DiGRAA paper, 29-30 June 2016 (abstract)

URL: DiGRAA [http://digraa.org/2015-digra-australia-conference/]

Title: Algorithms Pushed Me to the Dark Side: Questions for Procedural Rhetoric


Ian Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric is a tantalising theory of the power and potential of computer games, especially serious games. Yet does this concept really distinguish games from other media? Can this concept be usefully applied to the design and critique of serious games? This paper explores the ramifications of games (particularly serious games) as procedural rhetoric and whether this concept is problematic, useful, inclusive, or better employed as a recalibrated meta-epistemic theory of serious games that persuade or suggest to the player that the game mechanics, game genre, or digitally simulated world-view is open to criticism and reflection.


Gamification, procedural rhetoric, game theory.


While Michael Mateas has spoken of procedural literacy, and before him Janet Murray noted one feature of digital games was their procedural nature, Ian Bogost is probably most famously associated with this phrase. Ian Bogost (Bogost 2007) defined procedural rhetoric as ‘a practice of using processes persuasively.’ While procedural rhetoric combines a humanities discipline with something that is obviously a key component of games, I have reservations. Bogost himself raised the first potential flaw; he admitted that for many people rhetoric has a negative connotation. In the book Arguing well, John Shand (Shand 2002) declared ‘Logic must be sharply distinguished from what might generally be called rhetoric… rhetoric is not committed to using good arguments.’

I am not convinced that the rules of the game are the rules of the designer or even the rules of the player. The negotiation, changes, and misunderstandings as to what are the rules exactly are, by the player, is in my opinion an important and creative part of games, and by extension, computer games. While it might be reasonable to think that if the essence of the game is rules, it is another thing entirely to not even contemplate the possibility that a rule-based system could be random, changing, or open to change by the player. For example, Mary Flanagan (Flanagan 2013) looked at critical game play as wilful subversion of the rules and she provided avant-garde art as exemplars.

While Bogost seems to be saying we have to understand procedural rhetoric, astute critics and game designers do not seem sure as to how they can implement these theoretical notions. In an otherwise complementary review of Unit Operations, Zach Whalen (Whalen 2006) wrote ‘I’m eager to try my own hand at unit analysis, but I’m not sure how to proceed.’

Miguel Sicart (Sicart 2011) wrote, ‘Proceduralists claim that players, by reconstructing the meaning embedded in the rules, are persuaded by virtue of the games’ procedural nature.’ Sicart argued that meaning is more than just the learning of rules through play, the value of gameplay becomes subservient, and if rules are all that matter why should the designers have to explain them?

Computers follow procedure, and designers design procedures, (although Bogost carefully explained the term procedural rhetoric is not referring directly to programming). So how does or how can the player know that the system of rules that they (may have) a mental model of is the system of rules intended by the designer or the system of rules followed by the computer? And just because computers work by computation, by processing, does that mean the definition, the essence and the ideal of game-play is to follow and comprehend that system of rules?

Adherence to the altar of ‘procedural rhetoric’, whether intended by Bogost, or not, can lead to people thinking that the designer’s idea of the game rules are what matters. If so we may be faced with debates invoking the ‘Intentional Fallacy’, and ‘death of the Author’ could be resurrected, only this time the debates would be over computer games, not literature. For rhetoric involves the art of persuading, not necessarily the art of opening up games as vehicles of critical discourse (Chaplin 2011).

Bogost used the example of the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, and declared ‘Such an approach to history goes far beyond the relation between contemporaneous events, asking us to consider the systems that produce those events.’ Should the player be led to ‘consider the system that produce those events’ as well? Must the theory really force the player to consider the overall system, or is this statement dangerously close to the coercion-by-play approach of gamification? For gamification is a phenomenon that Bogost has excoriated (Bogost 2011).

In this presentation I will explore whether gamification and procedural rhetoric really are as different as Bogost appears to believe, and whether procedural rhetoric runs the risk of creating what Bogost has termed ‘exploitationware’ (see also (Bogost 2013)). To help in this quest, I suggest that a theory should be falsifiable (if possible); it should eliminate other fields the theory also applies to, and explain if it is prescriptive or descriptive. It should avoid similar terms with overlapping meanings or conflicting connotations as the overall name for the theory. Given these general guidelines, we should approach the term procedural rhetoric with caution.


Erik Champion is Professor of Cultural Visualization at Curtin University, and researches virtual heritage, but he also writes on game design, virtual places, architectural computing and interaction design. His recent books are Playing with the Past (Springer, 2011), and he edited book Game Mods: Design, Theory and Criticism (ETC Press, 2012). His next book Critical Gaming and Digital Humanities will be published in the Ashgate Publishing Group’s Digital Humanities Series.


Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive games: The expressive power of videogames. Massachusetts, USA, MIT Press.

Bogost, I. (2011) “Gamification Is Bullshit.” The Atlantic.

Bogost, I. (2013). “Preview: Why Gamification Is Bullshit.” from http://bogost.com/writing/blog/preview_why_gamification_is_bu/.

Chaplin, H. (2011) “I Don’t Want To Be a Superhero-Ditching reality for a game isn’t as fun as it sounds.” Slate, Online.

Flanagan, M. (2013). Critical Play Radical Game Design. Cambridge MA, The MIT Press.

Shand, J. (2002). Arguing well. London, Routledge.

Sicart, M. (2011) “Against Procedurality.” Game Studies the international journal of computer game research 11, online.

Whalen, Z. (2006). “Review of Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism.” gameology: A scholarly community dedicated to the study of videogames http://www.gameology.org/node/1066 Accessed 7 April 2014.

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