“Procedural Rhetoric” is an analytical framework for video game criticism developed by Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a prime mover in the nascent academic field of videogame theory. Bogost's 2007 book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames is a long-form implementation of this analytical framework to video games concerned with matters political, commercial, and educational. It aims to show how video games, as a means of persuasive expression, might transform our understanding of these various domains.
So, what is Procedural Rhetoric? A wise man once told me: “Pliskin, whenever you face a complex problem, chunk it out.” And so I will.
The “procedural” piece tags how games express ideas. Games are procedural because they use rules to represent things. When you interact with a game, there are a set of procedures, or rule-based systems, that define what your tappings and wagglings mean in the context of the game's world. So, there's a rule that says your character will jump if you press A, and another rule that says you die if you run into an enemy, and a rule that says you advance to the next level if you reach a certain point without dying. As Bogost writes, “Procedural systems generate behaviors based on rule-based models; they are machines capable of producing many outcomes, each conforming to the same overall guidelines” (4); every computer game is a complex, nested system of rules whose structure designates certain outcomes in view of the player's inputs.
One of Bogost's main points is that procedurality as a phenomenon isn't native to games. Human beings inhabit a variety of worlds-- natural, social, economic, and political worlds-- whose basic contours are rulish in nature. There's the law of gravity, the law of supply and demand, laws against regicide, and so forth. What video games do is represent the logics of these rule-bound systems through processes and procedures. This is what makes them different from other media; unlike visuals or text, games represent systems of rules by using systems of rules, and this makes them particularly adept at representing how complex systems work: “only procedural systems like computer software actually represent process with process.” (14). So where a textbook might represent gravity by using equations and pictures, a game can represent gravity with a physics engine: a system of rules which manipulates objects in accordance with certain physical laws. Guns, Germs and Steel and Civilization both express visions of the developmental logic of human civilization: one with words, one with rules.
The “rhetoric” piece tags why games express ideas. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Bogost's interested in how games persuade their users through rules, since he thinks that they have unique persuasive capacities relative to other media.
There are many rhetorical techniques, not all of them kosher, but Bogost is especially concerned with a rhetorical figure he traces to Aristotle, the enthymeme. An enthymeme is a rheorical technique where you present a piece of inferential reasoning but omit one of the premises of that piece of reasoning. For example, I could say “Of course this guy dude loves first-person shooter games. He's a fourteen-year-old racist!” The suppressed premise of this figure is: all fourteen-year-old racists love first-person shooter games. I think the reason Bogost hones in on the enthymeme idea is that it contains a kind of proto-interactivity-- in order to understand the point, the audience has to piece together the logic of the statement and discover the missing premise.
So, to re-chunk the matter at hand, Bogost proposes that video games are particularly adept at creating procedural enthymemes. As the player interacts with the system of rules by learning to play the game, they also gain a grasp of the deeper logics that shape its surface-logic-- what deeper rule-governed forces account for the way the game behaves. For example, let's say that when I start playing SimCity, all I know is that I'm out to build a city on a hill. And so I might start out by just zoning willy-nilly in a bid to attract a tax base. But when I've played the game for a while, I come to realize that the layout of the residential zones relative to the transport systems, power grid, police stations, fire houses, and industrial zones is the key condition for economic and population growth.
Bogost says that discovering this deeper layout-logic is like discovering the suppressed premise of an enthymeme. And this is one important way that games can be used as arguments; they can make an argument about the way things work (the way economic, commercial, and political systems work, for example), by having the player discover the underlying logics of its systems. Maybe you play another game-- a simulation of being a freshman house member in the US congress-- and as you play it, you discover that the key factor in “winning” the game (getting elected) is voting for legislation that favors big-pocketed donors to your reelection campaign. Making that game would be a way of persuading the player that the campaign-finance system is in need of repair.
So that's procedural rhetoric. I have a bunch of inchoate thoughts on the merits and demerits of this approach and Bogost's execution of this paradigm, which I'll save for later or possibly just spare the public. But I will say this: at first blush, I'm entirely on board with the procedure and wary of the rhetoric. What I like about the rhetoric idea is that it places the accent on how the work operates on the player, and this is essential for an interactive medium. What I don't like is that it's a resolutely utilitarian framework for critical analysis: it focuses in on the way that games might change our opinions for good or ill at the expense of the way games might transport, entertain, humiliate, and ravish their users.
I'm not saying that there is a hard-and-fast distinction between art and propaganda. Surely, a great work of art says to its audience: du muss dein leben andern. But we value beauty because reveals a transfigured world to us, and persuasion has a way of trivializing this transfiguration. This isn't a knock on Bogost's approach. At least in the context of Persuasive Games, he's not in the pursuit of beauty. But for those of us who entertain the idea that games might be art-- art which might (in time) become important to humans in the way that Homer and Battlestar Galactica are important to us-- stand in need of an aesthetics rather than a rhetoric.