You are here

Procedural Rhetoric: Analyzing Video Games

Primary tabs

Author: 
Screen shot of September 12 Video Game Instructions
Image Credit: 

September 12th. A game making an argument about our response to terrorism.

Brief Assignment Overview: 

This activity asks students to practice rhetorical analysis with reference to Ian Bogost's understanding of "procedural rhetoric." This mode of rhetoric focuses on the ways that procedures, processes, logics, and rules can be expressive and persuasive. Video games offer particularly rich embodiments of procedural rhetoric. Analyzing the procedures and logics embedded within video games allows students to practice a new mode of rhetorical analysis on texts that many students are familiar with but that rarely become objects of study in academic settings.

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Rhetorical analysis, introduction to procedural rhetoric

Required Materials: 

Students can access many games online. For these games, students would need access to the internet on machines that support Flash animations. If the activity were done outside of class, it could incorporate any gaming systems to which students have access.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Today, you will be playing a video game and analyzing its procedural rhetoric. As you play the game, you should keep the following questions in mind:

- What are the rules of the system?

- What is the significance of these rules (over other rules)?

- What claims about the world do these rules make?

- How do I respond to those claims?

[note to instructors: these questions come from Bogost]

Once you have finished the game or played it enough to understand its rules, write out your responses to these questions.

[note to instructors: it will be up to you to guide students to the game and to let them know where to write their responses]

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

The first step in preparation for this activity would involve some reading. Ian Bogost develops the concept of procedural rhetoric in his book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. The preface and the first chapter of the book are particularly helpful, and sample copies of these can be found here. Instructors would need to understand procedural rhetoric well enough to discuss it with students. The selections from Bogost are generally accessible enough that students could read them as well.

The next preparatory step would be deciding which game to have students play. There are a number of games online that students can play in 10-30 minutes. Theoretically, this activity could be done with any game, although I like to have students play games that are in some way "serious" or "political" or otherwise rhetorically charged. Here are some games I've used:

- Passage. This game makes an argument about life, relationships, and achievement.

- Every Day the Same Dream.  This game makes a different sort of argument about life, relationships, and achievement, focusing on the routine of office work.

- September 12th. This games makes an argument about our response to terrorism.

- Hey Baby Game.  This game puts the player in the role of a woman who is continuously confronted by men hitting on her.  You get to shoot them.

- Lose/Lose. You and your students shouldn't actually play this game because it deletes files on your computer, but your students can watch the video to understand the procedural rhetoric of the game.

- Rhetorical Peaks. Created by the DWRL, this game presents students with a murder mystery and ultimately asks them to reflect on their own analytic and argumentative procedures.

In addition to reading Bogost and selecting a game, you might consider setting up a page for this activity on a class site/forum/wiki if you are using one. You can find the in-class activities I did with my students here and here.

All preparation before class will probably take 1-3 hours. In class, you will probably need to spend at least 10-15 minutes introducing procedural rhetoric to students and setting up the activity. Depending on the game (and perhaps allowing students to play a game multiple times), game play will take 10-30 minutes. I like to give students 10-15 minutes to write up their responses to the activity. Class discussion about the activity could last 10-30 minutes. So, the activity could be completed in 45 minutes but could also take upwards of 90 minutes.

Instructions For Students: 

Today, you will be playing a video game and analyzing its procedural rhetoric. As you play the game, you should keep the following questions in mind:

- What are the rules of the system?

- What is the significance of these rules (over other rules)?

- What claims about the world do these rules make?

- How do I respond to those claims?

[note to instructors: these questions come from Bogost]

Once you have finished the game or played it enough to understand its rules, write out your responses to these questions.

[note to instructors: it will be up to you to guide students to the game and to let them know where to write their responses]

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I have only used this activity in class as a way of helping students practice rhetorical analysis. Evaluation was based only on completion.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

My Writing in Digital Environments class had already played Rhetorical Peaks and discussed video games more generally, so they were not surprised to be analyzing games in class. Most students enjoyed the activity and were excited to realize and think through the ways that games can make arguments. Students who were already gamers were the main ones somewhat disappointed by the activity; they were less inclined to find these short and "serious" games enjoyable.

Additional Resources: 

It could be helpful to refer to Ian Bogost's site for more of his writings and some of the games he has designed. The DWRL's own Rhetorical Peaks takes a different approach to the question of procedural rhetoric by asking students to reflect on their own analytical and argumentative procedures.

Course Description: 

While digital technologies make available a range of tools that shape our physical interactions with the world in new ways, they also offer us new metaphors, new ways of talking about these interactions, and new ways of organizing ideas. To use a favorite term of twentieth-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke, these technologies make available new possibilities for identification. In the 2.0 world, we not only find new ways to identify and form communities with others; we also experience a shift in the process of self-identification and in the ways we define ourselves.

This class will explore a range of digital technologies and writing environments as well as the discourses surrounding them to give students a more thorough understanding of the ways that they have already begun to establish virtual identities and of new possibilities for digital identity formation. By exploring and participating in these technologies and discourses, we will hope to achieve the following course goals:

- Continue to develop rhetoric skills related to summary, analysis, and argumentation;
- Gain fluency in digital technologies and examine the ways that these tools shift our understandings of rhetoric and writing;
- Identify and participate in conversations surrounding writing in digital environments.

Total votes: 358
Rate this lesson plan