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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.
In 1975, Owen Gaede created Tenure, a simulation of the first year of secondary school teaching, for the PLATO computer education system. The program was intended to give new high school teachers an understanding of the impact of seemingly minor decisions on the teaching experience. The goal of the game is to complete the first year of teaching and earn a contract renewal for the next. During play, the player must make successive decisions, each of which affects different people in different ways. Some decisions may please the students but contradict the principal's educational philosophy. Others may provide a higher quality educational experience but put performance pressure on fellow teachers, causing workplace conflict. The player can monitor the state of affairs by listening to student reactions, requesting a conference with the principal, or overhearing gossip in the teacher's lounge.
The game is played primarily through responses to multiple-choice questions whose aggregate answers change principal, teacher, and student attitudes. For example, at the start of the game, the player must take a job interviewwith his prospective principal. The principal may ask about the player's educational philosophy or his willingness to advise student organizations. Later, the player must choose a grading methodology, classroom rules, student seating arrangements, and a curriculum plan. The simulation then presents the player with very specific quandaries, such as how to manage another teacher's students at a school assembly, whether or not to participate in the teacher's union, dealing with note-passing in class, contending with parents angry about their children's grades, and even managing students' difficult personal issues, such as home abuse.
No decision is straightforward, and the interaction of multiple successive decisions produces complex social, educational, and professional situations. Situations are further influenced by the gender of the teacher, the influence of the principal, student learning styles, and other subtle, social factors. In one run of a recent PC port of Tenure, Jack, one of my best students, had been arriving late to class. I could choose to ignore his tardiness, talk to him privately, or give him detention. I chose to talk with Jack about the problem, which earned me praise from the principal, whose progressive philosophy encouraged direct contact and student empathy. However, after speaking with the student, I learned that his tardiness was caused by Mr. Green, the math teacher, who had been holding class after the bell to complete the last problem on the board. Now I was faced with a new decision: confront Mr. Green, make Jack resolve the issue and accept the necessary discipline, or complain to the principal. Asking the student to take responsibility would avoid conflict with my colleague and principal on the one hand, but would put Jack in an uncomfortable situation on the other, perhaps changing his opinion of me as a teacher. Confronting Mr. Green might strain our relationship and, thanks to lounge gossip, my rapport with other teachers as well. Complaining to the principal might cause the same reaction, and might also run the risk of exposing me as indecisive. All of these factors might change given the outcome of other decisions and the personalities of my fellow teachers and principal.
Tenure makes claims about how high school education operates. Most notably, it argues that educational practice is deeply intertwined with personal and professional politics. Novice teachers and idealistic parents would like to think that their children's educations are motivated primarily, if not exclusively by pedagogical goals. Tenure argues that this ideal is significantly undermined by the realities of school politics, personal conflicts, and social hearsay. The game does not offer solutions to these problems; rather, it suggests that education takes place not in the classroom alone, but in ongoing affinities and disparities in educational, social, and professional goals. Tenure outlines the process by which high schools really run, and it makes a convincing argument that personal politics indelibly mark the learning experience.
I suggest the name procedural rhetoric for the new type of persuasive and expressive practice at work in artifacts like Tenure. Procedurality refers to a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes. And processes define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems, from mechanical systems like engines to organizational systems like high schools to conceptual systems like religious faith. Rhetoric refers to effective and persuasive expression. Procedural rhetoric, then, is a practice of using processes persuasively. More specifically, procedural rhetoric is the practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular. Just as verbal rhetoric is useful for both the orator and the audience, and just as written rhetoric is useful for both the writer and the reader, so procedural rhetoric is useful for both the programmer and the user, the game designer and the player. Procedural rhetoric is a technique for making arguments with computational systems and for unpacking computational arguments others have created.
Procedural and rhetoric are both terms that can impose ambiguity and confusion. Before trying to use the two together in earnest, I want to discuss each in turn.
The word procedure does not usually give rise to positive sentiments. We typically understand procedures as established, entrenched ways of doing things. In common parlance, procedure invokes notions of officialdom, even bureaucracy: a procedure is a static course of action, perhaps an old, tired one in need of revision. We often talk about procedures only when they go wrong: after several complaints, we decided to review our procedures for creating new accounts. But in fact, procedures in this sense of the word structure behavior; we tend to "see" a process only when we challenge it. Likewise, procedure and the law are often closely tied. Courts and law enforcement agencies abide by procedures that dictate how actions can and cannot be carried out. Thanks to these common senses of the term, we tend to think of procedures as fixed and unquestionable. They are tied to authority, crafted from the top down, and put in place to structure behavior and identify infringement. Procedures are sometimes related to ideology; they can cloud our ability to see other ways of thinking; consider the police officer or army private who carries out a clearly unethical action but later offers the defense, "I was following procedure." This very problem arose in the aftermath of American brutalization of Iraqi war prisoners at Abu Ghraib in 2004. Field soldiers claimed they followed orders, while officers insisted that the army did not endorse torture; rather individual soldiers acted alone. No matter the truth, the scenario raises questions about the procedures that drive military practice. In his report on prison practices, Major General Marshal Donald Ryder noted the possibility of altering "facility procedures to set the conditions for MI [military intelligence] interrogations." In this case, the procedures in question dictate the methods used to interrogate prisoners. One might likewise think of interactions with line workers in retail establishments. When asked to perform some unusual task, such employees may be instructed to balk, offering excuses like "that's not our policy." Policy is a synonym for procedure in many cases: an approach, or a custom; a process for customer relations. In both these cases, procedures constrain the types of actions that can or should be performed in particular situations.
In her influential book Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray defines four essential properties of digital artifacts: procedurality, participation, spatiality, and encyclopedic scope. Murray uses the term procedural to refer to the computer's "defining ability to execute a series of rules." Procedurality in this sense refers to the core practice of software authorship. Software is composed of algorithms that model the way things behave. To write procedurally, one authors code that enforces rules to generate some kind of representation, rather than authoring the representation itself. Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines. Procedurality is the principal value of the computer, which creates meaning through the interaction of algorithms. Although Murray places procedurality alongside three other properties, these properties are not equivalent. The computer, she writes, "was designed ... to embody complex, contingent behaviors. To be a computer scientist is to think in terms of algorithms and heuristics, that is, to be constantly identifying the exact or general rules of behavior that describe any process, from running a payroll to flying an airplane." This ability to execute a series of rules fundamentally separates computers from other media.
Procedurality in the computer-scientific sense preserves a relationship with the more familiar sense of procedure discussed above. Like courts and bureaucracies, computer software establishes rules of execution, tasks and actions that can and cannot be performed. I have argued elsewhere that procedurality can be read in both computational and noncomputational structures. As cultural critics, we can interrogate literature, art, film, and daily life for the underlying processes they trace. But computational procedurality places a greater emphasis on the expressive capacity afforded by rules of execution. Computers run processes that invoke interpretations of processes in the material world.
For my purposes, procedural expression must entail symbol manipulation, the construction and interpretation of a symbolic system that governs human thought or action. As Steven Harnad argues, computation is "interpretable symbol manipulation" in which symbols "are manipulated on the basis of rules operating only on the symbols' shapes, which are arbitrary in relation to what they can be interpreted as meaning." The interpretation of these systems, continues Harnad, "is not intrinsic to the system; it is projected onto it by the interpreter." Computation is representation, and procedurality in the computational sense is a means to produce that expression. As Murray suggests, computer processes are representational, and thus procedurality is fundamental to computational expression. Because computers function procedurally, they are particularly adept at representing real or imagined systems that themselves function in some particular way-that is, that operate according to a set of processes. The computer magnifies the ability to create representations of processes.
The type of procedures that interest me here are those that present or comment on processes inherent to human experience. Not all procedures are expressive in the way that literature and art are expressive. But processes that might appear unexpressive, devoid of symbol manipulation, may actually found expression of a higher order. For example, bureaucracy constrains behavior in a way that invokes political, social, and cultural values. Consider the example of retail customer service as an invocation of processes. Imagine that you bought a new DVD player from a local retailer. Upon installing it, you discover that the device's mechanical tray opens and shuts properly, but no image displays on the television. You assume it is defective. Most stores offer a return policy in such cases, so you take the player back to the store and exchange it for a new one.
Now imagine that you buy the DVD player late one evening on the way home from work. You lead a busy life, and unpacking a DVD player isn't the first thing on your mind. You leave it in the box for a week, or two, and then finally take it out and connect it, discovering that it doesn't work properly. You are frustrated but still pressed for time, and you don't get back to the retailer for the return until the following week. The store would be happy to take your return, but they note that you purchased the item more than fourteen days ago. The store's stated policy is to accept consumer electronics returns only within two weeks of purchase. In this case, the retailer's employees may try to enforce their return policy, invoking the rules of a process. But you might reason with the clerk, or make a ruckus, or ask to see a supervisor, or cite your record of purchases at the store in question. Swayed by logic, empathy, or expediency, the store might agree to accept the return-to bend the rules or to break procedure, as we sometimes say.
Let's replace the human agents with computational ones. Now imagine that you purchased the DVD player from an online retailer. The return process is no less codified in procedure, but this time a computer, not a human, manages your interface with the procedure. You receive the package and, as before, you delay in opening and installing it. By the time you realize the item is defective, you have exceeded the stated return window. But this time, the return is managed by the retailer's website software. Instead of speaking with a person, you must visit a website and enter your order number on a return authorization page. A computer program on the server performs a simple test, checking the delivery date of the order automatically provided by the shipping provider's computer tracking system against the current date. If the dates differ by more than fourteen days' time, the computer rejects the return request.
Situations like this help explain why we often despise the role of computers in our lives. They are inflexible systems that cannot empathize, that attempt to treat everyone the same. This is partly true, but it is not a sufficient explanation of computational procedural expression. When the human clerks and supervisors in the retail store agree to forgo their written policy, they are not really "breaking procedure." Instead, they are mustering new processes-for example, a process for promoting repeat business, or for preventing a commotion-and seamlessly blending them with the procedure for product returns. This distinction underscores an important point about processes in general and computational processes in particular: often, we think of procedures as tests that maintain the edges of situations. Disallow returns after two weeks. Diffuse customer incidents as quickly as possible. This also explains why we think of procedures as constraints that limit behavior. Max Weber pessimistically characterized the rationalist bureaucratization of society as an "iron cage." When the asceticism of Puritanism was extended into daily life, argues Weber,
it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism. In [Calvinist Richard] Baxter's view the care for external goods should only lie in on the shoulders of the "saint, like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment." But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.
Weber's point is that mechanization overemphasizes rationalism. But in fact, procedures found the logics that structure behavior in all cases; the machines of industrialization simply act as a particularly tangible medium for expressing these logics. The metaphor of the cloak may suggest easy shedding of procedure, but the saint must immediately don a new cloak, symbolizing a new logic. Both cloak and cage brandish processes; one is simply nimbler than the other.
While we often think that rules always limit behavior, the imposition of constraints also creates expression. In our example, the very concept of returning a defective product is only made possible by the creation of rules that frame that very notion. Without a process, it would perhaps never even occur to us that defective or unwanted products can be returned. And yet, this state of affairs too implies a process, which we give the shorthand caveat emptor, let the buyer beware. When we do things, we do them according to some logic, and that logic constitutes a process in the general sense of the word.
Excerpted from Persuasive Games by Ian Bogost Copyright © 2007 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Excerpted by permission.
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