DMC2 Session 08: Serious Games and Procedural Rhetorics

Digital Media Culture / Digitaalinen mediakulttuuri (KDVCL01)

DMC2 08: Tiistai 08.12.2009 09:00 – 11:30

Serious game-play and simulation

“a software or hardware application developed with game technology and game design principles for a primary purpose other than pure entertainment. Serious games include games used for educational, persuasive, political, or health purposes.”

Software and Hardware games were developed for long time before term 'serious games' was promoted into wide use 2002..

“The continued failure of the edutainment space to prove profitable, plus the growing technical abilities of games to provide realistic settings, led to a re-examination of the concept of serious games in the late 1990s.”

“A serious game may be a simulation which has the look and feel of a game, but corresponds to non-game events or processes, including business operations and military operations (even though many popular entertainment games depicted business and military operations). The games are intended to provide an engaging, self-reinforcing context in which to motivate and educate the players. Other purposes for such games include marketing and advertisement.”

Suggested categories..

  1. Advergames
  2. Edutainment
  3. Games-Based Learning - These games have defined learning outcomes. Generally they are designed in order to balance the subject matter with the gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.[1]
  4. Edumarket Games - When a serious game combines several aspects (such as advergaming and edutainment aspects or persuasive and news aspects), the application is an Edumarket game. For example, Food-Force combines news, persuasive and edutainment goals.
  5. News Games - Journalistic games that report on recent events or deliver an editorial comment. Examples include September 12th [2]
  6. Simulations or Simulation Games
  7. Persuasive Games - these games are used as persuasion technology
  8. Organizational-dynamic games
  9. Games for Health, such as games for medical training, games for health education, games for psychological therapy, or games for cognitive or psysical rehabilitation uses.
  10. Art Games - games used to express artistic ideas or art produced through the medium of video games


Serious Games Taxonomy

Ben Sawyer: Digitalmill, Inc. & Serious Games Initiative
Peter Smith: University of Central Florida, RETRO Lab


Ian Bogost: Procedural Rhetorics

"In Persuasive Games, I advance a theory of how videogames make arguments and influence players.

Games represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them.

Drawing on the history of rhetoric, the study of persuasive expression, I analyze rhetoric's unique function in software in general and videogames in particular.

The field of media studies already studies visual rhetoric, the art of using imagery and visual representation persuasively. Here I argue that videogames, thanks to their basic representational mode of procedurality (rule-based representations and interactions), open a new domain for persuasion; they realize a new form of rhetoric.

I call this new form "procedural rhetoric", a type of rhetoric tied to the core affordances of computers: running processes and executing rule-based symbolic manipulation."


READ: "The Rhetoric of Video Games" by Ian Bogost


Selected notes:

"**[V]ideo games do not simply distract or entertain with empty, meaningless content. Rather, video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes.

Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes. Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.**

Another way to understand procedural representation is in terms of models.

When we build models, we normally attempt to describe the function of some material system accurately—"

Models of all kinds can be thought of as examples of procedural rhetoric; they are devices that attempt to persuade their creators or users that a machine works in a certain way.

Video games too can adopt this type of goal; for example, a flight simulator program attempts to model how the mechanical and professional rules of aviation work.

But since procedurality is a symbolic medium rather than a material one, procedural rhetorics can also make arguments about conceptual systems, like the model of consumer capitalism in Animal Crossing. Gee argues that modeling allows “specific aspects of experience to be interrogated and used for problem solving in ways that lead from concreteness to abstraction.”

Games like Animal Crossing demonstrate that such models include, but extend far beyond physical and formal models to include, arguments about how social, cultural, and political processes work as well."

"One use of procedural rhetoric is to expose and explain the hidden ways of thinking that often drive social, political, or cultural behavior..

Like all cultural artifacts, no video game is produced in a cultural vacuum. All bear the biases of their creators. Video games can help shed light on these ideological biases. Sometimes these biases are inadvertent and deeply hidden.

Other times, the artifacts themselves hope to expose their creators’ biases as positive ones, but which of course can then be read in support or opposition."

"Shaffer argues that games can model how professions work, offering an incomplete, yet embodied experience of real-world jobs.

As Gee explains in this volume, these types of games “already give us a good indication that even young learners, through video games embedded inside a well-organized curriculum, can be inducted into professional practices as a form of value-laden deep learning that transfers to school-based skills and conceptual understandings.”..

On first blush, America’s Army would appear to be a superb example of epistemic games: the game models the values and practices of the army, giving the player an embodied experience of the recruit. However, America’s Army also shows that epistemic games bear a risk: sometimes, we may want to question the values of professional practices rather than assume those values blindly. Procedural rhetoric offers an approach to do so."

"Video games that expose ideology may or may not do so intentionally. But video games can also be created to make explicit claims about the way a material or conceptual system works. The McDonald’s Videogame is an example of such a one, albeit a satire and a political commentary meant to critique the processes employed in the fast food business.

Other games strive to explain and support a particular method for accomplishing a political or social goal; these games use procedural rhetoric to make an argument, and players unpack that argument through play."

"Bully models the social environment of high school through an expressive system of rules, and makes a procedural argument for the necessity of confrontation. Confronting bullies is not a desirable or noble action in the game, but it is necessary if one wants to restore justice. The game privileges the underdogs—nerds and girls—and the player spends most of his time undermining the bullies and the jocks in order to even the social pecking order. Bully is part social commentary, part satire. But it also bears the usual features of an entertainment title.

While games like The McDonald’s Game are more didactic, games like Bully are more subtly expressive. Neither technique is inherently more or less valid than the other, but each accomplishes a different kind of video-game-based speech, each of which might be more or less appropriate in different circumstances." p.18

"In Spore, the player starts with a microorganism and grows it into a complex sentient creature, then a civilization, then a military power, and finally a space-traveling superrace. The game is a rich and complex one that clearly addresses a number of topics, most notably the tension between evolution and natural selection (creatures evolve, but the player carefully designs their attributes).

But in a discussion of the game at the annual Game Developers Conference, Wright explained that the real topic he hoped to address in the game was astrobiology, the study of life throughout the cosmos.42 Often when we wonder if there is intelligent alien life in the universe, we assume that life arises naturally and evolves slowly. Thus the chance of finding intelligent life seems remarkably small; to do so would require the greatest of coincidences in a place as large as the (ever expanding) universe. In the theory Wright hopes to advance in his video game, intelligent life does not occur and grow naturally, but is cultured and transported from planet to planet by other, more advanced civilizations. The perspective on astrobiology Wright advocates borrows the concept of seed spread by wind or other environmental factors; these reproductive structures are called spores. Spore adopts the logic of this particular view on astrobiology, subtly arguing through its game play that the spread of life in the universe is most likely caused by sentient beings transporting other creatures from star to star (see figure 9). While a book might make this argument by explaining the process, in Spore the player discovers the argument by playing in the possibility space the game’s rules create. This act of discovering a procedural argument through play is endemic to procedural rhetoric."

"when we play, we explore the possibility space of a set of rules—we learn to understand and evaluate a game’s meaning. Video games make arguments about how social or cultural systems work in the world—or how they could work, or don’t work. Video games like Spore and Take Back Illinois make arguments about abstract, conceptual systems the way mechanical models make them about material ones. When we play video games, we can interpret these arguments and consider their place in our lives.

"In this way, playing video games is a kind of literacy. Not the literacy that helps us read books or write term papers, but the kind of literacy that helps us make or critique the systems we live in.

By “system,” I don’t just mean large-scale, impersonal things like political systems. Any social or cultural practice can be understood as a set of processes, and our understanding of each of them can be taught, supported, or challenged through video games.

"Video games are not mere trifles, artifacts created only to distract or to amuse. But they are also not automatically rich, sophisticated statements about the world around us. Video games have the power to make arguments, to persuade, to express ideas. But they do not do so inevitably. As we evolve our relationship with video games, one of the most important steps we can take is to learn to play them critically, to suss out the meaning they carry, both on and under the surface. To do this requires a fluency in procedurality, the core representational form of computing. But programming or using computers is not the sole answer to such a charge. Rather, we need to play video games in order to understand the possibility spaces their rules create, and then to explore those possibility spaces and accept,challenge, or reject them in our daily lives."

Games referenced in text:


Ian Bogost: Further Links


Exercise (1-2hrs): Serious Computer Game Play



Games for Change


Nordic examples

Svenska litteratursällskapet i Finland: Krutdurken 1808-1809

Serious Games Interactive (DK): Global Conflicts: Latin America


Alessandro Ludovico: Molleindustria, videogame rules as a political medium.



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