Review of Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games

It’s easy to draw from common knowledge and observation the impact of videogames in today’s culture.  Now more than ever audiences can experience virtual worlds filled with advanced computer-generated worlds, scenarios, and characters.  With this unique brand of interactive entertainment one calls into question the practices of this medium and how it continues to be a booming industry.   Why give your time and attention to this medium?  What should people invest in playing?  And to what extent are the intended messages being presented to the players?  All of these questions need to be answered but where to begin?  

Ian Bogost attempts to create a starting point for these inquiries in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. It is an easy to follow narrative that offers unique insights and facts but is limited by the technology and practices of the time of its publication.  That being said, readers should not be put off by Bogost’s lack of “modern”  social media fixated culture and instead use his work as a resourceful reference and foundation to any further related work.  

Bogost’s book is broken up into three distinct and content-rich chapters: politics, advertising, and learning – and from each chapter, further layers exist within their respective sections.  But before all of the fun stuff however, the reader must first make it through 65 pages of procedural rhetoric.  While this is a curious start involving rhetoric in a book about videogames, it provides a contextual outline for readers and works well in establishing groundwork for Bogost’s views in the following chapters.

 

First there was Rhetoric

What is interesting about the author’s angle of persuasion via videogames is the length he goes to establish a rhetoric-based system at the start.  Drawing inspiration and models from the rhetoric style of message delivery, Bogost builds a foundation based on the Greek methodology at delivering persuasive arguments “Spoken words attempt to convert listeners to a particular opinion, usually one that will influence direct and immediate action, such as the fateful vote of Socrates’ jury” (Bogost, 2007, p.15).  This method of communication theory can be called into questioned during this section.  Walter Fisther’s Narrative Paradigm by contrast examines the narrative structure of persuasion and purposes a more human and relatable approach as oppose to the dry and alienating rhetoric style.  

For such an interactive medium like videogames, it is curious that Bogost establishes this rhetorical persuasion method.  To put this concept into perspective, by presenting facts and truths via a dense videogame environment and uploading the player with contextual scenarios Bogost argues that the more interactive the game is, the more moved the player will be and thus, creating a canvas for an intellectual rather than emotional persuasion medium.  If it feels like wood, looks like wood, and smells like wood, then it is wood.  Furthermore, what should be considered as well is the potential for persuasion by Bogost to the reader of his book – the book is literally asking, even daring the reader to continue with the mindset that Bogost will use facts and knowledge to persuade the reader into believing videogames are a rhetoric form of communication and by that, a rhetoric form of persuasion.

 

The Politics of Videogames

The next section in Bogost’s work deals with politics in gaming.  This chapter’s core deals with the decision making and strategy process of being the individual in control via videogame scenarios.  It is here that the author gives various scenarios of political and social issues demonstrated by gaming.  

In one particular example, Bogost explains a contest given by mtvU, an American digital cable network under the parental ownership of MTV.  For this challenge, university students from different schools were given two months to design and submit a game based on the delicate situation and tragedy of the Darfur conflict.  Building awareness and offering a solution were just two of the contest’s goals.  The winning game, Darfur is Dying, complied with building awareness, while offering a solution aspect that was treated with a different approach, “If the player hopes for perspectives on possible solutions, he must consult materials far beyond the videogame” (Bogost, 2007, p.96).  mtvU’s goals were met through the videogame to indeed build awareness but the ultimate challenge of the game was to let the player educate themselves on beneficial solutions and create a pro-active campaign.

Bogost continues to use similar examples in this chapter to encourage game designers that political messages can be achieved and utilized to fulfill a wide variety of political statements.  What should be considered in this chapter is the continuous use of procedural rhetoric.  The games used as examples were designed to give the player all the background information needed to make decisions and yes, perceive a reality and a call to action.  It is here readers begin to grasp the use of rhetoric as a form of persuasion via videogames.  However, there is still much to be desired at this juncture for Bogost’s argument.  The example of Darfur is Dying can also act as a means by which an emotional response is presented to the player and that instead of being installed with information players feel compelled to educate themselves.

 

Persuading the Advergame

The next chapter and perhaps the most relevant is the process of advertising in videogames.  Adopted as the term advergame, Bogost discusses the use of advertising logic, licensing, and product placement.  It is here that he continues his campaign of rhetoric methodology to convince the reader that by laying out all possible knowledge and facts can effective persuasion via videogames be achieved.  

Advertising logic is a term that speaks for itself for anyone who took an advertising 101 course, but Bogost is determined to get his rhetoric view through the reader so he encourages the concept.  Research, providing facts and concrete practices are keys to effective advertising, “Advertisers synecdochically refer to consumers as ‘eyeballs,’ whose attention they strive to capture” (Bogost, 2007, p.169.  Bogost continues to acknowledge that merely showing a product such as a name-brand soda can, or popular pizza establishment are simply not enough to engage the player.  Serving as empty vessels, these objects take on no behavior in the desired target game environment, and yet even with contextual interactivity the use of advertising in videogames runs the potential of being just a dead visual medium.

The same goes of licensing and product placement.  Without giving players a reason to adhere to the advertisers desired products the message will go unnoticed.  By introducing the rhetoric medium by Bogost a difficult situation is presented.  As an example, an empty can of Pepsi is introduced to a videogame environment.  According to Bogost’s rhetoric methodology, the player is feed contextual data about the area surrounding the can of soda.  The player is told why the environment exists, what the possible outcome of the player’s actions is, and what he/she may do about it.  While the opposite, an emotional response could be all that is needed for the player to analyze the can of Pepsi and act accordingly without care of the why, what and how, but rather the relationship between the inanimate object and the player.  Both views need to be considered for context in an effective persuasion message.

Learning Messages

Finally, Bogost discusses the usage of learning and education through means of videogaming.  Similar to that of the politics chapter, readers are presented with gaming scenarios designed to educate and solve problems efficiently.  While this was explained in his previous chapter, what is different in this section is the importance of bodily movement through gaming.  Bogost gives various examples of accessories utilized for in-home, console videogame systems and how some were utilized for more than just a controller in the palm of the player’s hand.

With current motion-based controls in today’s modern-gaming this chapter predicts and acknowledges the future of active-based gaming.  But of course, Bogost goes further into the reason why gamers wish to act with their bodies and not just with their hands.  This is problematic because motion gaming is still relatively new in comparison to standard videogaming and is still not a perfect technology.  Frustrating controls and poorly recognized body motions can turn off gamers if the game is not doing what it is told by the user.  

This lack of user interface distracts and limits the attention given to the game being played.  However, Bogost is aware of this dissonance and identifies many of the problems being faced today with limited living room space, confusion with large and expensive videogame accessories, and as stated previously, the lack of synergy between the videogame and its player.  Of all the uses of persuasion through videogames rhetoric or not, a lack of interest as well as limited playability stops learning as well as dwindles interest in this category.

 

Limitations of the Reading

While Bogost’s book is relevant on many fronts, it cannot be ignored that the videogame industry has gone through some changes since its publication in 2007.  At that time, smartphone technology was a rare and high-priced product before it hit the mainstream for most consumers.  Because of this (and through no fault of the author), the introduction and integration of social media has a definite lack of presence in Bogost’s book.  

By current standards, the implications of not adding any form of social media into a product or service can be expected to struggle.  The importance of social media would make an excellent addition to Bogost’s work and a curious addition to his existing take on rhetoric methodology.  And while this would be a lofty addition, the result would create a more concise and modern perspective to his already encompassing work.  

In addition to this, the advent of mobile gaming is also a matter of relevance.  Wireless internet connectivity has played a large part in this ever-expanding market for gaming on the go so it is only fitting that the inclusion of this new gaming outlet be represented as well.  With this, new and interactive means of persuasion can also be linked here.  Advertising and persuasion practices have a chance to reach their target audiences from a device that fits in their pocket – an opportunity that previous mediums have failed to do until recently.

 

Final Thought

Even by the end of Bogost’s book, after all the examples and support for his rhetoric view, there still remains question of this methodology being used by videogames for persuasive means.  The author continues to establish a medium for effective persuasion that could be used for all aspects of videogaming.  However, readers may not be fully convinced, especially those who play and develop videogames.  Many may still see videogames as an emotional outlet and simply wish to play games for the sake of playing rather than being told why they’re playing.

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