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The Rhetoric of GamePlay

By Drew Davidson, Ph.D.

  There is a rhetoric of gameplay. This notion is inspired by Wayne Booth's idea that there is a rhetoric of fiction at work within literature (in his book, The Rhetoric of Fiction , U of Chicago P, 1983) . To borrow from Booth, there are techniques, rhetorical "elements that are recognizable and separable, 'friends of the [player]' that exist within" the gameplay of games (106). These mechanics have rhetorical elements that serve the purpose of conveying the game's techniques and rules enabling play.   These rhetorical elements invite players into the game by giving them clues and directions as to what is going on and how to proceed through the game. The gameplay mechanics are how players play the game. The rhetorical elements are how the mechanics show players how to play. This is the subtle distinction between the rhetoric of the gameplay and the gameplay itself. But this distinction can blur. I believe when gameplay mechanics are well integrated within the overall game design, the rhetorical elements become a seamless part of the game and it's hard to separate the two. If the overall game design is a unified whole in which the gameplay mechanics are incorporated, then the rhetorical elements are just a part of playing the game, as opposed to an obvious technique or rule to be understood in order to play. Good gameplay makes for good rhetoric, which makes for a good game.

This exploration of the rhetoric of gameplay is an attempt to establish some ground on which to build a "reflective, questioning stance," or a "critical literacy" of games (Warnick, 6). David Myers discusses the semiotics of games in an attempt to delineate the common elements of games ("Computer Game Semiotics"). Gameplay is the fundamental element of games and I am curious to examine the characteristics of gameplay using Booth's ideas as a lens.   I find that Booth's ideas are adaptable to games; essentially, games are a remediation of other media (Bolter, 25).    So the rhetoric of gameplay is a remediation of Booth's theory. As such, I believe the rhetoric of gameplay adds to the ludology, the study of games, analyzing games as games (Frasca). Related to Aarseth's promotion of a methodology of game analysis, I think the rhetoric of gameplay can help articulate a connection amongst the study and design of games, enabling the critical exploration of the experience of playing a game ("Play Research", 4).

Before I discuss gameplay rhetoric, I should clarify what I mean by gameplay.   Then I am going to look at how the rhetorical elements of gameplay help teach players the gameplay mechanics which enable them to play the game.   Finally I'll take a look at how the exploration and description of the rhetoric of gameplay could aid in the creation and critique of games.


For the purposes of this article, I am not going to attempt to explore the intricacies of defining exactly what a game is or is not, nor am I going to delve into genre-specific conventions of gameplay, nor am I trying to create a complete list of all the types of gameplay mechanics.   Instead, I am going to focus on some general gameplay mechanics I believe are broadly applicable to a wide variety of games.

I use the term gameplay to describe and define the mechanics of interactions within which a game enables players to engage and progress through the game. Gameplay is how players experience and interact with the gaming situation, the "combination of ends, means, rules, equipment, and manipulative action" required to engage the game (Eskelinen). The gameplay of a game is the interactive process players go through to reach the goal of the game (Federoff). It is through gameplay that players act toward an end, or as Greg Costikyan puts it, the gameplay of games requires decision-making and management of resources in pursuit of a goal ("I have no Words...").   So, gameplay is the sum of a variety of mechanics that enable players to play games. I plan to explore these gameplay mechanics and look at their rhetoric elements.

Gameplay Mechanics
& Rhetorical Elements

Gameplay mechanics serve the rhetorical function of teaching players how to play the game.   They guide the players through the game. I am going to outline several of these mechanics with examples from games and then explore their rhetorical function within the games. Again, it should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list of gameplay mechanics, instead is an attempt to look at enough general gameplay examples in order to explore the idea of the rhetoric of gameplay. In this discussion, I am going to loosely articulate types of gameplay mechanics into three groups; game world, game progress, and game mode.   Game world is comprised of gameplay mechanics that roughly deal with issue pertaining to the world within which the game takes place.   Game progress is made up of gameplay mechanics that help players track their progress and success (or lack of) as they play through the game. Game mode deals with gameplay mechanics that shape the types of interactivity available to players in a game and at different moments throughout the game. Again, these groups of gameplay mechanics most certainly overlap, but they serve to help focus our discussion on the rhetorical elements of the various gameplay mechanics.

Game World

An overarching gameplay mechanic is the representation of the boundary of the game world.     This is the virtual border around the area in which the game is positioned and beyond which a player cannot go. This mechanic is usually expressed through some demarcation that sets the boundaries of the game.   A classic example of this would be Myst and it's use of islands and water. Players were bounded by the water, stuck on land (apparently the player/character can't swim).   A different example can be found in the Sly Cooper game on the Playstation 2.   In this game, you can see an active world all around you, but you cannot cross a boundary out of the world of the game (you literally hit an invisible wall).   A more limitless example is found in the new Legend of Zelda game on the GameCube. For the most part, you can go where ever you want in this game, what sometimes prevents you is usually a puzzle you have to solve.   In each case, the gameplay mechanic rhetorically establishes the world within which the game is played.   It can be disjointed, as in Sly Cooper , where there are some geographical features (and darker lighting and drabber colors) that seem to prevent you, but really you just hit an invisible wall.   In Myst , it is a little more seamless, but you are somewhat unrealistically constrained completely by water.   The Legend of Zelda is the most seamless example given here, in which the rhetorical function of this gameplay mechanic is blurred with the gameplay itself.   For the most part, you are able to go where you want as long as you can figure out how to get there (there are times where the boat will redirect you if you are straying off course from your present mission).   The boundaries of the game world help situate the player within the game.

The representation of the physics of the game engine is a closely associated gameplay mechanic to the game world.   In most games you cannot walk through walls, you fall when you jump, you take damage/die when hit, etc.   This mechanic rhetorically sets up the gameworld's physical "feel," that a player learns as they play the game.   The represented physics of a gameworld can subtly help establish the limits of actions within the world.   It should be noted that these physics do not necessarily need to conform to real world physics, but ideally they should remain consistent to themselves.   Jet Set Radio Future on the Xbox is a great example of "loose" but consistent physics. Players are able to skate up and down walls and make incredibly dynamic jumps.   Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube also has somewhat loose physics, with good timing, you can land a triple jump and propel yourself flying up into the air. In both, the rhetorical element is blended with the gameplay, you discover the physics through your interactions. Other games try to establish a more "real" physics to the world, but in all games, the representation of physics helps set and define the players' agency within the gameworld.

An addition to the agency within the gameworld is positioning within the world as related through a map/compass/radar of the world.   Most games offer some form(s) of a navigational element to help the player find their way around the world.   A map shows the world (often with your position marked as well). A compass can either show fictional n-s-e-w, or point to where you should go. A radar can show you the location of both good and bad things (treasures and enemies). These gameplay mechanics are often left floating in the corner of the screen, a fictional HUD (Head's Up Display) or just an in-game interface, or can be called up with a button click for display.   Metroid Prime on the GameCube goes with the representation of a HUD and has a small map floating the corner of the screen and a more detailed map available with a button click.   Halo on the Xbox also uses a HUD and has a radar that can detect the motion of friend and foe in the immediate vicinity.   The rhetorical function of these mechanics is to help the player locate where they are and where they need to go. In both of these examples, the rhetoric and gameplay are blurred with the use of the HUD of the player/character's helmet. These navigational elements help guide players through the gameworld and the game itself.

Another related gameplay mechanic is the use of what is often called "breadcrumbs." Breadcrumbs are little visual and/or aural clues within the gameworld that help guide players in the correct direction.   They are somewhat the opposite of the boundaries of the world which denote the limits of the action. Instead, they are the pointers towards where the action is (or where the player should go in order to find the action).   In Sly Cooper there are golden coins sprinkled around that guide the player to the right path.   Halo doesn't use a treasure trail; instead, it uses the sight and sound of enemies for breadcrumbs to guide players through the game. The breadcrumbs in Sly Cooper are rather overtly rhetorical, they jump out at scream, "go this way!"   Halo , on the other hand, is more subtle and blurred. You hear and see the fighting, and key component of your missions is fighting, which in turn directs you toward your goals. Breadcrumbs, along with navigational elements and game boundaries, are layers of gameplay mechanics that serve the rhetorical function of orienting the player to the courses of action to take within the gameworld.

Game Progress

Another type of gameplay mechanic deals with the players' progress through the game.   First and foremost there is the teaching of game-specific rules and gameplay.   Some games have more intricate rules and gameplay than others, but in each case these mechanics need to be explained and taught.   For instance, Advance Wars on the GBA is a turn-based military strategy game.   The game requires the player to complete a tutorial in the guise of military training prior to "real" combat.   By completing the training, a player will have learned what units can do what and how to deploy their units. In contrast, Super Mario Sunshine on the GameCube gives you clues through various conversations with NPCs (non-player characters) throughout the game.   These conversations are represented textually and use the literal terms of which button to push to get a certain desired effect.    Wario Ware, Inc. on the GBA just gives the player a descriptive word in text before each 3 second game. Ico on the PS2 has very simple controls and rules and doesn't explain them within the game world, instead you can read them in the manual or in a menu screen available with the press of the start of select button. Of these examples, Advance Wars has the most blurred rhetoric of gameplay. The military training fits within the game itself as you train for real combat. In general, this type of gameplay mechanic helps players learn the ins and outs of how to play the game itself.

This leads to a closely associated gameplay mechanic, the interface elements that enable players to pause/save/restart/restore their game and access the menu screens.   Often with consoles, players access all of the options with the pressing of the start or select button (on computers it is often the Esc key).   This pulls players out of the gameworld and into the menus that give them options and such that will apply within the gameworld when they return.   A major variation across games comes from the nature of how they enable players to save and restore their progress throughout the game.   The latest Legend of Zelda on the GameCube lets you save wherever and whenever you want, but you restart at an earlier checkpoint. Halo on the Xbox is similar, but you see evidence of the checkpoints in your HUD.   Ico on the PS2 only lets you save when you find a glowing white couch. Often saving is just a matter of clicking out of the game and then selecting to save.   Ico blurs this distinction by incorporating saving within the game, you sit on the couch if you want to save (and the player/character takes a nap until you restart your game, and then you wake up).   In general, these gamekeeping gameplay mechanics are made to be as unobtrusive as possible to make it easy for players to get into the world as easily as possible.  

Another related gameplay mechanic is the relation of progress, improvement and success through the game.   There are a variety of issues ranging from bonuses, number of lifes, extra lifes, power ups, health, score, time, etc.   A game can incorporate a mix of the preceding and can often mix in different mechanics at different points of the game. Ico on the PS2 is quite simple, you have one life, if you die you can try again. You start with a stick and can move up to a sword (there are 2 easter eggs - a mace and a lightsaber).   Other games get much more complicated, in Metroid Prime on the GameCube you are constantly looking for power ups to increase your shield's power and give your character more capabilities that are necessary to advance in the game.   In Jet Set Radio Future on the Xbox, you are constantly skating against the clock.    Sly Cooper on the PS2 has a variety of mechanics mixed throughout, you can gain extra lives by finding bouncing icons of Sly. You can also collect coins, bottles and clues that give you a variety of power ups. At some points in the game you are under the clock and have to complete a task running against time. Looking at the above examples, Sly Cooper has the most overt rhetorical elements, although Metroid Prime is close, both with floating icons to grab for a variety of bonuses.   Ico has the most blurring, with gameplay tied directly to objects that are more realistic to the game world. All in all, these gameplay mechanics illustrate for players their success (or lack of) as they play the game.   Ultimately they culminate in the player winning or losing the game.

Game Mode

Moving on to other types of gameplay mechanics that deal with the types interactivity for the player. One way to relate the types of interactivity possible and available is through hardware and software conventions and innovations.   In terms of hardware this mostly falls into controller schema and the systems' processing power and a/v ability.   With gaming consoles (PS2, GameCube, Xbox) you have your standard buttons and analog sticks. With PCs you have you mouse and keyboard. In both cases you can buy special hardware (guns, joysticks, pads, etc.) to supplement the standard hardware.   Most games generally not only use the standard hardware, but they also employ similar buttons. For example, the (X) button on the PS2 controller is usually used for jumping and the

  ( o ) button is usually used for shooting.   Halo on the Xbox actually employs an unusual default button schema (it can be modified) with the shooting controlled with the right trigger. This can add to the learning curve as players work against habits ingrained from playing games employing similar controller schema. As much as there may be a more conventional controller schema, games often vary just enough to always require some learning. A good example of this is the camera control in Splinter Cell on the Xbox and the Legend of Zelda on the Gamecube. Both employ the right analog stick to shift the camera view, but they move the camera in opposite directions (this can be a problem in action sequences where you accidentally push your camera view the wrong way).   And then there are overt innovations in controllers, like the floor pad originally for Dance, Dance Revolution on the DreamCast but it can be used with other games as well.   All of these examples show how variations in controller schema outside of the norms can make the rhetorical element more overt, although innovations can also make it more intuitive.   All and all, the gameplay is enacted through the input control players have.

Another consideration is the systems' processing power and a/v ability. With consoles it's mostly about the latest generation of console. With PCs it about the latest chips, graphics cards, sound cards and RAM.   In both cases the hardware conventions set parameters within which gameplay is employed (i.e. only so much 3D texture and lighting and shading) and advances in hardware can enhance gameplay (i.e. faster framerates with games, more immersive worlds with better physics). Intimately entwined with this are the software conventions and advances, most specifically found in the tools used in making the game. There are standard tools (i.e. from graphics (Maya) to audio (Soundforge) to the game engine itself) and there are constant innovations in tools that enable enhancements in gameplay (i.e. a better game engine to enable more luscious environments).   In all these cases of advances it becomes a matter of games incorporating these hardware and software advantages into the gameplay as opposed to adding them on as bells and whistles.

A related gameplay mechanic to consider deals with modes of gameplay experienced within the game itself. First of all there are the variety of modes of interactivity involved throughout a game.   As Lev Manovich notes, when engaging new media (or playing a game), we oscillate "between illusionary segments and interactive segments" that force us to "switch between different mental sets" demanding from us a "cognitive multitasking" that requires "intellectual problem solving, systematic experimentation, and the quick learning of new tasks" (The Language of New Media, 210). Indeed, games and other interactive media do require people to assume different roles with varying degrees of control (Newman). Most games have an introductory movie (some games let you click out of it, others make you watch it).   There are also little movie cutscenes between interactive sections, and there are final movies upon completion of the game (often there are several depending on whether the player won or lost or what they did or did not do). Generally, the player loses any and all control and becomes a passive viewer during these mini-movies. This is usually indicated by a screen aspect ratio change, switching to widescreen ratio for the cutscenes and movies and moving back to television ratio for interactive gameplay.   These movies often add narrative details to the game and can be additive or instrusive depending on their length and frequency.   Ico on the PS2 has a minimal amount of cutscenes, keeping the player actively involved. Metal Gear Solid 2 , also on the PS2, has tons of cutscenes to the point of almost becoming more of an interactive movie as opposed to a game. These modes mix up the gameplay and allow for transitions to occur between sequences and indicate for players when they are to watch and listen and when they are to interact and play.

Another associated gameplay mechanic is centered around genre conventions.   Most games fit into a genre (i.e. First-Person Shooter, Role-Playing Game, Platformer, Adventure, Puzzle, Sports, etc.)   Granted, these genres are often blurred and combined even, but a game's gameplay needs to acknowledge the genre conventions within which it exists whether it innovates or not.   So all First-Person Shooters share certain characteristics (perspective and fast action) and so on across genres.   This enables players to pick up a game in a genre and not have to start learning from scratch. Innovations are based on this foundation and are what make great games. For example, Half-Life on the PC added seamless narrative elements to the Quake experience. These genre conventions represent an expected style of gameplay that can be best enhanced when innovated from the respective genre foundations.   By acknowledging these genre conventions, a game provides an opening through which players can start exploring all the other gameplay mechanics of the game.

Why The Rhetoric of Gameplay?

Essentially, it is a question of why and how games are played. Focusing on this issue, Chris Crawford, in The Art of Computer Game Design , claims that the fundamental reason for playing a game is to learn (23). Assuming this basis, players need to learn from the mechanics of the gameplay how to play the game.   The gameplay can and should teach players what they need to know and do in order to play. In essence, "play is how we learn" the game (Costikyan, "Where Stories End and Games Begin"). Effective gameplay creates a smooth learning curve in which players are enabled to successfully advance through the game (Crawford, 72). And we are continuing to better understand how to most effectively create and use gameplay that best enhances our learning within games (Squires).

As such, I find it is quite useful to consider games from a variety of perspectives to help in our growing understanding of games. In doing so we can observe features that remain invisible from other perspectives (Ryan, 199). Julian Kucklich notes that adapting "a l iterary approach to interactive fiction that reflects the limitations of its critical terminology can provide valuable insights into these games' narrative, and semiotic, structure" (Kucklich). And Lindley and Eladhari discuss object-oriented storytelling as a way to explore the logic in a game ("Causal Normalisation"). So, the rhetoric of gameplay remediates Booth's theory to add a perspective focused on the essential elements of a game, it's gameplay.

And I believe the consideration of the rhetoric of gameplay can aid in both the creation and critique of games.   It focuses attention on the fundamental quality of the gameplay. Developers could work to create gameplay mechanics that are better incorporated within the overall game design, making them less explicitly rhetorical. By better integrating the gameplay mechanics within the world of the game, they could create organic gameplaying experiences enabling more intuitive play. I think this would raise the quality of games. Similarly, scholars can look at the rhetoric of gameplay to evaluate and critique the merits of a game's gameplay. This would help focus critical attention on the gameplay mechanics that make up the foundation of the experience of playing the game.

The rhetoric to gameplay involves the rhetorical elements that help players through the game.   These elements invite players into and through the game by giving them clues and directions as to what is happening and how to proceed in the game. The "elements are recognizable and separable, 'friends of the [player]' that exist within [games]" (Booth, 106).   In most games, the experience of the rhetorical elements of the gameplay mechanics is just part of playing through the game, you learn, adjust and play on.   But I think that these elements can be integrated within the gameplay so well that they become a integral part of the game and the distinction between rhetoric and gameplay blurs into a seamless playing experience of the game. Great games would/could/should have subtle rhetoric blurred within the gameplay that would better enable players to become more intuitively immersed within the experience of playing the game.   I believe the critical consideration of the rhetoric of gameplay helps better focus attention and awareness on a fundamental characteristic of what makes a game a game; it's gameplay.

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