Rhetorical Video Games

Retro image of young couple standing in front of a large Atari home computer


Chris Ortiz y Prentice

Image Credit: 

I ran my Mass Effect 1 lesson plan today, and I must say that I’m all fired up about it. Why? Because it worked. Turns out, you can use a video game to teach a rhetorical concept, and not just as a medium that can be rhetorically analyzed, but as a modeling technology that enables (indeed requires) the cognitive work rhetorical concepts entail. (See, e.g., John Albierti’s recent article in Computers and Composition).

Don’t get me wrong. I ran the plan because I thought it might work, but there was a part of me that was anxious about bringing a video game into the classroom; anxious that I might alienate some of my students; that the students wouldn’t take the lesson seriously; that the game wouldn’t demonstrate what I thought it would; that the students wouldn’t get it; wouldn’t care to get it.

I’ll just say that my students allayed my anxieties. Sounds like I’m patting myself on the back here, but truth is, it wasn’t a perfect lesson plan, nor was it perfectly executed, nor was every single student totally into it. But I was surprised by my students today. Their responses to the game showed me possibilities for using Mass Effect in the classroom that I hadn’t recognized before.

One thing I learned is just how incredibly rhetorically-minded BioWare’s Mass Effect series is. Mass Effect is the cutting-edge in the quest-driven, single-player Role Playing Game genre (so: save the universe from the bad guys by developing your avatar’s skills and equipment). What distinguishes Mass Effect from its predecessors is BioWare’s innovative “dialogue wheel” system, which gives Shepard the last call on how to articulate the gamer’s rhetorical decisions. Instead of mimicking the phrasing of the rhetorical option presented on the screen, that is, Shepard utters something which accomplishes that rhetorical task but not always in the way you expected. The player must therefore take into account the entire critical situation—who is the audience, how might the audience react to certain decisions judging from what has happened in the game so far, how might Shepard translate the prompt into actual language, and how might that language exceed the original rhetorical intention—before providing an additional rhetorical stimulus.

In the scene I had the students play, the character/avatar Shepard has just taken over command of the starship Normandy and s/he’s giving a speech to rile up her crew and to shore up their confidence about the mission they’re about to undertake. I had five different students play through the same scene while we considered how Shepard’s speech develops along different paths depending on the rhetorical prompts chosen. (It was fun.) As the speech goes on, the camera cuts to Shepard’s audience throughout the ship. The shots shown are also governed by the rhetorical decisions the gamer makes.

For instance, when one of my students selected “Humanity is in this alone” as a rhetorical prompt, Shepard says that “None of the other species has got the guts, grit, or balls to get this mission done.” The camera then cuts to the engine room, where two humans are standing with an alien species. The alien turns slightly away from the humans and crosses his arms. On a second run-through, a student chose a different tactic. She selected “Humanity must do its part,” which makes Shepard talk about how humans and aliens will have to work together to defeat Saren (the bad guy). When the camera shot to the same engine-room, the alien opens up his folded arms and turns slightly towards the human characters. (What delights me is that I didn’t catch this difference; one of my students did!)

I led a discussion in which we talked about the concepts of invented ethos (how the decisions you make change Shepard’s character; how the crew responds differently to Shepard depending on the ethos s/he develops in the speech). We also talked about the relative advantages and disadvantages of going different ways with the speech: namely, you can alienate the alien crew members and thereby build a strong connection to the extremist pro-human humans on the ship; or you can lose those humans’ support but gain a broader inter-species base of support throughout the ship. Finally, we talked about how persuasive writing is “modular,” in that rhetorical decisions one makes have differently weighted consequences. So a decision you make at the beginning of a paper affords certain decisions you can make later on, and closes off other decisions that would have been afforded by making a different decision at the beginning.

This is a relatively complex notion, but it was not difficult to explain to my students, because they had just been playing around with how the rhetorical decisions you make for Shepard afford X decisions and deny Y decisions. By the final play-throughs, students were saying things like, “Oh, we missed our chance to say that because we chose…” and “Next time, let’s choose that option because it gives us all those prompts we haven’t tried.”  

I’ll mention, finally, that there is no “correct” way to go through the scene. Different choices are “scored” with either paragon or renegade points. Why certain ways of making the speech warrant either paragon or renegade points was one of the topics we discussed in class.

My point in all of this is that Mass Effect is a rhetorical game: it models rhetorical situations, and then gives the gamer a chance to play around in those situations while at the same time providing a perspective “outside” the game from which the player can observe the consequences on the audience of making these rhetorical decisions as opposed to those. The camera work underscores the rhetorical quality of speech-acts by capturing the audience’s differing reactions.

I mentioned that the plan wasn’t perfectly conceived of or perfectly executed. There is definitely room to develop pedagogical uses for Mass Effect and other “rhetorical” games (the Fallout series comes to mind, or Heavy Rain for PS3). Next semester, I plan on bringing Mass Effect into the classroom earlier in the semester. (The scene I used today would have been particularly effective for teaching ethos in the second unit, or teaching “critical situation” right off the bat in the first unit). I might then bring the game back into the classroom for the third unit and have them play a different scene, to which I would append a writing assignment that would have students articulate on paper what the game does modularly and visually. I can imagine an assignment, for instance, where I ask students to translate their papers into the sorts of rhetorical prompts they saw in the game. Then students could mind map their papers to show how early decisions open up onto later decisions, while making certain decisions takes other options out of play. Such an assignment might help students think explicitly about why they’re organizing their persuasive essays the way they are, and how a different set of “moves” might have different effects.

You know…there’s a BioWare studio in Austin. It’d be interesting to see what some of the game’s creators think about its pedagogical uses. Just a thought.

Cofounders of BioWare Ray Muzyka (left) and Greg Zeschuk

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi


Creative Commons License
All materials posted to this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. We invite you to use and remix these materials, but please give credit where credit is due. In addition, we encourage you to comment on your experiments with and adaptations of these plans so that others may benefit from your experiences.


User login