book review

Persuasive Games
The Expressive Power of Videogames

Ian Bogost (2007)

Persuasive Games offers a kaleidoscopic perspective on the rhetorical nature of games. Ian Bogost reflects on the expressive, cultural qualities of games that have the power to persuade, inform and change their players. The book touches upon a large variety of subjects beyond gaming: politics, education and advertising. In lengthy expositions Bogost shows how the logics of these fields have been incorporated in games, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. The high number of subjects and games discussed is probably one of the book greatest strengths, but I would have preferred Bogost to discuss procedural rhetoric itself more rigorously.

Despite the broad perspective and the wide variety of games discussed, Persuasive Games has a tendency to become a little bit repetitive. Games are either applauded for incorporating its primary message in its procedural structure, or dismissed for failing to do so. Although the analyses are solid and some of the verdicts are surprising you get the point after a couple of hundred pages. Looking at politics, advertising and education through the lens of videogames is interesting but I got the feeling that it could have been done just as effectively in about half of number the pages.

The most interesting parts of the book I found the first chapter that discusses the conceptual notion of procedural rhetoric and the eighth chapter on procedural literacy. Games are procedural artefacts. They make the most of the computational capacity of the computer and as such are ideally suited to represent processes with processes; a potential linear (‘textual’) media lack. In games the content (texts, images, sounds) are not as important as the processes that guide their creation, combination and delivery. Unfortunately, as a multitude of examples in Persuasive Games illustrate, it is still a common mistake in the creation of serious games to focus on content instead of process.

The procedural logic of games has its own set of techniques for effective expression: a procedural rhetoric. Bogost discusses his procedural rhetoric in relation to classic and contemporary rhetoric, but the only rhetoric structure that is actually (and repeatedly) discussed in any detail is the procedural equivalent of the enthymeme. It is left to the reader to fill the gap that if this rhetoric structure can be transferred to games, so can others.

Procedural literacy is the logical companion of procedural rhetoric. If games become more powerful expressions, the players need to become more proficient in decoding their intended and unintended messages. Being able to understand procedural logic goes beyond ‘code literacy’ or being able to program a computer or game system bottom up. Bogost frames procedural literacy within a broad context of humanist practices, firmly grounding games within the humanities as a new set of media artefacts which most important function it is to teach us what it means to be human in new ways. This humanist perspective on games makes Persuasive Games a very sympathetic book. But perhaps at certain points also a little bit descriptive and naive: Bogost believes games can restore contemporary culture broken by modern politics, advertising and ‘schooling’ (p. 64).

Still, Persuasive Games’ kaleidoscopic perspective on games is more a boon than a burden. It would be wrong to study games in isolation or as trivial entertainment. As cultural artefacts they are too important and too powerful. The many illustrations and analyses, the broad discussions and valid notions such as procedural rhetoric and literacy do a good job at advancing the study of games in their cultural and social context.