Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Essential Jargon: Procedural Rhetoric

Leigh Alexander recently lamented the lack of a common critical vocabulary among the games journo set, in her review of 2008's biggest disappointments. (More disappointing than the fact that the owners of the most important console in world are being treated to a gruesome parade of z-grade software? Really?) Of course, she doesn't mean “vocabulary” literally; Alexander explains that the problem is that the games-writing landscape has surplus of consumer advocacy and a surfeit of criticism. (What's the difference? I say: a review tells you if a game is fun, criticism tell you how it's fun.) But this is a convenient pretext for more jargon-mongering under the welcome cover of topicality. To whit:

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.


Nels Anderson said...

"...I'm entirely on board with the procedure and wary of the rhetoric."

I think this is my take on it too. Admittedly, I haven't had a chance to read Persuasive Games, but I've heard an interview with Bogost (or someone talking about him, I forget which). I too think his framework is well suited to his purposes, namely evaluating games meant to persuade, but it seems quite narrow others.

Especially given that the vast majority of games don't have persuasion as their primary goal, I agree that we'll need more evaluative tools beyond just this one. Unless we're really looking to bend the meaning of "persuasion," Bogost's framework is a good start, but insufficient for all purposes.

Good post in general though. Had me working the kinks out of my half-forgotten logic and rhetoric undergrad courses.

Ben Abraham said...

Aww man! Why couldn't you have written this three months ago when I needed it for my literature review chapter in my thesis.

You explain Bogost's concept better than he ever did - somehow I totally missed the inclusion of the enthymeme in my reading.

Do you think there's a reason, however, that a concept like "procedural rhetoric" has largely been ignored by 'the critical' gaming blogosphere? In contrast to "ludonarrative dissonance" I'd say it a much, much less well known terms (and perhaps even LESS well understood!).

#87 said...

As an aside to the main topic: I think a game based on Guns, Germs & Steel would actually be deeply moving.

Unknown said...

Great chunking, sir!

In case anyone's interested in carrying a discussion about procedural rhetoric on at greater length, I just put one up as the weekly discussion at the VGHVI.

Garrett Martin said...

I'd say "procedural rhetoric" is less frequently used than "ludonarrative dissonance" because, as Nels says, most high-profile games aren't especially interested in persuasion outside of making us think they're fun to play. I didn't need to play Left 4 Dead to realize that I should stay outta Times Square on Zombie New Year's, y'know?

Kylie said...

Even if we're concerned about the potential misuse/falling into propagandizing of a conscious procedural rhetoric, it can still be vitally important for designers and players to understand the concept. Like it or not we pick up so many of these procedural enthymemes when we play and sometimes we can't help but think they are accurate representations of suppressed real-world rules.

For example I was recently playing click-management airline sim. As a result of the fast paced routing and rerouting of planes to keep my customers as happy as possible I learned why it's often necessary to have flights with multiple connections that often travel hundreds of miles out of the way of my destination. It gave me a bit more understanding and sympathy for the airline industry and is apt to make me less irritated by layovers and delays.

Of course there are no claims that this game is an accurate representation of the procedural aspect of managing an airline. But that isn't really the point. The point is that the unconscious, enthymemetic(?) rule-set I internalized has affected my response to the real-world airline industry. It can be important for a developer to realize the possibilities of such a response, whether they intend it or not. After all, by tweaking the rule-set only slightly it would be possible to give the player a sense of the futility of multiple layover trips, influencing them to think more negatively of the airline industry.

Neither the positive nor the negative outcome need to be conscious decisions on the part of the designer, but both designer and player could benefit by being aware of them.

Miguel Lopez said...

"…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'll highjack your SimCity example for a minute: imagine an urban planning game which posits that development pattern A (for example, suburban sprawl) will lead to an alienating dystopia, while B will result in urban equity. Could the way that the game depicts the results of these patterns potentially transport, entertain, humiliate, ravish its users? What about if users have to "live" in this world, transfigured or degraded, for awhile after the results have taken effect? Would that just make it more effective propaganda?

Anyway, thanks for keeping such a great blog. Always hyped when VCCL pops up on my reader!

(Also, here's Nickelodeon trying its hand at harnessing procedural rhetoric.)

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nels and at @garret: it's true that the interpretive framework is largely directed (in both theory and practice) at a subset of art/educational games rather than the commercial entertainments that make up the bulk of the current gaming scene. One thing I've been thinking about is how his approach might translate to thinking about games with different aims.

@kylie: very well-said. I do think it's important to think of the messages and attitudes communicated in various game-systems, even where no deliberate persuasion is going on. As I said above I think it may also be essential to keep an eye on the procedural aspect for aesthetic reasons.

@miguel: you're right, and I wouldn't want to say that all attempts to persuasion amount to propaganda. If anything I would like to see a game that was *both* edifying and emotionally powerful (a game like the one you describe where the macro sim-city style choices about systems and layouts also have a kind of narrative or aesthetic impact.) Then we'd really be onto something.

Kirk Battle said...

A lot of people chimed in and pointed out that playing a game that does have a distinct message (like Oiligarchy or Mama Kills) makes Bogost's thesis make a lot more sense.

The funny thing I'm wondering now is what exactly all these AAA games are communicating at me by their rule structure. Bullets only hurt other people, there is always a purpose to our actions, and you can always be forgiven for your mistakes?

Nels Anderson said...

@L.B. Jeffries And don't forget that almost any problem can be solved by killing enough people.

I wouldn't think about it too much, because the inferences are pretty scary (and I'm somewhat serious). I was thinking about it in the context of Far Cry 2 as I was playing it this morning. It's good that Clint et al. made it painfully clear that the protagonist is not, in any way, someone moral or to admirable. Because god damn, they and everyone else in that game is a monster.