ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.

I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode.  Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).

This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication.  In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.

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CCR 633: Multimodality, Part 2

Chapter three begins with the “prosumer,” an idea that Alexander and Rhodes borrow from Daniel Anderson. The “prosumer,” they describe, is “a convergence of the consumer and the professional in terms of new media tools” (106). Many new media tools allow consumers, formerly just receivers, to produce products, thereby acting as professionals. This, in turn, allows a more critical focus on production, as it is no longer black-boxed behind the usual channels, but in the hands of the consumer.

This similar idea–that of consumer as professional or producer–also connects with the Situationalist notion of “détournement,” a form of “pillaging or appropriation,” as Frances Stracey describes (qtd. in Alexander and Rhodes 112).  The Situationalists argued that capitalism had the constant need to project a “spectacle” of needs that inspire consumers to thirst after products, so people should critically produce to counter this.

Alexander and Rhodes connect these ideas to current DIY movements, but emphasize the “critical” dimension of this production. In other words, it’s not simply enough to be critical, in a humanities sense, or to produce; one must use production in a critical way, engaging in multimodal production through new media tools. They provide the example of images that grew in “excess” from their work that argue their work or ethos as “queer rhetoric” scholars in different ways.

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ENG 730: Auteurs and Capital

In composition studies, a recent move to designer over author has started to take place in some areas of the field, and I think the readings present and interesting addition to this, as in composition studies this shift is often made in terms of “marketable skills,” reflecting the role of labor and capital in education.

But more to the readings. I find the notion of author or designer often has a tension with the Romantic creator view and the skillful rhetor responding to an situation. In this context, I feel like Miyamoto presents a nice case study. On the one end, as diWinter seems to argue, he has particular views or focuses that flow through his work, presenting a more Romantic, or expressivist, author function:

  • “The strong connection to childhood and joy;
  • The influences of nature and the natural world; and
  • A desire to share a common feeling— kyokan— so that designers can feel closeness with players and players can be immersed in the experience of the game.” (1)

One can see, for example, how the “violence” in Super Smash Brothers, is rendered in the more contest-oriented approach like Sumo and not in terms of the violence of other games, or how Mario’s “violence” is more cartoonish and comical. This reflects the connection to joy and fun. And the abundance of caves and wonder that stud Miyamoto’s work reflect his own childhood experiences, as his own quotes argue, with childhood and the natural world. Regarding the last point, diWinter argues how Miyamoto, especially later on, uses experiences from his everyday life, like fitness or gardening, to inspire his work.

All of these design traits do seem to have a rhetorical deliberateness, even with the team-oriented approach, as John points out, that games have.

But on the other end, the market also informs design. Constructing Mario based on the Game and Watch controller not only presented a design constraint and philosophy; it also made good market sense. When Miyamoto was recruited to save the Wii, that was market-based pressure. And while his own experience of exercise informed Wii Fit, reflecting his design philosophy, it also opened up an important market and was framed in this way.

These market and labor forces are even more strongly articulated in the other works. For example, as Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter argue, “The ‘militainment’ of America’s Army and the ‘ludocapitalism’ of Second Life display the interaction of videogames and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market” (xiv).  Videogames grew up in a strongly capitalist network, with strongly entrenched notions of modern empire. Past economies, like the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the scribes of medieval Europe, operated through different trends and affordances of labor and circulation–and different views of autuer–though it’d be reductive to say that threads don’t carry through multiple periods.

This takes me back to my initial focus–author as Romantic creator or situationally astute rhetor–and the role this has in our current market. I increasingly think that designer and author works in a more networked process, and these networking skills are key literacies for work in the modern age; but the “innovators” are the ones who tend to get the most credit. In my current project, for example, Will Wright is considered to be genius behind The Sims, SimCity, etc., but his notebooks are threaded with phone numbers, questions and answers from meetings, user-testing notes, more signs of orchestration and teamwork. And, for another example, some books, like Doom or Console Wars, treat teams of people with an almost hagiographic aura, while technology and markets also play a major role.

As Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peutur, articulate, games exist within a complex intersection of circuits. I reckon a designer is part of this, seizing on the kairos and tools of production when producing a game, but authorship is quite diffuse among the humans and nonhumans of the rhetorical situation. The magic circle isn’t really that separated from “ordinary life.”

CCR 633: I Can’t Even

I may touch on Swinging the Machine in this post, but I need a space to think through what happened a bit. If I need to write a make-up post, I can, but I simply couldn’t write one tonight.

I think Trump’s policies are destructive and that he is morally dubious, or even repugnant. But, this isn’t what worries me. What worries me is that Trump’s election may legitimize ideologies and discourses that could destroy our democracy as we now conceive it. In this way, I am not worried about Trump per se; I am worried about what people call Trumpism. I don’t think that this destruction is inevitable, but I think that Trump’s election presents a shock to the system and requires a radical examination of “politics.” As Marx said, “all that is solid melts into thin air,” and now, we need to figure out what to do.

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Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

One of the elements I find most interesting is the distinction between ideological critique and the algorithm, which Galloway, in particular, describes, but also seems to inform Friedman.

When describing playing Civilization, Galloway notes the “soft racism” and questionable God view that informs the game, like the problematic “attributes” given to civilizations–like how the Aztecs aren’t “industrial–or the absence and simplification of many civilizations. To Civilization‘s defense, subsequent additions have addressed some of these issues, like the inclusion of more civilizations, like Polynesia, and dropping essentialist attributes for more civilization-specific qualities.  But, things like the progress narrative, the valuing of military dominance, the potential simplification of ethnicities, and the role of commerce and territory still pose potential problems, ripe for ideological critiques.

Galloway moves from this into what he calls the “third level” of critique, “informatic critique,” which he describes as a “formal critique rooted in the core principles of informatics that serve as the foundation of the gaming format” (99). He asks, “whether it [Civilization] embodies the logic of informatic control itself” (101). Though I still had some trouble ultimately figuring out what Galloway meant by this, I think it reflects the way a phenomenon gets enacted by a computational system.

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CCR 633: Labels, Emergency, and Ontology

Early on in her introduction for Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines, Lisa Gitelman states a thesis that also expresses a methodology and worldview regarding textual machines:

Edison identified his phonograph as a textual device, primarily for taking dictation. With this mandate, the invention emerged from Edison’s laboratory into and amid a cluster of mutually defining literacy practices, texts, and technologies, among them shorthand reporting, typescripts, printing telegraphs, and silent motion pictures. Even Edison’s own famous light bulb, now a universal icon for “I have an idea,” had to make sense within an ambient climate of textual and other representational practices, a climate it would, in fact, have an ample share in modifying. (1)

In many ways, this connects to many of the questions already taken up in the class, like the role of sociotechnical systems or alphabets as technologies  or the notion of ambience and complexity. Here, in particular, I am definitely feeling Rickert and Heidegger: that the phonograph emerged from and became intelligible through a “world” [Welt] of already existing relations. For example, as Gitelman argues, shorthand, or “phonography,” as a technology set the stage for the phonograph. Without this already circulating ambience, the phonograph would not have had the same intelligible impact.

On the one had, this sort of claim reminds me a bit of Steven Johnson’s “adjacent possible,” an idea that certain networks, ideas, and materials need to be in place in order for an idea to take root. Often, as he points out with Charles Babbage’s  “computer,” an idea that is ahead of its time dies out. It needs to still be in stage of possibility, but such a possibility must be “adjacent” to the present and the local.

But the role of labels, as Gitelman details, provides an interesting complication. As she writes, “The label is a vital cultural nexus, a point where producers meet consumers, where owners meet spectators, where novelty and originality enter the commonplace of the market and commodities perform” (151). I want to spend some time with this idea.

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Watson talk

Thank you for attending this talk and thank you for my fellow panelists for their insights and presentations. For my presentation, I’ll be talking about game studies and a possible connection it brings with genre. While I recognize that these are complex topics, due to the nature of time, some simplification is necessary, and I would happily address any points of my argument further during the Q&A. Moreover, since I am still thinking through this question as part of a larger project centered on game design and play, I’d welcome any feedback.

While definitions for play and games remain contested in game studies, the rules often remain important. As one of the earlier explorations of this, Roger Caillois’ Man, Play, and Games creates a distinction between what he calls piadia and ludus. Paidia, he says, “covers the spontaneous manifestation of the play instinct . . . from somersaults to scribbling, from squabble to uproar” (27-8). This free, spontaneous level of play eventually manifests more structured engagement, ludus, though it never fully goes away. Ludus, says Caillois, is “a taste for gratuitous amounts of difficulty,” referring to more of the structured, rule-using play that constitutes more complex games. Ludus is more “institutional,” says Caillois and refers to “the pleasure experienced in solving a problem arbitrarily designed for this purpose” (29).

In a similar perspective, the well-cited Rules of Design by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman argues, “A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” Once again, one has “rules,” though here, they define a “system” of “artificial conflict.” And likewise, in The Grasshopper, Bernard Suites’ titular character also stresses rules, describing that players “engage in activity directed towards bringing about a specific state of affairs, using only means permitted by rules, where the rules prohibit more efficient in favour of less efficient means.” The Grasshopper, in particular, stresses the inefficient and arbitrary nature of rules. For example, if the goal in golf were to get a ball in a hole, the rules—and sand traps— make this less efficient. Some complications to rules exist, like Caillois own description of mimicry, Suites’ exploration of make-believe, and Jasper Juul’s more recent inclusion of world-building in games. However, especially what Juul calls “emergent games,” games like chess, checkers, Go, or Go Fish, rely heavily on rules.

In composition and rhetoric, “rules” for games often show up in conversation through the lens of procedural rhetoric. In Persuasive Gaming, Ian Bogost describes procedural rhetoric by saying “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). To make his point, Bogost uses many examples, like the MacDonalds Game (2006) by MolleIndustries. In the game, one must keep up a steady profit by using coercive marketing to buy off environmentalists, growth hormone to speed up cows, and other underhanded methods. Be defining what the player can do, the game is constructing a system of procedures that the player must interact within. One cannot add an organic burger option, for example, as this is not in the game. By constructing these procedures as the only way succeed, argues Bogost, the game is making a critique of how fastfood, in the real world, works.

This is how procedural rhetoric tends to get taken up—as the construction of argument through procedurally enacted models—but one must also acknowledge that the game requires the player to play in order to make this argument. In other words, a procedural argument is emergent, coming from the interaction of 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”). However, as with Bogost, Colby takes the perspective of design and designer, arguing, “The actual game (or text) has to exist beforehand,” removing the audience, except in play testing, from the construction of the game (214). From the perspective of design, this makes sense, but from the perspective of the player, the specter of the rhetorical situation remains, as well as the emergent arguments and meanings that arise.

Moving closer into this direction, James J. Brown, Jr., and Eric Alexander (2016) draw from Collin Brooke’s prioaretic invention, arguing that players are involved in an invention process, even if they may not be designers. Before discussing this work, however, I want to briefly review what prioaretic invention is. Drawing from Roland Barthes’ hermeneutic and prioaretic codes, Brooke in Lingua Fracta describes that “hermeneutic invention relies on the relative sturdiness of a final object.” In other words, hermeneutic invention is a product-centered view of invention: what is my rhetorical goal, what do I need to get there. Prioaretic codes, on the other hand, refers to the steps that often lead to this hermeneutic closure. Normally they align, producing what Brooke calls “textual momentum.” The steps, prioaresis, lead to a predictable, elegant final product, the hermeneutic. Any steps out of this momentum feels “out of place” or “unnecessary.” But Brooke wants to separate these two elements, arguing for a more prioaretic invention, one that is generative in a way that resists determinism or closure.

In a gaming context, as Brown and Alexander point out, the act of invention continues beyond the “product” of the 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 from the “possibility space” model of gaming, as Bogost and others articulate it, where players “play” within the constraints of procedures. As Bogost puts it, “Procedures (or processes) are sets of constraints that create possibility spaces, which can be explored through play” (“Rhetoric” 122). As constraining as these procedures may be, an inevitable wiggle room remains, a literal “play.” Some games, like Minecraft, are radically open-ended, allowing a considerable possibility space, and others, like the MacDonald’s game or Pong remain limited. In either situation, though, while a skillful designer anticipates uses, players may inevitably find new ones. It is this “play” that offers the potential for new invention.

Here, I think that game studies can connect with genre. Describing what he calls “rhetorical ecosystems” in Genre and the Invention of the Writer, Anis Bawarshi writes, “our interactions with others and with our environments . . . are mediated not only by physical conditions but also by rhetorical conditions that, in part, are ideologically and discursively organized and generated through genres” (81). He further argues that genres “constitute typified rhetorical sites or habitations in which our social actions and commitments are made possible and meaningful as well as in which we are rhetorically socialized to perform (and potentially transform) these actions and commitments” (82). These sites, therefore, are “stabilized-for-now, or stabilized enough,” as Catherine Schryer describes (qtd. in Bawarshi 81). They are both constricting and flexible, formed and stabilized with(in) communities of practice, yet individually enacted by those interacting in, with, and through these communities. Amy Devitt also gets at this complex engagement between individual rhetorical actions and larger structures, writing, “Genre is a reciprocal dynamic within which individuals’ actions construct and are constructed by a recurring context of situation, context of culture, and context of genres. . . But genre exists through people’s individual rhetorical actions at the nexus of the contexts of situation, culture, and genres.”

While one could engage more with the composition and circulation of genre, I mainly want to stress the space that genre provides for “individual rhetorical action at the nexus of contexts.” Genres have a “genre function” as Bawarshi has described, constraining action and aligning possibilities from a larger collective of influences, as they circulate. But writing in a genre also includes a space for individual interaction. It allows one’s particular “take” or “interpretation” of a joke, for example. Here, I think genres align with gaming. By structuring the possibility of what the rhetor can and should do, a genre enlists a procedural rhetoric, or more generally, a set of rules—some formal, some more operative and implicit. And just as a skillful player may negotiate the possibility space of a game, a skillful communicator may negotiate the possibility space of a genre. At the more basic level, genres exhibit the “emergent” or “prioaretic” possibility of games, in which an already circulating set of procedures allows new invention. In The Grasshopper, Suites distinguishes between the “institution” of chess, which carries across situations, and a game of chess, for example, which is more situational, similar to the way that genre circulates, while retaining flexibility.

One of the main things gained from looking at genres through this game lens, I think, is the sort of literacy that games tend to value: one of testing boundaries and “playing” within possibilities to learn. Within Hamlet and the Holodeck, for example, Janet Murray describes the “boundary testing” that players and designers exhibit. And Johndan-Johnson Eilola has the comical, yet oddly poignant exchange with his 8-year-old daughter Carolyn: [On slide].

And this is where I would like to end on. Though I don’t have an IRB, as it was more of a pedagogical trial run, I attempted this approach with my students. After studying games for two weeks, including hands on play and reflection, we transitioned to arguments in different genres. After they picked genres, I encouraged them to play within the genre, cheating, trifling, and boundary testing as best as they could, finding the “rules of the space”—both the explicit and the implicit ones. One or two even tried to “beat the genre.” While I recognize, and continually stressed, the seriousness that some genres have in the world, the “just play” approach that we undertook in the “magic circle” of the composition classroom, to use Huizinga’s term, provided a fairly low-stakes way to both demystify and situate some of the conventions of genre, whether an e-mail or PowerPoint. And in many ways the composition classroom is in a unique place to create this type of space. As Elizabeth Wardle’s “Mutt Genre” piece or Alex Reid’s “The Activity of Writing” notes, the composition is often in an odd, liminal position, where disciplinary genres, audiences, and exigencies mingle. In this space, then, play introduces a possible paradigm or heuristic—both attitudinal and hands-on—that can help direct students to understand more meta-textual, reflective, or transfer-oriented thinking. While not always applicable, nor clear, the potential to play with(in) the procedure of genre may offer another approach to empower student voice.