A few days back, Ian posted a short diary relating an amazing video game conference that he helped to organize (a short description of the conference can be found here). I confess that when I first encountered Ian online I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his research. “Video games? What could possibly be of interest in video games? Isn’t this a sort of scam that academics pull over on administrations so they can sit around and play?” This, I suspect, is a response that those in digital humanities and cultural studies often receive when talking about their work to those outside of their discipline.
Unit Operations and Persuasive Games thoroughly disabused me of this notion. Not only did Unit Operations convince me that video games are a new form of art filled with all sorts of necessary questions worthy of investigation, Unit Operations and Persuasive Games got me thinking about rhetoric in a very different way. For a long time I’ve wondered why persuasion is so difficult. An argument can be well constructed, it can be beautifully rendered, and all the rest. Yet unless the audience is already sympathetic to the claim the rhetor is trying to persuade you of, or unless one already identifies with the rhetor or what the rhetor stands for, persuasion often fails to take place. I fully confess, for example, that I’m far more likely to be persuaded by someone who has a background in French theory or phenomenology, than someone who has a background in Anglo-American analytic philosophy even if the two rhetors are arguing for very similar things. This is unconscious. It is not as if I sit there and say to myself “this person is a Quinean, therefore I won’t listen to them.” It’s a sort of brute reaction. Yet the position from which a rhetor speaks makes a difference to the persuasive power of that speech. Freud already noted this with respect to the position of the physician. The physicians words were capable of evoking greater persuasion in the patient than those of another person, even if both were saying largely the same thing. And as an aside, I think philosophers tend to ignore and underplay this dimension of transference as a condition for persuasion. In an ideal world this wouldn’t make a difference, but it does in our world.
In Unit Operations and Persuasive Games, however, I think Ian sheds new light on this phenomenon. To put matters very crudely, Ian argues that video games unfold to what he calls “procedural rhetoric”. Procedures rhetoric functions not so much through expression or propositional content (though that’s all there too in many instances), but rather by engaging the player in a set of procedures or operations in playing the game. In a video game you have to relate to the game world in a particular way, execute actions in a particular way, and explore the world of the game in terms of these operations. What you encounter through these procedures is a set of outcomes or consequences that particular actions in the game world produce. As you explore the game world, you discover that certain actions on your part produce unexpected outcomes. And it is precisely this procedural dimension of games that seems to carry the power of changing how we think about the world in general.
I had experience along these lines prior to coming over to OOO. As I’ve sometimes related on this blog, SimCity had a tremendous impact on how I think about social and political issues. In SimCity, if you don’t build roads connecting particular parts of the city, if you don’t build power plants, if you don’t build them in particular locations, your citizens get angry with you. You get gridlock throughout the city. Productivity decreases. Tax revenues decrease. People begin to move to other cities. And fewer people moving to your own city. Things get ugly. In SimCity you’re always balancing all sorts of considerations against one another, trying to keep your populace happy and attract new citizens so your tax revenues can increase, you can build more, and your city can grow.
Now at the time I picked up this game, I didn’t do so for any intellectual reason. I wanted a distraction. I wanted to do something other than read and write. I wanted something completely disconnected from academia. Moreover, at this time, I was deeply entrenched within a Lacano-Zizeko framework, placing emphasis on the role the signifier plays in collective relations, ideology, the nature of desire, and the deadlocks of jouissance. The reason I found SimCity to be such a jarring experience is that it fundamentally challenged my assumptions as to why the social world is organized in the way that it is. It’s not that I abandoned the view that ideology, the signifier, jouissance, and desire play an important role in social relations and why they’re organized as they are. Rather, it’s that I realized these agencies weren’t enough and that things like whether or not there are roads that connect particular parts of a city, whether or not there are cheap internet connections that connect people together, what sorts of power plants there are, etc., also play a key role in explaining why social relations are organized as they are. My semiotic-Lacano-Zizekian framework couldn’t explain this, nor was my Badiousian politics of truth-procedures really adequate to explaining how change is produced given the role played by these agencies. These things were part of the story, but very far from being the whole story.
The strange thing is that I already had read all of these claims. I had read some Latour and knew that he argued along these lines. I had read DeLanda and knew that he thought about assemblages in these ways. I had read the later work of Deleuze and Guattari and was therefore acquainted within their “mechanic assemblages”. Yet somehow all of these things had failed to persuade me. They weren’t even on my radar. The slid off my brain like water off the back of a duck. In many ways I thought these authors were duped, that they simply failed to recognize the power of signifiers and how signifiers influence each and every aspect of our life, our interpersonal relations, and our relations to the world around us. I thought they lacked rigor.
In this instance, persuasion took place as a consequence of engaging in a series of procedures and experiencing what outcomes they produce. I am not saying that my entire shift arose from a video game (that would be absurd), only that this video game was a sort of encounter in the Deleuzian sense. That encounter, in turn, led me to go back to a number of other thinkers I had hitherto ignored and softened me up for object-oriented ontology.
Bogost’s thesis, I think, sheds possible light on the impotence of critique. Critique all too often unfolds solely at the level of the expressive, the propositional, the representational, or content. What is lacking here is this dimension of procedure. The point here is not that video games are our salvation– though I think Ian is right in arguing that they’re possibilities are not being fully explored –but rather that the effectiveness of video games in producing persuasion and change in cognitive attitudes sheds light on rhetoric as a whole. Perhaps, among rhetoric’s missing masses, is the dimension of the procedural where the positions and beliefs of people evolve as a result of exploring worlds that they wouldn’t otherwise explore.