Metaphor and Serious Gaming

Chapter 3 of Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games is about the (political) ideological frames that can be built into the structure of games through procedural rhetoric.

Bogost points out that “political success draws less from reality and more from representation” (99). He draws heavily on the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff to explain that metaphors are ubiquitous in public discourse because of the power they have of “repackag[ing] positions so that they carry more political currency” (100). Framing the American invasion of Iraq as fighting a noble “war on terror,” for example, is a way of drumming up support among people who are of the belief system that embrace the idea of…well..that sort of thing. I hesitate to make claims about belief systems as Bogost does, sweepingly, in the chapter because, frankly, I found it offputting.

In any case, (and to re-turn to the issue of games), Bogost argues that overtly political games work through procedural rhetoric by building metaphor into the rules of the game, and, as a consequence, by having the metaphor reinforced in the player by virtue of interaction. The obvious example of such a game that he points to is Tax Invaders. There, the metaphor of “shooting down” a bad political idea (in this case, John Kerry’s proposed increase in taxes) is literally enacted. Players move a cursor in the shape of GW Bush’s head left and right across the bottom of a screen and fire pixelated projectiles at balloons of tax increases (shown as numbers in boxes, falling from the top of the screen). As they interact with the game (in the very limited way proscribed by the procedural rhetoric of the game’s rules), players’ “conservative” values of low taxes and small government are joyfully reinforced with every direct hit. As Bogost says, “The game’s rules enforce a particular perspective” (102), and “the player completes the game’s argument” (105) with the enjoyment and satisfaction gained as a result of enacting a shared value-laden metaphor (we “shot down” the “alien” tax invasion!!).

There are numerous other examples of such games that Bogost does not mention, but which I think are interesting to showcase:

Dean for America (2004) – Sophisticated interface (relatively speaking)
Pork Invaders (2008) – A shameless knockoff of the 2003 classic

Importantly, Bogost notes that procedural rhetoric always occurs at the CODE level, while visual rhetoric occurs at the GUI level. Thus, games overtly pushing political agendas make use of BOTH procedural and visual rhetoric(s) to achieve their objective.

While Bogost is excellent at desconstructing the procedural rhetoric underlying the ruidmentary-looking games like September 12 and Tax Invaders, he gets less involved in the more complex instantiations of procedural rhetoric that exist in console games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andres. Confusingly, he says that “commercial games may be less deliberate in their rhetoric, but they are not necessarily free from ideological framing” (112, my emphasis). My thought here was that deliberate-ness is a necessary criterion for procedural rhetoric, given that this type of persuasion happens at the CODE level.


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