetoric in everyday activities, with or without such intentions. When reading the book, one can immediately recognize the mainstream commercial games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Sim City, Medal of Honor, and Civilization – games that enjoy great market success without being "serious." Meanwhile, there are also esoteric or mini games such as Mansion: Impossible, Animal Crossing, The Howard Dean for Iowa Game, and many others created in the Persuasive Games studio, of which the author is a cofounder. Being inclusive is a wise choice. In order to evaluate videogames as a cultural form, we should not give special appraisal to a certain category and ignore the rest of the medium. Bogost intends to suggest that procedural rhetoric exists in all videogames because the source of the rhetoric comes from the design and the algorithmic capabilities of the computational machine, rather than from the game's degree of seriousness.

[5] The book examines the domains of politics, advertising, and education, in which videogames have shown strong potential in executing procedural rhetoric and influencing players. In the domain of politics, Bogost suggests that being a new form of pop media after film and television, videogames are used for political persuasion via modeling ideology: "the hidden procedural systems that drive social, political, or cultural behavior" (72). Unlike verbal discourse that relies on metaphor, political videogames codify the operation or logic of a political system through representing the ideology, or procedural system, of certain political structures. The Howard Dean for Iowa Game, for example, models the necessary grassroots outreach experience of a political campaign.

[6] While politicians are always eager to use popular media because of its widespread access points and high impact, advertisers are "quick to colonize media" (148). According to Bogost, advertising is the domain that deploys the most productive procedural rhetoric. In this domain, he maps three types of advertising – demonstrative, illustrative, and associative – onto videogames and suggests that there are possible points of intersection between advertisements and videogames (i.e., videogame-based demonstrative, illustrative, and associative advertisements). He points out that videogame-based advertisements either appear as branded games or as in-game product placement that make their arguments through simulacra. Videogames are simulations, and therefore, are always representations. Bogost argues that videogames utilize procedural rhetoric when they "simulate player-consumer interaction with products and services, rather than merely simulating advertising through the application of images into virtual environments" (173).

[7] After discussing advergames and consumption, Bogost explores procedurality within the domain of learning. He examines the theoretical models of the behaviorists and constructivists, and renders them both undesirable. He then criticizes current educational practices as privileging abstract and isolated subject learning. These two steps seem to promise discussions on how and why procedural rhetoric would impact our educational system; however, what follows is a sharp switch in focus. Bogost directs the reader toward a very broad and non-institutional understanding of learning. He emphasizes the distinction between "schooling" and "education," and provides game examples that are not intended to teach educational skills. In most examples, the learners are addressed as consumers (Animal Crossing), employees (Cold Stone Creamery: Stone City), or investors (Mansion: Impossible); the procedural rhetoric of those games seems to function best in teaching learners about the processes of consumption and work.

[8] In this section, Bogost does an impressive job summarizing educational theories and current pedagogies; however, he falls short in taking the learning section out of the sovereignty of advertising, despite calling gamers "learners." After all, "procedural literacy" (255) is not necessarily specific to learning. In order to interpret the procedural rhetoric of political and advertising videogames, players should have as much procedural literacy as the learners do.

[9] Meanwhile, Bogost's placement of exergames in the learning section may be another point for discussion. Exergames are videogames that encourage physical activity in their players. Seeing the title, one is eager to find out how exergames relate to human learning. After reading this section, however, one still wonders about connections between exergames and learning. Rather than explaining why procedural rhetoric and learning are embedded in these games, the author introduces new terms that are garnished with the word rhetoric – "[p]rocedural rhetoric of reflex" (306), "training rhetoric" (307), and "traditional rhetoric of personal exercise" (309). These terms seem to have much more to say about exergames than the author allows them.

[10] Nevertheless, the arguments presented in Persuasive Games offer a new lens for studying videogames. As players of videogames, we can use this lens to help us interpret the rhetorical claim the designers have imbedded in the games. As researchers, we should question whether the rhetorical claims of the games serve their purpose. In his previous book, Unit Operation, Bogost proposed a literary-technical theory of analyzing videogames. He and many other researchers have suggested that if we want to make videogames a real art, we must have serious theoretical methods for their study. Building a critical framework for any field is an extremely complex and overwhelming task; despite its minor shortcomings, Persuasive Games succeeds at delivering a practical analytical tool for its audiences – videogame players, developers, critics, and the rest of us who enjoy playing and talking about videogames.