Understanding Video Games text-book
Book Review: Persuasive Games - The Expressive Power of Videogames

Date posted: October 1, 2007

Review by Jonas Heide Smith


The proliferation of games for serious purposes in recent years has been nothing short of astounding. Although using games for training and marketing is a phenomenon with a considerable history the present surge of interest marks an unmistakable mainstreaming of the concept that games can be efficient means of persuasion, branding, education, and communication. A telling example is the recent initiative of the Danish agency in charge of recycling of bottles and cans (Dansk Retursystem A/S). Wanting to increase knowledge and compliance the agency launched two web-based games.

daasens_haevn_2.pngThe first (see image), which tied in with a larger campaign, lets the player retaliate against non-recyclers by firing trash at them through office building rubbish chutes. The other one which has an optional multi-player mode puts the player behind the wheel of a can collection lorry speeding through town against the clock to pick up irresponsibly discarded cans.

It is clear that communicators across domains have quite suddenly become convinced that games can forcefully help spread messages. What is less clear, however, is why this sudden change of heart (after all, games have been with us for some time) has come about. For instance, it seems difficult to point to new persuasive evidence that games are measurably more efficient than traditional tools for teaching or persuasion.

It is into this landscape of seemingly ungrounded enthusiasm that Ian Bogost, assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, releases his ambitious Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Few seem better placed to do so. For some years now Bogost has refined his thinking on the game medium both through academic channels (Bogost, 2005; 2006; 2007) and through the co-edited (with game theorist Gonzalo Frasca) weblog www.watercoolergames.org, a site which seeks to be “a forum for the uses of videogames in advertising, politics, education, and other everyday activities, outside the sphere of entertainment”. In parallel, Bogost and his game studio has produced several titles within the category traditionally labeled “serious games”.

Bogost dislikes that label and understanding why is key to appreciating Bogost’s larger philosophy. But initially it is worth considering just what the world of academic videogame rhetorics needs at this point. First of all, the plethora of competing labels and perfunctorily defined buzz-words floating about calls out for a careful survey of the field and a framework for analyzing the variety of specimen in the fast-growing serious games biotope. Second, we need a sense of the relative abilities of videogames to persuade; that is we need a theory of how, why and when they do persuade and preferably some documentation that they do in fact persuade. Bogost convincingly supplies the former but does not fully tackle the latter. No convenient model of game-based persuasion appears fully-formed in Bogost’s text. Instead we get a meticulously researched and clearly composed treasure-trove of examples alongside various hints of a larger theory. Let’s look briefly at what those hints tell us.

Centrally, Bogost argues that the noteworthy communicative characteristic of games is that they can employ “procedural rhetoric” defined as “a practice of using processes persuasively” (p3) whose “arguments are made not though the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models.” (p29). Other media can employ words and images and it is only through representing relationships and processes through rules and reward models that games require and deserve a particular rhetorical perspective. Games, to loosely paraphrase Bogost, lets players participate in the making of claims and through this mental process (as opposed to mere on-screen interactivity) games may persuade.

These persuasive games, importantly, can be of any type. In a criticism of the “serious games movement”, Bogost emphasizes how the study of game persuasion should not limit itself to those games which are self-professedly “serious”. To Bogost, such a delimitation is “a foolish gesture that wrongly undermines the expressive power of videogames in general, and highly crafted, widely appealing commercial games in particular.” (p59).

This criticism carries over to B. J. Fogg’s work on “captology” summarized in his book Persuasive Technologies (Fogg, 2003). To Bogost, the problem with Fogg is that he limits the perspective to deliberate messages and intended outcomes of computer design thus leaving out real social or mental consequences unforeseen by designers. But more pressingly, perhaps, Bogost takes issue with how “captology is not fundamentally concerned with altering the user’s fundamental conception of how real-world processes work. Rather, it is primarily intended to craft new technological constraints that impose conceptual or behavioral change in users.”. In other words, captology is the effort to change the environment and thereby affect behavior, while Bogost’s vision of persuasive games is one in which you change the people. One ties your hands behind your back so you can’t smoke; the other makes you no longer want to light up.

Here we see Bogost’s rhetorical philosophy quite clearly outlined: People should be convinced, not coerced.

From his reflections on the proper communicative uses of games, Bogost goes on to discuss persuasive games in terms of politics, advertising, and learning. Many thought-provoking, some quite funny, and a few directly baroque, examples are scrutinized with a strong focus on the efforts of the designers to actually make statements through processes (and not just through auxiliary text etc.). Bogost’s method is textual analysis. He looks for possible interpretations and thus leans on the logic of classical rhetorical analysis which relied chiefly on the analyst working on a text. The actual listener, or player, in Bogost’s case, is an abstraction. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas orients the player towards its crime-filled missions through its design and from this Bogost argues that

As the player exits the open urban environment and reenters the missions, he does so willingly, not under the duress of a complex socio-historical precondition. This rhetoric implicitly affirms the metaphor of criminal behavior as depravity. (p118).

Bogost does not claim that all players necessarily reach the same conclusions but this type of analysis does arguably make very strong assumptions about actual player interpretations without empirical basis. This approach in turn highlights the rather modest attention in the book to describing the exact working of procedural rhetorics and to documenting its efficiency. We hear little of why engaging with processes are a useful way of understanding the real-world phenomena that they represent. We are given very few leads to theoretical literature that might lend credence to the idea that personal engagement is important in persuasion. And we are not informed of one single instance in which anybody changed his mind or behavior after playing a game.

Bogost does well to tie his discussion to classical and visual rhetorics as well as captology. But practically passing the entire field of “persuasion research” which provides both theoretical models (e.g. O’Keefe, 1990) and empirical studies of the effects of various aspects of computerized persuasion (e.g. Sundar & Kim, 2005) is a curious choice. These omissions may leave the reader on shaky ground as to evaluating the very importance of games as tools for persuasion or critical thought.

Of course, few (sub)fields come nicely gift-wrapped and fully articulated in a single volume. Persuasive Games creates order from chaos and puts recent game developments into a much-needed historical perspective. This is an invaluable service to the field and the thoughtful treatment of a wide range of little-known games is inspiring as a case of game analysis in action. These achievements make me recommend the book warmly, while looking forward to Bogost’s future fleshing out of the theory and empirical merits of persuasive games.

Bogost, I. (2005). Frame and Metaphor in Political Games. Paper presented at the DiGRA 2005: Changing Views - Worlds in Play, Vancouver, Canada.

Bogost, I. (2006). Playing Politics: Videogames for Politics, Activism, and Advocacy. First Monday(Special issue number 7).

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fogg, B. J. (2003). Persuasive technology : using computers to change what we think and do. Amsterdam ; Boston: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.

O’Keefe, D. J. (1990). Persuasion: Theory and Research. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Sundar, S. S., & Kim, J. (2005). Interactivity and Persuasion: Influencing attitudes with information and involvement. Journal of Interactive Advertising, 5(2), 6-29.

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