Currently my work has taken me to a study of America's Army, the US Department of Defence's military recruitment game which was originally released in 2002. My interest in the game was that it was a great example of a videogame that was created by the state for the purpose of “things public”. That means instead of only addressing citizens as consumers (buy this game and have fun!), the game addressed consumers as citizens i.e. “have fun and learn about a way to serve your country”. For me this is a relatively rare occasion where the state has used a videogame to provide information and an ideology that serves its interests. I believe that while this might be one of the first and most effective uses of the form and I don't think it will be the last.
In my work I often use the writings of Ian Bogost as a way to think about why games are so effective as a means of communication. He argues that what makes videogames unique is that they run on computers – and as such they run through procedure. Computers use parameters and then proceed to operate inside of them, meaning that videogames also must stick to these general rules of the form. What makes videogames unique to 'real world' games is that they are hard-coded with arbitrary limits and assumptions that we as players have to learn to play inside of if we want to successfully navigate them. Bogost says that it is these assumptions that become a form of argumentation that he calls procedural rhetoric.
Not all videogames argue very well, and like any argument, they can fall completely flat. Those games that do make an effective argument, Bogost calls persuasive games. These are videogames that make arguments about the way the world works, and in so doing cause us to consider their point of view.
Today Bogost made an appearance on the CBC Radio One show Spark (along with a number of other very interesting commentators like Tim Wu and Kellee Santiago) concerning his new book Newsgames. On it he spoke about the premise of the book, that any intersection between videogames and news can be considered a newsgame. This way of telling news is important because through procedure, we can gain a closer look into how events were brought about, as opposed to just reporting things “as they are” without any depth. He also commented on the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of the anti-hero or the villain – Bogost's own games emphasize this, like Airport Security - noting that it allows us to connect and gain an empathy for situations and people that we might otherwise be lacking. Such empathy doesn't mean we approve of the actions, but it certainly allows us to see things clearer.
Coming back to America's Army, a big part of my study was downloading and playing the game. In Bogost's book Persausive Games he spoke about the game specifically, but I was very much intent on playing it myself. You can do so right here if you feel so inclined. For the uninitiated the game is divided into two parts, one is an online First-Person-Shooter (where you play with other people and engage in combat missions) and the other is a training mode where you interact with drill sergeant's while learning about the history of the United States Army and the ideology that it operates on. What's key is that the game enforces this ideology through procedural rhetoric. An example is that if you shoot your commander, go to Leavenworth Prison, suggesting that yes, murder of a superior officer is Not Allowed. More simply it can be that at all times during online play you play as member of the US Army (even those who you are shooting see themselves as such). Nobody gets to play the bad guy. Through this experience I gained an uncanny empathy with the American Solider (even if it pales in comparison to the Real Thing).
I went from fresh recruit to a fully-trained solider, with the mandatory graduation ceremony with cheering crowds and patriotic speeches. It was powerful. Through playing the game, I was an express subject of the military's ideology, and through it, I gained a sense of how soldiers themselves are placed into structures of power and ideology. While I do not support the American or Canadian wars of aggression abroad, through such a process I gained an important empathy that I feel would be impossible to fully appreciate through something other than a videogame. No doubt the American Department of Defence is distinctly aware of this.