Persuasive Games

The Expressive Power of Videogames

Review - Persuasive Games

Philip Miletic is a second year English PhD student at the University of Waterloo. His research interests include David Foster Wallace, Gertrude Stein, radio, and online reading groups.

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Before I begin this review of Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games (PG), I have to make two points that address the nature of this review. One, I am relatively new to game studies, and PG may very well be the first book of video game scholarship I have read. Two, PG is not altogether new (but I hesitate to say “old”), since it was published in 2007. So, as I am writing this review, I am aware of the delayed context of the review and that some, if not most FPS readers are already familiar with Bogost’s text and Bogost himself. At the same time, not everyone can read all the things, and so this review will hopefully be helpful to those who are considering perusing PG. This review, then, can be a useful but brief return to Bogost’s text for those who have already read PG; it can be an introduction for those unfamiliar with the text and it can perhaps provide a different perspective from a newcomer to the field of game studies.

Bogost begins PG by highlighting arguments that consider videogames as a legitimate medium in response to the cultural stigma that tends to liken videogames to “kids’ stuff,” aka trivial.  He points out that in these critical arguments for the legitimacy of videogames made by critics and scholars, such as Henry Jenkins and Bogost himself, have often compared videogames to other media. These comparisons are fruitful and have been effective in their aims to push videogames as a legitimate medium, but what is often lost in the comparative model of analysis is a deepening sense of videogames, of how they can be analyzed in and of themselves and the ways that they work as standalone cultural artifacts. By today’s standards, this argument––that videogames are a legit medium––is a bit of a dated one, and Bogost’s inclusion of the argument certainly dates the book. Yet, the videogames-are-a-legit-medium argument is not front and center in the intro (or the rest of the book), nor is it distracting; it is used as a springboard for Bogost to set the foundations for approaching videogames through a rhetorical analysis. In other words, Bogost quickly hurries through the legitimacy argument so he can move on to a more specific and analytical approach that has been (and can still be) circumscribed in videogame criticism.

PG emerges out of the overlooked and understudied area of videogame criticism and presents a deepening sense of games specifically through the lens of rhetoric, analyzing the “way videogames mount arguments and influence players” (viii). To situate videogames within a rhetorical analytical model, Bogost defines and details oratory, written, visual and digital rhetoric, all of which could be applied to a videogame rhetorical analysis, but do not fully encompass (or provide a “deepening”) of the kind of rhetoric in videogames. Videogames, Bogost argues, produce a new form of persuasion and argumentation that combines rhetoric and procedurality, what he calls procedural rhetoric: “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (ix). To explore the various ways procedural rhetoric is employed in everyday life, Bogost organizes his book to focus on three domains: politics, advertising, and learning. These three domains are not by any means exhaustive, but they do establish a breadth to contribute to the “deepening sense” of videogames Bogost hopes to achieve and provide a well-built jumping-off point for readers.

Each section begins with a theoretical framing and provides a thorough historical analysis within the framework of the subject and its theory. For instance, the political section begins with a condensed theoretical history of ideology, focusing on a certain number of theorists beginning with Marx and ending with Žižek. Bogost then showcases how games, such as America’s Army: Operations and Antiwargame, are framed ideologically to make political claims, or expose and critique a political structure, or suggest how “political structures…could or should operate” (75). Bogost draws from a number of games to demonstrate the various strategies – skinning (that is, overlaying an existing game with new graphics), simulation, the rhetoric of failure – that are employed by these games to assert and reinforce their political standpoints, gauging how effective/successful each game is.

Indeed, the passages on rhetoric, procedurality, ideology, and so on, may seem exhaustive and too detailed, especially for those who are well-acquainted with these subjects. Yet, Bogost points out that he is writing to an audience that is not all in one field, so his historical framing of each theoretical approach is a cautionary move to prevent alienating his readers. Although this aim could go in disastrous directions by being too excessive, over-cautious, and unnecessary, Bogost succinctly encapsulates the theoretical history that he is dealing with in each section. Further, within Bogost’s sweeping histories of theories, he pinpoints key phrases and terms along the way that he continually returns to throughout the book, ensuring that each theory and its history are carefully presented so that readers can understand the theories being used and why Bogost is drawing from these theories.

The games that Bogost selects for each section are aptly chosen and can be divided into three types: games designed specifically for a political, advertising, or learning purpose; games designed by Bogost himself; and AAA/popular games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Sim City, Ninja Gaiden, and Animal Crossing. The first category of games is perfectly suited for the purpose of demonstrating that videogames mount arguments about our everyday social and political structures and can effectively persuade players. Bogost makes sure to include games that ineffectively employ procedural rhetoric in order to show readers that not all videogames are successful in mounting arguments. These ineffective uses of procedural rhetoric are usually the result of the procedural rhetoric in the game distorting (that is, it doesn’t reflect) the political ideology it is trying to promote, or, if the game is a critique of a political ideology, the critique falls flat in its procedurality. By pointing out these (common) flaws, he instructs designers/programmers what to avoid when incorporating procedural rhetoric in a game so they do not succomb to the pitfalls of ineffective procedural rhetoric.

The inclusion of Bogost’s own games provides the rich perspective of a programmer, something that not all videogame critics can provide. What astonished me was that Bogost even includes a game he designed––The Howard Dean for Iowa Game––that failed to employ a successful procedural rhetoric; that is, it was successful in creating “a procedural representation of grassroots outreach,” but the campaign and its rhetoric was flawed, and the political views expressed by Howard Dean were rather vague and unclear. This example reaffirms Bogost’s  authority on how well videogames can effectively use procedural rhetoric to make claims, because he has learned from his own mistakes and the mistakes of others. The example further reveals that there must be, to a certain degree, an intended persuasive argument in a game’s procedural rhetoric, or an underlying ideology that informs that procedural rhetoric.

The inclusion popular games in the third section are a nice addition because they provide a less obvious demonstration of how videogames can make claims about political and social structures. Instead, Bogost’s discussion of these games demonstrate the complex and/or subtle procedural rhetorical strategies that AAA games use in order to make a comment on, for example, the relationship of dietary habits and social classes in American culture (Bogost’s analysis of GTA: SA). However, I found the inclusion of Ninja Gaiden awkward, forced, and not altogether as strong in his Learning section. Following behaviourist logic, Bogost proposes that Ninja Gaiden “teaches something about Japanese feudal stealthiness, which[…]the player can then use in real espionage and retaliation” (237) and/or that the game teaches the player how to play the game. The awkwardness of this discussion is that Bogost’s opinion is not clear on the game; he is relying on others’ arguments about the game, and its inclusion is forced and weak in comparison to those about Sim City and Rise of Nations, which were interwoven with his discussion of Ninja Gaiden. Further, I found his analysis of Animal Crossing fruitful, but I was not entirely convinced by his final argument that Animal Crossing “can be seen as a critique of contemporary consumer culture that attempts to persuade the player to understand both the intoxication of material acquisition and the subtle pleasures of abstention,” (275) when in the page before Bogost writes, “one could spend hundred of dollars outfitting one’s virtual town” (274).

Although I do mention that the book provides a well-built jumping-off point, I do wish there were slightly more games like GTA: SA, Sim City, Animal Crossing, etc. included; that is, games that are not specifically made for a political candidate/party or as an advertisement for a company. Don’t get me wrong: Bogost’s analysis of, say, advergames, is necessary and crucial for the purposes of this book. Yet, Bogost’s AAA moments of analysis provide an illuminating perspective on how different levels of procedural rhetoric – political, advertisement, learning – can operate within one game, whether intentionally or ideologically. True, these teasers do tell me that I can very well employ procedural rhetorical analysis on whatever games I want (the copy I have has unmentioned games written in the margins). Yet, the beginning of PG immediately presents the popular argument that videogames are trivial and for kids. I feel that these arguments are directed more towards AAA and popular indie games, not games that promote and encourage exercise or rare games like Pepsi Invaders. Whereas these games are perfect for PG (perhaps too perfect, and therefore making it frustrating when trying to employ Bogost’s rhetorical approach on other games), the over-abundance of these non-AAA, very niche games limits how readers might see procedural rhetoric at work in, say, the latest Nintendo game.

But, perhaps I am being too finicky. What I may call over-abundance is really a rich history of videogames and their relationship to politics, advertising, and learning. PG introduced to me a number of histories of videogames that I had not been aware of at the time. So, in a way, PG is a history of videogames and their procedural rhetoric in various social and political fields, as well as a critical analysis of the procedural rhetoric in videogames. There is even a “how to” element of integrating procedural rhetoric in a videogame for designers, although I feel this aspect is subtle. While the first section on procedural rhetoric is essential reading, the rest of the book is neatly divided and navigable for research purposes. My few gripes aside, I would highly recommend this book for your research purposes, as a secondary or recommended text in a relevant game studies class you may be teaching, or for those interested in the history of videogames and rhetoric. PG nicely introduces rhetoric to the field of game studies, providing new terms and ways of thinking of rhetoric in videogames that readers can use, adapt to their own analyses, and challenge. PG by no means resolves the “deepening sense” amiss in videogame criticism, but it certainly pushes its readers to continue the pursuit of deepening our sense of how videogames work on political, social, and cultural levels.