Ian Bogost: Rules of the Game = Persuasive Rhetoric

WaterCoolerGamesIan Bogost, contributor to the MacArthur Ecology of Games initiative, is also educator, co-author of the blog Water Cooler Games, and co-owner of Persuasive Games, Inc. – a game design studio making games about social issues.

Long and short of Ian’s thesis:

you can make an abortion game turn out to be prolife or prochoice, depending on the procedural rules

Games and their rules embody cultural values.  They represent systems and how the systems work.  Through representations, interactions, and symbolic manipulation.  Games can support existing social and cultural positions.  Games can also disrupt and change those positions — leading to significant long-term social change.  By understanding how games do this, we can design games whose purpose is to editorialize, teach, and make political statements.

Procedural rules of the game are, basically, what happens next when the player chooses to do X instead of Y.

When games do this on purpose, they make it possible for players to deepen their understanding of the multiple causal forces that affect any given set of circumstances.  Games can create a compressed version of the embodied experience of others.  In that context, the individual player’s knowledge gains distinctive meaning.

This magic happens when the consequences of the player’s action is connected to the values and assumptions that underlie the issue space by the rules of the game.  Ian argues that this design enables the player to experience the “worldview” itself that underlies the issue, not just the effects of a particular position within that world view.

This feat is accomplished by building the game rules upon a case-based knowledgebase that unpacks the values and assumptions underlying the issue.

Aside: If you’ve played Ayiti: Cost of Life, I understand many players have the same experience I did.  No matter how many rounds you play.  No matter what strategy you employ.  Your family just gets poorer and poorer. Hmmm… 

Persuasive Game Design Formula 

So the design formula looks like:

case-based knowledgebase + values + rules of game + consequences of player action =  issue position

BogostDesignIan acknowledges that building a case-based knowledgebase from scratch is “hard.” 

So he starts with existing “seed” games. 


  1. critique
  2. tweak
  3. mix

“Critique” identifies the difference between the current position and the desired position.  “Tweaking” minimizes the difference, by connecting the underlying values positively or negatively with player action.  Ian is worried that this alone will find the same solution over and over again.  So he “mixes” to make the system more creative, to more radically explore the underlying issue space.

Applying Ian to Social Enterprise Profitability 

How can social entrepreneurs making an elearning together to solve the mystery of earned income profitability apply Ian’s design concepts?

The key take-away for me so far is:

  • game rules connecting
  • the consequence of player/learner action
  • to underlying case-based knowledgebase (capturing the meta-patterns hidden in our collective experience; what works; what doesn’t work; why)
  • to produce profitable individual scenarios.

The good news: Ian’s design concepts make me believe even more strongly that we could actually do this!

The not-so-good news:

I’m afraid we’re gonna have to build our case-based knowledgebase from scratch

There are no existing “seed” games that speak to our issues.  Well, there are business games, financial games.  But do any of the ones you’ve seen resonate with you as a social entrepreneur?  Me either.  Conceivably, we could do the critique thing.  But I haven’t even seen any game I would want to work with at that level.  Tell us if YOU have.

BUT – it doesn’t have to be “hard” 

What I’ve really been thinking all along is: this making-the-game together game is itself the process by which we build a knowledgebase that is useful to us – full of our collective experience.  If we build our case-based knowledgebase by making the game together — it could be FUN!

WE make the rules of our own game

Rules that help us efficiently discover and apply our meta-patterns of profitability.  Rules that practically and effectively link the patterns in our knowledgebase to player/learner actions in the game to produce profitable earned income scenarios.  We can change our thinking, our behavior, our individual results – in the real world.  We can create rules that enable us to mix and remix, so we can fully explore the what-if scenarios.

I don’t know how this will “play out.”  I just have the idea that we can do it.  That’s why I want us to do it together.

What is the design of a making-the-game game that builds a case-based knowledgebase that makes the game better/more useful to us for discovering the meta-patterns of nonprofit earned income venture profitability?


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