RSA 2018: The Sims from Design to Fan Production

My main purpose for today is to explore games as a type of media and use a new materialist focus—predominately from Laurie Gries—to highlight their capacity as circulating interactive materials. In rhetoric, discussion of games has tended to focus on their procedural arguments or on a potential culture that they may help foster. Looking at games as dynamic objects as they circulate, however, showcases how their qualities as media, including their procedurality, interact with other actors to co-create ongoing media ecologies. Games represent a distributed potential, starting with participants in the design phase, and spilling into their co-interaction with players and platforms out in the world. Focusing on their circulation helps one see this more expansive engagement.

In her tracing of the famous Obama Hope image, Gries pursues and outlines a new materialist approach to circulation, building from the work of rhetoric scholars, like Jenny Rice, and new materialists, like Jane Bennet. Her frame work focuses on the futurity and consequences of rhetorical artifacts as they move through the world. As she writes, “Rhetoric . . . is a process that unfolds and materializes with time and space. We can thus learn a lot about rhetoric, I imagined, by focusing on the material consequences that unfold during futurity — those spans of time beyond the initial moment of production and delivery.” She describes how the Obama Hope image helped localize and form networks through its affective force. To that end, she outlines six principles, which I would like to briefly review:

  • Becoming: “things constantly exist in a dynamic state of flux and are productive of change, time, and space” (p. 289)
  • Transformation: “rhetoric unfolds in unpredictable, divergent, and inconsistent ways. . . as they materialize in differing spatiotemporal configurations” (p. 289).
  • Consequentiality: “A new materialist rhetorical approach focuses the most attention on the consequences that emerge once matter is initially produced, has been perceived as relatively stable, and enters into circulation” (p. 289).
  • Vitality: “A new materialist rhetorical approach tries to account for a thing’s distributed, emergent materializations in a nonteleological fashion and disclose the complexity of unsurprising and unpredictable ways it impacts collective life” (p. 289).
  • Agency: “a new materialist rhetorical approach focuses on a thing’s emergent and unfolding exterior relations and intra-actions” (p. 289).
  • Virality: “a new materialist rhetorical approach focuses on a thing’s emergent and unfolding exterior relations and intra-actions” (p. 289).

While Gries uses this framework to engage primarily with visual rhetoric in her project, they also provide a flexible, illuminating approach to other media and modalities, including videogames.

Before getting into my example with The Sims, though, I wanted to briefly highlight some central tenants of video games as media. This is still an ongoing project, but I see these four qualities as central to games and part of their unique rhetorical capacities as they circulate:

  • Active: As Alexander Galloway argues, videogames are “active” media, remaining latent or potential until played. For Galloway, the code that may comprise a game like Doom is not the game; like a recipe, it is the instructions that may lead to a game when enacted. Analogue games are similar, coming into being as players engage with their rules. A game emerges from its latent potential, as its code or rules carry across situations.
  • Emergent: Drawing from complexity theory, Salen and Zimmerman (2003) state that emergence means “a simple set of rules applied to a limited set of objects in a system leads to unpredictable results” (158). They go on to argue that it creates “patterns and results not contained within the rules themselves” (160). Emerging from a complex system of factors, a game exceeds the sum of its constituent parts. While rules (and code) remain largely fixed, a game is not, changing as players and other variables interact with(in) those rules in unpredictable ways. The rules present a “possibility space,” an area of potential emergence, guided but not determined.
  • Procedural: With videogames, Bogost argues in Persuasive Games, “arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (29). But at a more fundamental level, videogames—and games in general—are governed by procedures. As Noah Wardrip-Fruin frames it, videogames contain the data of images, sounds, text, etc., but the display and execution of that data depends on the processes authored by designers.
  • Dialogic: Kevin Moberly (2008) and John Alberti (2008) have argued that videogames complicate views of “writer,” “reader,” and “composing.” Alberti writes, for example, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267). Players are in dialogue with the game, “composing” themselves and the game environment in relationship with the game’s own intervention as they interact. Such compositions are ephemeral and ongoing as one plays, co-created by the processes built into the game and the input of players and other participants.

To showcase these qualities, I want to use chess as an example. In The Grasshopper, game theorist Bernard Suits distinguishes between a game and its “institution,” using chess to clarify. The institution of chess, he theorizes, contains the abstracted rules and associations that carry across contexts and sessions. Excluding house rules and personal changes, pieces move the same way and win conditions remain largely codified, set down in “the rules,” but each session is different. Here, we see these four qualities in action. The game is active, requiring it to be “played,” such playing presents a complex system where a range of possibilities emerge, the session is procedurally mediated, and players are in dialogue with those procedures—and one another, in this case.

Reflecting these capacities, Tanja Sihvoven distinguishes between the game as it “comes of the shelf” or get released as a title and the game as it circulates in the world, getting modified, producing derivative texts, etc. as “process.” As she writes, “I think of the COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) game title as ‘game- as-product’ and the game materialised in gameplay as ‘game-as-process’. . .The duality of game-as-product and game-as-process reveals that a game does not only consist of a material aspect, the algorithm, but it also entails an embodied experience, the act of play. . . . In this sense, all games are constructed of rules and rulesets, which contain the potentiality of the game, game in potentia, but only the actual play of a game brings it to full existence, game in actio . The game has to be experienced by its player, interacting with the rules and the provided virtual envi­ronment, in order for it to achieve its actuality. The potentiality of a game can thus be considered as a designed formal system that is able to direct and predict certain experiences the player is likely to undergo without resorting to simplistic determin­ism.”

While the traditional uptake of procedural rhetoric has tended to focus on the former—games as rhetorical arguments designed to make largely claims-based arguments—games as process also prove rhetorical in unique ways, considering their Heraclitan qualities. Much like Gries’ Obama Hope image, games present objects that inspire a range of behaviors, regarding play and beyond. Her framework—geared toward circulating objects, consequences, futurity, and changing contexts—aligns with this more ongoing game-as-process framework. To showcase how this may look, I will use The Sims as an example, tracing its creation and uptake.

When looking at the creation of The Sims, I think it’s important to look at its origins and development, move to its design and mechanics, then look at its uptake. My materials for this work come from a range of secondary sources, including published interviews and work from other scholars, along with archival materials from The Strong Museum in Rochester, particularly Will Wright’s design notebooks. I also used the Internet Archive and my own childhood materials. While any of these phases could go more in depth, I just wanted to hit the highlights.

Will Wright originally envisioned The Sims from three main sources, his longstanding interest I human psychology and architecture, the dollhouse he and his daughter Cassidy played with, and a 1991 fire that swept through Oakland Hills, where Wright and his family lived, destroying his home and possessions. By 1993, ideas for the game had congealed into Wright’s working title, Home Tactics: The Experimental Home Simulator. He was not the first with a similar idea, with the 1985 Activision game Little Computer People already sporting a domestic focus and open play condition, but this game was not that successful commercially. Maxis’ board of directors was skeptical to accept Wright’s project with its domestic focus, despite the success of some of Wright’s other games. Wright had to wait until EA Games bought Maxis in 1997, when Wright and his team of over 50 programmers got to work. The Sims came out 4 February 2000, quickly surpassing Myst (1993) as the best-selling PC game of all time. The Internet also played an important role, with Maxis launching the site in advance, and allowing press releases and fan excitement flourish.

In his notebooks, Wright often comes back to two main elements: (1) the goal of happiness and (2) a people v. things conflict. He wanted the game to be a satirical critique of capitalism, with players fulfilling their needy Sims’ constant desire for more stuff. Mechanically that satire is largely lost, with stuff-buying being central to the happiness of their Sims, not just relationships, relying on a four-part process. First, every Sim has a series of needs called “motives,” like hunger or hygiene, which dictate their happiness and degrade over time. Higher motives mean happier Sims. Second, players have their Sims use objects in the game to meet those needs. A shower, for instance, helps hygiene. Third, more money lets players buy objects that help these motives more efficiently. A more expensive shower, for example, provides more “hygiene” than a cheaper model. And fourth, one gets more money by advancing in their career across different career paths, themselves modeled after real-world versions.

As Jesper Juul (2010) argues regarding the franchise, the game does not force a specific goal or punish you for failure (in a direct sense, at least), but coaxes you down a path of “least resistance” most in line with the game’s values (137). This is a common tactic in more open-ended games, and this open-ended nature and low-stress, casual gameplay aided its success and uptake, especially among less hardcore players. Today, with casual gaming more common, this may not seem as significant, but at the time, the game proved revolutionary.

The open-ended nature of the game also gave considerable leeway for players to compose. Many of these works gained circulation through the official site, pictured here, on the “Exchange”. Fan sites, linked to the main site, also provided outlets.

  • Gamics: Comic-like stories comprised of screen captures and captions. These ranged from fairy tale remakes to domestic dramas, both serious and comical. Similarly, more enterprising fans made machinima.
  • Families: Players could create and upload families.
  • Houses and other lots: And buildings that they constructed.

Less prominent on the main site, but common with fan sites, The Sims had a robust modding community. Maxis provided a basic mod kit to help with creating new Skins and other basic changes, but some players changed deeper mechanics, creating new objects; shifting the game away from its more normative sexual gender biases, and in a case that drew Maxis intervention; erasing the censorship bar from naked Sims. Most of these communities found structure through popular fan sites, like The Sims Resource pictured here—one of the largest and most popular. Like most mod communities, this one was more of a gift economy, but The Sims Resource did allow premium content for a subscription, paying modders.

Importantly, all of these player interactions have two core parts worth scrutinizing. First, the qualities of the original game—especially its open-ended play, casual nature, easy modibility, and screen-capture function—allowed this community to help flourish. These capacities, when put in motion through play, informed its participatory uptake. Second, the ongoing interaction of other participants through a range of networked platforms, tools, and communities—often with their own motivations and goals—also led to its ongoing popularity and healthy fan culture. In both its original invention and arrangement and in its ongoing delivery, The Sims illustrates how games don’t just make arguments or allow fun, but can provide the means to produce other composing spaces and compositions—themselves rhetorical in their own way.

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Rhetorics of Winning

With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.

Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team.  But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.

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Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

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ENG 730: Atari, Design Constraints, and Ecology

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

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

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

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ENG 730: Auteurs and Capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilization, Ideology, and Informatic Control

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

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

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

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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.

ENG 730: Fictions, Representation, and Narrative.

While playing these games, I was thinking a bit about three things from Jasper Juul: his notion of “incoherent worlds,” the role of abstraction and representation, and the ways that rules and fictions can interact.

Juul defines incoherent world in a game as “a game with a fictional world but where the game contradicts itself or some game events cannot be explained as part of the fictional world.” He gives the example of Donkey Kong, as we don’t know why Mario has three hearts and can never find out why. Initially when I was playing A Dark Room, I was considering it a bit incoherent, as the idea of clicking to stab or clicking to build–this projection of a real world action into the game through this mechanic–felt arbitrary.

But really I was confusing the ideas of representation with this coherence. In the world itself, though textual, things made sense. Huts provided housing, and though some of the materials felt odd–like stone spears coexisting with laser guns or teeth and scales making weapons–game elements had an internal coherence. Instead, I found myself a bit jarred from the narrative by the mechanics of playing.

As time went on, also, I found myself less engaged by the fiction and more engaged by the mechanics, which is something Juul also describes: “It is a common characteristic that with sustained playing of the same game, the player may become less interested in the representational/fictional level of the game and more focused on the rules of the game” (139). I think was especially easy in this sort of game because things were pretty abstracted: no sound, only symbolic images (instead of more “realistic” ones), largely alphabetic representations, simple controls and rules, etc.

I found the opposite taking place with Myst: the world drew me in, but I (in time) got a bit bored by the mechanics. As Elizabeth points out, it was nice to sort of hangout in Myst for one, as the setting was  full of ambience, including music and sound effects. The visuals were also attractive and realistic. And the point-and-click movement had a calming quality.

Adding to the raw sensory experience, Myst also wove its game mechanics and instructions into the game, like the note one initially finds from Catherine. This helped the apparatus of the rules feel more integrated into the world itself, withdrawing into the fiction. Similarly, the point-and-click hand that let you project your actions into the space was one of the only representational elements in the game. The rest was “in the world,” as it were, augmented by in-game texts about the world itself.

But, as John points out, it was a bit tedious to go back and forth hunting for clues or trying to figure things out. After some initial gains, I found myself a bit stuck trying to figure out some of the puzzles–or figuring them out but having to re-walk across the island to find a particular number that I missed along the way.

Splitting the difference, Home had some interesting mechanics and fiction, though it undertook the fiction differently. Similar to Myst‘s multiple endings, Home has multiple endings, but it does so through this odd combination of trees and literal chose-your-own ending. I only played through once, but reading about other endings, I was intrigued by some of the possibilities. For me, Norman had killed my wife, but I didn’t know how Norman got killed or who the man in the house was. And, I was able to walk out the door at the end. For others, they decided that they killed Rachel and Norman, then slit their wrists in the bathroom. While some choices affect the ending–like the gathering of clues or the taking of the knife or gun–the player is ultimately decides key plot points, like if Rachel is really dead. This was odd.

For example, one player noted how this puzzling end broke his immersion. As a response, though, another player said, “Most games with various paths and endings just drag you along for the ride, telling the story of these charcters [sic] and expecting you to feel for them. This, though… when I was first presented with the question “Did I find my Rachel?”, I literally sat at that screen for… I dunno, 20 minutes, just piecing together the things I had learned and trying to come up with my own answer. I /loved/ it. It really was my story, even though I was playing as another person.”

I’m still thinking through what Home did and how I feel about it, whether considering it clunky or clever. But overall, I think these games do a great job highlighting the different ways that “fiction” operates in games–and how it differs from narrative.

ENG 730: The Game and Immersive Narrative

Watching The Game, I kept thinking of Kafka. In many of his stories, Kafka presents this looming network that always recedes as the protagonist gets closer to solving it. I think A Messenger from the Emperor puts it best:

“he is still forcing his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he overcome them; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to fight his way down the steps; and were he to succeed at this, nothing would be gained: he would have to cross the courtyard and, after the courtyard, the second enclosing outer palace, and again stairways and courtyards, and again a palace, and so on through thousands of years. . .

In The Game, Nicholas, much like many of Kafka’s characters, must navigate the ever-withdrawing, seemingly omnipotent CRS. Things escalate as he goes forward, almost to an absurd degree. And at the end, instead of closure of catharsis, we get this bizarre party. As John notes, no one seems to recognize the emotional turmoil that Nicholas endured, revisiting the suicide of his father, shooting and thinking he killed his brother, and attempting suicide himself, only to stumble into a room of friends and strangers who only moments ago–he thought–were trying to kill him.

I guess my frustration stemmed from the notion of immersion and boarders that Murray discusses. As Murray writes, “Part of the early work in any medium is the exploration of border between the representational world and the actual world” (103). When immersed, much like the Holodeck example from the beginning of the book, one is caught up in a procedural, participatory medium, as Murray describes. But as she also notes, this participation is “a visit,” and we must often “actively create belief” (110). There is a border, in other words, between the illusion and the larger world in which that illusion sits.  This larger world may have its own hyperreal characteristics, but it is nonetheless distinct–or seems to be.

But the blurring of that border is what seems to make The Game and The Grasshopper examples so haunting. As John notes, Nicholas ends up no longer really playing in a way, as he thinks that he is actively fighting a real entity. For example, toward the end, the ontology of the gun is ambiguous: in the actual world, it’s a prop; in the representational world, it’s a gun. But for Nicholas, the representational world has become the actual world. The game, and all of its trappings, has become his new reality, including the gun. And, as many others have noted, the “voluntary” element of Nicholas’ participation feels murky, making this “game” all the more problematic.

Connecting it back to Kafka, I think the reason why The Trial is so haunting is that the legal system has left its boundaries. To draw from Huizinga, the court has flooded outside its magic circle and has become an existential way of life. K is guilty without his consent, and forced to solve the maze of “state sanctioned violence” as Murray calls it (131), as himself, not a player version of himself.

In a similar note, The Game shows this haunting Grasshopper-like dystopia where the representational aspect of play has permeated and supplanted actual life. But, the game ends, and this is the strangest part. As Murray points out, digital mediums have a more ambiguous ending, often created by their interactive aspect. They often end through exhaustion and not a linear progression. The same could be said for the movie.

The doctor/actor jokes at the end, for example, that if Nicholas didn’t jump, he’d have to throw him.  This raises the question on how prescriptive the game was. Jordan points out that the game maybe was not that interactive, and indeed, it’s hard to see how the game wasn’t pulling all the strings, giving CRS an almost deterministic quality that feels godlike, all driving toward this “ending.” Were there alternative endings? What if, for example, Nicholas didn’t drink the tea? What if he didn’t get the gun from his house? What other rhizomes could he follow, and would those rhizomes still lead to that party in that way?

Much like K’s demise in The Trial, the ending in The Game feels inevitable, and I wonder–since they lied to him before, including about him not being picked to enter the game in the first place–whether the game is really over. Once you turn life into a game, it doesn’t feel easy to get out, and maybe Nick’s blithe acceptance at the end is a sort of absurdist, nihilistic acceptance of the Grasshopper’s wisdom. Worst birthday gift ever.