Just to be clear, I am not a gamer. The only video game I ever successfully completed was Jill of the Jungle, which we owned on floppy disk when I was a kid.
In fact, up until this past year I would have argued that video games don’t really have any redeeming qualities. At worst, they are a hotbed of misogyny and xenophobia, as chronicled by female gamers on websites like Not in the Kitchen Anymore and Fat, Ugly or Slutty. At best, they are like a bottomless pit where the lives of children and adults disappear, never to resurface.
This year a good friend convinced me to try a Digital Humanities class at my University. For those of you who haven’t heard of the field before (I hadn’t either), Wikipedia defines it as the “intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities”. If you want to see some examples of the kind of research being done in the field, you could check out two of my past posts describing DH scholar Lisa Nakamura’s guest lectures at my university.
While this class has challenged the way I see technology in general, it has particularly challenged my very negative perception of video games. In fact, Ian Bogost, one of the DH scholars we studied in the course, argues that games can form powerful arguments and unique social critiques. In his book, Persuasive Games, Bogost describes arguments made by a game as “procedural rhetoric“, or, more simply as “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions, rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures”.
Below, I’ve included four examples of persuasive games my DH professor shared with the class. Each of these games make relevant and thoughtful arguments that wouldn’t have been as effective if they didn’t appear in their procedural form.
The Parable of the Polygons
Vi Hart and Nicky Case preface their simple browser game by stating that “This is a story of how harmless choices can make a harmful world.” Hart and Case explain that the triangles and squares are “slightly shapist”. This means that the shapes prefer some level of diversity around them, but will become unhappy if they feel isolated in their community. Players are then asked to drag and drop the shapes until all of the squares and triangles are happy with the community of shapes around them.
Once the player begins moving the shapes, it becomes apparent that even a slight bias will lead to large scale segregation. Continue reading