Procedural vs. Persuasive Games

Procedural rhetoric is the practice of authoring arguments through processes. Computer games are interesting in this regard because they are some of the most complex processes that exist.

(Bogost’s interest in process comes from his background in computer programming.)

The structure of the games can be used as argumentative on a fundamental, code (or process/procedural) level. We are always trying to move beyond the notion that games are “just” or “merely” play(ing). To propose as Bogost does that games have meaning, and to invoke Burke’s claim that wherever meaning lives, so too does persuasion and rhetoric is to speak powerfully to that end.

Not all games are persuasive, though. There’s an important distinction between serious games and persuasive games.

McDonald’s video game is a good example of procedural rhetoric. The game was designed to persuade you that McDonald’s business model is corrupt.

Serious games have “an explicit…purpose and are not intended to be played primarily for amusement” (Bogost 54). We should clarify here that games don’t have to be either serious or persuasive. Some games can be both, depending on the reason someone plays it.

But…it seems to me that an argument can usually (I won’t say always) be made for a game’s persuasiveness. And likewise for its seriousness.

Jason just brought up Google’s tagging game — what do we make of this? Insomuch as the playing of it improved Google’s image search results, it can be said to be serious. On the other hand, this effect might have been caused by the fact that playing the game actually taught people how Google wanted them to tag images. The process, then, underlying Google’s tagging procedure exposes itself as an argument for how Google wanted to shape its users’ tagging behavior.

Procedural games are designed to teach process. Yet, built into the structure of how the games are played is a rhetorical view of how the process (is supposed to?) work(s). Think Civilization. Risk. It’s about keeping many things in mind at once, about recognizing complexities and contingencies in processes that you might’ve thought simplistic (like, say, teaching a high school class for the 1st time), it’s about accepting the rules of reality that the game sets forth and learning to play by them.

Bogost is interested in effecting change in the material world.


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