Tensions Between Meaning Construction and Persuasion in Gamesby Jan H.G. Klabbers
Games are forms of play. A great variety of forms have been developed and put into practice to enhance learning, offer solace, to drive away boredom, and/or to persuade players to adopt certain actions and opinions. Meaning construction, while playing games, results from the interplay between form, content, and context of use. It is the player who defines the locus of control of the learning process. However, designers may try to tip that balance in favor of the message built in into the game. One should be aware of this tension between the meaning constructions by the players and the procedural rhetoric shaped by the designer. The medium that is, the game as such is not the message. It is the interplay between player (actor) and the enacted reality - conveyed through the game - that generates reality. Consequently, that tension may result in persuasive games, which are counterproductive in terms of the intended outcomes. One should also be aware of the ethical dimension of those persuasive games, which in their capacity of change agents aim at luring the players into harmful (collective) behavior. Bogost enlightens these qualities of persuasive games, and elaborates on the potentially beneficial or damaging role of the game designer.
First ImpressionWith Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost has presented an intriguing book on procedural rhetoric of games, in particular, digital games. It is a rich resource for anyone designing, studying or inquiring into this area. It deserves wide attention among all those working in education - as researchers, teacher educators, or teachers - political science, and policy & management science.
Gaming is a lively field that is still gaining momentum in the academic world, the social/political practice and public debate, and the media business. On the whole, researchers and practitioners will not find easy answers to direct classroom work, and policy & management practice. Even where progress is being made, the outcomes of research and design are often still some way from being readily applicable in curricular and lesson design, and policy & management development.
Purpose of the bookPersuasive gaming is the language of (procedural) rhetoric of design and play, rather than of the description and analysis of games per se. The term links to the very core of the design sciences, which aim at changing current situations into preferred ones through to changing opinion, action, or enhancing systems development. Bogost suggests a definition of procedural rhetoric, which opens a conceptual space for continuing understanding of the subject matter of the game involved. He limits the scope to procedural logic in computer-driven games, although his main thesis applies to games and gaming in general.
Content of the bookThe book comprises 11 chapters arranged into three sections: Politics, Advertising, and Learning. It does not offer a fully coherent account of the field of gaming, or more generally, of game science. It reflects the status of one branch of game science that is, digital games from the viewpoint of procedural rhetoric. It is a branch where much important work continues, and where major debates about the potential and reach of games are gaining momentum.
Frame of reference of procedural rhetoricIn chapter 1 - preceding the three sections mentioned above - Bogost addresses procedural rhetoric, while broadening the scope of (classical) rhetoric and rhetorical practice (persuasive speech, or oratory), which primarily served political purposes. His objective is to reframe the idea of verbal rhetoric to such an extent that it can address other sorts of arguments, such as used in visual and digital rhetoric.
During the Middle Ages and modern times the classical concept of rhetoric was expanded beyond oratory and direct persuasion, including new modes of inscription such as, literary and artistic modes of expression. Contemporary rhetoric favors the effective arrangement of a work to create a possibility space for interpretation, weakening the status of persuasion through verbal and written rhetoric.
Visual rhetoricBogost points out that rhetorics of all types assume a particular approach to effective expression. He refers to Sonja Foss, Karen Foss, and Robert Trapp who define rhetoric “broadly as the uniquely human ability to use symbols to communicate with one another” [p. 20]. He refers as well to Kenneth Burke, who argues that rhetoric facilitates human action in general, expanding the domain to include nonverbal domains of expression: symbolic production in the abstract. Multiple forms of cultural expression such as, photographic and cinematic expression represent media forms of visual communication - visual rhetoric - used to influence people’s attitudes, opinions, and beliefs.
As visual rhetoric is often used in videogames, a medium that applies both still and moving images, it falls short when trying to address the rhetorical function of procedural representation, which is basic to playing games. Bogost notes: “Image is subordinate to process”. [p. 25], and one would add: “The game process drives the rhetoric”. Email, websites, blogs, and wikis are examples of digital rhetoric, which focus on text and image content of a machine (a computer) and the communities of practice in which that content is created and used. Bogost, while referring to Gurak and Warnick, argues: “In short, digital rhetoric tends to focus on the presentation of traditional materials - especially text and images - without accounting for the computational underpinning of that presentation.” [p.28] [p.28]
Procedural rhetoricBy combining the concepts of procedurality and rhetoric Bogost then presents the following definition: “Procedural rhetoric is the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively. Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes. Following the classical model, procedural rhetoric entails persuasion - to change opinion or action. Following the contemporary model, procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.” [28-29]
This definition applies to procedural rhetoric deployed to rule-based games in general; see for example board games, card games, and computer-assisted and computer-supported games. Bogost continues with pointing out that in computer-directed games, and the computations involved, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of programming. In for example board games those rules and computations are authored via for example, the moving pieces, and/or paper and pencil work. The difference between computer-directed games and analog games lies in the different instrumentality of the various rule-based games. That is not a matter of principle. It refers to the different media of representation of the processes involved. It is a pity that Bogost restricts his views on procedural rhetoric to video games by not broadening the scope of rhetoric and persuasion to all games. It is a missed chance. It weakens the persuasive potential of his main thesis. That wider horizon would have offered an opportunity to reflect and theorize on the differences between normative and descriptive rules of behavior in games, and their impact on the design and game play. Moreover, the distinction between rigid-rule and free-form games - being straightforward in ‘analog games’ - could have offered a good opportunity to discuss the shift from the designer as the one who persuades, to the players who become the persuaders, while self-organizing the process. This perspective is worthwhile because in multi-actor games interactivity applies both to the conversations among the players, and the interaction with the game resources. The conversation among the players is a cyclic process in which they alternatively listen, think, speak, and interact with the game-artifact. The quality of their interaction depends on the quality of each of the subtasks, including the quality of the (rule-based) representation. Together they define the structure of the procedural argument. This multi-actor perspective is missing in Bogost’s rhetoric.
He introduces the enthymeme as a basic quality of procedural rhetoric in videogames, simulations, or procedural systems. It is a technique in which a proposition in a syllogism is omitted. Bogost refers to Aristotle’s rhetorical practice, distinguishing between two modes of human reason: induction and deduction (syllogism). The equivalent of induction is the example, and the equivalent to deduction is the enthymeme. In a syllogism both proposition and conclusion are given explicitly. In enthymeme one of the propositions in the syllogism are omitted. Bogost [p. 18] gives the following example of an enthymeme: “We cannot trust this man, as he is a politician”. The major premise of a proper syllogism is omitted:
Politicians are not trustworthy (premise is omitted)
This man is a politician.
Therefore, we cannot trust this man.
Bogost illustrates how enthymeme might work with visual images, referring to the famous 1964 Lyndon Johnson television spot (“Daisy Ad”). The ad invoked the following visual enthymeme that completes the following syllogism:
Increasing nuclear proliferation will likely lead to the destruction of humanity.
Goldwater supports nuclear proliferation (omitted).
Therefore, electing Goldwater may lead to the destruction of humanity.
The listener - in case of oratory - or the player - in case of a game - is expected to fill in the missing proposition, which relates to what Bogost calls the simulation gap, and complete the claim. However, raising procedural objections to embody dialectic in rhetorical schemes, when applied to computational systems such as, rule-driven digital games, is not simple and straightforward. The player in a one-person videogame is usually not allowed to raise procedural objections by changing the rules of the game. Even in a multi-person videogame the players are usually not expected to communicate with each other about changing the rules, although that option in principle is available in such a multi-actor setting, and it is not forbidden by the rules. Bogost is aware of the objections to these design specifications. He offers two responses [p. 37]:
- Allowing the users to change the rules implies a game design that accounts for multiple perspectives on a particular subject. Bogost argues:“One usually makes rhetorical claims precisely to exclude opposing positions on a subject, not to allow for the equal validity of all possible positions.
- .... all artifacts subject to dissemination need not facilitate direct argument with the rhetorical author”. Objections may require constructing a new claim in another context.
The simulation gap emerges between the rule-based representation of the game and the (explicit or tacit) behavior rules of the player. Those two distinct rule systems may not match, and they might lead to varying meaning constructions. Fully-fledged games - consisting of interconnected building blocks of actors, rules and resources - are procedural models. In terms of Bogost, they are systems of nested enthymemes, which the player completes through interaction. With regard to videogames, the software systems involved ad a special instrumental layer of procedures to the game space, to make the game workable in the digital environment, and to offer additional functionality. The enthymeme is the building block for including procedural rhetoric in games. The player - most of the time not being aware of it - closes the rhetorical loop. The persuasive value of a game depends on its capacity to close convincingly the simulation gap.
VideogamesBogost considers videogames computational artifacts, and special subcategory of procedural expression. Interactivity between the player and the artifact “guarantees neither meaningful expression nor meaningful persuasion, but it sets the stage for both”. … Greater interactivity is often considered especially engaging, or “immersive.“ [p. 45] He suggests that vividness does not come from immersion, but from abstraction, assuming that the closer to the real experience we can get, the better. According to Bogost’s views, fidelity does not seem to the most important criterion of success. He stresses that meaning in videogames is constructed not through a re-creation of the world, but through selectively modeling appropriate elements of that world. I should remind the reader that every game is a model, and therefore by definition a selection and abstraction of a real or imagined referent system. As Bogost is interested in videogames that make arguments about the way systems work in the material world [p.47], the underlying argument is that persuasive games need to be both valid and normative representations: valid with respect to modeled processes, and normative with regard to the meaning of the message conveyed. Persuasion then is accomplished through (partial) reinforcement of player’s actions in the desired direction.
The observer versus the player perspectiveBogost is not interested in the function or characteristics of play, or in play activities. He makes a distinction between the function of procedural representation and rhetoric, as it is used for persuasion, and Brian Sutton-Smith’s rhetorics of play. Bogost observes: “While we both use the term rhetoric, we use it in different contexts, although not in entirely different ways. Sutton-Smith discusses the rhetorical modes of play itself: the ways theorists present play as a human cultural activity.” [p. 52] Sutton-Smith focuses on the cultural role of play, not the culturally embodied practice of playing specific games. He makes a distinction between eight rhetorics of play, each of which views play in different ways and for different ends under the same common name. Bogost presents the procedural rhetoric of a game - the rhetorical function of procedural expression - in the tradition of representation rather than the rhetorics of play. Bogost summarizes these two positions as follows: “ The difference between rhetorics of play and procedural rhetoric should now be clear. Sutton-Smith’s rhetorics of play characterize broad cultural contexts, while procedural rhetorics express specific patterns of cultural value.” [p. 54].
In addition to this distinction between Sutton-Smith and Bogost I would like to ad a more fundamental difference. Sutton-Smith puts himself in the position of the outsider, observing play while using various domains of description, which he calls rhetorics. That understanding of rhetorics is only relevant in the meta-domain of the outsider, in which the observer makes his commentaries. It cannot be deemed to be operative in the domain of the object of description: the experiential world of the player, as envisioned by the designer. Sutton-Smith represents the analytical sciences approach to gaming, while Bogost positions himself in the design sciences domain. His approach to persuasive games implies the design of an interactive artifact, which aims at convincing the player(s) to adopt a certain interest in social affairs. Bogost assumes the role of the advocate. He uses persuasive games as change agents, while Sutton-Smith aims at interpreting play, while looking at it from a distance. Bogost emphasizes the linkages between designer and player, while Sutton-Smith tries to convince his audience that the behavior patterns he has detected, cover the - culturally driven - behavior patterns of play. As none of the descriptions are completely satisfactory, he accepts the ambiguity of eight rhetorics.
Persuasive versus serious gamesBogost asks himself what, if anything differentiates persuasive from serious games? While addressing that question, he refers to the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, who has paid attention to the ambiguous link between seriousness and play in his classic study Homo Ludens (1955). Bogost summarizes Huizinga’s views as follows: “On the one hand Huizinga notes that play “is the direct opposite of seriousness”. But on further investigation, he argues that “the contrast between play and seriousness proves to be neither conclusive nor fixed.” Huizinga notes that one can “play seriously,” that is, with great devotion and resolve, but seriousness does not seem to include the possibility of play, making the latter of a “higher order” than seriousness.” [p. 54-55] Huizinga main thesis concerns the play element of culture. He did not discuss in detail particular games, as forms of play. At the time he wrote Homo Ludens (1938), games - of the form that Bogost refers to - were not yet known. Huizinga refers mainly to cultural manifestations as forms of play. He argues that the opposite of play is work in the sense of not being playful.
Bogost then refers to Clark Abt’s book Serious Play (1970). Abt coined that term to characterize (analog) games, which have an explicit educational purpose, not being played for amusement or entertainment. Right from the beginning that term drew criticism by fellow game professionals such as, Ron Stadsklev (1979) who observed that “most of the examples and materials discussed in the text deal with materials published by the author’s company. One gets the impression that the book is an advertisement for Abt’s products. The author’s definitions of gaming and simulation are vague and hazy. No references are provided and there is no bibliography.“ (1979, 367)
Bogost considers the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars as the key player, since the late 1990s, in revitalizing the term ‘serious games’ for their new videogame initiative. It founded and funded the Serious Games Initiative. “The goal of the initiative is to help usher in a new series of policy education, exploration, and management tools utilizing state of the art computer game designs, technologies, and development skills.” [p. 56] So, “serious games” is a snappy title for a government and business initiative, referring to work conditions and not to play. It is not a classification, based on sound scientific reasoning about the constituting concepts “ serious” and “game”. It is a marketing term, aiming at making games and gaming for professional purposes in government and industry solemn, fashionable, weighty, grave, and highbrow. Bogost notes that “these meanings suggest that seriousness is often deployed in the service of institutions: governments, corporations, healthcare systems, religious beliefs, cultural communities, and to so forth. Seriousness implies actions that support the goals and progress of these institutions.” [p. 57] According to Bogost, these goals do not represent the full potential of persuasive games. He argues: “If persuasive games are videogames that mount meaningful procedural rhetorics, and if procedural rhetorics facilitate dialectical interrogation of process-based claims about how real-world processes do, could, or should work, then persuasive games can also make claims that speak past or against the fixed worldview of institutions like governments or corporations.” [p. 57] Bogost wraps up his views on and objections against the serious games terminology as follows: “Despite the possibility of rescuing serious games under the definition I have just offered, I do not want to preserve the name. Instead, I would like to advance persuasive games as an alternative whose promise lies in the possibility of using procedural rhetoric to support or challenge our understanding of the way things in the world do or should work. Such games can be produced for a variety of purposes, be they entertainment, education, activism, or a combination of these and others.” [p. 59]
This clear and critical view on serious games and gaming - under the umbrella of persuasive gaming - makes the distinction between serious and entertainment games trivial. Moreover, entertainment games are increasingly being used in educational settings for developing knowledge and skills, which are beneficial for “governments, corporations, healthcare systems, religious beliefs, cultural communities, and to so forth.” This practice demonstrates that the difference between the terms “serious” and “entertainment” games is tweedledum and tweedledee.
Bogost discusses approaches to, and examples of procedural rhetorics, based on the frame-of-reference sketched above, in three domains: politics, advertising, and education. The section about politics covers the chapters: political processes, ideological frames, and digital democracy. The section about advertising addresses advertising logic, licensing and product placement, and advergames. The third section on learning pays attention to procedural literacy, values and aspirations, exercise, and purpose of persuasion. In all chapters, Bogost supports and illustrates his argumentation with numerous digital games. By doing so, he connects the abstract ideas of procedural rhetoric with the dynamics of concrete artifacts.
The politics and advertising domains demonstrate an interesting quality of procedural rhetoric of games. The design of both sorts of artifacts requires that the related procedural rhetoric becomes part of the rules of the game. By revealing that rhetoric, the lessons learned might be counterproductive to the objective of the policy or advertisement. For example, designing a game to persuade an audience about a certain policy, focusing on the wheeling and dealing of spin-doctors, might achieve the opposite. Bogost illustrates that power of games with various examples.
It is out of the scope of this review to discuss the three sections in more detail. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the section on learning, for reasons I will show next. Bogost sketches the problem of learning in videogames and distinguishes between the behaviorist and constructivist education theories. Contemporary approaches to formal education fall largely in either the behaviorist or the constructivist-learning environment. Bogost notes that in the “traditional” behaviorist classroom the students practice within question/answer frames that reinforce knowledge about a subject matter. The students respond in speech and writing and receive immediate feedback in the form of positive or negative reinforcement. The underlying assumption is that one type of positively reinforced behavior is adequate. It views the students as mental containers, waiting to be filled up. The behaviorist theory of learning fits into the domain of the analytical sciences. Constructivist learning environments allow the students to experiment, to learn-by-doing, to construct and reconstruct, emphasizing the learner’s ability to actively frame new ideas, based on experiences and past knowledge. The behaviorist classroom focuses on disembodied knowledge (reconstructing the past), the constructivist learning environment favors embodied knowledge (constructing the future). Bogost argues that current theories of videogames as educational tools mirror the views on the learning environments, mentioned above. He splits views on videogame learning into behaviorist and constructivist ideologies. In the behaviorist tradition, video games simulate the actual dynamics of the material world. Playing those games has the same effect, as would real learning have in the material world. In that view, videogames teach their content, and that content transfers to real-world experience. Flight simulators, and Sim City are good examples of this approach. Using flight simulators to teach about aviation presupposes that the underlying model is a valid representation of flying an aircraft. By sticking to the content of those videogames, neglecting their form and process, driven by the rules, Bogost seems to disregard the procedural rhetoric embedded in those games. Although the behaviorist approach to learning through games is problematic, his line of reasoning is not convincing. While elaborating why the behaviorist view on game-based learning is problematic, Bogost argues: “But playing a role in a videogame does not automatically imply validation for the behavior the game models.”  This argumentation is only partially correct, because the behavior the game models includes the dynamics of the referent system in interaction with the players’ actions. He fails to make a distinction between the representation of the material world - the referent system - and the way players interact with it to construct meaning. With respect to playing games those two positions intertwine: a game is only a game if being played. So, it might very well be the case that the underlying dynamic model, the procedural rhetoric included, is a valid representation, yet it does not automatically imply validation of the behavior of the player(s). This understanding is a serious question when it comes to assessing games. Bogost is right when he observes that “behaviorism’s general tendency to ignore the individual contexts for learning fail to account for both different player contexts and the ambiguity of meaning inherent to creative artifacts of all kinds.” [p. 239]
In chapter 11, Bogost discusses the purpose of persuasion. It is strange that - referring to his clear criticism about the term serious games - he mainly discusses serious games, while I would have expected that he would focus on the purpose of persuasion in persuasive games.
Taking into account his clear position in this behaviorist/constructivist debate, it is a pity that Bogost does not discuss the distinct analytical and design science methodologies for the (educational) assessment of games. Especially from the viewpoint of procedural rhetoric, he could have added valuable notions about the notoriously difficult issue of evaluating games. He sticks to the surface of assessing games, surprisingly referring to the metrics of accountability of serious games, and not mentioning the more challenging assessment of persuasive games for learning. He mentions quantitative assessment and the related metrics of validation, which are closely related to the behaviorist ideology he criticized before. The constructivist perspective - in line with the design science approach to games - requires both a quantitative and qualitative methodology for assessing games, focusing both on the process, and outcome. Such a discussion would have been consistent with Bogost’s core idea of procedural rhetoric.
The reader may have become very curious about the design and impact of persuasive games in the three domains Bogost discusses, to see how the rhetoric of procedural rhetoric works, and to learn basic notions about games as change agents. Do not wait: start reading this stimulating book.
Stadsklev, R. (1979). Handbook of simulation gaming in social education: Part 2. Directory of noncomputer materials (2nd ed.). Tuskaloosa, AL: University of Alabama, Institute of Higher Education Research and Services.