Understanding Procedural Rhetoric in Gaming

If you have ever taken part in the heated and long-standing argument whether video games are or aren’t art, then have we got something a little more profound for you.

In video games, players play by the laws of the game. For example, in Shadow of the Colossus, players adhere to the physics, environment, and gameplay mechanics of the game. Everything they do in that open world is subject to the game designer’s aims and goals.

Likewise, in Sid Meier’s Civilization series, the player chooses the ending of the game. Will they defeat foes through diplomacy or war? Will players stop the video game after the final tally? It’s up to the player, and the mechanics, functions, and software all contribute to finding meaning in a video game.

Overall, it’s all about finding meaning in various ways in games. We have a more concrete term to describe this concept: procedural rhetoric.

What is Procedural Rhetoric?

In 2007, American game designer and alumnus of the University of California, Los Angeles Ian Bogost wrote a seminal work on games called Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. In it, Bogost first puts forth the term ‘procedural rhetoric’ and its place in the context of games.

Procedural rhetoric in games refers to how games and their creators form laws and functions through game development. Mechanics in games, procedures introduced during gameplay create meaning for the player.

While some have been critical of procedural rhetoric, arguing that its metaphors and perspectives are already ingrained into the final product, taking away interactivity from the player. However, proponents of procedural rhetoric have one common refrain:

Mechanics are the message, regardless of the different contexts.

Rhetorical Theory

What is the rhetorical theory?

Well, it’s very broad but mainly concerns itself with three significant points of persuasion: logos, pathos, and ethos. If you have never learned about these three concepts, logos refers to reasonable discourse, pathos is the emotional impact on others, and ethos is the guiding beliefs that envelop a particular culture at a specific period.

All of these combined create sound rhetorical theories and discourse. Bogost borrows these concepts from rhetoric to illustrate his idea more clearly.

The Rhetoric of Gaming

Ian Bogost’s procedural rhetoric theory contains three main aspects of persuasion: politics, advertisement, and education.

Regardless of impartiality, game designers have messages that they want to communicate through their form of game development. This could be a political message like in the realistic simulation game America’s Army.

While some people may be critical of the role of the American army in real life, within the game, the players are subject to the army’s rules and regulations. It leads the player towards unquestioning loyalty to more hostile foreign policy, never questioning the chain of command.

The notion of rebelling against a system of laws within the framework of a game is impossible: the concept of following orders trumps all individual choices.

Implementation: Examples of Persuasive Games

Procedural rhetoric in gaming can be somewhat of a heavy subject to mull over, so we’ll provide some stark examples of Bogost’s theory.

The Sims

Bogost overwhelmingly states that The Sims creator, Will Wright, was able to implement significant social progress by not only allowing same-sex relationships but completely normalizing them.

Through the game’s mechanics, players were allowed to have their Sims live any life they wanted.

Roller Coaster Tycoon

In this amusement park simulation franchise, the player is tasked with creating a successful park (roller coasters optional). Although players can play around and experiment as much as they want, they still need to become financially stable to continue the game.

With each subsequent success, the game communicates the ways players were and weren’t successful. This instills a clear concept of how gamers need to adapt and survive within the game’s frameworks.

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