Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost

Matt Barton's picture

Persuasive GamesPersuasive GamesYou may remember a review I posted a few weeks about Unit Operations, an academic book on videogames by Ian Bogost. That book, while certainly useful and insightful, is probably of interest primarily to game studies scholars. His newer book, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, seems destined for a larger audience. It's a very good book with great insights and plenty of examples, especially for fans of retro and homebrew for the Atari 2600 and other early platforms. See below for my detailed review.

Persuasive Games weighs in at 450 pages including notes and index, so it's a good bit more massive than Unit Operations. The notes begin at page 341--that should give you some idea of the scope of this book (though one wonders why the publisher decided to pedantically double space this massive section!). It covers three broad categories of "persuasive" games: politics, advertising, and learning, each of which gets a dedicated 3 chapters. Really, any one of these areas could have constituted an entire book-length treatment, so it's impressive that Bogost was willing to pile his plate so high.

Let's start with what Bogost means by "persuasive games." He introduces the idea in the preface, noting that games, just like movies, books, and other media, are an "expressive medium" (vi). He takes issue with critics who claim that games are only good for cheap, empty amusement--or, worse, responsible for corrupting youth. Instead, Bogost wants to look at videogames as "a new domain for persuasion, thanks to their core representational mode, procedurality." (ix). By "procedural rhetoric," Bogost is essentially talking about gameplay--and distinguishing it from more traditional elements like images, text, music, etc. Most people probably think the rhetoric of videogames is limited to the cut scenes, on-screen text, and other grafted-on elements, but Bogost focuses on how the rules and setup of the game can constitute an argument. Basically, he's asking the following question: "In what ways can videogames be persuasive that are infeasible or even impossible with other media?"

Bogost thinks games have the potential to be as good as traditional persuasive texts like newspaper editorials or documentary films. Indeed, they could surpass them. He argues that since computers have the unique ability to simulate processes, they open up a whole new tool set for the aspiring rhetor. Their power is so great that they could "disrupt and change fundamental attitudes and beliefs about the world, leading to potentially long-term social change" (ix). In other words, videogames can change the world--hopefully for the better.

Now, Bogost isn't limiting "persuasive games" to serious games, advergames, or other types of games that set out to be more than just entertainment. Indeed, many of his best examples are from games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Sim City, Ninja Gaiden, and (most delightedly) dozens of obscure Atari 2600 games. All videogames try to be persuasive in one way or the other, but some are better at it than others--those are the ones Bogost calls "persuasive games."

A lot of Bogost's message comes down to what happens when we play a videogame. He writes, "Meaning in videogames is constructed not through a re-creation of the world, but through selectively modeling appropriate elements of that world" (46). He talks often about a "simulation gap," which I interpret to mean realizing the limits of a simulation--seeing the strings, as it were. No simulation can be 100% correct, and that's usually not the point. We've talked here countless times about what kind of activities and behaviors we want in videogames (such as great combat) and which, although realistic, are just not fun (having to eat and drink, going to the bathroom, sleep, find torches, etc.).

While most designers would probably see these trade-offs purely in economic perspectives (i.e., are they really feasible or even worth implementing?), Bogost sees them as rhetorical choices. For instance, do you want the enemy soldiers to lie wounded on the battlefield, screaming in agony? A designer might say, "No, because that would require extra resources that are better spent elsewhere." Bogost correctly points out, though, that by omitting that element--all too common on a real battlefield--you are making a claim about the reality you are trying to simulate. If you left it in, kids playing it might come to see combat as a horrible thing. Leaving it out helps maintain the illusion that combat is pure fun.

Bogost pays special attention to games that "alter or affect player opinion outside of the game, not merely to cause him to continue playing" (47). He likes games that make you think, that cause you to question your views. I don't know about you, but I've played precious few games that have had that kind of impact, but there have been some. I know that playing Civilization has greatly altered my views on how technology has shaped our history, for instance, and now Farmville is changing my views on small-time farming. I won't say that the infamous terrorist scene in Modern Warfare 2 changed my views on terrorism, but it definitely made me think more about it. Sure, all these views may be horribly wrong, but the point is that games can make us think about things in ways that just aren't comparable to print or video.

Bogost doesn't think that games can brainwash you, though some might try. In any case, that's not his goal. Indeed, sometimes a game can be just as persuasive even if it doesn't result in a conversion--the point may be just to get you thinking about something, or perhaps come to a better understanding of the effects of a process or system. A game about firefighting, for instance, might teach you about how fire departments privilege certain neighborhoods more than others, or a shoplifting game might teach you about what kind of people are unjustly targeted by store surveillance. This sort of game might make you think about your culture in broader terms, and perhaps even try to do something to change it.

Politics
Bogost has made several political games himself, so it's not surprising to find so much material on the topic here. He begins this section by talking about ideology, or "hidden procedural systems that drive social, political, or cultural behavior" (72). Many of us think the way things are now are just how things should be, so to speak. We don't take time to consider alternatives or in what ways we may be being manipulated, either directly (say by overtly biased mass media) or indirectly (by shared assumptions and prejudices that nobody bothers to question). Bogost gets a bit academic here, bringing in thinkers like Gramsci, Foucault, Zizek, and his favorite Badiou into the discussion. I'll spare you the details, but he sums it up quite nicely: "Political videogames use procedural rhetorics to expose how political structures operate, or how they fail to operate, or how they could or should operate" (75). Thus, a game about democracy could show you that system should work, and perhaps illustrate the effects of various problems that arise--such as corruption, ballot rigging, and corporate lobbying. Bogost things that wrapping these things into games allows us to take on "an unusually detached perspective," that is, we can view things more objectively in a videogame than we could otherwise.

Of course, almost every major political campaign has relied heavily on the web to support its message, but relatively few have tried making videogames part of that package. Bogost argues that this situation will change sooner rather than later. Some might argue that this is a bad place to go; that videogames should not carry agendas or be biased towards a particular political view. Indeed, games like The Political Machine pride themselves on being fair to "both sides." However, Bogost seems nothing wrong with videogames that do "carry ideological bias" (103). Perhaps these games might persuade you to vote for a candidate, but they might also cause you think more about the message and reveal its ideology, which we can assume is always a good thing.

Although Bogost discusses several examples of political games, such as Waco Resurrection, JFK Reloaded, and The Howard Dean for Iowa Game, he seems to think that we're really not "there" yet in terms of great political games. The problem is that it can be difficult to create "procedural rhetorics," that is, gameplay, that effectively models a particular political message. The problem with the Dean game, for instance, was that the gameplay was so generic that with some re-skinning it could have been The John Kerry for Vermont Game. What's needed is for people to find ways to create unique gameplay specific for a message, so that it wouldn't be simply a matter of re-skinning a political game to serve a totally different purpose.

Advertising
Game designers and publishers are perhaps far more interested in advertising than politics or learning. Bogost points out a number of problems with modern in-game advertising, such as the ridiculous way that modern products or services are blatantly advertised in games set in the distant future. According to Bogost, hardly anyone has gotten it right, taking full advantage of the procedural rhetoric enabled by videogames.

Bogost begins this chapter by breaking advertising into three categories: demonstrative, illustrative, and associative. Demonstrative ads offer "direct information," such as the gas mileage of a hybrid car. Illustrative de-emphasizes particulars focusing instead on the context. Thus, an ad for a truck might show it climbing a very steep hill--as opposed to just giving you some textual information about its horsepower. The last type, associative, is even less tangible, trying to stir up feelings we might have for a product. Bogost calls this "lifestyle" marketing. Think here of all the ads that try to associate "extreme sports" with various soft drinks and footwear.

Bogost claims that most videogame advertising has been associative, that is, advertisers try to use in-game advertising to associate particular brands with the gamer lifestyle. I think here about Mountain Dew's efforts to associate itself with Halo and other popular videogames. Of course, it could also be an in-game billboard showing a hamburger ad. You're supposed to think, wow, Burger King must be pretty cool if they're in my favorite videogame.

Bogost claims this focus on associate comes from the economic infrastructure of the advertising industry, which is focused on "media slots." Traditionally, this meant billboards, inserts or pages in magazines and newspapers, and television or radio commercials. He puts it quite nicely: "If advertisers had their way, videogames would take place entirely on city streets and in subway stations--places where virtual versions of familiar spaces like billboards can be populated efficiently" (197).

Where advertisers are really missing out, of course, is demonstrative and illustrative advertising, since videogames are ideally suited to show off how a particular item functions. We see this a bit in driving games that use real cars and so on, but there is still much room for innovation here. He gives an example of a game advertising a beverage called J20, which markets itself as an alternative to water for late-night party animals who want to avoid getting drunk. The game has you trying to control the urine stream of an increasingly drunk male; use of the product makes it easier to target. Crude and weird as it is, at least this shows you the product in action. Most in-game placements of products are far too abstract, usually just a "power up" type item that could easily be replaced by any other.

Learning
The final chapter is about education and games. For Bogost, there's a big difference between education and "schooling," which he says as a type of forced conformity. After briefly reviewing some educational theory, he talks about games can teach effectively.

As with political and advertising games, Bogost notes that most designers haven't learned how to maximize the unique features of the medium (the gameplay) and instead just offer re-skinned versions of old games. Very few games are able to match the gameplay uniquely to what is supposedly being taught. For instance, a game might teach you spelling by letting you play a fun little driving game, and stopping you occasionally to answer a spelling question. If you get it right, the game continues. Thus, the spelling part of it isn't really tied to the gameplay.

Imagine instead games that try to embody the subject matter. I played one of these recently called Physicus. Physicus allows players to learn physics by demonstrating its principles--it's basically a physics lab set in a fun fantasy environment, and the physics you do to solve puzzles makes sense in the context of the game. Instead of just making you answer a physics problem in between driving sessions, Physicus converts physics homework into gameplay.

Taking a broader view, Bogost notes that we can also learn at a meta-level when we stop to consider the procedural rhetoric of a game: "What are the rules of the system? What is the significance of these rules (over other rules)? What claims about the world do these rules make? How do I respond to those claims?" (258). He calls this "procedural literacy." It is easy to see how these questions could be useful to anyone interested in the rhetoric of a videogame. He writes, "Persuasive games expose the logic of situations in an attempt to draw players' attention to an evental site and encourage them to problematicize the situation" (332). Thus, a good persuasive game isn't just trying to teach you "the way it works," but also to make you ponder why it works that way and whether it could be done another way.

Take for instance the game A Rockstar Ate My Hamster, a game about managing a rock band. This game makes countless claims about the pop music industry. Granted, it's mostly satirical, but we could still talk about how the rules reflect a biased perspective of that industry and the way it works or how it should work. Or take a more obvious example that Bogost frequently uses: America's Army. Clearly, that game is designed as bait to lure young men (and women?) into army recruitment offices. Therefore, we could look at what aspects of military life are omitted that could potentially change those young men's mind if they were left in (long, long hours of standing around doing nothing, girlfriends or wives back home breaking up or cheating on them, etc.)

Bogost waxes eloquently in the final chapter: "Like love and revolution, procedural rhetorics persuade through intervention, by setting the stage for a new understanding unthinkable in the present" (339). I've seen similar claims made about science fiction, and perhaps that's fitting--since just a few decades ago, the videogames we enjoy today were pure science fiction.

All in all, Bogost has written an excellent book that everyone who is serious about studying videogames should read. Furthermore, while it is academic at times, those parts are easy enough to skip and are much less integrated than they were in Unit Operations. Bogost does a great job explicating his arguments with clear examples, including obscure games like Tax Avoiders and Tooth Invaders. More importantly, though, this book will make you think long and hard about videogames as an expressive medium and get you excited about the future of our favorite passion.

If you decide to buy the book or the others one mentioned, please use the following affiliated links.

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Matt Barton
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I take it nobody gives a shit

I take it nobody gives a shit about these reviews of game studies books here?

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Rob Daviau
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Er,

Give it a couple days MATT I am sure a lot of folk are pretty busy this time of year.........

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Matt Barton
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Hehe. I don't blame people

Hehe. I don't blame people for not being interested in this stuff. Just wondering if it's worth posting this academic kind of stuff here, or if I should just publish it at Gameology instead.

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Bill Loguidice
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I must admit to having no

I must admit to having no real interest in this stuff, but it doesn't mean it shouldn't be posted here. I'm not one for academic writing, as I often feels like it tries too hard to be as opaque and wordy as possible rather than as clear and direct as possible. We should post anything and everything here, though. No reason not to post it to Gameology as well, or anywhere else appropriate, though.

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Matt Barton
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Yes, this book is more

Yes, this book is more accessible to general audiences than his first, but I can't imagine someone truly just reading this for pleasure. Still, I thought people might like to see some of the stuff going on in game studies. Occasionally, I'll hear from an aspiring student of the subject.

I formerly liked to rant about the unnecessary complexity in stuff like this. They always like to show off their knowledge of esoteric thinkers like Derrida and Deleuze/Guittari, folks whose inscrutable writings are of interest to very few people outside of humanities departments (and even there the appeal is limited). I did my time with them in PhD school and like most everyone else who went through that experience, you hate to "waste" all of it by not dropping it in to relevant discussions. I basically see it as a way for people to feel educated and more academic, but the practical value is questionable at best. Then again, it's not surprising considering that it wasn't that long ago when all universities taught strictly in Latin, a dead language.

One thing that I find silly is that so much of this stuff is based on Karl Marx, who was pretty good at popularizing his own ideas in accessible form. Precious few who have followed him have bothered to do that. They've stopped writing for the masses and now just write for each other.

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Bill Loguidice
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I agree, Matt. Don't get me

I agree, Matt. Don't get me wrong, I think there is a place for this stuff, but even in our niche, I don't think there's much mass appeal. Honestly, something like this best suits other academics. To me, that's who the target audience is and that's where its importance lies, not with actual gamers. With all that said, we're often accused of being high brow here anyway, so no reason not to occasionally go down that path in the true extreme of "high brow".

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clok1966
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Honesty :) without calling

Honesty :) without calling it a bad name.. yep, I started reading it and quit. its all above my pay grade brain wise :) I am here reading comments now :) I have to agree, post anything you feel relates, why not, we read it or we dont. Look at the reaction Wiki stuff got ya :) this one sorta died. Doenst mean it wasnt worth posting, means you are far more of an intellectual then most (not all) of us-me. I find it amazing, normally people who love the stuff I have very little in common with. Guess it just proves the same old thing, dont judge anybody.

Matt Barton
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I've always tried to walk a

I've always tried to walk a fine line between academic and popular writing. There's a certain body of literature called "critical theory," most of it authored by French philosophers and imported into humanities departments (especially in literature). It's more or less the opposite of empirical research, where you actually go out and do studies or field work. With this, you just learn to talk with a sophisticated jargon and accuse anyone who doesn't as indoctrinated or "un-critical." Instead of believing that something is true or false, they see it as true or false only in a political context--the "man" says what is true and you should be suspicious at all times. The stuff we read doesn't say what's true either, but only that we should "problematicize" everything, discovering bogeyman everywhere. Granted, there is often a need to be skeptical and to consider alternatives, but, on the other hand, it's also important to act and not get mired in endless, fruitless discussion.

I heard it described one time in a funny way. The idea was that academics (at least of this stripe) were susceptible to this sort of stuff because they are so highly educated, yet so poorly paid and respected by the rest of society. Naturally, it's easy to slip into the mindset that any society in which the "elites" were so unloved and weak must be thoroughly and completely broken. I guess in our society it makes sense to take these highly educated people and dump them in an environment where all that negativity and cynicism doesn't affect anyone outside the academy. You probably wouldn't want these people instigating riots and plotting the overthrow of the government. Just give them a teaching gig somewhere and let them intellectually masturbate all day.

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Matt Barton
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Hehe, you'd laugh if you saw

Hehe, you'd laugh if you saw my friend assortment from over the years. I'm definitely not a snob or a guy who thinks he's better than other people. The only thing I "judge" are people who are closed-minded or who refuse to consider new ideas. I regularly have to deal with truly stupid people, but it's not related to their education level. It's more related to their common sense. For instance, one of my family members refuses to have her child immunized. Why not? "I just won't." Uh...that's not a reason. That's just stupidity, plain and simple.

But, yeah, I was kind of hoping that some of the academic types would pick up these reviews at least. I noticed Ian Bogost tweeted about it (to say he didn't like the doublespaced footnotes either), but that's about it. I guess I at least produced something I'll be able to use myself later on, assuming I try to write a scholarly article on this stuff.

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Bill Loguidice
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Ugh, the immunization thing

Ugh, the immunization thing is a sore point for me. In my opinion - and this is based on solid science, not hearsay - it's criminal not to immunize yourself and your children. It's not only important for the individual and their children, but the community at large (herd immunity). It's just pseudo-science, conspiracy theory nonsense and purely anecdotal that anything about modern day immunizations is detrimental to anything other than their intended disease targets.

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