Procedural Rhetoric and Validity of its Criticisms

What is Procedural Rhetoric and are the criticisms made against it by Miguel Sicart valid?

According to Sicart, as written in his piece “Against Procedurality”:

Proceduralism often disregards the importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties. In this sense, the meaning of a game, of any game, lies in its rules…In the proceduralist tradition, play is not central to understanding the meanings created by (playing) games, since it is the rules that create those meanings. (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 23)

and that:

In essence, procedural rhetoric argues that it is in the formal properties of the rules where the meaning of a game can be found. And what players do is actively complete the meaning suggested and guided by the rules. For proceduralists, which are after all a class of formalists, the game is the rules, both in terms of its ontological definition (the what in what is a game), and in its function as an object that creates meaning in the contexts in which specific users use it. (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 22)

This essay will first properly define Procedural Rhetoric and how it is related to Proceduralism in order to bring a groundwork understanding to what it is the Sicart is criticising. Sicart’s views will be laid out in a manner in which they will be taken apart, looked at and considered on whether these criticisms are actually valid complaints. First will be Sicart’s interpretation of procedural rhetoric and whether his criticism against his interpretation is valid to apply to what Bogost really meant. Sicart claims that procedural rhetoric ignores the player yet Bogost outlines a concept called procedural enthymeme which acknowledges the relationship between player and procedure. Sicart claims that Bogost focuses too much on the formal characteristics of the game, and not enough on other other important components such as aesthetics, narrative, and so on. Sicart’s interpretation of procedural rhetoric against his own idea of abusive game design which when looked into are pretty much the same thing and how Sicart believes that procedurality leads to the embedding of agendas and views into the games which are then forced onto the unsuspecting players.

To understand the concept of Procedural Rhetoric, first Proceduralism needs to be defined since Procedural Rhetoric is a subset of Proceduralism. What is Proceduralism? Proceduralism explores the way arguments are set in the rules of games and how said rules are presented, communicated and understood by the player. By the simulated rules, games show these values and by the way the player digests the information filtered by their own biases and understands, makes the game have meaning. As Ian Bogost writes in Persuasive Games (2007), “A simulation is the gap between the rule-based representation of a source system and a user’s subjectivity” (p.107). It is fair to say that Proceduralism insists that players, by recreating the meaning set in the rules are convinced by the arguments presented by the mechanics of the game procedural nature.

In Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games (2007), Bogost uses Janet Murray’s definition to define procedure. The technical definition being that a procedure is defined by its “ability to execute a series of rule[s]” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, 2007, p. 4). Bogost states that this definition defines it as a fundamental activity of software authorship and says how procedures in computers are what “fundamentally separates them from other media” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, 2007, p. 4). Bogost talks about how behaviour is decided by logic and that the procedurality in computers in not in fact unique to the digital medium rather everything has procedures. Though it is quite obvious that the interactive procedurality of games and applications are unique to the digital medium when they are analyzed through a cultural lens. Bogost views the procedures in video games as objects for presenting ideas and creating arguments, Bogost compares them akin to that of metaphors.

Bogost begins the exploration of rhetoric in the same manner as he did with his explanation of procedure. For both, he dispels negative meanings that the reader could interpret from the words. Through a very in depth discussion of visual, oratory, digital and procedural rhetoric, he arrives at the conclusion that the definition of rhetoric is “effective expression” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, 2007, p. 19). According to Bogost’s beliefs, oratory rhetoric is well known and commonly thought of whereas visual and procedural rhetoric is under-appreciated and not well used. He concludes in this explanation of rhetoric that digital media should focus on procedurality in their studies of rhetoric (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, p. 28). Bogost then combines the two defined terms to define his definition of Procedural Rhetoric which is “the practice of using processes persuasively” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, p. 28).

Miguel Sicart is against Procedurality and makes a compelling piece in his writing “Against Procedurality”, though it isn’t Procedurality in general that he has that much of an issue with but rather procedural rhetoric. He defines procedural rhetoric in the following manner:
In essence, procedural rhetoric argues that it is in the formal properties of the rules where the meaning of a game can be found. And what players do is actively complete the meaning suggested and guided by the rules. For proceduralists, which are after all a class of formalists, the game is the rules, both in terms of its ontological definition (the what in what is a game), and in its function as an object that creates meaning in the contexts in which specific users use it. (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 22). His argument against procedurality is that “Proceduralism often disregards the importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties. In this sense, the meaning of a game, of any game, lies in its rules…In the proceduralist tradition, play is not central to understanding the meanings created by (playing) games, since it is the rules that create those meanings” (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 23). He has a problem with the designers controlling the way a player perceives play and forces them to think through the designer’s perspective. To him, the designer of the procedural game, “plays the player”.

The problem presented by Sicart is that “Proceduralism often disregards the importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties. In this sense, the meaning of a game, of any game, lies in its rules…In the proceduralist tradition, play is not central to understanding the meanings created by (playing) games, since it is the rules that create those meanings” (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 23).
Sicart in this passage portrays a poor understanding of Bogost’s work. Bogost never said that the meaning is only in the rules of the game and definitely does not “disregard the importance of play and players” in his model. Bogost simply says that computers are good at presenting the processes of procedures since they themselves are a series of processes. A good example of player importance can be Bogost’s concept of the “procedural enthymeme,” as found in Persuasive Games, since it acknowledges the dynamic relationship between player and the procedure. The enthymeme is a technique in which something is left out and the listener (in the case of oratory) or a player is expected to fill in this missing something and complete the conclusion or arguments that the game is trying to convey. Complex yet refined interactivity can produce  an effective procedural enthymeme (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, 2007, p. 43). In procedural enthymeme, “the player literally fills in the missing portion of the syllogism by interacting with the application, that action is constrained by the rules” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, 2007, p. 33).

Sicart claims that Bogost focuses too much on the formal characteristics of the game, and not enough on other other important components such as aesthetics, narrative, and so on. Which Hawreliak in his piece “In Defense of Procedurality” brings up one of Bogost’s works, Unit Operations (2006). He explains that in the book, Bogost prefers “‘unit operations,’ distinct components working together in a dynamic and contextually defined manner, over ‘system operations,’ which are more rigid forms associated with structuralism. Furthermore, in his application of Levi Bryant’s ‘flat ontology’ in  Alien Phenomenology (2012), Bogost again makes the point that a game is many different things at once, going so far as to suggest that any single organizing approach (e.g. narratological, procedural, etc.) is essentially arbitrary.“ (In Defense of Procedurality, 2012).That is to say, that Bogost’s position on procedurality isn’t focused on the formal properties or separated and sealed off from other core components such as the aesthetics, narrative, pre-text and so on.

Miguel Sicart’s problem with the designer forcing their views onto the players is a strange one when he and Douglas Wilson, in their piece “Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design’”, introduce a concept called Abusive Game Design. Even though there are negative and harsh associations with the use of abuse, the concept is quite positive. Sicart and Wilson define it as a way of forcing the player to forgo their expectations of the game and play for an experience in which the focus of understanding the systems of play, is on understanding the designer’s intent. The distinction he makes between his concept and the concept he believe put forth by Bogost is that  the designer forcing a view onto the players rather designing an experience in which the players can question and respond to the “open invitation explore the extremes of gameplay experience”. Abusive game design to them, “confronts the conventional and reminds us that play is, above all, something personal.” It is a dialogue between the designer and the player where they are communicating to explore new ideas and arguments presented in the mechanics of the game. This new idea of Abusive Game Design seems to be Procedural Rhetoric with a different name which implies that Sicart does agree with the core concept of procedural rhetoric but rather disagrees with his own interpretation of what Procedural Rhetoric actually is. Why is it that Abusive Games Design invites the player to join in a dialogue where Procedural Rhetoric does not? Sicart along with Wilson skim over this detail and proceed to simply state that this is the case.

Proceduralism is the exploration of arguments embedded in the rules of games and how said rules are presented, communicated and understood by the player. Combining the definitions of procedure, as the “ability to execute a series of rule[s] (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, p. 19), and rhetoric as  “effective expression” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, p. 19). Procedural Rhetoric is “the practice of using processes persuasively” (Procedural Rhetoric in Persuasive Games, p. 28). Sicart’s argument against procedurality is that “Proceduralism often disregards the importance of play and players as activities that have creative, performative properties.” (Against Procedurality, 2011, para. 23)
He has a problem with the designers controlling the way a player perceives play and forces them to think through the designer’s perspective. Bogost’s concept of the “procedural enthymeme,” as found in Persuasive Games, it acknowledges the dynamic relationship between player and the procedure. The enthymeme is a technique in which something is left out and the listener (in the case of oratory) or a player is expected to fill in this missing something and complete the conclusion or arguments that the game is trying to convey. Miguel Sicart’s issue with the designer forcing their views onto the players is weird when he and Douglas Wilson, in their piece “Now It’s Personal: On Abusive Game Design’”, introduce a concept called Abusive Game Design. icart and Wilson define it as a way of forcing the player to forgo their expectations of the game and play for an experience in which the focus of understanding the systems of play, is on understanding the designer’s intent. Abusive Game Design seems to be Procedural Rhetoric with a different name which implies that Sicart does agree with the core concept of procedural rhetoric but rather disagrees with his own interpretation of what Procedural Rhetoric actually is.It can be then concluded that many of Sicart’s criticisms stem from misinterpreting what Bogost was intending and reading into motives that are not present in the concepts present, as, it is apparent that Sicart does in some way agree with Procedural Rhetoric and as such the way he has portrayed it in his piece is incorrect.

Bibliography

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