Socratic Conversation on Procedural Rhetoric

So there I was, placidly reading the first chapter of Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, “Procedural Rhetoric” in one of the dining halls here at Clemson, when a dialog availed itself. I make this passive because it was about 5-7 minutes in that I realized capturing its spirit and content might be instructive. The participants were myself and Randy Nichols, one of my RCID colleagues. Although we were tempted to turn this into a pseudo-Platonic performance of dialectic, we actually got so caught up in the discussion that I forgot to annotate the conversation as happening between Timaeus and Socrates and decided to “faithfully” leave it as it appears here–in medias res.

Randy: Procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric uses oratory and visual rhetoric uses images persuasively. (28)

Me: That sounds similar to what he hinted in the preface. Namely, that “procedural rhetoric is the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (ix).

Me (after a provocative pause): Interestingly he also says that procedural systems “actually represent process with process” (14). So there seems to be a meta relationship there…

So, was that game Tenure an example of procedural rhetoric in action?

R: Yes, I believe it was. It performed the processes inherent to the experience of being a 1st year teacher. And because it is procedural in nature, it can better represent the procedure of that experience: because it is process itself, it can represent process..

Me: But, what makes Tenure special? Aren’t all computer programs procedural?

Isn’t that the question we have to ask ourselves about video games now, what argument is being presented?

R: The ability of the video game to change our attitudes about our world is not in the content of the game. “rather, this power lies in the very way video games mount claims through procedural rhetorics” (ix). The goal of the game doesn’t matter. What matters is that we think this way: that you interact with the game’s rules to see the world as it wants you to see it (i.e. to see the processes that underlie its presentation of reality).

Me: So how is Grand Theft Auto an example of a persuasive game?

R: There, the procedural rhetoric is the claim. As McLuhan would say, ‘The medium is the message.’

Me: If the procedural rhetoric that underlays games is built itself upon a rule-based representation of reality, what happens when you break the rules? Does the game cease to be persuasive?

R: Well, as we read, you can break the rules about returning your DVD player because human elements will allow it in the real world. (In other words, they’ll create a new system for dealing with your particular situation that still allows you to return the defective product) But you can’t break the rules in computer game because to do so would have to be allowable in the rules themselves. If you hack Grand Theft Auto, it’s already part of the rules.

Me: So it’s not really a hack, just the illusion thereof. Which, if you don’t realize the illusion, is quite persuasive. (Actually, it’s been said that Apple actually engineered the hack(ability) of the iPhone 3G to generate hype about its new (then) product. Hacking the phone was, from this perspective, then built into the rules of how the phone worked.)

R: Yes, it’s part of the interaction.

At this point, Randy noticed that dinner was being served, and we decided to halt our conversation here.

To be continued perpetually.


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