Ian Bogost’s book is both ambitious in content and well organized in its chosen limitations. He focuses on a very specific type of rhetoric—purposeful persuasion—in his attempt at defining a new rhetorical model defined by and for computer games. And such inquiries are much needed at this juncture: games are a different material medium and require a very specific type of audience participation. Therefore, applying the same theory of rhetoric for written discourse or oral speech-making to games does not take into account the material and social differences between the media, messages, and influences. Bogost successfully achieves this accounting in his book. In offering his definition of procedural rhetoric, Bogost offers a way of understanding how games work at the level of system-logic and interactivity.
There are times in the book that I thought Bogost was too generous with audience interpretation and intervention. Players can critique the logic of the game—and thereby the logic of the system that it represents—through the gameplay. For example, Animal Crossing asks the player to make money by fishing, picking fruit, and other activities. From there, the player can buy new and larger houses (something that the player is compelled to do), buy more stuff, and gain more status through commodity fetishism. It works as an exposé of capitalism if, and this is a big if, the player is willing to overlook how cute the characters are and how fun it is to buy and decorate a larger house. While Bogost cites examples where critique occurred, I can cite numerous anecdotal instances where people just wanted to play, the game training them to become good little capitalists. I would be interested in any number of studies that explored the influence that games have in changing people’s perceptions of the world by exposing the underlying logic of systems, a call for action that Bogost also makes in his concluding chapter.
My second and final critique concerns the limitations of rhetoric and persuasion. Games teach multiple things in multiple ways, which Bogost implies at times, but sometimes what a game teaches is not what was intended. Bogost’s emphasis on intentional persuasion—a designer wanting to convince a player of a specific message through a specific procedure—ignores much of the conditional persuasion that occurs whenever games are played. For example, some friends and I were recently playing games on the new Microsoft X-Box 360. The games we had were all big releases, and all of them had a single-player mode as well as an online multi-player mode. But there was not an option to have multiple people play a multi-player game on the same console by just plugging in more controllers. Instead, we all had to have a console, we all had to have the game, and we all have to have access to X-Box Live. At the level of the interface, the game, regardless of its procedural message, sent the message that all of us needed to have a 360 console, own the same game, and pay the monthly fee in order to socially participate in gameplay. I recognize that such a critique may be outside of the purview of Bogost’s book as he did set out to limit his topic to the type of rhetoric that stems from how a game is encoded and represented. However, I would have also appreciated a slightly more expansive definition of rhetoric and persuasion so that I could imagine how procedural rhetoric would interact with the number of other persuasive actions implied in its interface.
I lay these two critiques aside in my final valuation of the book: Persuasive Games is an excellent addition to any rhetorician’s library regardless of an interest in games. As a whole, Bogost makes a number of new contributions to the field and offers extensive examples throughout, so even a person who has never played a computer game would be able to understand and follow the logic of the argument. Further, Bogost’s own work as a game designer adds a much needed element to game design theory; Bogost is able to reflect upon both his successes and failures, using that reflection to more rigorously articulate why and how persuasion happens. In addition, to use a term often associated with playing games, I can conclude that reading this book was fun.