In Praise of Procedural Rhetoric

I am a scientist, educator, game designer, and lifelong gamer - in that order, and yes, that order is important. Having come to game design through science, I see games from a scientist’s perspective, and it turns out that this perspective is incredibly useful for designing serious games. How so?

Well, science is all about models. The idea that planets orbit the sun - that idea is a conceptual model of our solar system. The idea that electrons in an atom orbit a core of protons and neutrons - that idea is a conceptual model of an atom. Now, a model is not a mandate. A model does not tell the world what it must be. Rather, a model is an attempt to describe the processes and systems that produce the patterns that we see in the world. As a scientist, it was my job to understand the state-of-the-art models in my field, work to make them better, and then use them for the good of humanity.

(Yes, I’m an idealist.)

Oddly enough, while science is all about models, most non-scientists believe that science is all about facts. This pains me. At the most idealistic level, I know from personal experience that conceptual models can be be beautiful, surprising, and inspiring. It pains me to think that so many people walk through life oblivious to the complex beauty of the world around them. So many missed opportunities for joy.

On a more practical level, models afford material power over the systems that they represent. While facts are great, if all you have are facts, you are essentially abdicating responsibility for your life, and leaving everything up to chance and fate. On the other hand, if you use your facts to create models, or if you adopt conceptual models created by others, you suddenly have the power to make educated guesses about the consequences of your actions. Chance and fate will still play important roles in your life, but with the help of these fact-based systems models, you will be able to stand beside fate and chance and play an equally important role in your life.

As both scientist and gamer, I see games as models. Some games are models of abstract mathematical systems (checkers), some are models of concrete fictional places (WoW), and some are models of real systems (Civ). At the same time, I have always wanted to be a force for positive change in the world. Probably because I read too many adventure stories as a kid. At any rate, I felt a growing desire to help curious folks learn about the things that we-as-a-people have learned through science - because these things are beautiful, surprising, and useful.  So, I started designing games based on real-world models, and I’ve become pretty good at it.

Recently, while looking for a textbook for a critical studies class, I came across Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games. It’s a little pedantic in places, but brilliantly insightful in others, and it’s especially brilliant in the way it introduces and makes use of the concept of procedural rhetoric.

As Bogost explains, rhetoric is the art of expression and persuasion. Verbal rhetoric, as a recognized art and skill, has been around at least since ancient Greece. However, the concept of rhetoric has slowly evolved to become more inclusive, and it now recognizes the persuasive and expressive ability of all media.

Procedural rhetoric, specifically, is the art of persuasion and expression using the medium of processes. At first, this sounds rather vague, but it is in fact the very thing that I’d been doing for years. I just didn’t have a name for it. Rather than expressing my ideas through spoken words, written words, images, or music (nod to TMBG), I was communicating through game mechanics - and game mechanics are processes. After reading this book, a whole bunch of ideas all fell into place.

GlassLab, among others, advocates the idea that an educational game must require students to enact the skills that you wish them to learn. This position is an implicit recognition of the fact that procedural rhetoric is powerful and engaging. A skill is a flexible process. To learn a process, you must practice that process (or a simulation thereof). To practice a process, you must engage with that process, and listen to it. If you listen, the process will tell you when you succeed or fail, and (hopefully) why you succeed or fail. That process is speaking to you using procedural rhetoric.

The idea of procedural rhetoric also connects to the metaphor of chocolate-covered broccoli. For example, The Legend of Geomethor (short gameplay video here) is a multiple-choice geometry quiz bookended by luscious faux-80’s cartoon adventures. In this, it is analogous to a piece of limp broccoli slathered in top-notch chocolate. Maybe some people will play the game. Maybe some of those people will learn something - but if they do learn anything, they won’t learn it from the game. This is because the game has terrible procedural rhetoric - and because it has terrible procedural rhetoric, the producers had to layer on top-notch audiovisual rhetoric (those cartoon adventures) to provide both a motivation for player engagement and the necessary bits of mathematical content.

In contrast, Molleindustria is a modern master of procedural rhetoric. Each one of their games is built on a model of a piece of the real world, but those pieces are so masterfully designed that they are simultaneously engaging, persuasive, and informative. If Geomethor is chocolate-covered broccoli, Molleindustria’s games are like the finest sushi-licious broccoli: raw, real, beautiful, powerful, engaging, and authentic.

But this is not the time or place to be analyzing specific games. That will come later. Among other things, I aim to highlight interesting and thoughtful games, games that have made good use of procedural rhetoric to engage, persuade, and create opportunities for learning.

The point here is to lay a foundation for further discussion and future work. To make the case that procedural rhetoric is a wonderfully useful concept for game design, for curriculum design, and for critical studies. By considering the connections between games, game mechanics, models, and expressive or persuasive speech - you can create engaging and effective games and activities for learning, and you can engage with media in ways that better maintain and assert your own values and beliefs.