Procedural Ethos: Confirming the Persuasive in Serious Games

Procedural Ethos: Confirming the Persuasive in Serious Games

Michael A. Evans (Virginia Tech, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/jgcms.2011100105
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Abstract

How is it that serious games are actually persuasive? Ian Bogost’s work on serious (or persuasive) games provides essential philosophical foundations for the genre though, as the article demonstrates, sufficient detail of argument is lacking. Bogost uses the model of classical rhetoric to demonstrate that games can make arguments through “procedural rhetoric,” which he exemplifies with games like Molleindustria’s McDonald’s Videogame, a title that can best be identified as parody. However, such games, while attempting to make persuasive arguments, lack classical requisites for persuasion, leaving room for further critical inquiry and development of understanding of how serious games work. To be considered persuasive, serious games should additionally demonstrate the components of ethos, which include: phronesis (practical knowledge, factual basis), arête (integrity, virtue), and eunoia (goodwill, concern for the hearer). It is insufficient for serious games to have procedural rhetoric without taking account of procedural ethos. Analyses of the McDonald’s game and the ReDistricting Game are conducted for an initial verification of this proposal. This description of how serious games can be persuasive can provide additional conceptual tools to game developers, instructional designers, and educational scholars attempting to leverage serious games for intentional, productive, and predictable learning.
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Classical Rhetoric In Modern Digital Video Games

Christopher Lasch once observed, “Among the activities through which men (sic) seek release from everyday life, games offer in many ways the purest form of escape” (Lasch, 1977, p. 24). Though commercial-off-the-shelf games for the most part are designed to maximize entertainment and engagement (Van Eck, 2006), they are also superbly suited as an interactive media to make real arguments about everyday life. This seductive potential has attracted instructional designers and game developers for intentional implementation in formal and, increasingly so, informal learning environments where focus is on higher-order thinking skills including decision making, critical thinking, and creativity (Evans, 2010). Bogost (2008), in his work, effectively demonstrates how persuasion can be understood and leveraged in digital games by applying the model of classical rhetoric to games whose “arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (p. 125). Bogost employs Aristotelian terminology and concepts for his work (p. 123); and therefore this article, which attempts to complement and extend Bogost’s work to establish a more comprehensive case for modern digital video games as instructional technology, adopts the same model.

Aristotle is the father of classical rhetorical theory, and his Rhetoric is still regarded by most rhetoricians as “the most important single work on persuasion ever written” (Golden et al., 2007, p. 67). “Persuasion,” writes Aristotle, “is clearly a sort of demonstration, since we are most fully persuaded when we consider a thing to have been demonstrated” (I.i.1354b). And in his Rhetoric, he identifies ethos as what is required in a speaker to make an argument persuasive (I.ii.1356a). Ethos, Aristotle insists, is not mere moral competence, as the term is often employed. In persuasive rhetoric, ethos has three essential components which the speaker (or medium, in our case) must always demonstrate to an audience: phronesis (practical knowledge, demonstrating how the argument is truly based upon fact and that the speaker has a knowledgeable view of the world), arête (integrity, fairness, justice, virtue, demonstrating that the argument is fair and the source trustworthy), and eunoia (goodwill toward the audience, demonstrating that the argument is made with sincerity, disinterest, and a concern for the hearer). It is simply not sufficient for an audience to be moved (pathos), and for an argument to be logical (logos). That effect is often called “empty rhetoric” today. Without ethos, the audience will not be persuaded but rather respond, “That is just your opinion.” We see this as a productive challenge for serious games that attempt to leverage mechanics from the game development industry while producing titles that are educationally sound, underpinning the obligations designers and developers have to not only content, but ethics. By placing this additional requirement that serious games be judged on the degree of procedural ethos, game developers, instructional designers, and learning scientists desiring to advance the field of serious games may have an additional criterion to judge the appropriateness and value of new titles that appear on the market and are the receivers of federal funding and scholarly investigation (Joseph, 2007; Przybylski & Ryan, 2009; Small, 2011). One such title, The Redistricting Game, published by the USC Annenberg Center, deserves the type scrutiny being advocated in this article. As the designers note in regard to the intent of the game (Swain, 2010):

“The Redistricting Game is designed to educate, engage, and empower citizens around the issue of political redistricting. Currently, the political system in most states allows the state legislators themselves to draw the lines. This system is subject to a wide range of abuses and manipulations that encourage incumbents to draw districts which protect their seats rather than risk and open contest. By exploring how the system works, as well as how open it is to abuse, The Redistricting Game allows players to experience the realities of one of the most important (yet least understood) aspects of our political system.”

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