Thursday, February 17, 2011

Procedural Rhetoric in Games

In the Carleton Game Dev Club meeting last week, a member showed a video from the Escapist series Extra Credit. Called Narrative Mechanics, this episode was all about how video games can tell a story through its mechanics alone, with no words at all.

The video and the discussion following it reminded me of Ian Bogost's concept of procedural rhetoric.  I first learned about this type of rhetoric (different from the traditional idea of persuasive speech or the more modern version of artistic or visual rhetoric) in Ian's chapter of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning.

This is Ian's definition of procedural rhetoric:
I suggest the name procedural rhetoric for the practice of using processes persuasively, just as verbal rhetoric is the practice of using oratory persuasively and visual rhetoric is the practice of using images persuasively. Procedural rhetoric is a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes. Following the classical model, procedural rhetoric entails persuasion—to change opinion or action. Following the contemporary model, procedural rhetoric entails expression—to convey ideas effectively. Procedural rhetoric is a subdomain of procedural authorship; its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models. In computation, those rules are authored in code, through the practice of programming.
The description certainly seems to fit with the ideas presented in the Extra Credits video.

Members of our lab recently played a couple of sessions of Agricola, a popular board game by Uwe Rosenberg.  As Wikipedia describes it:
The goal of the game is to build the most well-balanced farm at the end of 14 rounds, consisting of plowed fields for crops and fenced pastures for livestock. The farm should have little fallow land and a large farmhouse built of high quality material. The player should also expand the family tending the farm from its initial two members to a maximum of five.
One of the comments that came up about the game was how frustrating it was that as the game progressed, we could never do all the things we wanted to do.  For example, many of us had plans to expand our house or get more livestock, but suddenly realized that a round was almost over, and thus we would soon have to feed our families.  So we had to drop everything and make sure we found enough food.  We learned a lot about how to use our resources effectively.

Just like that, the rules of the game provided us a pretty compelling story about the difficult experiences of farming without saying a single word about it.  Procedural rhetoric at work.

Have you ever played a board game that gave you a similar rhetorical experience?


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