Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Persuasive Games

Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007), xii + 450 pp. $35.00 (cloth).


In the three decades since videogames first began gaining popularity, the medium has been alternately trivialized as a mindless entertainment form unworthy of scholarly attention and vilified as a violence-promoting force corrupting our children. In spite of the frequent (and often heated) deliberation surrounding videogames in the popular press and as a political issue, however, the genre is often misunderstood, lumped in with visual or verbal rhetoric with no real discussion of the unique features of the medium. Ian Bogost’s second book, Persuasive Games, attempts to remedy this misunderstanding, constructing a compelling argument for both the legitimacy of the genre as a subject of scholarship and the unique, potentially revolutionary power of videogames to encourage critical thought and positive change. Although at times Bogost becomes embroiled in seemingly tangential theoretical or technical arguments, the book provides an engaging read, primarily as a thorough compendium of both popular and lesser-known games. Indeed, even though his broader arguments are somewhat shoddily constructed, his passionate advocacy and thorough exploration of the genre (including dozens of individual games) offer, at the very least, fascinating food for thought and further discussion.
Bogost’s book, written for a broad audience of videogame designers, critics, and players, primarily seeks to advance understanding of “a new domain for persuasion” (ix) called procedural rhetoric. Procedural rhetoric, as explained concisely on the inside cover of the book jacket, entails both expression and persuasion via procedurality, or rule-based representations and interactions. The procedural rhetoric realized by videogames is founded in the unique ability of computers to run processes and manipulate symbols based on various sets of strict rules or procedures, which can both replicate complex procedures of ideology found in the real world and, according to Bogost, invite players to disrupt or improve such procedures.
Bogost begins the book with an extensive chapter explaining the history of rhetoric, including the subsets of visual and digital rhetoric, and arguing that the rule-based procedurality of the videogame genre renders it substantively different from other types of media traditionally addressed by rhetorical theories. In order to support this argument, Bogost divides the majority of the book into three broad sections: politics, advertising, and learning as manifested in videogames. In each section, he provides a thorough explication of salient theories and historical foundations, followed by in-depth analysis of multiple videogames. The final chapter of the book argues for a somewhat unorthodox conceptualization of persuasion, claiming that a videogame can be persuasive not only by “producing assent, which can be measured with a yea or nay,” but also by simply inspiring “deliberation, which implies neither immediate assent nor dissent” (329). This concluding section functions along with the introductory chapter to create a metatheoretical bookending of sorts, explaining how videogames can (and should) fit into our understanding of rhetoric and persuasion.
Bogost’s book has a variety of notable strengths. First and foremost, Bogost’s role as both a scholar and game designer allows him to provide an extremely thorough knowledge of the field, offering obscure examples of historical videogames such as Johnson & Johnson’s Tooth Protectors for the Atari system along with insightful analysis of popular titles like Sim City and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He references several dozen games in his writing, but also includes in-depth descriptions of quite a few titles, including The Howard Dean for Iowa Game and Animal Crossing. In many ways, these various examples provide the most intriguing and memorable parts of the book; I was particularly struck by his discussion of America’s Army: Operations, a first-person shooter game commissioned by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool, as well as his chronicling of early exercise games like Dance Aerobics. Bogost’s critical analysis of these examples is, at times, unsteadily supported; he occasionally offers either praise or condemnation of various games without fully supporting these evaluative claims or even making clear his criteria for such judgments. For the most part, however, both his description and interpretation of a wide range of games make for an engaging read.
In addition to providing extensive information on particular videogames, Bogost also takes care to explain in suitable detail relevant background information from the fields of educational theory, advertising scholarship, political rhetoric, and so on. For example, he begins his discussion of advertising in video games by clearly outlining the three major types of advertising (demonstrative, illustrative, and associative) and giving examples of each type from both traditional print media and videogames. Bogost also goes out of his way to explain how his perspectives fit in with those of other scholars and theorists such as Kenneth Burke, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and George Lakoff. For the most part, this background information serves to initiate the casual reader into the relevant academic material while also alerting his scholarly audience as to the theoretical underpinnings of his argumentation.
Unfortunately, in his attempt to include a wide range of relevant material, Bogost tends to undermine the clarity of his arguments, leaving the reader lost in a swamp of tangential theories and commentary. This tendency is most pronounced in the first and last chapters of the book, where Bogost attempts to offer the core elements of his theory of procedural rhetoric. He spends a great deal of time explaining the theories and methods of other authors in a concerted effort to differentiate his work from theirs and explain what he is not doing, yet his own voice (and the advocacy he is promoting) is frequently buried in the process. As a result, his overall claims regarding how procedurality works and how it can function persuasively are maundering and difficult to grasp; this renders the book somewhat ineffective as a guide to a new theory of rhetoric. Moreover, his writing style in these metatheoretical sections is often unnecessarily technical and tiresome to work through. At times, it seems as though Bogost inserts brief snippets of intricate programming code or production details that serve more or less to establish his credibility as a designer, not to advance a specific point. In a similar fashion, Bogost’s repeated references to his own company’s games can occasionally come across as self-serving.
In addition to the long-winded nature of his theoretical discussion, Bogost’s primary claim regarding the potential of videogames to advance critical discussions seems overly optimistic and one-sided. Bogost describes his argument succinctly in the book’s final chapter:

The humanities attempt to get to the bottom of human experience in specific situations, to expose their structures. Procedural media like videogames get to the heart of things by mounting arguments about the processes inherent in them. When we create videogames, we are making claims about these processes, which ones we celebrate, which ones we ignore, which ones we want to question. When we play these games, we interrogate those claims, we consider them, incorporate them into our lives, and carry them forward into our future experiences. (229)

Bogost continually makes this argument throughout the book, claiming that videogame consumers use the disconnect between their own understanding of the world and the videogame’s representation (dramatically labeled simulation fever) as an opportunity for “interrogation of the rules that drive both systems” (333) that ultimately leads to critical consciousness. In the case of in-game advertising, for example, Bogost suggests that videogames “expose the logic of situations” (332) in such a way that leads the player to “ask himself questions about the intersection of a product’s features with his own routine and values” (335). While on occasion this argument is tempered with conditional qualifiers such as “might” or “can,” Bogost frequently seems to suggest that such critical engagement with the videogame is a necessary and regular occurrence during casual play, yet no empirical data, anecdotal or otherwise, are offered to support this claim. Nowhere does Bogost consider the possibility of passive videogame players who simply accept the procedures represented in a given game, reifying and normalizing the ideologies promoted therein. Although the suggestion that videogames potentially encourage critical engagement is certainly compelling, Bogost’s blindly confident assertion that they automatically do so is unconvincing, and undermines his overall credibility.
Overall, while the book struggles to advance a lucid claim regarding procedural rhetoric and the persuasive value of video games, it can still function as an enjoyable read that stimulates thought and consideration. In some ways, the three major sections of the book can serve as independent reference pieces for those curious about the genre of, for example, political videogames; certainly, his wonderful descriptions of both historical and contemporary videogames are valuable in their own right without any sort of theoretical discussion surrounding them. Moreover, even if Bogost falters in supporting his claims regarding the revolutionary power of videogames, the overall premises he champions provide excellent fodder for further study and consideration. While he may be a bit too eager to believe that videogames necessarily invite criticism and reflection on the part of the player, such a notion is not unfathomable, and is indeed a welcome alternative to the commonly espoused belief that videogames simply rot the mind. As such, the book offers a valuable perspective on an oft-maligned genre, along with a rich supply of examples, that can hopefully spark interest and reflection among both consumer and scholarly audiences.

Friday, November 23, 2007

eggcorn?

while myriad theories exist to explain the origin of the odd little phrase "mind your p's and q's", i've just thought of another one (which seems to make a decent amount of sense, unlike some of the others).

might it be that "p's and q's" is just an eggcorn of "'please and thankyou's" or "'pleases and thankyou's"? the "p's" could be a truncated "please" and the "kyou's" part turns easily into "q's"...

or maybe i just think about language too much.

edit: not the first one to have this thought. :(

Thursday, November 22, 2007

thankful

i have so very much to be thankful for...as the day progresses, i'll likely add more to this list as i remember all the ways in which i am, really, blessed. so, an incomplete account of all the things that make my life wonderful:

- the pepperdine speech and debate team, for giving me a wonderful education at no cost to me and for introducing me to wonderful people like melissa, canon, james, derek, tom, alex, stevie, april, jonathan, and the rest of the team, while also letting me stay in touch with people who mean so much to me like kasey, keyon, darryl, joe, and everyone else on the circuit.

- my parents' new house, and the people who made it possible for them to own it. i can't remember the last time i saw my mother so happy. i'm in love with the house, too...it's absolutely beautiful, and i couldn't have imagined a nicer place for my family to live. more importantly, though, i am thankful for how happy it has made my parents.

- facebook, myspace, and the internet at large for letting me keep in touch with (and meet) so many people...including the most important people in my life...people whom i otherwise might not get to talk to as often (like steve love!)...and, well, all of you reading this.

- courtney, for always being there for me, no matter what, for always bringing a smile to my face, and for being the greatest friend i could ask for.

- kyle. for everything.

- world of warcraft, for giving me something to do, something to work towards, a way to connect with people, a way for my mom to get out of her own head sometimes, a way for me to deal with my insomnia...

- dr. feinstein and modern medicine, as a whole, for taking care of me this past year.

- old friends, namely chris and jared, for always being there for me, especially during the worst of times, and for coming over to protect me when i was afraid of the dark.

- new friends, namely james and robbie and riley, for good times, good conversation, and everything else.

- j.k. rowling.

- yelp, for some fabulous recommendations, one in particular.

- google, for being amazing.

- apple, for same.

- my mother. i can't possibly list all the ways in which i am thankful for her.

- my family as a whole.

- my dogs, but mia in particular, for bringing so much joy into our lives and making me feel so, so loved.

- dr. selby and sarah for making my graduate experience incredible.

- NCA, for letting me meet people like john and reconnect with other people like bill and matt and crystallane.

- stanford, and all the people there. i can't even begin to explain all the ways it changed my life, and the people like chris, aaron, and matt, who made it incredible.

- craig and all the people from that part of my life. words don't do justice here.

- the moorpark team for making me who i am today, for giving me the chance to coach, and for taking me with them on some fabulous experiences. jim and rolland changed my life.

- the british tour, for believing in me, for giving me some of the most amazing experiences of my life, and for introducing me to wonderful, wonderful people like fitch, rob, josh, gavin, viv, james, and everyone else.

- pepperdine's campus recreation department, also for believing in me, for trusting me to run a ballroom program, for giving me that outlet, and letting me share something i really love with wonderful new people like alex, courtney, jen, and everyone else.

- everyone, even if i don't tag you or say your name, for making my life what it is today.

- most of all, for mini wheats, in all shapes and sizes.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

all the world's a stage, and every word a note

i realized several things recently.

a) i haven't been playing as much music as i used to.
b) i feel so wonderful when i do.

so, now that i'm pretty well settled in at the new house, with space for my electric keyboard (and with rock band hopefully on its way soon!), i think it's time to start playing and singing again.

if anyone has requests or suggestions for covers to work on while i get back in the swing of things, i'd very much appreciate hearing them...and if anything decent comes out of it, i promise to record and send it your way. also, if anybody feels like getting together and playing, i would be very interested in that possibility.

in theory, this will all happen in 2.5 weeks when the semester is over. in actuality, it will most likely be a form of procrastination/preserving my sanity DURING the next 2.5 weeks. :)

so, yes. send me requests. it will make me happy. :D

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

omg so delicious.

i've recently been on a major cooking kick since moving out on my own, and have put together some pretty delicious fare lately.

usually, i see this as a step up from the normal packaged dinner/frozen meal.

however, there is one frozen meal that i actually often prefer (for its deliciousness, not just its ease) over anything i make myself.

three cheese stuffed rigatoni with veggies!

omgsodelicious.

it has changed my young vegetarian life forever.

devin makes me LOL

A mother was sitting on the couch reading a book when one of her children walked up to her and said, "Mummy, why is my name Petal?" The mother replied, "Because when you were born, a petal fell on your head."
The next baby walked up and asked, "Mummy why is my name Rose?" she replied,
"Because when you were born, a rose fell on your head."
The last baby walked up to her and said, "BLAS CLAFLAS YIFRASSAM TASSM POONNFFFIINRTY."
The mother replied, "Please be quiet, Refrigerator."

Monday, November 19, 2007

eek!

somebody please tell me this isn't real:



longer blog coming soon, but for now:

- NCA over, went well

- thesis prospectus defended, accepted

- parents all moved out

sigh. back to work.

Monday, November 12, 2007

cuddlysleepy

do not want to get out of warm squishy bed.

do not want to write paper.

do not want to go to school.

the good news is that there are brownies for breakfast!