Notes: The Rhetoric of Games

The Rhetoric of Video Games Notes


  • Example: Animal Crossing’s debt/purchasing system simulates out the social dynamics of the consumer habits of a small town – the player continually pays off debt, purchases items, which feeds into more debt and more purchases
    • Animal Crossing is simultaneously a game about everyday life, customization, making friends, etc. but also a game about long-term debt, and corporate bourgeoisie
  • Video game play is a cultural activity, where values develop over time – those values exist outside the game
  • Games are deliberate expressions of particular perspectives – games can make claims about the world, which players can evaluate


  • Games aren’t seen as learning venues because they are “playthings”, as leisure practice, but play can facilitate learning!
  • Play is a “possibility space” created by constraints/rules
  • When we play, we explore the possibility space provided by the rules by interacting with the systems the game provides – games can represent processes in the real world, and thus allow for new possibility spaces to explore those topics


  • Procedures are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, the way in which we craft our representations
  • Games are created with an expressive purpose in mind, representing models/systems as opposed to productivity tools – the systems are depicted by creating procedural models of those systems
  • Themes and messages are then derived from the rules and systems


  • Games can make claims about the world and about the human experience (whether intentional or not)
  • Rhetoric is the “available means of persuasion”, which can extend beyond verbal media – such as visual rhetoric, or digital rhetoric
  • Digital rhetoric is the reconfiguration of traditional rhetorical strategies (ex: letters as emails, conversations as chat rooms)

Procedural Rhetoric

  • Using processes persuasively – using rules and procedures to change opinion or evoke action
  • Procedurality is symbolic – thus you can make arguments about conceptual systems, not just mechanical ones (ex: AC as a model of capitalism vs. Flight Simulator as a model of flying a plane)
  • You can also argue for how things don’t work (ex: anti-advergames)
  • Players learn to “read” an argument through engaging and playing with the system and can interpret its relevance

Ways to Use Procedural Rhetoric

  • Ex: America’s Army shares the FPS genre, but punishes the player for violating the ROE – a procedural rhetoric enforcing the ROE and the army’s morals w/ things like honor points
  • Ex: 2004 game on public policy issues – compressing the nature of the policy issue into a digestible procedural rhetoric; to succeed in the game is to acknowledge the campaign’s position on the issues. You can’t win the games without enacting the policy positions held by the makers. The player is not fooled into adopting the position – rather, they are given an understanding of the position and given the choice to enact change
  • Video games create a form of literacy for interpreting procedural rhetoric – allowing players to challenge and uncover the models that games present
    • Video games thus offer an area for education as both pedagogical tools and creative artifacts, with game playing as an expressive practice
  • Game development can also drive interest in programming, math, and science – though we should take care to ensure that it supports sophisticated responses as opposed to fun/leisure commonly associated with games

Personal Reflection

I found this reading to be really interesting, especially with regard to how we can encode abstract systems like capitalism into procedures/rules in our games. For my own game that I plan to make, I think something that I am going to consider is what interactions the game’s rules allow and disallow — I want to convey the spiraling feeling of anxiety and overthinking, and so I think disallowing potential actions/interactions that give the player too much autonomy and control (e.g, maybe disabling certain positive options like in “Depression Quest”), or forcing the player to take actions that reduce their autonomy or overriding their options entirely are things that I might consider.

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