critical making: play and procedural rhetoric

Reading Ian Bogost’s “Procedural Rhetoric” from Persuasive Games and Mary Flanagan’s “Designing for Critical Play” from Critical Play reignited conversations we had in class last week about McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, in which we contemplated what it meant to do gamer theory—is theorizing hacking? Making games to understand mechanics? Critically playing games? Making critical games (games that critique serious subject matter)?

Games communicate differently than other media; they not only deliver messages, but also simulate experiences. While often thought to be just a leisure activity, games can also become rhetorical tools.

From Persuasive Games dot com “About Us”

My question shifts a bit this week from what does it meant to do gamer theory to considering what makes a game a rhetorical tool. In Flanagan’s “Designing for Critical Play”, what I am aligning with games as rhetorical tools based on the desired outcome of critical thinking and change in opinion or action, she explains that

Critical play is not about making experts, but about designing spaces where diverse minds feel comfortable enough to take part in the discovery of solutions. Derived from artists’ creative processes, investigations, and practical work, critical play is to popular computer games what performance art once was to the traditional, well-made stage play.

She proposes a revised design schema for making games that “demands a new awareness of design values and power relations, a recognition of audience and player diversities, a refocusing on the relational and performative as opposed to the object, and a continued and sustained appreciation of the subversive”. For games to be rhetorical tools, they must be designed as such; she seems to be mostly directing the creation of situation for critical play (emphasizing human values and concerns as fundamental to the design process) and the representation of a more diverse spectrum of voices and experience to designers of games, not players. While this is undoubtedly a worthwhile endeavor, I wonder what might involve the player in critical play—to more explicitly work in the space between player and game (the disconnect between reality and game—even if the game represents events, people, and places of reality). Does simulation work in this space? Could the process of simulation be opened up more for the player to understand their actions and the consequences of action? Critical play evokes critical thinking, a sort of simulation of taking on perspectives to engage with a concept/situation/action to work through understanding cause and effect, affect, action and reaction. But that simulation, that critical engagement, seems limited to language as the symbolic system for engaging/communicating meaning (even though the player is performing actions).

Bogost’s procedural rhetoric seems to carry the concept of critical play further because it makes process matter—it is not that actions in the game are carried out, but how. procedural representation takes a different form than written or spoken representation; it explains processes with other processes—not language. Bogost explains that “Procedural representation itself requires inscription in a medium that actually enacts processes rather than merely describe them” (9). Procedural rhetoric entails persuasion to change opinion or action, as well as expression, making its arguments through the authorship of rules and behaviors and the construction of dynamic models, not through words and images. Bogost’s engagement with games as rhetorical tools is not that players have to be able to make games to understand, but that players should learn to read processes as a critic—playing the game as a “procedural system with an eye toward identifying and interpreting the rules that drive the system” (64). He states that “procedural rhetorics afford a new and promising way to make claims about how things work” (29). But how does one learn the rules that drive the system? 

I found myself wondering in reading this week: how does procedural rhetoric or critical play engage the engagement with the media itself? “Media are not simply vessels for human meaning” (Nathaniel Rivers and Jim Brown Jr., “Composing the Carpenters Workshop”); I find myself still mulling over Bogost’s notion of carpentry from another of his texts (Alien Phenomenology) as I continue to take interest in the rhetorical affordances of making.

In Composing the Carpenters Workshop, Brown and Rivers take Bogost’s concept of carpentry into the rhetoric and composition classroom. Bogost defines carpentry as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” (92) that “entail making things that explain how things make their world” (93). Brown and Rivers summarize Bogost’s carpentry as both a description of how objects make one another and a practice of doing philosophy, they extend carpentry one step further “suggesting that such making can be undertaken in an effort to do rhetoric”. In doing rhetorical carpentry, we would be engaged with “how we might ‘construct objects (and conversations among objects) in order to demonstrate approximations of the strange, alien conversations happening around us’’. To demonstrate the alien (or unknown—silenced or without agency) and what might be encountered in the construction of objects, they explore work in rhetoric and composition that expands a rhetorical situation to a network or an ecology (a rhetorical situation being a response to an issue directed toward an audience). They look at the work of Collin Gifford Brooke (among others); Brooke’s book Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media develops a rhetoric of new media, but does not see rhetorical theory as another way of looking at texts after their production. To Brooke rhetoric is not a mode alongside literary criticism or cultural theory, but is a way to think through “what might still be done with new media” (Rivers and Brown 31). Brooke explains

A rhetoric of new media, rather than examining the choices that have already been made by writers, should prepare us as writers to make choices our own choices. Such a rhetoric cannot be achieved through the reactive lens of critical/theoretical reading

By understanding the rhetorical situation as networked and complex, Brooke illustrates that the human is not the center of situation; “The takeaway for us is that for Brooke the work of rhetoric is not to impose or discover meaning within some (new media) text (as object), but to invent new ways of producing meaning through an attunement to the constraints and affordances of new media” (Rivers and Brown 31). Making is at the heart of rhetoric. Rivers and Brown explain “rhetoric needs to remain actionary rather than reactionary”— “As actionary, a rhetoric of new media should prepare us for sorting through the strategies, practices, and tactics available to us and even for inventing new ones” (Brooke). Like Bogost’s philosophical carpenter who works with things rather than observing them, an “actionary rhetorician cobbles together strategies, practices, and tactics in order to address engagements to come” (Rivers and Brown 31).

Rivers and Brown end with a description of a composition classroom

It is November 2015, and you are visiting what you thought was a college composition classroom. However, something seems to be amiss. In one corner, a group of students pass around a long wooden cylinder that they constructed using a lathe (they were able to get help from a professor in the Art department to gain access to the equipment). In another corner, a group huddles around a 3D printer as a strange looking blue plastic object emerges (it looks like a helmet). You find out from the professor (an excitable, bespectacled man with curly hair and a wry smile) that a third group is not present; they are across campus working with a group of architecture students and blowing glass. This happens a lot in this particular class. The English department has not yet approved the professor’s grant proposal for a workshop that would offer students the ability to work in various media. The proposal has been met with curious stares thus far, but the professor is undeterred. He tells you and anyone who will listen that these students are merely taking advantage of “the available means of persuasion” and attempting to gain insight into the “vacuum-sealed.”

The go on to explain that the blue object is not a helmet, but a puzzle:

The grooves on the inside of the sphere allow users to place and re-place dividers to create a series of self-contained compartments on the inside of the sphere. Users are first asked to pour a certain amount of water into the sphere (proportionally representing the amount of fresh water in the world). The challenge is to evenly apportion the water in all of the compartments by sliding open and close the dividers inside the sphere. The object of the object is to foreground water itself as a political actor.

Through making and playing with the puzzle “environmental rhetoric becomes something other than the task of
shaping human hearts and minds to “save the world,” and instead becomes something more akin to the recognition that the “world itself” is likewise populated by a plethora of nonhuman political actors”.

In “Procedural Rhetoric” Bogost explains “If persuasive games are videogames that mount meaningful procedural rhetorics, and if procedural rhetorics facilitate dialectical interrogation of process-based claims about how real-world processes· do, could, or should work, then persuasive games can also make claims that speak past or against the fixed worldviews of institutions like governments or corporations” (57).

“Media are not simply vessels for human meaning”.  How are games rhetorical tools that do rhetoric—not containers or objects for rhetoric?


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