How Video Games Can be Used in Political Persuasion

By: Dave Roos
Why aren't video games a bigger part of political campaigns? klikk/jacklooser/sararoom/thinkstock
Why aren't video games a bigger part of political campaigns? klikk/jacklooser/sararoom/thinkstock

Back in December 2003, game designer Ian Bogost and his team at Persuasive Games released the first official video game for a U.S. presidential candidate: "The Howard Dean for Iowa Game".

In the game commissioned by the Dean campaign, players acted as grassroots Dean supporters, recruiting friends and neighbors to vote for Dean in the Iowa caucuses by handing out leaflets on Main Street and going door-to-virtual-door. Interactive and educational, the game presented a realistic model of grassroots organizing, including primers on the arcane rules of the American electoral system. 


When designing the game over a decade ago, Bogost was certain that video gaming was on the cusp of becoming more than a leisure-time activity, that it had the potential to be a powerful and persuasive medium equal to political speech, newspaper editorials and documentary films.

"I had this idea that by the 2008 elections every major presidential candidate would have a PlayStation 2 game with their political platform," says Bogost. "But we haven't seen that evolution happen."

He attributes this to the fact that games are still seen as a kind of youth medium, or just for entertainment. "Even though we have many more people playing games [than in 2003], the convention hasn't been established to think of them as non-fiction, or as news, or persuasion, or all of the other touchstones that they have in other media," he says.

Here we are in 2016 and the closest thing to political video games are the satirical gags at the GOP Arcade.  A game like Trump Toss, in which you fling sombrero-wearing immigrants over a wall to earn "greatness" points, is not without its shareable, meme-worthy charm, says Bogost, but it's not serious political speech.

In his 2007 book "Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames", Bogost argues that video games can be as rhetorically effective as print, TV or other media.  Rhetoric, as you may remember from high school English class, is the art and science of influencing or persuading an audience. When we usually talk about rhetoric, we might mention written rhetoric, oral rhetoric or visual rhetoric. Bogost says that video games employ an entirely different kind of rhetoric that he calls procedural rhetoric.

"Games might not tell stories as well as fiction or non-fiction books do, and they don't depict visual imagery as well as photos or movies, but what games do differently is enact models," Bogost notes. "Let's say you want to explain how the global economy works and how it's broken, or how climate change can be effectively combatted. What you're really talking about is a set of processes. You're not saying, 'Here's the truth of the world.' You're saying, 'Look at all this crazy machinery interoperating together.'"

In video games, procedural rhetoric gets its power by allowing you to play with simplified models of complex, real-world processes, which is something that even the best magazine article or documentary can't do.

Take a wildly popular video game like "SimCity", for example, which models the complex, real-world process of urban planning. To play the game, you need to learn about zoning, about transportation, about supporting industry and creating jobs. If you raise taxes too high, the citizens riot in the streets. "'SimCity' is trying to show you how small-scale decisions and complex dynamics create the experience of urban life," says Bogost.

He designed "The Howard Dean for Iowa Game" to engage players with the process of grassroots organization. He and his team have also created journalism games like "Points of Entry", a game featured on The New York Times website to help explain a controversial "points-based" immigration bill.

"The legislation was this 400-page bill that ordinary people were never going to read," says Bogost, so he created a simple game in which you try to create a "better immigrant" — the right amount of education, skills and English proficiency — to beat a computer-generated opponent. "I think it was some of the best coverage of that issue at the time."

But he adds that journalism games like that one are seen by the public as innovative curiosities. "We need those things to become normal in order for them to become effective," he says.

Little research has been done on whether playing video games can change someone's thinking (apart from the oft-studied topic of video games and violence). Bogost is quick to dismiss the idea that any type of media has the capacity to truly change people's minds.

"The measure to me is not whether people vote or buy," says Bogost. "What I'm after is creating a deeper and more complex discourse around an issue."