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Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames

by Ian Bogost

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1573135,617 (3.67)2
An exploration of the way videogames mount arguments and make expressive statements about the world that analyzes their unique persuasive power in terms of their computational properties. Videogames are an expressive medium, and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. In this innovative analysis, Ian Bogost examines the way videogames mount arguments and influence players. Drawing on the 2,500-year history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, Bogost analyzes rhetoric's unique function in software in general and videogames in particular. The field of media studies already analyzes visual rhetoric, the art of using imagery and visual representation persuasively. Bogost argues that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric. Bogost calls this new form "procedural rhetoric," a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation. He argues further that videogames have a unique persuasive power that goes beyond other forms of computational persuasion. Not only can videogames support existing social and cultural positions, but they can also disrupt and change these positions themselves, leading to potentially significant long-term social change. Bogost looks at three areas in which videogame persuasion has already taken form and shows considerable potential: politics, advertising, and learning.… (more)
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Bogost makes a lot of novel, useful points here: about videogames in general, and about them as a medium for conveying opinionated, directed, persuasive messages. It's another book of his that has taught me specific points and also made me think about games in slightly different ways.

However, I must rate it somewhere around 3-3.5 because of the rather overwritten, nearly philosophy-parodying style. References to numerous philosophers classical and modern, from Aristotle to Lacan, abound. They're sometimes handy, but mostly they seem like an artificial boosting of the book's credibility. For my part, I found that Bogost's own words did that just fine, and the digressions into more general matters of philosophy distracted me.

Still, a very good book for anyone interested in the medium of videogames. ( )
  mrgan | Oct 30, 2017 |
I was surprised by the book's focus on procedural rhetoric, meaning persuasion where the game mechanics themselves are intimately tied to the message. Many games with a message use it as essentially a wrapper around the actual, neutral mechanics. Sometimes these can even be at odds with the mechanics, such as the oft-discussed "ludonarrative" dissonance of Bioshock ludo standing for play.

That example in particular points to a weakness of the book: it was originally published in 2007, with some of the chapters drawn from earlier papers published in 2005 and 2006. This seems kind of crazy to fault an old book for being old, but it has a substantive effect on the kind of examples Bogost is able to marshal to describe his ideas. Another glaring absence is the Wii and Kinect from a chapter on "exergames" and other physical inputs. A revised edition is sorely needed, and hopefully Bogost is able to pause writing new books long enough to revisit this one. (There was also an important error I spotted: he claims Counter-Strike has instant respawning, while the whole appeal is its round-based gameplay!)

He spends the first chapter laying down the terms and rules that he's using. This is by far the driest, most academic portion of the book, and I'd encourage you to just power through it to get to the meat. Portions can even be outright skipped, as Bogost is reacting to the milieu of the time, repeatedly making points that are accepted as common-sense today. I can recognize why nailing down your language is necessary to be part of the academic conversation—especially useful in philosophy, which Bogost clearly has some background in—but in most cases, this is best handled within the body of the text itself.

As is, a lot of the examples are pretty dated—but this does have one advantage in allowing you to see through the novelty to the mechanics underneath. I was surprised by the sophistication of Bogost's analysis, especially for games that seem so simple at first glance. He draws in a fair amount of context to contextualize many of these games, which can sometimes misfire as I'd quibble with some of his explanations of the social atmosphere of the time. That said, on the whole they add to the understanding and flesh out his analysis.

That context brings up an important point: while these mechanics substantively work towards the message of the game, there is still some semantic content needed for the player to understand what's going on, in much the same way as looking solely at the code and algorithms wouldn't teach you what's going on. However barebones, the graphics and other elements are necessary for any game to reach beyond itself, and Bogost doesn't quite have any systemic analysis of how those framing elements work.

Perhaps this is expecting too much, but it would have been great to compare how the artistic elements advance the message, rather than solely looking at how the mechanics work to advance them. How does the game focus the player's attention on those salient details? What are some commonalities in how those games are expressive with their feedback? Furthermore, how does this link up with existing theories of visual rhetoric? Bogost raises some or all of those questions in one or two examples, but none get anywhere near the treatment as other issues he raises.

Instead, Bogost spends a lot of time bringing Baidou and Derrida and other continental philosophers (Boo! Hiss!) into his arguments, and for totally unnecessary reasons. I can understand the lure of theory, and have a pretty good grasp on it myself, but it doesn't need to find its way into everything, especially when the referents don't add anything to the story you're telling. Perhaps it lays the groundwork for scholars from those fields to pick up the procedural rhetoric concept and bring it into their work, but that's a task best left to them. The best-case scenario of Bogost drawing from theory is just leaving more surface-area for people to attack his argument; the worst-case, obfuscation.

All that said, overall my impressions were pretty good! I really appreciate Bogost's work for laying the grounds for further game criticism, even if they're limited to just that. And while I will pick on his academic writing style at times, he does a good job of pulling in examples from throughout the history of video games, choosing the ones that most clearly illustrate his ideas. While the text itself certainly needs some revising, the argument itself has grown yet stronger with time, and that's my biggest takeaway. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
Its MIT press book, also available on MIT press Ebooks portal on ipublishcentral http://mitpress-ebooks.mit.edu/product/persuasive-games
  ipublishcentral | Jun 11, 2009 |
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An exploration of the way videogames mount arguments and make expressive statements about the world that analyzes their unique persuasive power in terms of their computational properties. Videogames are an expressive medium, and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them. In this innovative analysis, Ian Bogost examines the way videogames mount arguments and influence players. Drawing on the 2,500-year history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, Bogost analyzes rhetoric's unique function in software in general and videogames in particular. The field of media studies already analyzes visual rhetoric, the art of using imagery and visual representation persuasively. Bogost argues that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric. Bogost calls this new form "procedural rhetoric," a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation. He argues further that videogames have a unique persuasive power that goes beyond other forms of computational persuasion. Not only can videogames support existing social and cultural positions, but they can also disrupt and change these positions themselves, leading to potentially significant long-term social change. Bogost looks at three areas in which videogame persuasion has already taken form and shows considerable potential: politics, advertising, and learning.

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