alien games: gamer theory as phenomenology

Aristotle’s conception of knowledge includes theory (theoria—specifically looking at), practice (praxis), and art (techne). Praxis is complimentary to theoria, with praxis functioning as a tool or medium for theoria.  In reading McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, I thought about what it meant to practice gamer theory instead of game theory or even a theory of gaming. How does play align with praxis?

Wark differentiates gamer theory from game theory by stating:

If game theory is objective, rational, abstract, gamer theory is subjective, intuitive, particular. If game theory starts with the self-contained agent, like a prisoner in a cell, calculating the odds against a disciplinary world, gamer theory wonders how the agency of the gamer comes into being as something distinct in the first place (124, emphasis mine).

I read Wark’s concept of gamer theory as something akin to Ian Bogost’s alien phenomenology—as the blurring of the line that separates subject and object, gamer and game and considers them instead as something more ontological in terms of agency. Bogost explains phenomenology through object oriented ontology by working in the space between nature and culture; “In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales…and pondering their nature and relations with one another and with ourselves” (6). Gamer theory seems to be working in the gap erected in between games and everyday life/reality to “make the now rather familiar world of the digital game strange again” (225). This resonates with Bogost’s reminder that “The alien isn’t in the Roswell military morgue, or in the galactic far reaches, or in the undiscovered ecosystems of the deepest sea and most remote tundra. It’s everywhere” (Alien Phenomenology, 113).

What might it mean to look at games as playing with object oriented ontology? Imagine games as something posthuman—in which games don’t just exist for us or as something we create, master, abandon to gather dust, dispose of (to become…). Gamer theory seems to open up praxis/theoria as something akin to Bogost’s concept of carpentry, or the practice of constructing artifacts as philosophical practice (92)—practicing|theorizing how things fashion one another and the world at large (93). What artifacts could be constructed to theorize games (encompassing gamers and gaming which encompass even greater still)? Instead of making games (design and development practice|theory) and playing games (mechanics and culture practice|theory), we might be entangled with games in gamer theory. Wark poses—”The final question for a gamer theory might be to move beyond the phenomena of gaming as experienced by the gamer to conceive of gaming from the point of the view of the game” (223). What is gamer theory or play from the point of view of the game? What does this perspective make available to the gamer—as an entangling of game, gamer, gaming and all the objects in the ontologies that populate the space in between)? What if we treated our games as alien objects—as estranged, as practicing theory instead of an object of study—instead of as mirrors or departures from the real world? What if we moved beyond making our games and our games making us to consider the space/objects in between?






Visual Rhetorics Portfolio

Theoria: Portfolio Perspective

Before this course, visual rhetoric(s) was on my periphery but out of focus. My interest in digital rhetoric, computers and writing, and new media studies emphasize the visual, but in no certain rhetorical terms. I hadn’t read texts specific to the subject matter; without engagement, I didn’t know how visual rhetoric(s) influenced what I saw in these theoretical perspectives. Throughout our exploration with map making, document design, typography, iconography, infographics, data visualization, art aesthetic views, structuralist and post-structuralist ways of looking, ethics, ecologies, and rhetorical frames, I leave the class with a blink – an ability to shift my sight. In Graphesis, Johanna Drucker explains that “How we know what we know is predicated on the models of knowing that mediate our experience by providing conceptual schema or processing experience into form” (15). This class will continue to function for me as a model of careful thinking, a referent, something to connect my continuing work in visual rhetoric(s) to as an insight, a way of seeing.

Working backward from our line of sight at the beginning of the semester, we see the missing chapter we created for Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art. Instead of crafting a chapter to fit the style and content of Cairo as turned toward rhetoric, I opted to make visual the process of data visualization with a focus on theory, method, and invention. This was an assignment I chose to revise because my visual failed to make visible the very concepts it set out to illuminate. After a change in perspective, I noticed that fell into a frame of reduction – the antithesis of visualization. Struggling to make the elements of the visualization pullout relate into a cohesive infographic, I began to take information out. Without essential information and visible connections between concepts, the infographic became irony (maybe it could have been included in a “What not to do” section). I revised the visualization to be just that – a visualization of these concepts – with more visible organization, illustrated concepts, and text to guide the reader through the visualization. This process, despite its difficulties, was a learning experience for me as I worked through (to my understanding) the meaning of the concept of heuretics, or the use of theory for the invention of new texts (Gregory Ulmer). This wasn’t a moment of clarity as much as it was the prick of punctum (Roland Barthes) – a shift in my perspective of the complexity of connections present and untraceable among elements.

“Last thing about punctum: whether or not it is triggered, it is an addition: it is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there” (Barthes 55). Creating a slidedeck for our Viz. Ignite Series presentations was a similar moment of focused reflection as I looked back at what we had discussed in class, questions and interests I had developing on the periphery, areas of illumination and shadow in my own understanding, and a frame of reference to my own academic work. Aside from enjoying the format of this style of presenting and creating the visuals for the slides, I was happy with the results of my work to make my (current) understandings and questions visualized. Like creating the Cairo chapter, this was an introspective process for me in my own work with data visualization and technical composition, my ability to better see networks and ecologies, and further situating myself in the field of rhetoric and composition as I continue on in my graduate studies.

The fovea exercises functioned as their namesake – small areas of the eye where visual activity is the highest – with a shift from the anatomical eye to metaphorical sight in the field of visual rhetorics. Creating each of the fovea not only helped me to better see connections between course concepts, but helped me to better communicate what I was crafting with my purpose for doing so – they were spaces of fostering connectivity between design and rhetoric. What I couldn’t articulate before without the terminology of visual rhetorics I could only loosely frame with reference to aesthetic, when I knew that these compositions were more than “art”, but were not reduced to a process, or too static heuristic for making such visualizations. I align these advenes (Barthes), or adventures in the exploration of theory as method with what John Muckelbauer describes as inventive inquiry, that it is

not always the case that an inventive inquiry works best when it responds to a problem by seeking its solution, or responds to the question with an answer; it may be well that my turning away from the question, we can uncover a different kind of trajectory, even a different kind of relentless directness with which to engage the problem (149-150).

These fovea were playful, which helped generate active engagement with theory and invention as I worked to create visual texts of my own (informed) design. Returning to these exercises, and revising a couple of them, permitted me a space within which to examine failures in the function of the visualizations; particularly in my Controversy Map. This was a visual that benefited from the inclusion of text to clarify not only the design of the map, but to better establish connections, organization, and the experimentation with color relationships. Seeing these fovea again, after some time with fresh eyes, allowed me to gain perspective – to distance myself from the design of the project to the effectiveness in its functionality.

When we began the semester, we (attempted to) articulate what visual rhetoric is. My account was as much what it is not as pinning down a definition. I still feel resistance to set my eyes in a singular gaze. I leave this course instead with a way of making seeing speak; as James Elkins describes in The Object Stares Back

The first thing to be said is that this informal notion of just looking will not do, since the eyes never merely accept light. Instead, there is a force to the light: it pushes its way into our eyes; and conversely, there is a force to the eyes: they push their way into the world (18).

Seeing is an action, with as much metacognition as critically reading or composing. It is a method that blends the robustness of a technical perspective for detail in noting ecologies and connections amongst elements that compose the visual with the craft of design. Seeing is an art of hybridity; a shift in perspective from theory to method and beyond the foci.



Visual Rhetoric is:  original and revised

Annotated Image

Image Sandwich

Mapping a Field I and II

Controversy Map: original and revised

Typography Carnival: original and revised: Typography Carnival

Doc Design Analysis

Visual Articulation

Four Icon Challenge

Blogged Notes:

The Object Stares Back

Camera Lucida I

Camera Lucida II

Entering a Risky Territory

Discussion Questions:

Camera Lucida

Entering a Risky Territory


Freeform Bundle: Star Trek infographic, vintage postcard, exploded diagram recipe

Missing Chapter: Cairo Chapter and revised Cairo Missing Chapter

Viz Ignite Slidedeck

Visualizing Visualizations

For our last project in Visual Rhetorics, we were to create a missing chapter on rhetoric for Alberto Cairo’s The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualizations in a style that matched that of the text. I was really excited by this project, and decided to create a visualization on creating visualizations as a sort of pull out poster that would come between Parts II (“Cognition”) and III (“Practice”) that made visible theory as method and invention through visualization. I did outside reading on invention from John Muckelbauer’s Invention and the Future: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change, Johanna Drucker’s Graphesis, Karen LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Action, and Janice Lauer’s Invention and Rhetoric and Composition – none of which made it on to my infographic. What I quickly determined was that creating infographics are difficult, and creating and infographic about infographics seemed beyond my ability. The poster field began as all text, an obvious problem for something that’s supposed to operate as a visual. I kept re-drawing my layout for the infographic until I couldn’t remember what my scope was. I drew it on paper, on a posterboard, and finally my bathroom wall (in pencil). That design started the creation of the infographic elements, but proved insufficient. After several more drawings, I felt like I had a too reduced representation of invention, theory, and method. If creating icons for this graphic wasn’t difficult enough, even sticking to the basic shapes I used to create my symbols, establishing a relationship and organization amongst them felt impossible. This was probably one of the coolest assignments of my graduate program, and the last one I will turn in, so creating something lame despite my energy and efforts feels…well, lame. Lesson learned: infographics need several weeks after being created to assess that they are functioning as designed. I feel like all of the planning I did, while not useless, did little for me in comparison to creating and playing around with elements in the making of the infographic. Even though it’s been submitted, I would like to return to this one over the weekend. I am absolutely determined to make it work.

I will have nightmares about the voids between my elements…

Cairo Chapter