The Rhetoric of Video Games

Toy Model / Representation

  • Animal crossing creates a debt loop via by combining the obligation to pay of one’s mortgage with the opportunity to buy material possessions to either furnish or expand the home.
    • These mechanics produce a rhetoric, specifically one that is commenting on consumer capitalism: “By condensing all of the environment’s financial transactions into one flow between the player and Tom Nook, the game models the redistribution of wealth in a way even young children like my five-year-old can understand. Tom Nook is a condensation of the corporate bourgeoisie.” (pg. 118-119)
  • The inherent desire – the consumer impulse – of most players to engage in this debt loop is contrasted with the general disinterest of other villagers, who are animals. These animals are an ever present contrast, a clear suggestion of a possible alternative to the player’s behavior.
    • In a way, their inactivity is a passive, implicit (rhetorical) critique of the player’s behavior.

This in-game critique is a toy model of a real-world critique of consumer capitalism.

  • If a player begins unaware of these real-world critiques of consumer capitalism, they (in theory) become more perceptive via experiencing this simplified version within the game. Playing uncovers analogous consequences for the player to those experienced by consumers in the real world.
  • “Animal Crossing accomplishes this feat not through moralistic regulation, but by creating a model of commerce and debt in which the player can experience and discover such consequences. In its model, the game simplifies the real world in order to draw attention to relevant aspects of that world.” (pg. 119)


  • Through this process of uncovering through experience, players develop opinion, strategies, and values. In sharing these, the players produce a culture around the game.
    • However, the value of this culture are centered around how to play the game, “rather than the social practices represented in the game.” (pg. 119)
    • The author seems to suggest this presents an opportunity to a kind of meta criticism. Players are a step removed. The game is an opportunity to think about how to think about participating in a particular model of life.


Play / Possibility Space

  • Authors argue games aren’t respected as “legitimate venues for learning” because playing games is considered a children’s activity. Play and learning are seen as distinct, even in opposition. Learning is considered work, while play is considered leisure.
  • The author argues for a better framing of play as the “possibility space” created by constraints.
  • The possibility space of playing is confined by the physical space, like a jungle gym, or the rules of the game. This can be compared to the constraints place on more “serious” activities, like poetry or other forms of literary composition.
  • In this way, both activities are just the act of exploring the possibility space. Finding out what works given the constraints. In doing so, we uncover meaning.
    • “We encounter the meaning of games by exploring their possibility spaces. And we explore their possibility spaces through play.” (pg. 121)


Procedurality -> Procedural Rhetoric

  • procedures in this sense of the word structure behavior of all types. Procedures (or processes) are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play.” (pg. 122)
  • Janet Murray’s four essential properties of digital artifacts:
    • Procedurality
      • “Procedurality gets its name from the function of the processor—procedurality is the principal value of the computer, which creates meaning through the interaction of algorithms.” (pg. 122)
    • Participation
    • Spatiality
    • Encyclopedic scope


  • Video games are particularly procedural in nature.
    • “video games more frequently and more deeply exploit the property of the computer that creates the kind of possibility spaces that we can explore through play.” (pg. 122)


  • This means video games have huge potential to produce rhetoric, meaning they can use procedurality to create representations that make claims or arguments about the world.
    • Just like verbal rhetoric is the practice of “using oratory persuasively,” video games can use procedural rhetoric to persuasively convey ideas.
    • Games are a way to make claims about how things work in the real world.
    • “Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.” (pg. 125)


Ways of Using Procedural Rhetoric

  • Interrogating Ideology: Expose and explain “the hidden ways of thinking that often drive social, political or cultural behavior.”
    • This exposing can be intentional on part of the game creator, OR resulting from the creator imparting their own biases/culture unintentionally into a game.
    • America’s Army was meant by the creators to support the U.S. military and portray it as a disciplines, ethical organization. But the procedures of gaining Honor in the game also create an opportunity to understand (and potentially criticize) the military’s mission-oriented, decontextualized value system.


  • Making and Unpacking an Argument: explain and support a particular method for accomplishing a political or social goal.
    • Take Back Illinois is a game that uses complex, interrelated procedural rhetoric that communicated the arguments of Illinois House Republican candidates.
      • “To play the game successfully, the player is forced to acknowledge the campaign’s position on the issues it represents—for example, it is impossible to win the medical malpractice reform subgame without reducing maximum noneconomic damages for malpractice lawsuits (although reducing them beyond reason decreases the likelihood of faults).” (pg. 133)
    • Games can also be more subtle, like Bully.
      • “the social environment of high school through an expressive system of rules, and makes a procedural argument for the necessity of confrontation. Confronting bullies is not a desirable or noble action in the game, but it is necessary if one wants to restore justice.” (pg. 134)


Learning From Procedural Rhetoric

  • Playing video games can promote literacy of the systems we live in.
    • “Any social or cultural practice can be understood as a set of processes, and our understanding of each of them can be taught, supported, or challenged through video games.” (pg. 136)


  • Increasing need: “As more of our cultural attention moves from linear media like books and film to procedural, random-access media like software and video games, we need to become better critics of the latter kind.” (pg. 136).
    • Author argues parents “of all kinds” should play video games with their kids, and do so critically.


  • The intentional use of procedural rhetoric can help teach how to create video games.
    • Author argues game creators should remember to put procedural rhetoric into their games to “support sophisticated responses to the medium” in order to prevent reinforcing the idea that “play is equivalent to leisure.” (pg. 137).

About the author

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.