Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Takeaways

And what will I take away from my immersion into game studies this semester? Let me count the ways . . .

1. I was introduced to the emerging field of game studies and to the basic conversation between ludologists and narratologists.

2. My interest was thus sparked to conduct additional research for my own paper, through which I explored an emering literature on games from sociocultural and media studies perspectives.

3. These explorations convinced me that, while I may not be drawn to ludology or narratology, game studies offer a fertile new field into which I can apply my existing interests in communication studies.

For example, my paper was entitled "Avatars and Immigrants" and applied theories of cross-cultural adaptation (a subfield of intercultural communication studies) to the problem of new player adaptation to MMOG worlds. The topic also allowed me to apply theories of computer-mediated communication (CMC) and uses-and-gratifications theory (a key perspective in media studies) to the phenomenon of gameworlds.

4. Along these lines, I believe my introduction to game studies may have opened for me a new avenue for publication. At an NCA panel I attended last month I was encouraged to keep exploring the intersection between comm studies and game studies.

Not much has been done in this area but, because of the growing MMOG phenomenon, comm scholars seem interested and ready for articles on the subject. Meanwhile, game studies scholars may be ready to consider what comm-related sociocultural perspectives can bring to their table.

5. This is just the sort of interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary approach that interests me and through which I have found some success in getting articles published.

6. Perhaps you may be waiting to hear the word "rhetoric"? Last semester I enjoyed digging deeper on my own into the literature on visual rhetorics for RCID 804. So many topics I want to explore, and so little time! Yet I'd like in the future to do some writing and publishing on visual rhetorics.

Thus our readings on Bogost's proposal regarding "procedural rhetoric" gave me a thought. As I've blogged, before declaring the discovery of an entirely new rhetorical domain, I would prefer to see how theories developed in the established fields of visual (and digital) rhetorics might be applied to the problem of videogames.

But I also agree with Bogost that visual rhetorics tend to privilege static and filmic images, and digital rhetorics tend to privilege digitized texts.

So the introduction to videogames which I've gotten this semester may have given me the tools to write articles about games for journals in the field of visual rhetoric/visual communication/visual studies. In other words, I would be "partnering" in a sense with Bogost. But while he is arguing that games constitute a new domain, I would be arguing that games should receive more attention in visual studies scholarship.

7. Further, through our Video Games course I have been introduced to the gameworlds themselves by playing World of Warcraft and building a project in Second Life. Though I cannot say that I am minded to continue WoW or SL as personal hobbies, I readily affirm that:

a. For the writing I have done in our class, and the writing I hope to do on game studies in the future, it is vital that I be familiarized firsthand with the dynamics of MMOG gameplay and culture.

b. I can better understand the literature on games, and participate in scholarly conversations about games, by having gained firsthand experience.

c. I am interested in the possibilities for using MMOGs in my pedagogy, namely as a way to teach principles about culture and communication to my future students, or (via Second Life) as a means for virtual interaction with my students.

8. My design project for RCID 813 (Video Games), taken together with a similar assignment for RCID 811 (Perspectives on Information Design), challenged me to consider how 3D spaces should be designed to facilitate user experience and interaction.

At the same time, our design document assignment challenged me to think of UX design in terms of mechanics (what users can do), artificial intelligence (how the space reacts), elements (items and objects in the space), story (what the experience says), and progression (how users move through the space).

These impress me as good principles not only for designing games but also for designing the layout of websites, classrooms, and even 2D documents. And in my future teaching career I expect to design lots of course websites, classrooms, and documents!

9. Finally, from a very practical standpoint, I am hopeful that our coursework--and in particular, the paper I wrote--will have given me another conference presentation and another published article which can been added to my CV.

In conclusion: I remember last spring when Jason Helms excitedly emailed everyone about the possibility of an RCID course emerging from the Serious Games Colloquium. He was polling students to find out who would attend such a class. I replied that a course on Video Games would not be my first choice for a cognate seminar.

Later, of course, the Video Games class was approved and, as it turned out, was my only choice for a third cognate seminar this fall. But I've always believed that, oftentimes, the most pleasing and interesting results come from serendipity and simply playing the hand you're dealt.

So I remember last May and our final S3S gathering for the 2007-08 academic year. It was at Randy's house and I chanced to sit on the comfy sofa near Jan Holmevik. So I asked Jan about his thoughts for our upcoming Video Games class. At the time he was thinking that students would actually construct a game with levels and all the bells and whistles.

Then I told Jan that I was interested in the idea that MMOGs constitute cultures of their own and, in microcosm, could be seen as laboratories for studying the dynamics of culture. Jan replied that if such was my interest then, certainly, the class could accommodate it.

Looking back now, after having taken the course, I'm glad this proved to be the case. Because it has broadened my horizons and, serendipitously, given me a new field of interest with which to combine my existing academic interests, thus opening up new transdisciplinary possibilities for research and writing.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

SL Project and Final Thoughts

As we wrap up our course on Video Games it seems appropriate to share some final thoughts by framing them in terms of my Second Life construction project.

Rhetorical Perspective

For our class I built an RCID Welcome Center (RWC), and for another RCID class I built an Information Design Hall of Fame & Interpretive Center (IDHOF). Though the two projects each standalone, I put them on a shared campus since they seem to share some synergies.

Yet the architecture of the two structures reflect, deliberately, two very different rhetorical choices . . .

> RWC is built on the seacoast and designed as a beach resort. So, why not construct a Classical building (say, something that resembles the Pantheon) to represent a program grounded in rhetoric?

The reasons I chose a seacoast location and beach resort architecture is because RCID is not a formal disciplinary program but, rather, invites open exploration of many perspectives. Thus the RWC setting and architecture are intended, rhetorically, to reflect this ethos.

Even the information for prospective RCID students is presented as a 3D boardwalk that takes visitors out over the ocean--indeed, at the very edge of the SL world--and allows them stroll and explore, in the open, at their own pace.

> IDHOF, by contrast, was designed with a decidedly Modernist architecture. Why? The discipline of informaiton design is strongly rooted in modernist sensibilities of efficiency, effectiveness, and clarity.

Thus the interior space is designed according to the conventions of a traditional museum where the visitor's path is prescribed, the experience is controlled, the information is presented with directness and clarity, and text is used to mediate and interpret the information.

Nevertheless, toward the second half of the tour I incorporate a "crack" in the modernist perspective by inviting visitors to reflect on the social and ethical implications of information design and the potential problems of a purely instrumental view of its practice.

Symbolically, the tour ends with an invitation for the visitor to teleport to the roof observation deck of IDHOF, which affords a stunning panoramic 360-degree view of the ocean and the Clemson Development Island.

But is it "Procedural" Rhetoric?

By instantiating these rhetorics in the designs of RWC and IDHOF, have I practiced "procedural rhetoric"? I must confess that I'm having trouble seeing how my rhetorical choices are "procedural."

Granted, Second Life is not a "game" and so I did not design an experience circumscribed by rule-based procedures. On the other hand, users must experience RWC and IDHOF in the settings I designed. Still, as a Second Life designer I feel the programming assisted rather than constituted my rhetoric.

Ludology, Narratology, Sociology

In our class readings we became acquainted with the conversation (or more accurately, debate) within game studies between ludologists and narratologists. At the same time (and as I blogged a couple weeks ago) my own research led to me into the emerging literature on the sociological aspects of MMOGs.

Ludology and narratology have at least this much in common: both perspectives view games are cultural artifacts. However, I found myself drawn to the sociological literature because it treats MMOGs not as artifacts but as constituting cultures of their own. (A fourth area of game research is in the media effects tradition and studies how gameplay may stimulate aggressive behaviors.)

A ludologist might explain my RWC and IDHOF in terms of their play value. For example, recall Bogost's (pp. 52-54) discussion of Sutton-Smith and his seven rhetorics of play: progress, fate, power, identity, the imaginary, the self, and frivolity. Perhaps from this perspective, RWC instantiates identity and self, while IDHOF instantiates progress and power.

Meanwhile, a narratologist would read RWC and IDHOF as "texts" to discern the stories they tell. Perhaps this narratologist would agree with my description above about the rhetorics instantiated by my respective architectural design choices.

Finally, a sociologist would be interested in how a virtual gathering place for RCIDers and friends might impact the culture of RCID. If students and faculty start using RWC for virtual meetings of our avatars, how would that impact our social relations? The same questions could be asked if IDHOF became a meeting place for information designers. Or in the same vein, how would a virtual encounter with IDHOF impact the culture of a future Perspectives in Information Designs class?

Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades

Earlier in the semester we read Bartle's proposal that online gamers can be typed as either Achievers, Socializers, Explorers, or Killers. Since then I have done other readings on my own which put a new twist on Bartle.

One researcher noted that Bartle relied simply on his own anecdotal experience to propose his four categories. This researcher instead did a scientific sampling of gamers, cranked the results through parametric statistics and factorial analyses, and came up with three first-order categories and seven second-order categories (or ten overall).

Another researcher used an alternate approach to Bartle, one that comes from the long tradition of uses and gratifications theory within media studies. Researchers from this perspective have studied why people use radio, television, music players, the Internet, etc. Now some attention is being paid to the uses and gratifications that draw people to MMOGs.

In designing RWC and IDHOF, I did consider these perspectives; namely, (a) how, according to a Bartlesque taxonomy, different types of Second Lifers might experience my constructions, and (b) what uses and gratifications might draw visitors to RWC and IDHOF.

RWC perhaps is most welcoming for Socializers (who have an indoor lounge and outdoor lanai at their disposal) and Explorers (who can stroll the boardwalk and access its information). And perhaps IDHOF is most welcoming to Achievers (who want to experience the whole museum) and Explorers (who want to see the various displays).

The Third Dimension

Finally, building RWC and IDHOF forced me to think about how best to design an experience that would (a) exist in three dimensions and (b) be governed by the mechanics of Second Life. For example:

> Should I have stairs when visitors can fly or teleport? In the end, I provided both stairs and teleportals.

> How much text is appropriate for information displays when visitors can click a prim and get a notecard? I decided the text on the prim itself could often be minimized, but also felt that notecard texts also had to be kept reasonably brief and with minimal scrolling needed.

> How true-to-life should the structures be when they don't really need foundations or support columns or roof trusses? I decided my constructions should resemble RL buildings, at least enough for people to suspend their disbelief and comprehend the rhetoric of my design. But in some cases--such as the RWC boardwalk invisibly cantilevered over the ocean, or my IDHOF stairway ramps that have no treads--I dispensed with "engineering" considerations.

> How would avatars not only eexperienc RWC and IDHOF in solo visits, but how would multiple avatars interact with each other in these spaces? When I was done with my projects, I was somewhat surprised at the amount of space and facilities given over for interaction.

RWC has a front porch with chairs, an indoor lounge with sofas, and a very large outdoor lanai with deck chairs, conversation benches, and a hot tub. IDHOF has two first-floor lounges, seating areas (beside panoramic windows) on the second and third floors, and an expansive roof garden/observation deck with bench seating and deck chairs. Further, I linked the RWC lanai and the IDHOF roof deck with teleportals so that partygoers could utilize both spaces in real time.

At the End of the Day . . .

Let me say that I enjoyed our class, particularly because it introduced me to a new conversation (game studies) that also provides an fascinating new context for exploring concepts (e.g., communication and rhetorical theory) which have always interested me.

For example, my paper "Avatars and Immigrants" for this class employs intercultural communication theories of cross-cultural adaptation as a framework to study the acculturation of new players into established MMOG cultures.

Since not a whole lot has been done in game studies from a sociocultural and communication point of view, I can take away from our class a lot of possibilities for publishable research and writing. This was confirmed last week when, at an NCA panel, I brought up the intersection of game studies and communication studies. Others attested this intersection hasn't been much explored and encouraged me to press on.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Comments on "Videogames and Art"

Two weeks to cover a book as varied in its viewpoints and topics as Videogames and Art has been quite a ride, especially since videogame aesthetics are a completely new field to me. The volume was an eye-opener and thought-provoker. But as a newcomer I feel more inclined to digest the introduction I've received rather than venture any aesthetic criticisms of my own.

Yet sometimes the thoughts of a newcomer, who brings new eyes and a clean slate, can be useful or at least interesting. Thus let me offer a few impressions from my readings.

First, I detected a tension about what should be labeled videogame art. One view is expressed by Brody Condon who states:

It's difficult to define [videogame art] as the line between interesting cultural artifacts and intentional artistic production is completely blurry at ths point, and projects influenced by or using contemporary gaming have taken on so many forms. Just within the artworld we have seen machinima, online performances, pervasive gaming, console hacks, mods, etc, as well as traditional media like painting and sculpture incorporating elements from games and game culture (p. 85).

In this view, the term "videogame art" can encompass not only the creation of original games but also riffs on existing games and game artifacts, as well as traditional artworks inspired by games and game culture.

Another view is argued by Martin who contends:

Several online artists use the element of videogames in their work, but this is not videogame art. This is art based on games and presented in separate mediums such as computer art (pp. 207-208).

In this contrasting view, the term "videogame art" should only be applied videogames themselves and not on artistic expressions that merely appropriate elements from games and game culture.

Second, if forced to choose between these two perspectives I would, at this point, opt for the latter, that "videogame art" must reside in videogames. In part, this preliminary conclusion is because I found two chapters in Videogames and Art to be the most helpful and persuasive: namely "Should Videogames be Viewed as Art?" (Martin) and "Will Computer Games Ever Be a Legitimate Art Form?" (Adams).

The Martin chapter helpfully provides background about the antecedent cases of photography and cinema, and the struggles of these media for acceptance as art forms. The Adams chapter just as helpfully offers some background about the philosophy of art. Both chapters make concrete suggestions about what videogame artists must do for their work to be regarded as art.

Third, both Martin and Adams point to interactivity as the defining difference for videogames as compared to existing art forms. In particular, Martin castigates the industry for trying to produce what amount to "interactive movies" and exhorts videogame artists to explore the unique properties of their medium.

This rings true since, in the two books I've published on broadcasting history, I made the point that both radio and television, in their turns, were not successful until they learned to tell stories and convey ideas according to the unique properties of each. Radio was invented as a wireless telegraph but had to move past its original narrowcasting paradigm into true broadcasting. TV shows were originally radio with pictures but eventually learned to exploit visuality.

The Martin and Adams chapters helped me envision a day when I might play a videogame to experience its artistry, just as I now watch a favorite movie such as High Noon. When I watch that movie, it gets me involved in the characters and the plot and the emotions and the ideas. Someday I might play a videogame that gets me involved in the same things. But the experience will be different because the game will use its interactivity to involve me in a different way.

Fourth, though, Adams asks a fundamental question that, I believe, he glosses over and does not really answer:

So why aren't most games art? One possibility is that interactivity precludes art; that art is a form of communication from the artist to viewer, and if the viewer starts to interfere, the message is lost. It is certainly true that interactivity operates in a tension with narrative: marrative lies in the control of the author, while interactivity is about the freedom of the player (p. 257).

After this statement Adams goes on with a paragraph about a San Francisco science museum whose exhibits are considered (by the museum) to also be aesthetically pleasing. I'm not sure what this has to do with the question above. But at least I didn't find this illustration to be a satisfying answer.

We ran into the same conundrum with Bogost and his thesis about "procedural rhetoric." Namely, how persuasive can a videogame be when audience involvement is proportional to the amount of gameplay freedom and control ceded to that audience? The most "persuasive" games cited by Bogost seemed to be the most heavy-handed, with little game value to involve users.

Fifth, while Bogost was about rhetoric, Martin and Adams are about art. And when it comes to art, I begin to see the glimmer of an answer about the interactivity issue: A rhetorician is trying to mount an argument, but an artist is creating an expression.

This impresses me as an important distinction. When I hear a campaign speech on television or read an opinion piece in the newspaper, I must hear out the argument before deliberating on and deciding about its proposition. But when I listen to great music or watch a great film, I can participate in the expression while it is occurring.

In the same way, I could imagine that interacting with a videogame might not preclude my participation in the artist's expression. But perhaps that may mean giving up the idea, described (but not endorsed) by Adams, that art is a "communication" with a "message."

Sixth, while Bogost suggests persuasive videogames are "communications" with "messages," Adams sees these elements as being too narrow for videogames to succeed as art. Are these two views in tension?

So to summarize the three questions that arise from my class readings these past two weeks:

> What should be considered "videogame art"? Either art in any medium that appropriates elements of games and game culture? Or only games themselves?

> Does interactivity preclude art since narrative control and interactive freedom are necessarily in tension? According to one view, art is a communication from the artist to the viewer. Does "interference" by the viewer cause the message to be lost?

> Is there a tension between "persuasive games" (and Bogost's view of games as vehicles of argumentation) and "videogame art" (and Adams' view of artworks as vehicles of expression)? Does one preclude the other?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

New Directions

In recent weeks as we've been wrapping up Bogost's Persuasive Games, I've also been doing a literature review of my own in anticipation of turning my energies toward completion of our final paper for the course.

Since our assigned reading has now turned to Clarke and Mitchell's Video Games and Art, we now shift from rhetoric to aesthetics. The latter is a field of which I know little but look forward to learning more (and have already learned more in this week's readings). So perhaps as I get my feet wet then, in upcoming posts, I may venture some thoughts about art and aesthetics.

But our blogs are, I presume, intended not only for reflections on assigned readings but also on our own explorations into game studies. Therefore I will be borrowing a page from last spring's RCID 804 and be sharing some scholarly resources I have found beneficial in my own lit review.

Some Background

First, though, let me give you the setup: Since I first heard that our second-year RCID cohort would be taking a class on Video Games, I was immediately drawn to the possibility of seeing MMOGs are cultures in microcosm (or maybe not even in microcosm, since World of Warcraft and Second Life have so many millions of registrants), providing virtual laboratories for seeing cultures at work.

Since my MA in Comm Studies, I've had an interest in how communication is used to cultural work such as negotiating and managing identities. But I had to actually participate in World of Warcraft and Second Life before I could fully appreciate how much, as a "newbie," I was stepping into new cultures.

In essence, my avatar is an "immigrant" in World of Warcraft and Second Life. And this thought put me in mind of how, only in recent years, have formal theories of immigrant adaptation and acculturation been developed within the corpus of intercultural communication studies. Nishida's (1999) schema theory, and Kim's (2005) integrative theory, of cross-cultural adaptation come to mind.

Both of these theories (and others) posit that immigrant acculturation is inherently a social process and therefore can only be worked out through communication. So with this in mind I set out to find whether the literature on game studies provides any indication whether this is so for newcomers to MMOGs cultures.

Four Schools of Thought

This forced me to look at the schools of thoughts within game studies. I was able to discern four such schools:

> Ludology, which focuses on the dynamics of play

> Narratology, which sees games as texts whose stories can be read and critiqued

> Media effects, which looks at the psychological and physiological effects of games

> Social science/sociology, which looks at the dynamics of gaming communities

Though ludology can (as Huizinga pointed out) plumb the connection between play and culture, I'm more interested not in games as cultural artifacts but as constituting cultures of their own.

Though narratology can tell us much about the culture that produces a game, once again I'm more interested in games as self-contained cultures rather than artifacts of real-world culture.

Though media effects research suggests that games can instantiate an effect called cultural consonance (the idea that people who are well adapted to a culture will experience a heightened sence of wellbeing), effects research is conducted from a behaviorist perspective and I'm more interested in gameworlds as social constructions.

So in writing my paper I'm focusing my lit review more on the sociological school. But as it turns out, the literature on games from the perspective is still fairly new. Only with the emergence of massively multiplayer games (and with increasing interest, generally, in computer-mediated communication) has this perspective begun to gain some ground.

New School on the Block

Let me offer some quotes. For example, Eastin (2007) points out:

Media theory has focused on individual reactions to mediated content; however, the expansion to multiuser environments suggests that researchers should consider group processes (p. 453).

Similarly, Pena and Hancock (2006) relate:

Although our understanding of mediated communication processes in instrumental and organizational contexts is substantial, we know much less about these processes in social and recreational contexts. . . . such as playing video games. A number of research communities have highlighted the need for more research examining communication in recreational and playful contexts. Some research has begun to examine recreational social interaction on the Internet. . . . Although these studies have begun the investigation of recreational CMC [computer-mediated communication] contexts, they have not yet addressed the nature of the communication processes that take place in these settings (p. 93).

An Interesting Study

The latter study by Pena and Hancock, entitled "An Analysis of Socioemotional and Task Communication in Online Multiplayer Video Games," is an article I recommend. Interestingly, they started out with two perspectives:

> The cues-filtered-out (CFO) theory which, in analyzing computer-mediated communication (CMC), focuses on the absence or diminution of nonverbal cues

> The Social Information Processing (SIP) theory which holds that interlocutors in CMC can test each other's reactions, develop cues and, given enough time, learn to conduct true interpersonal communication

Pena and Hancock hypothesized that CFO theory would predict that MMOG players (with their nonverbal cues filtered out) would conduct more task-oriented communication than socioemotional communication, and that any socioemotional communication would tend to be more negative than positive.

On the other hand, they hypothesized that SIP theory would predict that MMOG players (being able to develop new cues over time) would conduct more socioemotional communication than task-oriented communication, and their socioemotional communication would be more positive than negative.

After coding and analyzing more than 4,400 text chat messages from 59 players in the game Asheron's Call 2, Pena and Hancock confirmed the SIP predictions: Communications among players were more often, to a significant degree, more socioemotional than task-oriented. And socioemotional messages were much more often positive than negative.

Interestingly (for my proposal that newbies are "immigrants" in a new culture), the study found differences in the communications of experienced and inexperienced players. Experienced players used communicative conventions (e.g., game jargon, emoticons, abbreviations) about half of the time, while inexperienced players used them very little.

And while experienced players easily conveyed mostly positive messages, a large majority of negative messages came from inexperienced players. These negative messages were mostly about breaking social rules, impolite behavior, and frustrations about losing the game or getting lost in its geography.

This sounds a lot like intercultural communication theories of immigrant adaptation, which Kim (2005) describes as a dialectical trial-and-error process of stress-adaptation-growth.

----------

REFERENCES

Eastin, M. S. (2007). The influence of competitive and cooperative group game play on state
hostility. Human Communication Research, 33, 450-466.

Kim, Y. Y. (2005). Adapting to a new culture: An integrative communication theory. In W. B.
Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage.

Nishida, H. (1999). A cognitive approach to intercultural communication based on schema
theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23, 753-777.

PeƱa, J., & Hancock , J. T. (2006). An analysis of socioemotional and task communication in
online multiplayer video games. Communication Research, 33(1), 92-109.




Monday, November 3, 2008

Comments on "Purposes of Persuasion"

With this blog we wrap up Bogost's Persuasive Game. Did his conclusion "save the best for last"? Happily (to my way of thinking) Bogost used his conclusion to pick up the thread of theory development that started with the first chapter.

I appreciated Bogost's "connect the dots" approach of using an existing body of literature in new applications. Specifically, I have a research interest in religious rhetoric and thought Bogost's link to this literature was interesting and useful.

How so? Religious homilies do not necessarily have a telos of inducing decision but, rather, of opening a space for reflection and eventual appropriation by listeners. This is an interesting dynamic to consider when pondering the rhetorical effects of videogames.

Perhaps I may engage the rhetoerical theory within Bogost's final chapter in more detail with a later post. But for now, having concluded Persuasive Games, let me arrive at my own general conclusions:

> Bogost's willingness to put his claims in public is admirable.

> I do not believe his claim that "procedural rhetoric" constitutes an entirely new domain is proven, but do believe this claim moves the conversation forward.

> Why forward? I agree with Bogost's contention that the literature on visual rhetoric privileges static and filmic images, and that on digital rhetoric privileges texts, so that neither adequately deals with videogames.

> However, I would rather see first whether the framework of (especially) visual rhetoric can be extended to account for videogames, before "throwing out the baby with the bath water" and claiming a new rhetorical domain of "procedurality" must be recognized.

> Nevertheless, Bogost has convinced me that videogames can mount rhetorical arguments (though admittedly, I did not doubt this) and that visual rhetoricians must address what games bring to the table (a topic of which I was less aware before reading Bogost).

> So while I continue to ask whether "procedural rhetoric" is a new domain or, instead, is "computer-aided rhetoric," I readily say that . . .

> I am glad to have read Persuasive Games for its describes phenomena which merit analysis, whether one endorses Bogost's solution or prefers another approach.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Comments on "Values and Aspirations"

An interesting chapter! Let me say why in a moment. But first a preface . . .

As I've written before:

(1) I give Bogost real credit for addressing a gap in the visual and digital rhetorics literatures by suggesting a novel approach and putting his claim out in public,

(2) doing so helps move the conversation forward, and

(3) describing a phenomenon is a necessary step in laying out a proposed new perspective, but

(4) the next step is more theory development, and

(5) I believe that development should look to what's already available in the literatures on visual rhetoric, digital rhetoric, and procedural literacy.

Now, why did I find "Values and Aspirations" interesting?

Laying aside Points 1-5 above, I thought Bogost's "Values and Aspirations" chapter offered some good grist for thought on media effects. I've been around Comm Studies long enough, and seen enough good studies by good researchers, so that I'm not ready to discount the contributions that a behaviorist perspective can make to our understandings of media effects.

But Bogost's chapter, with its critical assessments of games that encode a given morality, was useful. Granted, there's a lot of knee-jerk reaction in the public square about the "evils" of videogames with violent or sexual content. And admittedly, I must identify myself as one of those citizens who is concerned about the coarsening of our culture. Yet Bogost's critiques take us beyond questions of what games show and offer insights into what games do to rig the rules in favor of the designers' moral perspective.

These observations from Bogost were interesting to me:

> Many "values-based" games do a poor job of instantiating their values.

> But more sophisticated treatments are possible.

Both observations lead to more thoughts:

> Do "values-based" commercial games inherently seek the lowest common denominator?

> Or on the flip side, would the emergence of videogames that are truly effective in promoting values be a positive or a scary development?

Your answer, I suppose, would be based on whether you believe (a) the behaviorist view of media effects, or (b) that the people's procedural literacy will increase over time so that they can read the rhetorics and critically engage the values promoted in a game.

I suspect the answer may be a combination of the two: Yes, if truly effective "value-based" games spread (like, say, TV has done) throughout the culture, then the values pushed will in time instantiate the mainstreaming and resonance effects documented by media effects research. Yet if so, then promoting procedural literacy becomes a more salient issue. Less happily, though, I would point out that we're still talking about teaching media literacy even after 60 years of television.

The discussion of the Left Behind game was quite interesting!

Yes, I make no secret about being a person of faith. But let me hasten to add I was never a fan of the Left Behind franchise. Here I agree with Bogost: the game (like the books and all the other LB licensed products) play a little fast and loose with the Bible in order to boost sales. They merely promote "interest" in and "discussion" about spirituality.

The way that "prayer" is operationalized in the LB videogame was disturbing to me, reducing prayer to merely an instrumental value. The business about Christians battling Antichrist to recover territory is absolutely not in the Bible and even against the doctrine of evangelical Christians who teach that Christ will return to establish his millenial kingdom and won't need earthly believers to prepare the way for him.

Bogost ends his chapter with a sentiment I can readily endorse: The rhetorical power of ethical and religious videogames remains largely untapped. But I would add: Is it even possible to reduce systems of belief to mere systems of rules-based procedures? For in reducing belief systems to mere sets of rules, don't we rob faith of its power? When activating a given rule produces a given result, no faith or belief is required.

And an added bonus for reading this post . . .

My wife was talking to our 25-year-old daughter (married, no kids, husband in grad school) this week and, since I'm taking a PhD class in Video Games, asked our daughter if she or friends play these games. Her immediate reply? "Who has the time!?!"

That got me thinking: Is the videogame market generationally self-sustaining, in that current gamers will keep playing even as new younger games are constantly added? Or will the gamers as they grow older eventually lose interest, so that the videogame market must constantly replenish its losses?

What do you think? Here are three research reports I found:

> This 2006 article from Hollywood Reporter describes a study released that year by the Consumer Electronics Association (sorry, but CEA website itself only allows association members to access past research):

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002539233

> Here is an industry facts page from the Entertainment Software Association website:

http://www.theesa.com/facts/index.asp

> Nielsen Media (the same people who do TV ratings) compiled this 2006 report on The State of the Console:

http://www.nielsenmedia.com/nc/nmr_static/docs/Nielsen_Report_State_Console_03507.pdf

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Comments on "Procedural Literacy"

A nice, meaty chapter which provides more of the theoretical underpinning that (as readers of this blog know) I've been looking for. Let me do three things:

> Make an observation about the argumentation and organization of Bogost's book.

> Summarize his thoughts about "procedural literacy" and share some of my own.

> Highlight another resource that Bogost cites, namely Gee's paper "Learning about Learning from a Video Game: Rise of Nations" which you can download by clicking here.

An Observation about Organization

We learn on page 258 that "Procedural rhetoric is a type of procedural literacy . . ." Aha! Thus procedural rhetoric is a subset of procedural literacy. This revelation causes me to think a bit more charitably about Bogost's proposal regarding "procedural rhetoric." (Yes, I'm still using the scare quotes until I'm convinced of his thesis.)

Why more charitable? The notion of procedural literacy has some provenance in the literature as far back (according to Bogost's citations) as 1980. (Further, media literacy and "electracy" are related concepts which have found some acceptance among scholars.) Thus Bogost is within an established body of literature and legitimately positioning himself to extend the work on procedural literacy in ways appropriate to changing conditions and understandings.

That being the case, I think Bogost would have been more effective in his argumentation if, rather than declaring "procedural rhetoric" an entirely new domain of rhetoric, he had argued for his concept of procedural rhetoric as a logical extension of (or corrollary to) evolving notions of procedural literacy.

In other words, instead of claiming discovery of a new domain of rhetoric (one not recognized in the literature of visual or digital rhetoric), Bogost could have been more effective by positioning his thesis of "procedural rhetoric" within the existing paradigm of procedural literacy.

Those of you who are taking Steve's class on the rhetoric of science know what I'm talking about. Rather than coming on as a "convention-buster" with a completely novel concept, Bogost would do better by arguing within--and then extending--an existing convention.

If that's the case, the Bogost should have started his book with procedural literacy and then demonstrated how "procedural rhetoric" is its logical extension, rather than starting with "procedural rhetoric" and then burying procedural literacy in Chapter 8. For if "procedural rhetoric" is a subset of procedural literacy, it doesn't make argumentative sense to privilege the former, bury the latter, and separate the two by 250 pages.

Summary and Thoughts

> We begin with a comparsion of behaviorist and constructivist theories of learning. A fairly garden-variety summation but useful in setting the ground.

> Now Bogost applies the two theories to videogames. Good! Applying a behaviorist framework leaves us with a deterministic view of gaming. Applying a constructivist framework leaves us, according to Bogost, with videogames that only teach general skills and values.

> We need to go further, he says, and see that videogames can teach specific skills. I'm having trouble understanding his argument here. Why does Bogost think that constructivist theories of learning assume only general skills and values can be learned? For example, I wrote an article a few years ago on how a constructivist approach could be used for teaching healthy food choices to schoolkids.

> Procedural literacy is a "new trend" (p. 244), though it's hard to see it as new or trendy since it's been around for nearly 30 years. Actually, though, I like the fact that a body of literature has developed over time about procedural literacy and (as stated above) wish Bogost would make more use of it.

> The excursus on Sayers is something I really don't get. Bogost could do a better job, in my view, of closing the circle and demonstrating how "The Lost Tools of Learning" offers a guide for teaching procedural literacy (or for tapping the educational power of videogames; I'm not sure what's being advocated here).

> Bogost writers, "Procedurality offers a possible bridge between the abstraction-poor behaviorist approach and the subject-poor constructivist approach, focusing on the way processes come together to create meaning." A creative thought. But I've got a problem with the terminology.

As we know, different fields may use the same word for different things. In cognitive psychology, procedural memory is the type of memory we employ for tasks such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, or shuffling a deck of cards. Is Bogost saying that videogames, because they teach such tasks, can bridge behaviorism and constructivism? I don't think that's what he means, but (as author) it's his job to clarify.

> The section on Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as an example of teaching history from a procedural perspective is interesting (and, at the time Bogost was writing, the book was quite trendy). But Diamond's environmental determinism certainly had its critics. For example, Victor Davis Hanson wrote a book titled Carnage and Culture specifically to rebut Diamond and demonstrate that ideas do matter.

Both books are good reads, both are valuable, and I found myself thinking the answer lies in a combination of the two. In any event, I would suggest that history taught from a "procedural" perspective would, though valuable, be incomplete--and no a "bridge" between behaviorism and constructivism.

> To end the chapter Bogost writes, "Videogames teach biased perspectives about how things work. And the way they teach such perspectives is through procedural rhetorics, which players 'read' through direct engagement and criticism." This is a very good thought, which leaves me wanting more.

Why? Because it provides the opening to (as I mentioned above) describe "procedural rhetoric" as an extension of procedural literacy. I hope Bogost will take up this line, which I believe would be a more effective way of arguing than to claim "procedural rhetoric" is a totally new rhetorical domain.

Reading Gee's Article

Again, you can download the Gee article cited by Bogost if you click here. My recommendation is skip to the conclusion (starting on page 29) first and Gee's summation of 25 principles gleaned from learning theory.

Gee says these 25 principles are active in Rise of Nations, the game he reviews. It might be interesting to compare this list against the two games we're studying, World of Warcraft and Second Life. How do they stack up?

Friday, October 10, 2008

Comments on Bogost's "Advertising"

Having now read the "Politics" and "Advertising" sections of Persuasive Games, let me sum up my general thoughts of the book:

What I like . . .

> Bogost sees a problem in the current literature and is willing to publicly propose a novel solution, namely procedural rhetoric. Further, he is willing to do the hard work of writing and publishing a book to support his thesis. Putting your ideas out in public is admirable!

> His book is a "keeper" as far as a good reference on the history of videogames. As someone who has an interest in (and has published on) media history, but mostly on "old media," Bogost's book offers a good resource as I ponder the continuities and differences of new media.

What I would like to see . . .

> In my view Bogost has moved too soon to criticism, without first developing his theoretical grounding.

> As such, Persuasive Games is mostly a book that features lots of game reviews (the "what") but gives less space to how "procedural rhetoric" actually works (the "how").

I'm willing to concede that descriptive work is important in developing a theory. But I would like to see in Bogost's subsequent writings more work on the actual theory development.

To see others' takes on Persuasive Games, I looked up reviews of the book. There weren't too many since the book is relatively new. But here are two:

http://www.jorisdormans.nl/article.php?ref=persuasivegames

http://game-research.com/index.php/book-reviews/book-review-persuasive-games-the-expressive-power-of-videogames/

In the first review, Dormans writes:

. . . The book touches upon a large variety of subjects beyond gaming: politics, education and advertising. In lengthy expositions Bogost shows how the logics of these fields have been incorporated in games, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessfully. The high number of subjects and games discussed is probably one of the book greatest strengths, but I would have preferred Bogost to discuss procedural rhetoric itself more rigorously.

Despite the broad perspective and the wide variety of games discussed, Persuasive Games has a tendency to become a little bit repetitive. Games are either applauded for incorporating its primary message in its procedural structure, or dismissed for failing to do so. Although the analyses are solid and some of the verdicts are surprising you get the point after a couple of hundred pages. Looking at politics, advertising and education through the lens of videogames is interesting but I got the feeling that it could have been done just as effectively in about half of number the pages. . . .

Bogost discusses his procedural rhetoric in relation to classic and contemporary rhetoric, but the only rhetoric structure that is actually (and repeatedly) discussed in any detail is the procedural equivalent of the enthymeme. . . .

[Bogost's] humanist perspective on games makes Persuasive Games a very sympathetic book. But perhaps at certain points also a little bit descriptive and naive: Bogost believes games can restore contemporary culture broken by modern politics, advertising and ‘schooling’ (p. 64).

In the second review, Smith writes:

First of all, the plethora of competing labels and perfunctorily defined buzz-words floating about calls out for a careful survey of the field and a framework for analyzing the variety of specimen in the fast-growing serious games biotope. Second, we need a sense of the relative abilities of videogames to persuade; that is we need a theory of how, why and when they do persuade and preferably some documentation that they do in fact persuade. Bogost convincingly supplies the former but does not fully tackle the latter. No convenient model of game-based persuasion appears fully-formed in Bogost’s text. Instead we get a meticulously researched and clearly composed treasure-trove of examples alongside various hints of a larger theory. . . .

Bogost does not claim that all players necessarily reach the same conclusions [as his game criticisms] but this type of analysis does arguably make very strong assumptions about actual player interpretations without empirical basis. This approach in turn highlights the rather modest attention in the book to describing the exact working of procedural rhetorics and to documenting its efficiency. We hear little of why engaging with processes are a useful way of understanding the real-world phenomena that they represent. We are given very few leads to theoretical literature that might lend credence to the idea that personal engagement is important in persuasion. And we are not informed of one single instance in which anybody changed his mind or behavior after playing a game.

Bogost does well to tie his discussion to classical and visual rhetorics as well as captology. But practically passing the entire field of “persuasion research” which provides both theoretical models (e.g. O’Keefe, 1990) and empirical studies of the effects of various aspects of computerized persuasion (e.g. Sundar & Kim, 2005) is a curious choice. These omissions may leave the reader on shaky ground as to evaluating the very importance of games as tools for persuasion or critical thought.

Of course, few (sub)fields come nicely gift-wrapped and fully articulated in a single volume. Persuasive Games creates order from chaos and puts recent game developments into a much-needed historical perspective. This is an invaluable service to the field and the thoughtful treatment of a wide range of little-known games is inspiring as a case of game analysis in action. These achievements make me recommend the book warmly, while looking forward to Bogost’s future fleshing out of the theory and empirical merits of persuasive games.

Okay, so I'm not alone in (a) admiring Bogost for what he is attempting with Persuasive Games while also (b) finding the book more descriptive than explanatory.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Comments on "Digital Democracy"

Okay, I'm going to relax and realize that Persuasive Games is not, in fact, an academic book (as the first chapter initially suggested) but is rather a report on videogames in American politics, advertising, and education. As such, I will (1) cease looking for more theory development to bolster Bogost's claim for a new domain of "procedural rhetoric," (2) let me previously-posted reservations stand, and (3) confine my comments to the author's reportage.

My reading of Chapter 4, "Digital Democracy," left me with these questions and observations:

Is this book outdated? Having been published in 2007, presumably Persuasive Games was written in 2005 or just after the previous presidential election. So when Bogost was writing, the "first videogame endorsed by a U.S. presidential candidate" may have been legitimate news and portentous of things to come.

But now, as I check the websites of the two major presidential candidates for 2008, on neither site is any videogame featured (or at least, the front pages provide no visible way of navigation). Can "persuasive games" and "procedural rhetoric" be a force in "digital democracy" when, in this important election, neither candidate believes it important to employ such games?

A look at the index of Persuasive Games finds no references to MMOGs or MMORPGS. So has the well-known "light speed" of digital media passed the book by in the four years since Howard Dean for Iowa and Take Bake Illinois were introduced in 2004?

Thus far Persuasive Games has only featured rather ham-handed examples that seem crude by the standards of today's MMOGs. Thus my question is: Has the "center of gravity" in gaming shifted to MMOGs and left the likes of Madrid and September 12 far behind? In other words, do the "persuasive games" on which Bogost builds his case for "procedural rhetoric" matter anymore?

Of course, we still have seven more chapters to go and my mind remains open to the author's thesis. But Chapters 2-4 leave me with the abovementioned question.

What do "docu-games" have to do with politics? Their inclusion seems curious in a chapter on "Digital Democracy." Would these docu-games fit better in Bogost's section on the educational uses of "persuasive games"?

All because we can digitally recreate an experience, should we? Though I seldom agree with Ted Kennedy, I must concur with his assessment of JFK Reloaded as "tasteless." One of the sad memories of my boyhood growing up in Washington DC is the day my father took me to Arlington Cemetery, put me on his shoulders, and together we watched the funeral procession slowly make its way to the gravesite.

What's next? Should a Beltway Sniper game be created that allows players to be embodied as John Muhammad, to access road maps of the Washington DC area and see how many innocents they can be coldbloodedly killed? Or a Columbine or Virginia Tech Massacre game?

The same justification used by the makers of JFK Reloaded could be made for Holocaust Reloaded. Yes, it is possible to digitally recreate a simulacrum of Auschwitz, of the selections on the train platform, the gassings, the plunder, the crematoria, the medical experiments, the slave labor, the barracks. Game designers could make it possible for players to experience embodiment as SS killers.

But should it be done? I am reminded of Jaques Ellul's 1964 warning about the lure, which he believed inherent in technology, of perfecting a technology for no other justification than it is possible to do so.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Comments on "I Have No Words"

The chapter, when read together with Jenkins' "Narrative Architecture," offers a nice counterpoint from a perspective more oriented toward ludology than narratology. So the two pieces, read in tandem, helped me to better understand one of the dominant conservations within game studies.

In my previous post, under the subhead "Is 'Persuasive Game' an Oxymoron?," I took up Costikyan's perspective and compared it to Bogost's thesis. Read below for an extended discussion.

But in essence, Costikyan cites a "direct, immediate conflict between the demands of a story and the demands of a game." Telling a satisfying story means keeping the game on a path, but this restricts players' freedom and therefore makes it an unsatisfying game.

So I ask: Does the same tension exist between "persuasion" and "game"? That is, if a satisfying argument means keeping the game on a path, does this entail restrictions on players' freedom which render the experience unsatisfying as a game?

Thus, is "persuasive game" an oxymorn?

Comments on "Narrative Architecture"

Hey, a really good read! Jenkins' chapter is quite cogent in helping me understand the dividing line between ludologists and narratologists within the game studies discipline, while at the same time Jenkins himself takes a measured and moderate position between the two.

In reading the chapter I found myself trying to place Bogost's thesis within Jenkins' framework. Two thoughts stood out:

Is "Persuasive Game" an Oxymoron?

In his book Persuasive Games, Bogost wishes his proposal for a new domain of "procedural rhetoric" to be placed within--and then extend beyond--the conversation over visual and digital rhetorics. Yet in reading Jenkins I thought to myself: What if we placed Bogost within the conversation between ludologists and narratologists?

My presumption is that Bogost's rhetorical thesis would be classed in the narratological camp, rather than among the ludologists. Why? Because making an argument necessarily involves constructing a narrative.

But if we analyze Bogost's "persuasive games" according to the standards of Jenkins' "narrative architecture," then how do games that Bogost cites (e.g., Madrid, September 12, Kabul Kaboom, Darfur Dying, Balance the Planet, Tax Invaders, Vigilance 1.0) stack up? For example, Jenkins (p. 671) cites Costikyan's assertion that

There is a direct, immediate conflict between the demans of a story and the demands of a game. Divergence from the story's path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player's freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game.

Thus Costikyan might suggest that "rhetorical" games--which Boghost cites as exemplars of persausve games that employ procedural rhetoric--concentrate so much on story, they restrict players' freedom and thus are not satisfying as games. That is, "persuasive games" are good at rhetoric but ultimately fail as games.

This is a conundrum I've blogged about before when I posted about the "procedural gap" that Bogost acknowledges in his book. Namely, how "persuasive" are games that sacrifice gameplay for rhetoric? If the game offers little game value and thus attracts few comers, how will it be persuasive? Or if it ramps up the game value by downplaying the rhetoric and allowing players more freedom, then are the game's rhetorical possibilities diminished for the designer?

If we go with Costikyan's assertion, then the term "persuasive game" might even be an oxymoron. If the product is "persuasive" then it is diminished as a "game," or if the product is a satisfying "game" that gives wide freedom to the player then it is diminished as a vehicle of deliberate "persuasion."

Are Persuasive Games "Narrative-Poor"?

But of course, Jenkins does not side with Costikyan's dualistic approach. Instead he suggests that, when narrative is reconceived in architectural terms, game designers can tell "spatial stories" and engage in "environmental storytelling." Rather than criticize game designers for an emphasis on world-making and a neglect of plot and character development, their work should be seen as making "evocative spaces" which "create the preconditions for an immersive narrative experience" (p. 676).

Spatial stories are not badly constructed stories; rather, they are stories which respond to alternative aesthetic principles, privileging spatial exploration over plot development. Spatial stories are held together by broadly defined goals and conflicts pushed forward by the character's movement across the map (p. 678).

I was especially impressed by Jenkins' explanation of the architectural element of his "narrative architecture." To illustrate, he cites the Star Wars game:

[We] would be frustrated if all it offered us was a regurgitation of the original film experience. Rather, the Star Wars game exists in dialogue with the films, conveying new narrative experiences through its creative manipulation of environmental details. One can imagine their place with a larger narrative system with story information communicated through books, film, television, comcics, and other media, each doing what it does best, each a relatively autonomous experience, but the richest understanding of the story world world coming to those who follow the narrative across the various channels. In such a system, what games do best will almost certainly certain on their ability to give concrete shape to our memories and imaginings of the story world, creating an immersive environment we can wander through and interact with (pp. 677-678).

What a good insight! But when I read this, again I found myself comparing this concept of game narrative with the narratives put forth by the "persuasive games" that Bogost cites.

If I am reading Jenkins correctly, then games succeed best as narrative devices when they are in dialogue with other representations, while creating a parallel immersive experience in which the story world can be explored.

By that standard Madrid, September 12, The McVideo Game, Tax Invaders and the other "persuasive" games that Bogost cites would seem to be rather narrative-poor. Why? Because they attempt to replicate (or as Bolter and Grusin might say, "remediate") rhetorical arguments which exist in other representations by merely transferring them from one medium to another. Thus my previous observation about whether Madrid or Tax Invaders constitute a new domain of rhetoric or, in fact, are simply "computer-assisted rhetoric."

For September 12 or The McVideo Game to successfully draw upon the properties of the game as a medium, and thus construct a compelling narrative, then (according to Jenkins' thesis) wouldn't they need to (1) be in dialogue with the representations we see in the news, but (2) offer players an immersive environment where they can explore and interact with the spaces which constitute the worlds of these stories?

Instead, if we go by Jenkins' description of a successful game narrative, then the "persuasive games" cited by Bogost seem to be only heavy-handed representations of rhetorical arguments rather than evocative spaces that add to the richness of our understanding by allowing us to explore, interact with, and immerse ourselves in the environments where these narratives take place.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Meet "Scaevola"

In his brief 10-day career Scaevola (Latin for "left-handed"), a Night Elf Hunter, achieved Level 5 after completing numerous quests in Teldrassil. Alas, he did not earn enough coins to purchase a World of Warcraft subscription for himself and thus extend his existence. But Scaevola will be remembered by all who knew him as a stouthearted Elf who did his best, respected others, loved the cool shady woods of his native Shadowglen, and possessed an irrepressible curiosity to explore the wonder and beauty of the world around him.

Monday, September 22, 2008

First Reflections of a MMOG Noob

Okay, I've downloaded the World of Warcraft (WoW) ten-day free trial and, at this writing, achieved rank as a Level 5 Night Elf Hunter. And earlier this month I created an account with Second Life (SL) and have visited such virtual sites as the Star Trek Museum of Science and the International Space Flight Museum.

These experiences leave me with a few questions:

> I can see how the designers of SL are mounting an argument by rigging their virtual table in favor of their concept of community. But while SL may be play (in Huizinga's sense), it is not a game. So does Bogost's theory of "procedural rhetoric" apply here? If a game has rules (says Huizinga), but if SL is not a game and thus by definition has no rules (in the sense of game-type rules), then is the possibility for Bogost's argumentation via "rule-based procedures" thereby vitiated? My impression is that SL players/communities ultimately set and police their own rules.

> But while WoW is a game, I can't yet see how its design is anything but what Bogost calls "self-referential" (p. 47). Though inducing players to increase their play is a type of persuasion, as Bogost explains, does it really amount to any argument? So far I don't see how the procedures of WoW do anything but what is "self-referential" for the player.

Comments on "Ideological Frames"

Had I purchased Persuasive Games as an expose of the vast rightwing conspiracy at work in the world of videogames, no doubt my expectations would be satisfied. But having bought the book out of a scholarly interest in game studies I must confess, after three chapters, my general disappointment thus far.

Following a promising first chapter in which Bogost begins to set forth his case for a new domain of "procedural rhetoric," the second chapter reports that videogames can be rhetorical (was there any doubt?) and the third critiques three games (Tax invaders, Vigilance 1.0, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas).

Premature Move to Criticism

But the move toward criticism, before theory has been more fully articulated and research conducted, raises a problem cited by Messaris in his 2003 article "Visual Communication: Theory and Research." Referring to Van Leeuwen and Jewitt's 2001 book, Handbook of Visual Analysis, he observes:

Most of the book’s chapters are based on actual studies conducted by their respective authors, and although the descriptions of these studies are typically accompanied by methodological comments, in almost all cases it is the studies themselves that will be of most use to readers looking for guidance or inspiration. . . . [T]he types of research covered in this book do not lend themselves very well to systematic procedural rules (p. 553).

Although these analyses, and others in the book, are grounded in fairly detailed dissections of the visual images to which they are addressed, they all raise what is arguably the thorniest problem in visual research, namely, how we judge the validity of the analyst’s, or anyone else’s, interpretation. . . . How do we know that [researchers'] claims are adequate reflections of how other viewers would respond to the same images? . . . One of these ways is [to build on] . . . well-understood conventions whose functions have been studied systematically in the past, not only by other scholarly writers but also by media practitioners. When that is the case, and when an interpretation stays close to those conventions, the reader may perhaps have greater confidence that the meaning inferred by the writer is likely to be shared by an image’s intended viewers (p. 554).

Of course, the most straightforward way of validating an interpretation is to ask a representative group of viewers for their own responses to an image or set of images . . . [although] this kind of research does not receive much attention in Van Leeuwen and Jewitt’s book (pp. 554-555).

In the same way I am disappointed by Bogost's premature move toward criticism in his third chapter, before his theory of a new rhetorical domain has been more fully articulated, before he has meaningfully foregrounded his claim in "well-understood conventions" of visual and digital rhetorics, and before he has produced research. Without these we are left, like Messaris, to wonder "how we judge the validity of the analyst's, or anyone else's, interpretation."

As it stands, Bogost's third chapter offers only a polemic: conservative paranoia about thieving government, conservative obsession with moral policing, conservative callousness toward the less fortunate. But perhaps this is a shrewd double-move by the author. Maybe he intends for the perceptive reader to realize that, because Persuasive Games is presented in the conventions of a scholarly tome, the author's own ideological frame can slip through unnoticed. Touche!

Cursory Treatment of Lakoff

Finally, I'm disappointed by Bogost's shallow treatment of Lakoff's early and important work in the cultural-cognitive role of metaphor. I have more than a passing acquaintance with Lakoff's research since his work shows up in a chapter of my master's thesis and also figures in an article I had published last month in the Journal of Holocaust Studies (where I used schema theory as a framework for analyzing how perpetrators cognized their social world).

Lakoff's work is far too detailed and nuanced to adequately treat here. But in my view, Bogost mentioned Lakoff's seminal Metaphors We Live By (1980) only in passing to establish the bona fides of his argument, and then appropriates Lakoff's later "self-professed liberal" writing to bolster his critique of Tax Invaders, Vigilance 1.0, and GTA: San Andreas.

Again in my view, Bogost would have strengthened his case better by referencing Lakoff's earlier work on metaphor and cognition to offer his own discourse analysis of an actual videogame. Lakoff himself provides a nice model for such an analysis in his 1987 study, co-authored with Kovecses, on "The Cognitive Model of Anger Inherent in American English."

But then, if Bogost's case turns to cognitivism and discourse analysis, are we getting away from his claims regarding procedural rhetoric? It's been a couple of years, but I don't remember that Lakoff was a rhetorician or was much concerned about rhetorical theory in his 1980s works. That is, he was (if I remember rightly) primarily concerned with metaphor as a cultural-cognitive phenomenon rather than as a rhetorical trope. Thus invoking Lakoff may take us away from rhetoric and into another analytical framework altogether.

Alternate Approaches?

After the first three chapters I begin to wonder if Bogost would have been better served by another approach. For example, a couple of years ago I picked up Pratkanis and Aronson's (1992) classic Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. The book didn't pretend to break new theoretical ground but usefully synthesized existing theories (such as cognitive dissonance and elaboration likelihood) and demonstrated how propaganda (which they defined as "mindless persuasion") techniques occur in everyday life. Persuasive Games could have succeeded with a similar approach. Or as I mentioned at the outset of this posting, a straightforward polemic could be effective.

But if I'm going to accept the claim that the author has identified a new rhetorical domain, then I need more substantiation than Persuasive Games has presented so far. My mind remains open, and perhaps succeeeding chapter retreat from the premature rush to criticism and instead continue the promising theory development begun in the first chapter. But I'm not yet seeing how, say, Tax Invaders is anything more than "computer-assisted rhetoric" rather than an entirely new domain.

----------

REFERENCES

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lakoff, G., & Kovecses, Z. (1987). The cognitive model of anger inherent in American English. In D. Holland & N. Quinn (Eds.), Cultural models in language and thought. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Messaris, P. (2003). Visual communication: Theory and research. Journal of Communication, September 2003, 551-556.

Pratkanis, A. R., & Aronson, E. (2001). Age of propaganda: The everyday use and abuse of persuasion (Rev. ed.). New York: Owl Books.

Van Leeuwen, T., & Jewitt, C. (Eds.) (2001). Handbook of visual analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Comments on "WoW Reader" and Bartle

Some stimulating reading this week! Now we're getting into stuff that really interests me, the dynamics of "virtual" cultures. So let me offer, one at a time, some comments on our readings:

A Hollow World (Aarseth). A good scene-setter for those, like me, who are new to WoW. Not much original research here; really just a critique. But still helpful in sketching out the environment which forms the backdrop for WoW culture.

WoW as Rich Text (Krzywinska). Again, more of a critique than offering any original research, but still helpful for newbies in understanding the role of backstory in WoW culture.

A Note on Death and Dying (Klastrup). Easily my favorite read this week:

> First, there's original research here that brings me closer to actual WoW culture.

> Second, we've got gamers in their own words, which makes possible some discourse analysis as a way of unpacking their culture. This really got my mind to racing with added possibilities for my planned paper topic this semester. The distinctive speech codes here (instance, aggroing, creeps, pally, Leeroy, questing, leveling) are absolutely rife with potentials for cultural analyses, since speech always encodes cultural assumptions about social relations, truth discovery, and symbolic action.

> Third, the reading provided references to several websites where WoW culture is in evidence. Thus I checked out the discussion boards at http://wowvault.ign.com/ and then watched gamer-produced movies at http://www.warcraftmovies.com/. The latter was especially valuable not only for a novice like me to see game action, but also to observe the behaviors and values that WoW gamers prize enough to preserve as movies. The author's project website at http://www.death-stories.org/ also offers some helpful links to articles.

> Fourth, the author's premise of focusing on "death" as a microcosm of WoW culture is quite an illuminating way of approaching the problem.

Quests in WoW (Rettberg). Another good read which, after the author's lit review, was very helpful by offering actual quest examples from WoW. But where this chapter really shone was, for me, in its descriptions of actual gamer behavior. Where Krzywinska was content to critique WoW lore, Rettberg describes what players actually do. How interesting that the meaning of "quest" has been reinscribed from a transformative experience with closure to a transactional experience with no end. This says a lot about the values of WoW culture, especially in light of Bartle's (see below) typology of achievers, explorers, socializers, and killers. Also, Rettberg makes reference to websites where aspects of WoW culture can be examined including:

> http://www.tentonhammer.com/
> http://www.bookofwarcraft.com/
> http://wow.allakhazam.com/
> http://www.wowwiki.com/
> http://www.thottbot.com/
> http://www.questkeep.com/

Players Who Suit MUDs (Bartle). The typologies here are terrifically helpful: Achievers, explorers, socializers, killers. Players vs world; acting vs interacting. The graph on page 761. Because I read this immediately after Retterg, my mind was racing to fit WoW culture and its emphasis on quests-as-transactions into Bartle's typology.

QUESTIONS THAT OCCUR TO ME:

> What would a discourse analysis of gamers' distinctive speech codes, found in Klastrup's death-stories, say about WoW culture?

> What do gamers' movies, which prize action and achievement over exploration and socializing, say about the values in WoW culture?

> Isn't it interesting that the speech of NCP quest givers is so different than the speech of gamers? That is, gamers don't pattern their speech after NCPs. This reinforces Rettberg's conclusion that narrative takes a back seat to achievement.

> If Rettberg's description of gamers' attitudes and behaviors toward their quests is correct, then would WoW fit into Bartle's typology as an achiever-oriented game?

> And if WoW is achiever-oriented, then how do the game designers maintain a viable balance with explorers, socializers, and killers? Or has advanced game technology outmoded (or found ways of getting around) Bartle's assertion that a balance between the four player-types is necessary for a game to be viable?

> Assuming that WoW is achiever-oriented, then what do we learn about WoW culture and its values? Has Blizzard given birth to a virtual culture that is Social Darwinist in its basic outlines? Or are there humanistic values which provide a counterweight to the achievement-oriented culture described by Rettberg?

> Finally, referring back to Bogost, is WoW a "persuasive game"?

In his definition Bogost states, "Partial reinforcement [to continue playing] is certainly a type of persuasion, but the persuasion is entirely self-referential: its goal is to cause the player to continue playing, and in so doing to increase [spending by producing] . . . experiences that players feel compelled to continue or complete. However, this kind of persuasion is not my concern here" (p. 47).

On the one hand, Blizzard is a profitmaking corporation and, as Rettberg documents, has designed in WoW a game that endlessly carries players along to the next quest. And the Aarseth chapter ably explains how even the geography of WoW is calculated for maximal stimulation. But on the other hand, WoW uses rule-based procedures to foster certain cultural values. Do these procedures mount an actual argument for those values? Or are the procedures merely "self-referential . . . to cause the player to continue playing"?

Thoughts, anyone?

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Comments on "Newsgaming"

Unfortunately for me, playing September 12 and Madrid did not shed much light on the questions described in my previous post. The "procedural rhetorics" of the two games are easily described:

> September 12 forces the first-person shooter to target terrorists mingling with residents of a Middle Eastern village. But missiles always arrive a moment too late, causing civilian casualties and collateral damage to homes and buildings, and thus stoking resentments that strengthen the terrorists.

> Madrid takes the player to an antiterrorist candlelight vigil. But though clicking each new candle causes it to glow more brightly, candles previously lit begin to dim. Thus the aggregate level of consciousness never really increases despite the player's best attempts (or seen another way, consciousness can only be maintained by the player's best attempts).

While at the Newsgaming website I checked out the link to Ludology blog and found an entry about McCain's new Pork Invaders videogame, clearly a takeoff on the Tax Invaders game described by Bogost.

The rhetoric of Pork Invaders is also simple to describe: Vetoes must be "shot" at invading pigs (an allegory for pork-barrel spending) before the pigs cause your house to crumble. Vetoes that shoot down pigs register points, measured in tax dollars saved, for the player. In the same way, Americans need a president, John McCain, who will veto wasteful spending.

Of course, as a class we played these games in order to explore their procedurality. But beyond that, they offered very little game value. Why would anyone other than cognoscenti who are already predisposed to the games' viewpoints actually play them? And if not, is their rhetorical power diminished?

And so once again, we return to a question I asked before: Have we set up a paradox where the most attractive games, the ones that let players control more action, have the least rhetorical possibilities for the designer? After all, you can't persuade people if you can't reach them . . . but how can you attract them without giving up substantial control to the gamers?

Comments on Bogost's "Politics"

As you know, I completed Bogost's previous chapter on "Procedural Rhetorics" with a question about how a game designer uses procedurality to actually construct an argument. In my mind is the picture of a designer who encodes rule-based procedures into a game which then compel players to enthymematically fill in the missing premises.

I was hoping that the ensuing chapter on "Politics" might shed more light on my question. Instead the chapter focused on the content of the rhetorical arguments in the games under study, rather than explaining how those arguments were constructed through rule-based procedures.

In other words, Bogost's goal for the chapter seemed to be establishing the fact that persuasive games can make rhetorical arguments. But I already concede that point. What I'm looking for is not just the basic assertion that games can make arguments, but rather how those arguments are uniquely made through procedurality. For example:

> What specific coding decisions did the designer make (and not make) to construct specific arguments? How do these functions as enthymemes within the space of the game? Perhaps by interviewing designers Bogost could have gotten insights on how arguments were constructed, rather than only telling readers what arguments were made.

> How does procedurality uniquely argue for the values of, say, the US military in America's Game? It seems to me that the rhetoric of honor, duty, country has long been made in many other ways. Why should America's Game be viewed as a new rhetorical device rather than an intensification of existing devices? That returns us to a question I asked last week: Humans have followed rule-based procedures for making arguments since classical times. So, should videogames be seen as an entirely new rhetorical domain or as "computer-assisted rhetoric"?

> How can I, as an analyst, unpack something new from America's Game that I couldn't unpack from analyzing any number of US Army artifacts? The military ethos of objectifying the enemy, which Bogost mentions, has long been an object of scholarly study. (A classic work is Dower's War Without Mercy about the race war that developed between US and Japaneses forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II.) What can I learn by studying the game specifically as an artifact of "procedural rhetoric" that I couldn't learn by studying US Army artifacts in general?

Please know I have an open mind on all these issues. My questions are not rhetorical. I really do want to explore these questions.

Thanks for Bogost's Comments

First, let me thank Ian Bogost for his thoughts comments to blog posting last week. His input was gracious and fosters a dialogue to which I look forward, because through this interchange I can better grasp his theses and increase my own understandings.

1. Last week I reviewed Bogost's first chapter on "Procedural Rhetorics" and, while I readily concede that persuasive games are rhetorical, expressed some reservations about whether their procedurality constitutes constitutes a new rhetorical domain. Should we not first see if existing theories of visual or digital rhetorics could be stretched and expanded to encompass persuasive games, before declaring a new domain is needed? That way, we could attempt to understand procedurality by tapping into existing literatures and analytical frameworks.

Ian's reply: You're right that there is a rhetorical move in claiming procedural rhetoric as "new," and indeed there are probably many precedents. I believe I mention legal process as one as well, in the first chapter. I'm not so much interested in procedural rhetoric as "new thanks to computers" but rather new as a theoretical concept, and I certainly would welcome articulations of historical versions of the concept.

My response: Ian, I appreciate your generous reply. Perhaps you agree with me that the "new-thanks-to-compuers" genre is rife with people who claim that today's challenges are "unprecedented" and thereby obsolesce all previous knowledge. Such a stance is, I believe, not very helpful in advancing understanding. We can learn much by building on scholarship which has gone before us. Like you, I would welcome collaborative opportunities to trace historical versions of procedurality that might inform current theory development.

2. In particular, I agreed with Bogost that current works on visual rhetoric seem to privilege static or filmic images and that works on digital rhetoric privilege text. But last semester I cited in my RCID 804 blog a number of visual rhetoric/communication scholars who are dissatisfied with the lack of theory development. They point out that much of the literature consists of articles in which authors simply select some image(s) and then write a critique. Yet without any theoretical frameworks to inform a repeatable research agenda, how do you know whether one author's critique is as good as any other interpretation.

It strikes me that the field of visual rhetoric may be ready for some solid theory development, that persuasive games could furnish useful cases, and that participating in this development rather than declaring a new rhetorical domain might be worth the attempt.

Ian's reply: On visual rhetoric: my position is "extreme" in relation to visual and verbal rhetoric perhaps because I think procedurality has been so ignored by (digital) rhetoricians. There is, of course, reason to consider the verbal, visual, sound, etc. aspects of games. The book takes some of them up, later on.

My response: Again, Ian, I deeply respect your forthrightness to acknowledge where you stand. The literature on the rhetoric of science suggests that knowledge-making in academe is ultimately a give-and-take process of argumentation and eventual consensus. Staking out an "extreme" position can be beneficial by, in this case, prodding those digital rhetoricians who have ignored procedurality. Though I maintain for now certain reservations as stated above, I look forward (as I mentioned last week, and as you stated in your reply) to reading the arguments laid out in the remainder of your book.

3. Finally, I asked last week about how, exactly, do "procedural rhetoricians" construct an argument. In so doing I noted that Bogost's book describes a "procedural gap" in which, like the "play" in a steering wheel before the gears mesh, gamers have "free space" to manipulate the game according to their own desires. If that is the case, is the game designer's opportunity to persuade the gamer diminished?

Ian's reply: On constructing a procedural argument; the constraint of additional rules produces a more richly meaningful possibility space. The concept of a game in which you can "do anything" (if it's even possible) is actually much less interesting than one in which you can do some very particular thing. The possibility space becomes more meaningful as it narrows.

My response: Thanks, Ian. Your reply helps me to better understand your argument.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Thoughts on Visual Rhetoric

Last semester I blogged extensively on the book Defining Visual Rhetorics ("DVR") by Hill and Helmers, which Bogost cites numerous times in his first chapter. In addition, I shared several scholarly resources on visuality.

The links below should (I hope) allow you to view the relevant posts on my RCID 804 blog. If not and you need my "invitation" to join the blog community, let me know and I can (again, I hope) extend that invitation. Or if you can, just click my blog and scroll through the posts.

URL for my RCID 804 Blog
http://rcid804.ning.com/profile/MarkWardSr

Comments on Hill & Helmers' Defining Visual Rhetorics
Initial comments on DVR Introduction:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A222
More comments on DVR Introduction:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A230
Final comments on DVR Introduction:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A281
Some thoughts after reading DVR Introduction:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A301
Comments on DVR Chapter 1:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A761
Comments on DVR Chapter 2:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A801
Comments on DVR Chapter 3 and other readings:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3006
Comments on DVR Chapter 4:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3421
Comments on DVR Chapter 5:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3983

Thoughts on "Visual Communication"
Where does visual communication fit on comm studies?http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A661
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #1:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3221
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #2:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3223
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #3:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3225
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #4:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3227
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #5:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3230
More thoughts on visual communication and comm studies #6:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A3361

Various Musings
Thoughts on Havelock:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A4441
Thoughts on randomness:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A4487
Thoughts on Eisenstein and Ulmer:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A4898
Thoughts on performative anthropology:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A5341

Recommended Scholarly Resources
Resource #1:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A102
Resource #2:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A467
Resource #3:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A743
Resource #4:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A1041
Resource #5:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A1081
Resource #6:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A1401
Resource #7:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A1941
More thoughts on resource #7:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A1961
Resource #8:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A2261
Resource #9:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A2321
Resource #10:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A2361
Resources #11 and #12:
http://rcid804.ning.com/profiles/blog/show?id=1972552%3ABlogPost%3A2421