Monday, October 27, 2008

Comments on "Values and Aspirations"

An interesting chapter! Let me say why in a moment. But first a preface . . .

As I've written before:

(1) I give Bogost real credit for addressing a gap in the visual and digital rhetorics literatures by suggesting a novel approach and putting his claim out in public,

(2) doing so helps move the conversation forward, and

(3) describing a phenomenon is a necessary step in laying out a proposed new perspective, but

(4) the next step is more theory development, and

(5) I believe that development should look to what's already available in the literatures on visual rhetoric, digital rhetoric, and procedural literacy.

Now, why did I find "Values and Aspirations" interesting?

Laying aside Points 1-5 above, I thought Bogost's "Values and Aspirations" chapter offered some good grist for thought on media effects. I've been around Comm Studies long enough, and seen enough good studies by good researchers, so that I'm not ready to discount the contributions that a behaviorist perspective can make to our understandings of media effects.

But Bogost's chapter, with its critical assessments of games that encode a given morality, was useful. Granted, there's a lot of knee-jerk reaction in the public square about the "evils" of videogames with violent or sexual content. And admittedly, I must identify myself as one of those citizens who is concerned about the coarsening of our culture. Yet Bogost's critiques take us beyond questions of what games show and offer insights into what games do to rig the rules in favor of the designers' moral perspective.

These observations from Bogost were interesting to me:

> Many "values-based" games do a poor job of instantiating their values.

> But more sophisticated treatments are possible.

Both observations lead to more thoughts:

> Do "values-based" commercial games inherently seek the lowest common denominator?

> Or on the flip side, would the emergence of videogames that are truly effective in promoting values be a positive or a scary development?

Your answer, I suppose, would be based on whether you believe (a) the behaviorist view of media effects, or (b) that the people's procedural literacy will increase over time so that they can read the rhetorics and critically engage the values promoted in a game.

I suspect the answer may be a combination of the two: Yes, if truly effective "value-based" games spread (like, say, TV has done) throughout the culture, then the values pushed will in time instantiate the mainstreaming and resonance effects documented by media effects research. Yet if so, then promoting procedural literacy becomes a more salient issue. Less happily, though, I would point out that we're still talking about teaching media literacy even after 60 years of television.

The discussion of the Left Behind game was quite interesting!

Yes, I make no secret about being a person of faith. But let me hasten to add I was never a fan of the Left Behind franchise. Here I agree with Bogost: the game (like the books and all the other LB licensed products) play a little fast and loose with the Bible in order to boost sales. They merely promote "interest" in and "discussion" about spirituality.

The way that "prayer" is operationalized in the LB videogame was disturbing to me, reducing prayer to merely an instrumental value. The business about Christians battling Antichrist to recover territory is absolutely not in the Bible and even against the doctrine of evangelical Christians who teach that Christ will return to establish his millenial kingdom and won't need earthly believers to prepare the way for him.

Bogost ends his chapter with a sentiment I can readily endorse: The rhetorical power of ethical and religious videogames remains largely untapped. But I would add: Is it even possible to reduce systems of belief to mere systems of rules-based procedures? For in reducing belief systems to mere sets of rules, don't we rob faith of its power? When activating a given rule produces a given result, no faith or belief is required.

And an added bonus for reading this post . . .

My wife was talking to our 25-year-old daughter (married, no kids, husband in grad school) this week and, since I'm taking a PhD class in Video Games, asked our daughter if she or friends play these games. Her immediate reply? "Who has the time!?!"

That got me thinking: Is the videogame market generationally self-sustaining, in that current gamers will keep playing even as new younger games are constantly added? Or will the gamers as they grow older eventually lose interest, so that the videogame market must constantly replenish its losses?

What do you think? Here are three research reports I found:

> This 2006 article from Hollywood Reporter describes a study released that year by the Consumer Electronics Association (sorry, but CEA website itself only allows association members to access past research):

> Here is an industry facts page from the Entertainment Software Association website:

> Nielsen Media (the same people who do TV ratings) compiled this 2006 report on The State of the Console:

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Comments on "Procedural Literacy"

A nice, meaty chapter which provides more of the theoretical underpinning that (as readers of this blog know) I've been looking for. Let me do three things:

> Make an observation about the argumentation and organization of Bogost's book.

> Summarize his thoughts about "procedural literacy" and share some of my own.

> Highlight another resource that Bogost cites, namely Gee's paper "Learning about Learning from a Video Game: Rise of Nations" which you can download by clicking here.

An Observation about Organization

We learn on page 258 that "Procedural rhetoric is a type of procedural literacy . . ." Aha! Thus procedural rhetoric is a subset of procedural literacy. This revelation causes me to think a bit more charitably about Bogost's proposal regarding "procedural rhetoric." (Yes, I'm still using the scare quotes until I'm convinced of his thesis.)

Why more charitable? The notion of procedural literacy has some provenance in the literature as far back (according to Bogost's citations) as 1980. (Further, media literacy and "electracy" are related concepts which have found some acceptance among scholars.) Thus Bogost is within an established body of literature and legitimately positioning himself to extend the work on procedural literacy in ways appropriate to changing conditions and understandings.

That being the case, I think Bogost would have been more effective in his argumentation if, rather than declaring "procedural rhetoric" an entirely new domain of rhetoric, he had argued for his concept of procedural rhetoric as a logical extension of (or corrollary to) evolving notions of procedural literacy.

In other words, instead of claiming discovery of a new domain of rhetoric (one not recognized in the literature of visual or digital rhetoric), Bogost could have been more effective by positioning his thesis of "procedural rhetoric" within the existing paradigm of procedural literacy.

Those of you who are taking Steve's class on the rhetoric of science know what I'm talking about. Rather than coming on as a "convention-buster" with a completely novel concept, Bogost would do better by arguing within--and then extending--an existing convention.

If that's the case, the Bogost should have started his book with procedural literacy and then demonstrated how "procedural rhetoric" is its logical extension, rather than starting with "procedural rhetoric" and then burying procedural literacy in Chapter 8. For if "procedural rhetoric" is a subset of procedural literacy, it doesn't make argumentative sense to privilege the former, bury the latter, and separate the two by 250 pages.

Summary and Thoughts

> We begin with a comparsion of behaviorist and constructivist theories of learning. A fairly garden-variety summation but useful in setting the ground.

> Now Bogost applies the two theories to videogames. Good! Applying a behaviorist framework leaves us with a deterministic view of gaming. Applying a constructivist framework leaves us, according to Bogost, with videogames that only teach general skills and values.

> We need to go further, he says, and see that videogames can teach specific skills. I'm having trouble understanding his argument here. Why does Bogost think that constructivist theories of learning assume only general skills and values can be learned? For example, I wrote an article a few years ago on how a constructivist approach could be used for teaching healthy food choices to schoolkids.

> Procedural literacy is a "new trend" (p. 244), though it's hard to see it as new or trendy since it's been around for nearly 30 years. Actually, though, I like the fact that a body of literature has developed over time about procedural literacy and (as stated above) wish Bogost would make more use of it.

> The excursus on Sayers is something I really don't get. Bogost could do a better job, in my view, of closing the circle and demonstrating how "The Lost Tools of Learning" offers a guide for teaching procedural literacy (or for tapping the educational power of videogames; I'm not sure what's being advocated here).

> Bogost writers, "Procedurality offers a possible bridge between the abstraction-poor behaviorist approach and the subject-poor constructivist approach, focusing on the way processes come together to create meaning." A creative thought. But I've got a problem with the terminology.

As we know, different fields may use the same word for different things. In cognitive psychology, procedural memory is the type of memory we employ for tasks such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, or shuffling a deck of cards. Is Bogost saying that videogames, because they teach such tasks, can bridge behaviorism and constructivism? I don't think that's what he means, but (as author) it's his job to clarify.

> The section on Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as an example of teaching history from a procedural perspective is interesting (and, at the time Bogost was writing, the book was quite trendy). But Diamond's environmental determinism certainly had its critics. For example, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a book titled Carnage and Culture specifically to rebut Diamond and demonstrate that ideas do matter.

Both books are good reads, both are valuable, and I found myself thinking the answer lies in a combination of the two. In any event, I would suggest that history taught from a "procedural" perspective would, though valuable, be incomplete--and no a "bridge" between behaviorism and constructivism.

> To end the chapter Bogost writes, "Videogames teach biased perspectives about how things work. And the way they teach such perspectives is through procedural rhetorics, which players 'read' through direct engagement and criticism." This is a very good thought, which leaves me wanting more.

Why? Because it provides the opening to (as I mentioned above) describe "procedural rhetoric" as an extension of procedural literacy. I hope Bogost will take up this line, which I believe would be a more effective way of arguing than to claim "procedural rhetoric" is a totally new rhetorical domain.

Reading Gee's Article

Again, you can download the Gee article cited by Bogost if you click here. My recommendation is skip to the conclusion (starting on page 29) first and Gee's summation of 25 principles gleaned from learning theory.

Gee says these 25 principles are active in Rise of Nations, the game he reviews. It might be interesting to compare this list against the two games we're studying, World of Warcraft and Second Life. How do they stack up?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Comments on Bogost's "Advertising"

Having now read the "Politics" and "Advertising" sections of Persuasive Games, let me sum up my general thoughts of the book:

What I like . . .

> Bogost sees a problem in the current literature and is willing to publicly propose a novel solution, namely procedural rhetoric. Further, he is willing to do the hard work of writing and publishing a book to support his thesis. Putting your ideas out in public is admirable!

> His book is a "keeper" as far as a good reference on the history of videogames. As someone who has an interest in (and has published on) media history, but mostly on "old media," Bogost's book offers a good resource as I ponder the continuities and differences of new media.

What I would like to see . . .

> In my view Bogost has moved too soon to criticism, without first developing his theoretical grounding.

> As such, Persuasive Games is mostly a book that features lots of game reviews (the "what") but gives less space to how "procedural rhetoric" actually works (the "how").

I'm willing to concede that descriptive work is important in developing a theory. But I would like to see in Bogost's subsequent writings more work on the actual theory development.

To see others' takes on Persuasive Games, I looked up reviews of the book. There weren't too many since the book is relatively new. But here are two:

In the first review, Dormans writes:

. . . 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. . . .

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. . . .

[Bogost's] 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).

In the second review, Smith writes:

First of all, the plethora of competing labels and perfunctorily defined buzz-words floating about calls out for a careful survey of the field and a framework for analyzing the variety of specimen in the fast-growing serious games biotope. Second, we need a sense of the relative abilities of videogames to persuade; that is we need a theory of how, why and when they do persuade and preferably some documentation that they do in fact persuade. Bogost convincingly supplies the former but does not fully tackle the latter. No convenient model of game-based persuasion appears fully-formed in Bogost’s text. Instead we get a meticulously researched and clearly composed treasure-trove of examples alongside various hints of a larger theory. . . .

Bogost does not claim that all players necessarily reach the same conclusions [as his game criticisms] but this type of analysis does arguably make very strong assumptions about actual player interpretations without empirical basis. This approach in turn highlights the rather modest attention in the book to describing the exact working of procedural rhetorics and to documenting its efficiency. We hear little of why engaging with processes are a useful way of understanding the real-world phenomena that they represent. We are given very few leads to theoretical literature that might lend credence to the idea that personal engagement is important in persuasion. And we are not informed of one single instance in which anybody changed his mind or behavior after playing a game.

Bogost does well to tie his discussion to classical and visual rhetorics as well as captology. But practically passing the entire field of “persuasion research” which provides both theoretical models (e.g. O’Keefe, 1990) and empirical studies of the effects of various aspects of computerized persuasion (e.g. Sundar & Kim, 2005) is a curious choice. These omissions may leave the reader on shaky ground as to evaluating the very importance of games as tools for persuasion or critical thought.

Of course, few (sub)fields come nicely gift-wrapped and fully articulated in a single volume. Persuasive Games creates order from chaos and puts recent game developments into a much-needed historical perspective. This is an invaluable service to the field and the thoughtful treatment of a wide range of little-known games is inspiring as a case of game analysis in action. These achievements make me recommend the book warmly, while looking forward to Bogost’s future fleshing out of the theory and empirical merits of persuasive games.

Okay, so I'm not alone in (a) admiring Bogost for what he is attempting with Persuasive Games while also (b) finding the book more descriptive than explanatory.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comments on "Digital Democracy"

Okay, I'm going to relax and realize that Persuasive Games is not, in fact, an academic book (as the first chapter initially suggested) but is rather a report on videogames in American politics, advertising, and education. As such, I will (1) cease looking for more theory development to bolster Bogost's claim for a new domain of "procedural rhetoric," (2) let me previously-posted reservations stand, and (3) confine my comments to the author's reportage.

My reading of Chapter 4, "Digital Democracy," left me with these questions and observations:

Is this book outdated? Having been published in 2007, presumably Persuasive Games was written in 2005 or just after the previous presidential election. So when Bogost was writing, the "first videogame endorsed by a U.S. presidential candidate" may have been legitimate news and portentous of things to come.

But now, as I check the websites of the two major presidential candidates for 2008, on neither site is any videogame featured (or at least, the front pages provide no visible way of navigation). Can "persuasive games" and "procedural rhetoric" be a force in "digital democracy" when, in this important election, neither candidate believes it important to employ such games?

A look at the index of Persuasive Games finds no references to MMOGs or MMORPGS. So has the well-known "light speed" of digital media passed the book by in the four years since Howard Dean for Iowa and Take Bake Illinois were introduced in 2004?

Thus far Persuasive Games has only featured rather ham-handed examples that seem crude by the standards of today's MMOGs. Thus my question is: Has the "center of gravity" in gaming shifted to MMOGs and left the likes of Madrid and September 12 far behind? In other words, do the "persuasive games" on which Bogost builds his case for "procedural rhetoric" matter anymore?

Of course, we still have seven more chapters to go and my mind remains open to the author's thesis. But Chapters 2-4 leave me with the abovementioned question.

What do "docu-games" have to do with politics? Their inclusion seems curious in a chapter on "Digital Democracy." Would these docu-games fit better in Bogost's section on the educational uses of "persuasive games"?

All because we can digitally recreate an experience, should we? Though I seldom agree with Ted Kennedy, I must concur with his assessment of JFK Reloaded as "tasteless." One of the sad memories of my boyhood growing up in Washington DC is the day my father took me to Arlington Cemetery, put me on his shoulders, and together we watched the funeral procession slowly make its way to the gravesite.

What's next? Should a Beltway Sniper game be created that allows players to be embodied as John Muhammad, to access road maps of the Washington DC area and see how many innocents they can be coldbloodedly killed? Or a Columbine or Virginia Tech Massacre game?

The same justification used by the makers of JFK Reloaded could be made for Holocaust Reloaded. Yes, it is possible to digitally recreate a simulacrum of Auschwitz, of the selections on the train platform, the gassings, the plunder, the crematoria, the medical experiments, the slave labor, the barracks. Game designers could make it possible for players to experience embodiment as SS killers.

But should it be done? I am reminded of Jaques Ellul's 1964 warning about the lure, which he believed inherent in technology, of perfecting a technology for no other justification than it is possible to do so.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Comments on "I Have No Words"

The chapter, when read together with Jenkins' "Narrative Architecture," offers a nice counterpoint from a perspective more oriented toward ludology than narratology. So the two pieces, read in tandem, helped me to better understand one of the dominant conservations within game studies.

In my previous post, under the subhead "Is 'Persuasive Game' an Oxymoron?," I took up Costikyan's perspective and compared it to Bogost's thesis. Read below for an extended discussion.

But in essence, Costikyan cites a "direct, immediate conflict between the demands of a story and the demands of a game." Telling a satisfying story means keeping the game on a path, but this restricts players' freedom and therefore makes it an unsatisfying game.

So I ask: Does the same tension exist between "persuasion" and "game"? That is, if a satisfying argument means keeping the game on a path, does this entail restrictions on players' freedom which render the experience unsatisfying as a game?

Thus, is "persuasive game" an oxymorn?

Comments on "Narrative Architecture"

Hey, a really good read! Jenkins' chapter is quite cogent in helping me understand the dividing line between ludologists and narratologists within the game studies discipline, while at the same time Jenkins himself takes a measured and moderate position between the two.

In reading the chapter I found myself trying to place Bogost's thesis within Jenkins' framework. Two thoughts stood out:

Is "Persuasive Game" an Oxymoron?

In his book Persuasive Games, Bogost wishes his proposal for a new domain of "procedural rhetoric" to be placed within--and then extend beyond--the conversation over visual and digital rhetorics. Yet in reading Jenkins I thought to myself: What if we placed Bogost within the conversation between ludologists and narratologists?

My presumption is that Bogost's rhetorical thesis would be classed in the narratological camp, rather than among the ludologists. Why? Because making an argument necessarily involves constructing a narrative.

But if we analyze Bogost's "persuasive games" according to the standards of Jenkins' "narrative architecture," then how do games that Bogost cites (e.g., Madrid, September 12, Kabul Kaboom, Darfur Dying, Balance the Planet, Tax Invaders, Vigilance 1.0) stack up? For example, Jenkins (p. 671) cites Costikyan's assertion that

There is a direct, immediate conflict between the demans of a story and the demands of a game. Divergence from the story's path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player's freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game.

Thus Costikyan might suggest that "rhetorical" games--which Boghost cites as exemplars of persausve games that employ procedural rhetoric--concentrate so much on story, they restrict players' freedom and thus are not satisfying as games. That is, "persuasive games" are good at rhetoric but ultimately fail as games.

This is a conundrum I've blogged about before when I posted about the "procedural gap" that Bogost acknowledges in his book. Namely, how "persuasive" are games that sacrifice gameplay for rhetoric? If the game offers little game value and thus attracts few comers, how will it be persuasive? Or if it ramps up the game value by downplaying the rhetoric and allowing players more freedom, then are the game's rhetorical possibilities diminished for the designer?

If we go with Costikyan's assertion, then the term "persuasive game" might even be an oxymoron. If the product is "persuasive" then it is diminished as a "game," or if the product is a satisfying "game" that gives wide freedom to the player then it is diminished as a vehicle of deliberate "persuasion."

Are Persuasive Games "Narrative-Poor"?

But of course, Jenkins does not side with Costikyan's dualistic approach. Instead he suggests that, when narrative is reconceived in architectural terms, game designers can tell "spatial stories" and engage in "environmental storytelling." Rather than criticize game designers for an emphasis on world-making and a neglect of plot and character development, their work should be seen as making "evocative spaces" which "create the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience" (p. 676).

Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather, they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts pushed forward by the character's movement across the map (p. 678).

I was especially impressed by Jenkins' explanation of the architectural element of his "narrative architecture." To illustrate, he cites the Star Wars game:

[We] would be frustrated if all it offered us was a regurgitation of the original film experience. Rather, the Star Wars game exists in dialogue with the films, conveying new narrative experiences through its creative manipulation of environmental details. One can imagine their place with a larger narrative system with story information communicated through books, film, television, comcics, and other media, each doing what it does best, each a relatively autonomous experience, but the richest understanding of the story world world coming to those who follow the narrative across the various channels. In such a system, what games do best will almost certainly certain on their ability to give concrete shape to our memories and imaginings of the story world, creating an immersive environment we can wander through and interact with (pp. 677-678).

What a good insight! But when I read this, again I found myself comparing this concept of game narrative with the narratives put forth by the "persuasive games" that Bogost cites.

If I am reading Jenkins correctly, then games succeed best as narrative devices when they are in dialogue with other representations, while creating a parallel immersive experience in which the story world can be explored.

By that standard Madrid, September 12, The McVideo Game, Tax Invaders and the other "persuasive" games that Bogost cites would seem to be rather narrative-poor. Why? Because they attempt to replicate (or as Bolter and Grusin might say, "remediate") rhetorical arguments which exist in other representations by merely transferring them from one medium to another. Thus my previous observation about whether Madrid or Tax Invaders constitute a new domain of rhetoric or, in fact, are simply "computer-assisted rhetoric."

For September 12 or The McVideo Game to successfully draw upon the properties of the game as a medium, and thus construct a compelling narrative, then (according to Jenkins' thesis) wouldn't they need to (1) be in dialogue with the representations we see in the news, but (2) offer players an immersive environment where they can explore and interact with the spaces which constitute the worlds of these stories?

Instead, if we go by Jenkins' description of a successful game narrative, then the "persuasive games" cited by Bogost seem to be only heavy-handed representations of rhetorical arguments rather than evocative spaces that add to the richness of our understanding by allowing us to explore, interact with, and immerse ourselves in the environments where these narratives take place.