The Rhetoric of Video Games

The Rhetoric of Video Games

by Ian Bogost

Animal Crossing as Example: 

  • models how the redistribution of wealth works in our current economy where players experience first-hand the interconnection between our desire for more goods and the need for more living space; the reality of doing mundane, repetitive work to support our growing desire; and how their debt could make bankers wealthier 
  • creates a “simplified” gaming system through which players can experience and discover the consequences of our existing model of commerce and debt 

Video games can make claims about the world, through which players can understand, evaluate, and deliberate. 

  • not just mere facilitation of cultural, social, political practices, but also media where cultural values can be represented for further examination 


  • play refers to the possibility of space created by constraints of all kinds, which includes all the gestures made possible by a set of rules 


  • the sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play 
  • games can depict real or imagined systems by creating procedural models of those systems, through imposing rules that create particularly possibility spaces of play 

Procedural Rhetoric: 

  • the practice of authoring arguments through processes 
    • persuasion + expression 
    • arguments are made through the authorship of rules of behavior, and the construction of dynamic models 

How to use procedural rhetoric in games: 

  • Expose and explain the hidden ways of thinking that drive social, political, or cultural behavior 
    • for example, one could model how a profession works; or make players question the values of professional practices 
  • Make explicit claims about the way a material or conceptual system works. 
    • rather than “brainwashing” players on a certain belief, the game could present a way for players to understanding the system for further inquiry, agreement, or disapproval 
    • could be very didactic or more subtle in terms of how the claims are conveyed to the players 

Learning from procedural rhetoric: 

  • makes an argument about how social or cultural systems work or do not work, through which a new kind of literacy arises—a literacy that helps us make or critique the systems we live in 
  • establishes a way of interpreting social  and cultural practices as a set of processes, where our understanding of each could be taught, supported, or challenged through video games 
  • instead of focusing on teaching people how to write computer programs, we can instead teach people how to write computer arguments, a skill becoming increasingly significant for our current digital age 


Personal Reflection on P2: 

Even though an interactive fiction game is not exactly the same as a traditional video game, the idea of “procedurality” is still particularly important. Namely, how do we establish the systems of our fictional world through processes rather than simply a block of texts? How could players’ actions in the game (in the case of interactive fiction, which branches they choose to go to) serve as a way to illuminate the specific qualities of our system? How do we encourage players to self-reflect on the system through their interactive choices, rather than relying on a solely didactic approach? For my game, I hope to explore a dystopian system [details still being worked out] through the story of a young girl going through her father’s belongings. In understanding her father’s life, she also reflects on the dysfunctional qualities underlying the world she lives in. This article, with various game examples, has given me inspirations on how I could approach the establishing of a world/system through game mechanics and dynamics. As a previous writer, I also tend to focus more on establishing my intentions as an author in writing the story, with a tendency to ignore how player behavior itself could be the bigger driving force in creating procedural rhetoric. This article has reminded me that I need to focus on how the choices I give my players could generate their reflection of their own behavior. My biggest challenge, at the moment, is bridging both the personal story of the father and the bigger picture of the society.

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