Better than Rhetoric

Screenshot of McDonald's Videogame


Chris Ortiz y Prentice

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My thinking about rhetoric and realism has been greatly elucidated this year by my class, Rhetoric of Video Games.

Like most graduate student instructors, “intros,” “surveys” and “skills” courses have been my bread and butter: not a bad meal, after all, although rare has been the class that inspired my own thinking about a question. The discussions I’ve led with the students of Rhetoric of Video Games, by contrast, have very often gone beyond what many working in the field are talking about. These students are juniors and seniors, some business and economics majors, a handful of fine arts and communications people, a few computer science students, mostly boys, but a select group of conquer-the-world-with-pizzazz-type young women. What brings us all together is a love of videogames. One thing I haven’t done this semester is talk about illustrating your argument with example or supporting your claim with evidence; never had to. These students talk about videogames like Bob Costas talks about the Olympics. It is their delight to bring a game up in class discussion. Whenever a new game is mentioned, it receives cheers (or boos) from the entire class. I’m talking about hands-clapping, huzzahing celebration. The twenty-odd students in my class have been waiting to talk seriously about videogames for a long time now, and it has been my pleasure to give them a reason for doing so. In fact, I have already learned a great deal about videogames from these students, and I dedicate the thoughts below to them.

Pretty much everything we know about rhetoric and, in, and of videogames we take from Ian Bogost’s excellent Persuasive Games (2007).  There, Bogost makes a distinction between “serious games”--which, for training purposes, put the player in the role of a functionary of some sort or another, say, a public high school teacher or a soldier--and “persuasive games.” For a game to be truly persuasive by Bogost’s criteria, it must put the user at a critical distance from the role it also asks him or her to adopt. This is a particular kind of make-believe; not immersive--as in, you are an IRS agent, and if you don’t want to lose your job, you’d better act like one--but contemplative and experimental--as in, think about the sorts of decisions the top suits at McDonalds are called on to make, the tactics they must implement, to maintain annual growth of x percent. A properly persuasive game does not train; it argues. Playing from a perspective at once “from within” and “from above” the game, Bogost suggests, is sufficient to realize an argument: “The McDonald’s Videogame [by Molleindustria] mounts a procedural rhetoric about the necessity of corruption in the global fast food business, and the overwhelming temptation of greed, which leads to more corruption” (31). Games become critical when they eschew immersion for abstraction (45-6).

Literary Realism, I would argue, has been at this very crux for a long time now -- but with a difference. Clearly, realism in novels or cinema or drama has a moral dimension; very often, characters will mount larger arguments about the way things work, and the internal workings of realist narratives are often pinned to a kind of moral machination. But a novel, a play, a movie: these forms put the reader into a different relation with the "players" than does a persuasive game. A good realist story gives each character as much due as possible--it develops "where they're coming from" to the utmost degree. The user in realism, furthermore, does not have access to the "game state" of the plot; as in life, there is no access in realism to the rules of the game--either for reader or for author. The result of realism's particular expressive technology is that the reader is not asked to experiment with the configuration of the roles but rather to come to understand why people are acting a particular way. Does this empathy lead to universal approval? Not at all: many times, a closer understanding begets a more intense contempt. But there is a fatality in realism; as an author, one must have the characters act on expectations that they are playing this game and not another. As a reader, it is futile to regret the decisions of a fictional character.

This is to say that realism does not mount arguments. Let’s take a couple of high-realist test cases. There are no better candidates to ascertain whether realim makes an argument than two among the most argumentative instances of high realism: Jude the Obscure (1895) and Mrs. Warren's Profession (1893). So what could be the argument of Jude? Society is very bad because it doesn't let people get along? That's not an argument at all. An argument requires an exhortation, and, as the critics have long noted, Hardy relentlessly shuts down aveues for change in Jude. Structurally, the novel is an anti-Bildungsroman in the method of tragicomedy; thematically, Jude adopts Sue’s opposing worldview precisely when--and for the same reason--Sue adopts Jude's, leaving each as they were before: hopelessly unable to see eye-to-eye. Mrs. Warren's Profession is no different; in the end, Vivie admits to understanding the "Crofts philosophy of life" but chooses to go another way, not out of a sentiment of good and bad but out of an unremitting self-honesty. What could then be the argument of Mrs. Warren's Profession? Be like Vivie, not like Crofts or Mrs. Warren; but Vivie herself would denounce that as the very sort of infantile moral and “sentiment”--what her mother calls “pretence”-- she wishes to be done with, once for all. Anyone familiar with these works will immediately see how pointless it is to try and reduce them into argumentative proposition.

What we've learned is that realism deals in argument without itself being an argument. Indeed, the great problem of nineteenth century realist aesthetics--and the generative problematic which initiates every new realist project, up to the present day--is how to go beyond argument.

One more stopping point before we arrive at the moral of this, my teacher's tale.

If realism isn’t argument, then (going back to the Bogost) surely it’s because it takes an immersive rather than abstracting approach to representation.  I thought this too for a while, but let’s go back to the McDonald's game now that we have an understanding of realism under our belts. Suppose that the argument one gets from playing the game is that McDonald's is necessarily bad for the world because its purpose is not to feed human beings but to amass surplus value. To make this argument, the McDonald's game forces your hand; you seem to be playing “from above”--above even the CEO or the shareholders--but you find yourself powerless to change the game's outcomes: bribing officials, clearing forests, dislocating poor people, pumping cows full of hormones, etc. It turns out that the McDonald’s game is every bit as tragic as realism. Given this main difference between immersion and abstraction with which we’ve been dealing, how could that be?

Recall that realism also takes a view “from above" and that the telescoping of perspectives between “from within” and “from above” allows realism to achieve tragedy. Realism is tragic, in other words, because it immerses, then abstracts, and allows us to see how inevitable all this pain is. But of course, whether one comes out with a tragic issue all depends on the videogame notion par excellence, that of “interactivity.” What can you do to change a tragic course? In the McDonald’s game, you are even more limited to a rational program in your abstracted role. Why is that? Because you are nothing other than the interest which keeps all of the players playing the same game. Not only are you powerless to change the game: you are the game.

Such a role places us at the very edge of argument. As the game, we have a tragic view "from above." What interests me, however, is videogames' technological capacity to go beyond argument. To say that this game we’re playing at the moment is necessarily bad for its players is argument, but like realism, it finds itself stuck in the tragedy that follows on the heels of critique. But whenever we ask someone to act on different expectations and then give them a reason and a way to do so; whenever we say, wouldn't we all be better off to play another game and then offer another game, we may be moving past the problematic of realism. The question is, How to play a game in such a way that it changes the game? The challenge, for the aesthetics that takes this as its problem, is how to create a place for the user neither “from above” nor “from within” but “from outside.” This semester, I’ll be asking my wonderful students to go further than the realists could in addressing that challenge; they will try to use the capacities of the videogame medium to go beyond argument into experiment. That’s the real promise of videogames, and perhaps what makes them better than rhetoric.


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