Computers and Writing Talk

The following paper considers the rhetorical situation of playing a videogame in terms of co-authorship between the player and game. Put simply, in playing a videogame, something—a level, a character, a city, a story, a world, etc.—is being composed, and this “composition” is indebted to the ongoing interplay of human and computer. Looking at games in this way can help us rethink what we mean by authorship and text in a new media context, building off work like Jessica Reyman and Krista Kennedy. Moreover it focuses the act of composing more on specific contexts or events that rework already circulating material. This is not to critique the use of game design in class—indeed, I’ve employed it myself as a unit of inquiry—but I think it offers a new way to rethink gaming literacies and composing in class and beyond.

Before more squarely looking at games as compositions, however, I think it worth pausing for a moment to consider the rhetorical agency of games. For this, scholars often draw from Ian Bogost’s concept of “procedural rhetoric,” though exceptions exist, like Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s “expressive processes.” In procedural rhetoric, as Bogost writes, “arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (Persuasive Games 29). Procedures refer to the constraints built into the game that inform what one can or can’t do. To detail this, Bogost uses many examples, like the MacDonalds Game (2006) by the Italian-based MolleIndustries. Here, the player must use underhanded tactics, like feeding cows growth hormones or using coercive marketing, to appease a greedy corporate command structure. By constructing a system of procedures that the player must interact with(in) as the only way to run a successful business, argues Bogost, the game is critiqueing fastfood in the real world, saying it too uses these procedures.

A point that is often not taken up regarding procedural rhetoric, however, is that the game requires the player to play in order to make the argument. In other words, a procedural argument is emergent, coming from player and procedure. It cannot be “made” without both participants. As Bogost writes, “a procedural model like a videogame could be seen as a system of nested enthymemes, individual procedural claims that the player literally completes through interaction” (Persuasive Games 49). As Richard Colby (2013) points out, this involves the audience, as the gamer, in the meaning-making process. Invoking Lloyd Bitzer, Colby also points out that gaming could be seen as a rhetorical situation of sorts (“Procedurality,” 214). However, as with Bogost, Colby focuses on design, arguing, “The actual game (or text) has to exist beforehand,” lessening the role of the audience, except in the case of play testing (214). From the perspective of design, this is the clear direction, but from the perspective of the player, the specter of the rhetorical situation remains, as well as its emergent arguments.

Moving closer into this direction, James J. Brown, Jr., and Eric Alexander (2016) draw from Collin Brooke’s prioaretic invention. Invention rarely—if ever—happens ex nihilo, with the writer coming up with a new idea instantly; instead, it comes from a constellation of forms and forces, often beyond the writer. This can be seen in genres, as Brooke points out. A genre has certain procedures and expectations, but the writer also has some freedom within those constraints, allowing them to enact certain potentials. The genre—authored, reworked, or codified by others—helps inform the “invention” of the writer, with constraints potentially challenged or upheld.

Thus, as Brown and Alexander point out, in gaming, the act of invention continues beyond the hands of the game designer, with the player finding new possibilities within the procedures of the game. As they write, “Designers compose procedures that create a model of the world, but players move through the world in unpredictable ways” (274-5). This “unpredictable” engagement is an inevitable outcome of the “play” within procedures, as Bogost and others articulate. Some games, like Minecraft, are radically open-ended, allowing a considerable possibility space, and others, like the MacDonald’s game or Pong or quite limited. In either situation, though, while a skillful designer anticipates certain uses, players may inevitably find new ones, and in particularly open-ended games, designers may build in many possibilities that may not be obvious or expected to the designer. It is this “play” that offers the potential for new invention. Recognizing this, Brown and Alexander make the next step of continuing the invention process into the playing itself.

In the course of playing, then, the players are producing something—an object, a text, a story, an avatar—in short, a composition. Here, I want to more explicitly define what I mean by composition. Composition has tended to focus on academic writing, but obvious breaks from this exist, like Geoffry Sirc’s (2002) “happening,” a sort of designed space or situation in which unexpected somethings can arise. Likewise, Jody Shipka’s work not only expands that materiality of composing, but her focus on process highlights the often ephemeral moments, technologies, and negotiations that get folded into what we often call “products.” It is this tradition of composition in which I want to align myself. If the game is a composition—or perhaps, better put, a “composing”—such a composition is volatile and ephemeral, evolving constantly as the player and game communicate. While this offers its own challenges, I do not think it bars play from the status of composition. As Brooke argues, products, or what we might call “products,” like books or essays, are only one instance in a more distributed process at the interface, and “new media encourages us to consider a more radical distribution of individual invention” (80). Within the possibility offered by procedures, players may create a virtual SimCity, a society as in the game Democracy 3, a thriving MacDonalds, or a narrative world in a more traditional platform game. The player is “finishing” the arguments to the game, but more broadly, any play is producing an ongoing unfolding at and through the interface. The player is not a game designer, but a unique caretaker shaping and exploring the possibilities authored by someone else into compositions. Both player and game are combining data and processes into a particular expression.

In other words, one does not need to see “authoring” or “composing” as constructing a new artifact that exists discretely or concretely as an object. Instead, it can be as a way of exploring and working with what is already circulating in new ways. I argue that this is composition or composing: reworking what’s in the rhetorical situation into something else, literally “composing,” in Bruno Latour’s (2010) sense, something that has not existed before from what is already there, even while those other components exist on their own. Moving in this direction with gaming, Kevin Moberly (2008) argues:

Games like WoW [World of Warcraft] evaluate players on their ability to compose themselves in relationship to these highly symbolic environments—to write and ultimately revise their actions in relationship to the reality that is manufactured on the screen. This activity. . . is often constructed as play rather than writing or composition. (291).

In Moberly’s example of World of Warcraft, players compose characters based on the possibilities offered by the game. Then, the player explores a free-form map to further compose their avatar and world through actions. To compose effectively, one must have certain literacies, connecting this composition to larger conversations on literacy, like Jonathan Alexander (2009), Selfe and Hawisher (2007), and James Paul Gee.

This shift to playing as composing highlights the sticky nature of gaming as a medium. As John Alberti (2008) writes, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267). As Alberti argues, we “play” games, much like a musician “plays” music, implying an active participation of actor, audience, text, and nonhuman material. Indeed, the musician provides a good example of the sort of composition I am arguing for. While a composition of notes, clefts, rests, etc., remains fixed as a “composition,” particular interpretations live on as something else apart from that collection of inky notes and rests. From Billie Holiday to the Beatles, from a neighborhood garage band covering The Killers, to the improv of jazz musicians reworking Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” cover songs or live concerts rework music into unique expressions, often in the context of the moment.

And though recording may give a sense of permanence, the expression itself takes place in a complex “live” exchange of actants. In particular, the musical notes present a possibility space for new creation, with the player, the instrument, and the ambience of the studio acting as fellow contributors to a specific performance or recording. Similarly, videogames also present a live space for creation, and are often recorded, presenting the ubiquitous genre of “let’s play” and walkthrough videos. However, recording or capturing a performance certainly the ontology of a particular creation, turning a musical performance to a recording, for example, or a living game interface into a static image or film. And I do not think we should privilege one form of composition over the other, as they can compliment each other or offer different rhetorical potentials. A live speech is a different composition from a written version of the speech, a recording of the speech, or a new media treatment of the speech.[1] Each material and moment is reversioning, re-inventing, and re-composing something both new and derivative, with the potential for further invention always inscribed within each new version. Each also represents different literacies to invent, arrange, and deliver—in short, to compose.

Thus, I think composition ought to recognize the composition and authorship of gaming. Many logistical issues exist for this: access to technology, “collecting” work, assessing work, the learning curve (as with all media), and the stigma still associated with play just to name a few. But, though unexamined in this essay, play and playing offer a powerful modality for new creation. And through challenging the procedures of composition classes, we reveal new possibilities that further augment our engagement with the world and the rhetoric that informs it. In this particular case, I think videogame literacies in terms of authorship and composition help us to further focus on composition as verb and moment, echoing more situated and ambient approaches to rhetoric and composition.

[1] Casey Boyle and Nathanial Rivers (2016) have recently investigated a similar issue in light of access, how a piece of media may contain multiple potential versions that change based on different media and moments.


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