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.


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