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.

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