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Games and Rhetoric: a rhetorical look at gameplay

By Drew Davidson


This column serves as a lens through which academic ideas are focused on the process and products of game development. I think there is a belief that this articulation and exchange of ideas can help refine our appreciation of games, which in turn will hopefully enable us to create even better ones. As the previous columnists have noted and illustrated, games afford scholars myriad avenues to explore. With this in mind, I’m going to share a rhetorical perspective that can be useful when thinking of the design and play of games.

Rhetoric is often loosely defined as the art of persuasive communication. For scholars who study rhetorical theory, more complex definitions of rhetoric are discussed and debated. In general, rhetoric is the study of techniques and rules for effectively using communication to convey meanings. Currently, I’ve been applying rhetorical theory to game analysis, looking for the techniques and rules of games that effectively communicate their meanings. The following is a summary of my work on the rhetoric of gameplay.

Before I discuss gameplay rhetoric, I should clarify what I mean by gameplay. I use the term to describe and define the mechanics of interactions within a game which enable players to engage and progress. Gameplay mechanics are how players experience and interact within the gaming situation, the “combination of ends, means, rules, equipment, and manipulative action" involved in engaging a game (Markku Eskelinen, The Gaming Situation). A game is comprised of these various mechanics through which players play.

The notion that there is a rhetoric of gameplay at work within games 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.

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.

To illustrate this idea, I’m going to discuss two general examples of gameplay mechanics and look at their rhetorical elements. In both cases, I will refer to the Playstation 2 game, Ico. To be fair, almost any game could serve (as all games have gameplay mechanics) but I have chosen Ico because it is an adventure game that has received praise for its intuitive gameplay, emotional character design, and subtle story that yield a poignant and evocative experience throughout the playing of the game.

First, let’s consider an over-arching gameplay mechanic, the representation of the boundary of the game world. This is the virtual border beyond which a player cannot go. This mechanic is usually expressed through some demarcation that sets the boundaries of the game. In Ico, the boundaries are set by the architecture and its entropy. The rhetorical element of this mechanic is integrated within the overall design of the game quite nicely. You are naturally bordered by the doors, stairs, walls, drops and debris. The boundaries of the game world help situate the player within the game.

For our second example, let’s look at the gameplay mechanic of enabling players to save their game. Often with consoles, players access this option with the pressing of the Start/Select button (on computers it’s often the Esc key). In Ico, you can only save when you find a glowing white couch. This glowing white couch is somewhat out of place, clashing with the rest of the design of game world and drawing rhetorical attention to this mechanic that enables you to save your progress. However, the rhetoric also blurs some with the gameplay in this example. Ico’s save function is smoothly incorporated within the game world; instead of just a button press, the young player/character has to sit on the couch in order to save, and this “tired” boy sits and takes a nap until you restart, which wakes him up (refreshed and with the player’s progress saved). This gameplay mechanic is important to players as they save their progress throughout the game.

With these two brief examples, I hope I’ve illustrated a bit of the rhetoric of gameplay. In my studies, I’m exploring a full range of gameplay mechanics across many different games and delineating rhetorical elements varying from obviously overt to seamlessly integrated and in between. 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. They could create organic gameplaying experiences enabling more intuitive play. Similarly, scholars could look at the rhetorical elements of gameplay mechanics to evaluate and critique the gameplay of games.

Other scholars are also applying rhetorical theories in their studies of games. Steffen P. Walz is working “Towards a Rhetoric of Digital Games,” exploring games through the lens of classic and contemporary rhetorical theories, and Gonzalo Frasca is leading a workshop based on his rhetorical work entitled, “Games with Strong Opinions: Workshop on Videogame Rhetoric” (both will be presented at DiGRA’s upcoming Level Up conference). So, the rhetoric of gameplay is just one of many lines of study from the field of rhetoric that can prove useful in analyzing and discussing games.




| drew davidson |