I can’t wait to discuss the Bogost reading in class, but until then, I’d like to think a bit about the relationship between consumerism and rule-based representations. In the section on advertising—and to a lesser extent, the rest of the book—Bogost discusses how procedural rhetoric has been used to persuade players to consume particular products. However, I wish he had gone into more depth on how videogames’ procedural rhetoric can be used not just to sell individual products, but to inculcate a more general consumerist ethic. In fact, I would argue that the procedural rhetoric of today’s open-world videogames is inherently consumerist, and escaping from that state would require designers to radically rethink game mechanics.
At the risk of choosing an obvious example, I’m going to focus on how this works in one particular videogame—The Sims. This is because as the bestselling PC game in history, I’m assuming that many of you have played it before, or are at least familiar with its premise. (Also, it’s one of the few videogames I’ve played enough to feel comfortable critiquing.) The Sims is a ‘sandbox’-style game that markets itself as a ‘life simulator’ or a ‘people simulator.’ It’s been released in 4 versions since 2000, and the creator, Electronic Arts (EA) supplements the game’s content every few months with ‘expansion’ or ‘stuff’ packs that include new game mechanics and objects. (Fun fact: EA has released more than 50 of these ancillary expansion/stuff packs, in addition to the base games. At $20-$50 a pop, it’s not uncommon for enthusiasts to spend hundreds of dollars augmenting their games. It should be no surprise, then, that EA’s procedural rhetoric promotes voracious consumption of material products.)
Representing human life in a video game is no easy task, and although The Sims was hailed as revolutionary when it was released, its procedural rhetoric is very similar to that of early open-world games like Myst. In both Myst and The Sims, players can navigate the game world with nearly complete freedom, but the actual gameplay happens only through interacting with objects. Your Sim is hungry? Click on the fridge to feed her, or the phone to order a pizza. Is she tired? Click on a bed or sofa to put her to sleep. With the exception of interpersonal interactions, it is only possible to command your Sims through objects, and the cost of an object matters a great deal if you want your gameplay to be efficient. Your Sim will finish her business faster on an expensive toilet (no, I’m not kidding), and become more fit by running on a treadmill than she will by jogging outside. Although it purports to be a sandbox, The Sims’ procedural rhetoric forcefully pushes the player toward a particular type of play that focuses on earning money to buy the best objects.
Try to live off the land or play as a homeless Sim, and you quickly run into the sandbox’s walls. Your character will collapse from fatigue at inconvenient times, effectively freezing the game, because it is impossible to sleep without a bed. If her ‘fun’ metric (which can only be boosted by interacting with objects—the pricier, the better) falls below a certain level, she’ll throw a tantrum and refuse to obey the player’s commands. This critique of The Sims is in no way new, either in academia or in the popular media.
Despite my earlier dig at EA, I don’t believe this is a conspiracy to brainwash people into buying more expansion packs. Videogames need to be programmed, and programming requires rules. Object-oriented game mechanics (NOT to be confused with object-oriented programming) are an easy way to create a cohesive set of rules while giving players the impression of a truly open world. Selecting an object opens a menu; the player chooses an option, the game responds. The Sims makes players think they’re in an open world by offering them an apparently limitless array of objects and interactions*.
I’d like to extrapolate Bogost’s argument about procedural rhetoric in advertising to propose that object-oriented game mechanics are inherently materialist and consumerist. The Sims’ consumerist ethic, then, is primarily a product of its mechanics, not American culture or its programmers’ ideology. Given the limitations of current technology, it is not surprising that programmers gravitate toward object-oriented mechanics; as discussed above, they provide an illusion of depth for the player while keeping the programming work manageable. However, when it is only possible to play the game by interacting with objects, material consumption becomes the most fundamental driver for both the player and her character. This is a little frustrating for me because open-world simulations are often heralded as a more benign alternative to violent fighting-based games. But just as first-person shooters generally don’t allow the player to put her hands up and sing kum-ba-ya with her adversary, open worlds confine the player to an existence where her only agency is in how she interacts with material objects.
So, back to the Bogost reading – hopefully that wasn’t too much of a digression! The object-oriented mechanics I’ve described above don’t fit easily into any single part of Bogost’s taxonomy of advertising. The Sims instructs players on how to use objects, but it also associates more expensive objects with greater happiness. In this sense, the procedural rhetoric combines Bogost’s different types of advertising, in order to persuade users to adopt broad consumption paradigms. I believe that games like Myst, which are less overtly consumerist, inculcate the same values because the only way the player can assume agency is through ‘stuff.’
What, then, might a non-materialistic, open-world game look like? Perhaps the gameplay would be driven more by characters than objects. (To be fair, character interactions are a component of The Sims, Myst, and many other open-world games, but they generally aren’t the main mechanic by which the player interacts with the world). A less materialistic open-world game might rely more on logic and puzzle solving—think Civilization or other strategy games, but without the rigid victory conditions. What do you guys think?
* Although the array is actually quite limited – e.g., the game offers several different fridges in various price ranges, but they all come with the same set of possible interactions. You can get a snack, cook dinner for your family, or put away your leftovers, but you can’t rearrange the shelves or destroy the fridge with a sledgehammer. The only difference between fridge skins is how efficiently they fulfill the Sim’s needs, and this is what I mean when I say that the vast range of options is an illusion.