Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames (Bogost, 2007)

If you ask me about persuasion in the media, I’d just spout out theories, like the elaboration likelihood model and theory of reasoned action. When it comes to persuasive videogames, I’d say the same things, in addition to Ian Bogost’s (Georgia Tech) book: “Persuasive Games: The expressive power of videogames”. The book delivered some interesting insights on how videogames can be expressed as a persuasive medium, although parts of it are hard to follow, given my psychology background.

The book is organized into four parts. Part one consisted of the first chapter where Bogost elaborated quite extensively on various concepts like rhetoric, procedurality, and features of videogames which these lead to his concept of procedural rhetoric. The following parts were applied analyses of procedural rhetoric of videogames in three domains of persuasion: politics, advertising and learning. In this opinion post, I will outline procedural rhetoric as I understood it. Then I will write several instances of the three parts that stuck out.  

The chapter began with a videogame called Tenure that exemplified procedural rhetoric. How the game operationalize the processes of a high school in terms of politics and social conflicts rather than teaching problems. This learning process that people play in that game is what Bogost argued as the defining aspect of the interactive nature of videogames.

Before delving into procedural rhetoric, Bogost discussed procedurality and rhetoric, separately, at the philosophical level to clarify the meaning behind these terms. It’s very abstract and it’s a bit hard for me to follow, although he did use examples to help clarify what he’s getting at and which raises some interesting ideas. What I understood is that procedurality entails the “computer’s ability to execute a series of rules” and that following these rules in relation to human computer interaction between user and the computer would result a observable feedback or procedural representation. He described the processes of returning a rental DVD of which he argued that procedurality is applicable to cultural, social and historical systems. From a social psychological standpoint, this seemed similar to script theory or cognitive neoassociation theory where they posited that individuals have different behavioural scripts that are activated for different situations. He described the unit operations as a kind of a general process, or as I see it a unit of analysis, and multiple unit operations would interact to form a procedural representation for a rhetorical claim. What stuck out about procedurality is the following passage:

Procedural representation explains processes with other processes. Procedural representation is a form of symbolic expression that uses process rather than language.

Bogost argued that what is written would only describe the function of processes as they are composed of rules than words.

He continued by framing the differences between the forms of rhetoric: verbal, visual, digital and procedural. What I could understand is that procedural rhetoric seemed to rely on deduction, specifically the enthymeme where a proposition of a syllogism is omitted. He defined procedural rhetoric as:

Procedural rhetoric is the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational process in particular. (p.3) […] its arguments […] through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models (p.29).

The interaction with the videogame will fill the missing proposition or enthymeme and he called it the simulation gap or as he described as the gap between the “rule-based representation and player subjectivity” (p.43). He used two videogames as examples, The McDonald’s Videogame as a successful persuasive videogame and Freaky Flakes as an unsuccessful persuasive videogame. He argued that the unsuccessful one should enforce a set of rules akin to advertisers’ objectives like implicit goal-oriented procedures. He stressed players should be given free reign to explore the rules of a play environment and that opportunities for success and failure must be present. I might add that rewarding and punishing cues should be present in order to lead on the players to the intended procedural message. What seemed intriguing is how can we operationalize the simulation gap in an experimental setting?

Within the context of procedural rhetoric, his definition of interactivity differed from its lay understanding. He defined it as a tight coupling between user actions and procedural representations. He stressed that playing videogames should allow exploration of the game’s rules through the game’s control, he later on argued that the parameters of the game, what processes are supported or excluded would influence the way the game is procedurally expressed. What he hoped the results would be is that the player would play and  perform a great deal of mental synthesis that fill the simulation gap like filling in the cognitive blanks or something like a behavioural or mental fill-in-the-blanks, but rather more sophisticated. I imagine that the player constructs the rhetorical or arrives at the conclusion through a process which seemed to be what procedural rhetoric ensues. At this point, it seems like social learning theory would be the closest psychological theory to procedural rhetoric. Bogost drove his point even further that a selective modeling of the world would entail not the number of interactions possible or how immersive it is, but rather the relevance of the interaction makes it more meaningful and vivid to the player.

Case in point: (the study was used for young children).

He argued that merely applying graphical or textual rhetoric into a game would just fail in making any procedural representation and that persuasion and in turn fail to use videogames as a persuasive medium. He cites several videogames that exemplified these failures for each part.

Near the end of the chapter, Bogost elaborated the difference between persuasive and serious videogames. Again, very philosophical, a bit of Chomsky and Herman so in one sentence, serious videogames support the dominant hegemony. This is my stream of consciousness understanding of procedural rhetoric.

Throughout the rest of the book, he dedicated an introductory chapter for each part and the following chapters are analyses of many videogames in various subdomains. America’s Army, September 12 and The Howard Dean for Iowa as political videogames among others. What stuck out is his analysis of Darfur is Dying which incidentally Wei Peng et al. published a study on that game, Bogost predicted that it would elicit player empathy of which Peng et al. had found.  What was interesting is that Bogost went further and criticize the videogame in failing to make a procedural argument in resolving the Darfur crisis as it only raises awareness to which he argued is ineffective towards concrete solutions and simplifies a complicated situation. What made me think is what insight should fill the simulation gap from Darfur is Dying? What would it take to be a more effective persuasive process?

In chapter 9, he argued that Animal Crossing, a children’s videogame mounts a procedural rhetoric of debt and consumption. He supported his arguments by pointing out the processes of the videogame, such as players paying off their debt enrich their debtor who would upgrade his store to entice the player for further consumption, thus delivering a consumerist rhetoric. A very enlightening analysis, but I wonder if the children who played the videogame understood the procedural message as Bogost, Henry Jenkins, and Kurt Squire did. It would be a problem if the children accepted the consumerist rhetoric.

The book offer a different perspective from the social science of which it can change my theoretical lens for a bit. However, the challenge is whether procedural rhetoric can be more effective as a persuasive medium than other media. How we can operationalize the concepts discussed by Bogost and what kind of study can we test his concept of procedural rhetoric?

As of this writing, I am in the planning stages in testing some parts of the ideas.


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