Ian Bogost’s 2007 publication of Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames is a welcome addition to a fairly underexplored area of computer game scholarship: The rhetoric of computer games. Bogost combines his experience of designing games for his company Persuasive Games with a study of the computer game industry at large. He draws examples from serious games such as The McDonald's Game and Darfur is Dying, Biblical games such as Bible Adventures and Spiritual Warfare, advertising games such as Catch a Coke and Pepsi Invaders, exercise games such as Dance Dance Revolution and Track & Field, and many others besides. He uses his broad corpus to demonstrate time and again that all games are rhetorical.
Such a claim comes as no surprise to rhetoricians; symbolic messages are always rhetorical, and games are full of symbolism. Bogost’s contribution to this discussion, however, engages with the rhetorical strategies that are unique to computer games. Media necessarily affect any rhetorical situation; theories for oral rhetoric, for example, do not completely account for what happens to rhetoric when it moves to paper and ink. Computer games, argues Bogost, are a unique medium for multiple reasons, combining visual rhetoric and digital rhetoric into what he entitles procedural rhetoric. He expands on his initial definition of procedural rhetoric as “a practice of using processes persuasively” throughout the first chapter, subordinating image, narrative, play, and message to the process. Bogost’s argument brings to mind a revision of McLuhan’s seminal work “The Medium Is the Message”; for Bogost, the process is the message. Computer interfaces create representations of processes, and computer games can use these process representations persuasively to inductively and deductively involve the player in the purpose of the text. Bogost uses The McDonald's Game to demonstrate this claim. A fairly complex serious game, The McDonald's Game requires the player to manage the four different aspects of running the McDonald corporation: agriculture, the slaughter house, the chain store, and the corporate entity, which include the PR machine. To be successful is to be unethical, sidestepping environmental and health concerns in the capitalist goal of profit. Throughout, the player is involved in participating in the representational procedure, and it is that participation that is the unique underlying structure of computer game rhetoric.
Not all computer games, Bogost emphasizes, employ procedural rhetoric (or, at least, they do not employ procedural rhetoric effectively). To be successful, computer game designers must choose the most effective representation of a process. If they choose a poor procedural representation (such as Congo Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Bark, a deforestation game), the player will not be convinced of the message nor will the player know what to do with the information once the game is completed. The only criticism that I have against this claim is the primacy of authorial intention—the author wants an audience to respond and act in a specific way. Such a theoretical view ignores the function of a game. Purpose as a rhetorical term invests the power of the message in the author’s intention. Function, as discussed by Sonja Foss, invests the power of the message in the audience’s interpretation and use of a rhetorical object. And since computer games require players to actively participate with the text, the emphasis on purpose seems unfairly weighted in favor of the computer game designer. A small criticism, indeed, when one considers the strength of this book.
In 450 pages, Bogost examines the procedural rhetoric of computer games in politics, advertising, and learning—the three categories under which he organizes his inquiry into the topic. The book has a total of eleven chapters: 1) Procedural Rhetoric, 2) Political Processes, 3) Ideological Frames, 4) Digital Democracy, 5) Advertising Logic, 6) Licensing and Product Placement, 7) Advergames, 8) Procedural Literacy, 9) Values and Aspirations, 10) Exercise, and 11) Purposes of Persuasion. I have already summarized the first chapter here. For the remainder of the review, I will follow Bogost’s taxonomy to trace his development of procedural rhetoric.