Why I Don’t Buy the Arguments to Vote for Kavanaugh

This afternoon, the Senate–after weeks of rancor and the bathetic hem-hawing of folks like Flake–will vote in Kavanaugh as the Ninth Justice of the current Supreme Court. I should technically say that they “likely” or “all-but-certainly” will, but precision devalues the sheer force pushing confirmation. So, unless God himself smites the Capitol Monty-Python style, hello Chief Justice Kavanaugh.

I haven’t written here in a while, though I have been meaning to, and perhaps those now-unfinished posts may make their way up here. But like many, the Kavanaugh confirmation, long-since troublesome, has consumed my thinking the past two weeks after Ford’s accusations and subsequent testimony. Considered a referendum on the #MeToo movement, the debate over Kavanaugh certainly represents a crucible-rupturing focus on gender politics in an already fraught era. It has also brought up issues of judicial impartiality and temperment, the institutional credibility of the court, and the stability of centrist and liberal provisions eked out over the past decades.

All of these are important conversations, as are the testimonies of Ford and Kavanaugh, the political background of Kavanaugh, the procedural issues of the confirmation, the veracity of his two other accusers, and many more issues. However, I mainly want to focus on the arguments of those in favor of the Kavanaugh vote, as I see them.

I want to take these at face value, though I suspect like so much in this era, they lack the sincerity of their delivery. I do this knowing that it makes no difference. Having called public servants, donated to causes, talked with friends, and gone to protests–done all in my current power, in other words–I feel that it may at-best be an intellectual exercise. Nevertheless, as a teacher and student of rhetoric, I think it’s important to look at the arguments that govern major political and policy decisions and define our country for our lifetimes and beyond.

As such, I see three main arguments, summarized and addressed below. And, yes, I am biased. I do not want Kavanaugh, but being biased does not preclude academic fairness. And frankly, I don’t think these arguments deserve that fairness, but many Americans (cough, Republicans) support him, so here we go.

Gif of woman shrugging tiredly with the phrase "Here we go" below

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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.

Stardew Valley, Sorge, and Martin Heidegger

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley lately. The pixel-graphics farm RPG has enjoyed a  one-year anniversary this past Feb. 26, but mostly I’ve found the game to be a bit of an escape as Syracuse’s nickel grey March and school’s looming deadlines deepen a seasonal depression.

For those of you who have not played Stardew Valley, the plot is simple. Inheriting your grandfather’s rustic farm in the bucolic Stardew Valley, you start with some lose coins and tools and gradually nurture the farm back to health, interacting with the community and the surrounding countryside–from mysterious woods, to mines, to the ocean–as you plant and harvest seeds, forage, mine, and care for animals. Like any RPG, you level up your skills, from crafting and combat, and build relationships with NPCs by giving gifts and completing small quests. The player can eventually get married and raise a family.

The game has some overlap with the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing series, placing the player as a caretaker enmeshed in a community. The simple music, pixel graphics, and winsome, quirky cut-scenes have their charm, and while the mechanics can get a bit grind-inducing (depending on one’s style and goals), the rhythm of rising, getting set for the day, working, and heading to sleep is a calming metronome that structures your daily actions, whether attending a community celebration, fighting “Slimes” in the mine, or simply fishing away a few hours.

More deeply, though, I kept coming back to what Stardew Valley teaches about Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially his notion of sorge, or “caring,” as it’s often translated.

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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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Thinking through gun control

Mostly, I’ve just been trying to think through a few gun control-related things. I see opinions all over. Memes. Tweets. Enraged Facebook statuses. This may be part and parcel to that storm, but I wanted to take the whole thing slowly.

I really have nothing major to gain or lose in this debate personally. While I live in a violent city (Syracuse), I’m rarely in harms way directly. Perhaps now and then, but gun violence is not a daily reality in my physical proximity. I don’t own guns, but I also don’t have anything against gun ownership. I’m friends with hunters and gun enthusiasts, and consider them fine people. I also recognize that gun ownership is a constitutional right. More than that, it is part of the Bill of Rights, alongside things like freedom of speech and no double jeopardy.

But as Colbert said, when things like mass shootings keep happening, we should look at changing. I suppose the alternative would be to not change and take things how they are, which is an option. Moreover, I don’t think the idea of “change” needs to be threatening or draconian. Middle ground exists. Places for dialogue. Places for compromise. So mostly I want to point to conversations that I don’t see much in the mainstream media or on social media, including the stakes and confines of the debate itself.

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5 YouTube Accounts for a Brain Snack

These days, YouTube is still a great place to find videos of cats or middle school students acting out the Scarlet Letter, equipped with shaky camera shots and wind-buried dialogue. But it’s also a fascinating place to find some videos for a quick brain snack, a short (3-15 minute) video about an “educational” topic, often released weekly. Not only are such videos great background noise for morning routines, they can add some pep and multimedia to a lesson.

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The YouTube Intellectual and Reading

I like YouTube. I like it more than television. Sometimes more than reading. It has plenty of strange alcoves and diverse pickings, from “weird YouTube” with its singing manikins and smashed together YouTube poop to the comedy skits of Mega64 and others. And this just scratches the surface.

I’ve noticed an interesting figure in some of these places. I call it the YouTube Intellectual. An ever-growing spattering of YouTube channels center on intellectual topics or deal with popular topics, like video games, in intellectual ways.

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Noise

“Noise,” as a word, references both the little auditory ripples, wiggles, and waves that surround us and the more metaphorical “noise” that we ascribe to things like media or a crowded, overwrought curtain pattern. Both are pretty similar.

Twitter, for example, bears some resemblance to a street, where each car is sort of doing its own thing, or like a crowded market place, filled with words, many of which I do not care much about, jostling together. Many little conversations or rhetorical projectiles surf by: ideas, images, arguments, rage, humor, injustice, grilled cheese.  They’re all here through a combination of forces, many of which go far beyond me.

To get more specific, I think the busy street and the crowded Twitter feed have four main qualities:

1. Ceaselessness

2. Perceived Disorganization

3. Perceived Lack of Harmony

4. Overwhelming “Volume”

Music provides an easy way to understand this, as it’s more accessible than most nonhuman noise. Ceaselessness, quality one, implies an ongoing character to the sound or media. Twitter always updates. Small gaps of silence exist, but each moment, a new tweet fills the gap. Like Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata’s finale, with its breathless arpeggios, or one of Steve Reich’s pulsing rhythms, noise keeps going.

In the world, noise is always around us. As R. Murray Schafer writes in The Soudscape, “The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers, and its composers.” Sound enfolds us into worlds, into cocoons of ambience, with its ever-present persistence. Reversing this, music also creates worlds, as Mahler argued or Brian Eno undertakes through his ambient music.

But all this has some sort of organization. Some sort of progress, in a sense. It also has harmony. So our next two qualities, disorganization and dissonance, become key fracture points. Take an an Olivier Messiaen piece, which deliberately tries to break traditional tonality in many places, or Cage’s 13 Harmonies, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and you get closer, for many people, to “noise.” Indeed, as Cage said in one interview, he prefers noise to the “talking” that most music does.

Sometimes, different world music strikes our ears in odd ways because it may not follow traditional, Western grammar and syntax. It is a different language. But noise lacks grammar and syntax, or at least it lacks the grammar and syntax we can understand. It is alien, and through that distance, it comes across as aharmonic and arhythmic.

Returning to Twitter, I suppose one might argue that it is aharmonic and arhythmic because it lacks an organizing hand. It’s a cluster of voices, in a variety of media, thrown together by a variety of forces. We don’t have newspaper ledes or 5-paragraph essays or whole canvases by a single painter; it’s a quilt stitched by many hands, with different agendas, different materials, different syntax, voice, and grammar.

More deeply, no ideology or purpose grounds these utterances. The #BlackLivesMatter tweets exist alongside angry tweets aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, or stories about Kim Kardashian’s latest shoot or a picture of cats. Lies exist alongside facts. Satire alongside news.

But noise only becomes “noisy” when the volume is too high. It floods in, assaults us, pounds its arythmic, aharmonic agenda against our temples. It hits us with cute cats alongside Syrian refugees. Pictures jumbled up with words, and videos, and hashtags, and emoticons, and all-caps yells, and snide one-liners–ceaseless and staggering.

I’m not the only person to look at media this way. Bruno Latour, for one, moves toward it. But I think we do gain something from studying noise. From sticking our eyes, and ears, and hands into the static and car horn cacophonies of Twitter and the street outside. I’m not quite sure what that “something” is, perhaps a better appreciation for noise, like John Cage, or a better ability to sift through it. I hope, however, that whatever we gain may reduce our anxiety and make us better listeners.

Empathy and Videogames

Most of us, at least in Europe and the UK, remember debates around violence in videogames. School shootings, muggings, general deviance. Like the satirical meme Angry German Kid tries to make fun of, some circles see gamers as crazed keyboard-pounding, gun-hoarding loners.

While studies have complicated this question, videogames have grown regardless of an answer. They surpassed DVD, music, and cinema sales in the UK in 2008 and boast massive opening sales, as with Grand Theft Auto V.

In an academic context, media and literacy scholars like Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee discuss videogames as learning tools and media interfaces. And the folks at PBS have an informative and engaging YouTube channel for game studies.

With videogames growing as a medium, questions like violence, literacy, or ideology become more important.

Lately, I’ve had empathy on the brain as I research for final papers that center on the topic. I’ve also been playing videogames. In particular, I recently got a game called This War of Mine, where you play a noncombatant in a war zone, trying to survive amid the strife.

Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]
Concept art from This War of Mine [Image courtesy of craveonline]

With a catchphrase, “In war, not everyone is a soldier,” the game offers a potent dose of empathy. In fact, for me, it turns the violence debate on its head: how can videogames build empathy?

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