In Defense of Procedurality

Procedural Rhetoric, Civilization, and “You Didn’t Build That!”

My name is Jason Hawreliak. I’m the Essays editor on First Person Scholar.  I’m in the midst of finishing up my Ph.D. in English Language and Literature at the University of Waterloo. My research examines the cultural and psychological functions of gaming and gamer culture.

I want to write a bit of a defense of Bogost’s “procedural rhetoric,” which he defines as “the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular” (Persuasive, 3). I particularly want to counter the claims that procedural rhetoric a) ignores the player, and b) neglects the importance of other representative modes like narrative and aesthetics. I’ll use Miguel Sicart’s “Against Procedurality” article from (11:3, 2011) as a dialectical counterpart, since it’s easily available and I think representative of the “nay” camp. For another response to Sicart’s article, and one I generally agree with, check out this article on

After discussing what I think are some merits of Bogost’s concept, I’ll end with a rhetorical analysis of Civilization III in the context of Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech. I want to demonstrate that Civilization’s processes support the idea that government spending is an integral pre-requisite for a functioning society, including its economic system.

In “Against Procedurality,” Miguel Sicart characterizes procedural rhetoric in the following manner:

In essence, procedural rhetoric argues that it is in the formal properties of the rules where the meaning of a game can be found. And what players do is actively complete the meaning suggested and guided by the rules. For proceduralists, which are after all a class of formalists, the game is the rules, both in terms of its ontological definition (the what in what is a game), and in its function as an object that creates meaning in the contexts in which specific users use it. (para. 22)

The problem, as he sees it, is that “Proceduralism often disregards the importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties. In this sense, the meaning of a game, of any game, lies in its rules…In the proceduralist tradition, play is not central to understanding the meanings created by (playing) games, since it is the rules that create those meanings” (para. 23).

It seems to me that this demonstrates a narrow understanding of Bogost’s project. Bogost never suggests that meaning is only in the rules, and he certainly does not “disregard the importance of play and players” in his model. Rather, Bogost simply describes the rather mundane fact that computers are good at representing processes, since they themselves are a series of processes.

I think a good example of player importance can be found in Bogost’s concept of the “procedural enthymeme,” since it acknowledges the necessarily dynamic relationship between player and procedure:

In the context of procedural rhetoric, it is useful to consider interactivity in relation to the Aristotelian enthymeme. The enthymeme, we will remember, is the technique in which a proposition in a syllogism is omitted; the listener (in the case of oratory) is expected to fill in the missing proposition and complete the claim. Sophisticated interactivity can produce an effective procedural enthymeme, resulting in more sophisticated procedural rhetoric. Sometimes we think of interactivity as producing user empowerment: the more interactive the system, the more the user can do, and the better the experience. (Persuasive 43)

Procedural Enthymemes

In a procedural enthymeme, “the player literally fills in the missing portion of the syllogism by interacting with the application, [though] that action is constrained by the rules” (Persuasive, 33). Like all enthymemes, the key component is that the user feels as if she has “gotten there” herself. And like all enthymemes, a procedural enthymeme may not turn out as the author had intended, since it should give the user some leeway in “getting there.” Bogost is also clear that the idea of absolute freedom is “flawed,” but nevertheless, he explicitly connects a sense of significance with a “better… experience.”

Now, just because there are constraints does not mean that the player is ignored. Of course there is constraint – there are constraints in all systems, and necessarily so. After all, the game has to cut itself off at some point, for technological limitations if nothing else. But I don’t think this means that procedurality somehow precludes player agency. Indeed, as Bogost argues,

In a procedural representation like a videogame, the possibility space refers to the myriad configurations the player might construct to see the ways the processes inscribed in the system work. This is really what we do when we play videogames: we explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the game’s controls. (Persuasive 42-43)

Both the constraints (rules) and “possibility space” are vital components to the videogame; each depends upon the other. So I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Bogost ignores the player’s part in the equation. Besides, the vast “emergent gaming” movement clearly demonstrates that procedural authorship does not always turn out in an expected or predictable manner.

Now I’d like to move to the second objection, namely, that Bogost focuses too much on the formal characteristics of the game, and not enough on other components like narrative, paratext, aesthetics, and so on. I don’t get a sense that Bogost suggests that procedurality is in any way hermetically sealed off from the other components of a game. For one, the dynamic interaction between “discrete units” is the subject of Bogost’s Unit Operations (2006). In this book he is clear that he prefers “unit operations,” distinct components working together in a dynamic and contextually defined manner, over “system operations,” which are more rigid forms associated with structuralism. Furthermore, in his application of Levi Bryant’s “flat ontology” in  Alien Phenomenology (2012), Bogost again makes the point that a game is many different things at once, going so far as to suggest that any single organizing approach (e.g. narratological, procedural, etc.) is essentially arbitrary. True, this is going outside of procedural rhetoric proper, but it nevertheless points to Bogost’s overarching position.

Furthermore, I think the fact that procedural rhetoric relies upon symbols, i.e., representation, necessarily implies it cannot be viewed as completely distinct from things like visual rhetoric or narrative. The fact that competition is often framed in terms of mortal combat, for example, or that success and failure are often expressed in thanatological terms, is important. All (competitive) games consist of a task, an obstacle, and a reward. How this process is expressed provides us with an important interpretive framework for understanding the procedure as something more than an abstract algorithm. For example, shooting an opponent in a First Person Shooter consists of a series of procedures, including 1) identifying a target; 2) lining up the target with the sight; 3) pulling the trigger; 4) waiting for feedback (hit or no hit); and 5) moving on, finding cover, or firing again depending on #4. This whole process depends upon visual, aural, narratological, and haptic representation. How do you identify a target, or distinguish friend from foe? By appearance. How do you know when you’ve fired your weapon? By appearance, sound, and haptic metaphors such as controller vibration. Thus, it seems to me that procedural rhetoric never could exclude other game elements, even if it wanted to. All components bounce meaning off of each other in radically dynamic ways. Procedures aren’t everything, but they are significant, and I think Bogost wants us to consider all aspects of a game in our analyses.

Civilization III

There’s been a bunch of material written on Procedural Rhetoric in the Civilization Series (Wilson, 2012Albor 2010; Squire 2006) so I’m not pretending to offer anything radically new here. Rather, I merely wish to point to the presence of a timely procedural argument found in Civilization III, which can be applied to Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech.

If you’re not familiar with the series, these games basically require the player to grow a civilization from its infancy (4,000 BCE) all the way into the eerie future. Civilization belongs to a genre often called “God games” since you essentially create, maintain, and protect a civilization over vast periods of time, all from a “God’s eye view.” You can select different forms of government to run your civilization, including Despotism, Democracy, Communism, and Fascism. But regardless of which government type you choose, Civilization demonstrates that projects normally associated with government – infrastructure, Research and Development / Scientific investment, security, environmental protection, etc. – are key pre-requisites for a prosperous and happy society.

For example, a civilization needs roads and railways to transport goods for trade, and to bring in luxuries such as Silk or Steel. Increased trade makes for happier and more productive workers, and infrastructure improvements positively influence your citizens’  happiness and standard of life. Moreover, railroads make it easier for workers to clean up pollution, which affects your citizens’ happiness and standard of life. In this game we see that infrastructure improvements are necessary for producing high output economies: if you stop building stuff, the economy, and subsequently, the civilization, will crumble. Thus, Civilization shows through process that a fully functioning economy depends upon government projects. This is very much in line with Barack Obama’s now (in)famous, “You didn’t build that” speech.

“You didn’t build that.”

His opponents would say otherwise, but Obama was basically referring to the fact that businesses rely upon publically financed roads and technologies for their daily operation: The roads their trucks drive on, the internet and satellites they use to communicate, the schools most of them attended as children, all depend upon government spending. Again, this perfectly mirrors the process conveyed in Civilization: Build infrastructure in order to increase well being and economic growth; take a hands-off approach and things go badly quickly.

One could make the argument that Civilization goes too far in this regard. After all, the private sector is also an important aspect of any prosperous society. I think this is the case, but the game does require that the player build capitalist city improvements such as Marketplace, Bank, and Stock Exchange, civilization advances like Economics, and Wonders such as Wall Street. Although the player does not really run these at the day-to-day level, they still drastically improve a civilization’s productivity and output capability. Indeed, it seems to me as if Civilization adopts a fairly moderate macro-economic stance, demonstrating that the public and private sectors can (and should) enjoy a  mutually beneficial relationship.

What Civilization also shows, however, is that government spending is not often immediately recognizable. People generally think, “What have you done for me lately?” and government projects are often terribly long term. They fade from memory, and people rarely thank the government when driving on a highway, for instance. Although the “real time” of a game of Civilization is not long by today’s standards (though length can vary tremendously), the game time or time span of Civilization is incredibly long. A decision to build a great wonder like the Pyramids, for example, may take the player 50 turns and several hundred years. In this way, Civilization accurately represents the long, often invisible hand of government, necessary but unspectacular.

So all in all, I think procedurality remains a useful and dynamic approach for analysing videogames, and I think we can recognize procedural rhetoric in “real life” issues as well. But this doesn’t mean that we should exclude other components when looking for meaning in a game, and I don’t think Bogost ever suggests that.




  1. A fascinating and well-constructed defence. Of course, the question between immediate and long-term impact in the role of government which is particularly well illustrated through the description of Civilization 3 et al. as “God games” is the philosophical debate between Hegelian Absolutism and the responses to it by Kierkegaard. In Civ. games, the player is positioned according to Hegel’s ideal – outside looking in (very meta-!). At the same time, we bring our own “internal” perspectives, and the potential for the creation of meaning in the game is created through that contrast.

    • Oh wow, great comment. I’m not sure how I missed this until now! I hadn’t thought about this in terms of Hegel/Kierkegaard. I think you’re absolutely right – being “inside” and out at the same time is one of the interesting tensions inherent in a game like Civ. The player is always straddling the line, on a few levels.

      The “God” label is also problematic here, at least in the Judeo-Christian sense. In Civ the player isn’t infallible or omnipotent; on the contrary, the player is often susceptible to forces beyond his or her control. Again, another interesting tension. Thanks for the excellent comment!

  2. I just wanted to say that is an interesting argument – I wish I had seen it before. Well done!

    As you can imagine, I don’t quite agree, but my disagreement is not a consequence of your argumentation. You make a generous reading of procedural rhetoric, and I made a less generous one. Somewhere in the middle we can find productive things to say.

    • Thanks Miguel! I appreciate you taking the time to comment. It’s funny, Gerald Voorhees and I have had this same conversation. He thinks I’m too broad in my application of procedural rhetoric too, and although I stand by most of what I wrote here, in re-reading Persuasive Games you both might be right. Like you say, the answers probably lie somewhere in the middle. Thanks again!

Comments are closed.