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Prototyping Procedural Rhetoric

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Atari joystick
Image Credit: 

Scott Nelson

Brief Assignment Overview: 

Using procedural, verbal, visual and aural rhetoric, students work in teams on a multimedia presentation that outlines a video game prototype and the ways it makes arguments. While this lesson plan was designed for a course centered on video games and the arguments they make, it can be adapted to any 309K topic if the instructor is willing to discuss procedural rhetoric with students. Additionally, the lesson plan outlined here is the "Cadillac" version, in that it uses multimedia to present the procedural arguments students devise. A simpler version with pen and paper can be used instead, where students storyboard a video game and its procedures.

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

The goals for this lesson is to have students think about multiple modes of communication and the affordances and constraints of each mode when arguing. By the end of the lesson, students should leverage verbal, visual, aural, and procedural rhetoric to argue their case for making their video game.

Required Materials: 

computers, various multimedia authoring software (e.g., Photoshop, Audactiy, Camtasia, Illustrator, Flash, Game Salad, etc.)

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Unit 3 will work toward a concept of a single video game produced by you in groups. You will work in groups to design a game that puts forth an argument about the world. Topics will vary with your interests, but research will be necessary to discover the background of the issue and to be able to mount your own procedural arguments. In addition to why your argument is important and the right course of action to take, you'll need to outline the basic plot of the game (if there is one), the characters (if there are any), and most importantly, how the procedures enacted in the game make the argument you say they do.

This project will proceed through two stages:

Stage 1:

Your group will research and write a classical argument on a topic of your group's choosing (within reason). In writing this paper, you should go beyond public web research and pay attention to classical appeals. This paper should have a real target audience and the argument should be tailored to them. You are encouraged to use supplementary digital media, but it is not required at this stage. Use all available means to you: books in UT's libraries, articles in the private databases, government documents, UT's video game archive, interviews, etc. Your group should keep a working annotated bibliography of the sources you research, and this bibliography can be used as a Learning Record work sample.


Stage 2:

Your group will craft a proposal and presentation for a socially conscious video game development company. Working from your Stage 1 deliverable, you will proceduralize the reasons from your argument into actions taken within a video game. Your group will then present a digital media "pitch" to a development company about why this argument is important and what the game would be like.



Stage 1:

Your initial argument should be between 1500 to 2200 words. Include any necessary digital media you believe adds to the focus of your paper. Be sure to indicate at the top of your paper who your audience is. All of your citations within the paper should be done in MLA format, and you should include a Works Cited. If you feel some other format beyond a Word document would be better to present this deliverable, run it by me first, and we can work something out.


Stage 2 (group):

1. A digital media presentation given by your group to a philanthropically-minded video game development company. That is, you don't have to sell them on the idea that games can persuade, but you do have to convince them that your argument is important and it can be argued procedurally. The presentation should last approximately 20 minutes (Also, be prepared for about 10 minutes of questions afterward.), and should incorporate some form of digital media. For example, you could create a short film, a machinima using an existing game platform, an animation or animatic using Flash, static image promotional materials using Photoshop, remixed sounds & music, or even a working prototype using Game Salad. Remember that the digital media must be rhetorically constructed. If your group is having trouble coming up with your presentation format, schedule a meeting time with me and I can give you some ideas. I'm not looking for prowess with a particular program. You're encouraged to step outside your comfort zone with regard to digital media production programs, and as such, I'm looking for professionalism, not a professional-quality product.  

2. A proposal that explains your game and its argument (with digital media supplements as necessary). We will cover the parts of a proposal in class, and you should use your Stage 1 deliverable as your Background section (with some tweaking). Think of this proposal as a document for board members who couldn't attend your presentation; it ties together all of your digital media artifacts in your presentation for those who couldn't be there. This document is also important for submitting your project to the Journal for Undergraduate Media Projects (see below), as it will contextualize your digital media artifacts.

3. A brief (one paragraph per group member) email to me evaluating your group members' performance throughout the project.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Since this lesson plan is fairly involved and takes up one paper unit, some preparation is necessary. Students will need to be familiar with procedural rhetoric beforehand, and for maximum effect, it would help to go over basic principles of visual and aural rhetoric as well. Matt King has outlined an excellent lesson plan for analyzing the procedural rhetorics of Serious Games, and I implemented a similar lesson plan in a prior unit to accustom students to the procedural rhetoric used by others. It is important that students understand the concept of procedural enthymemes, outlined in Ian Bogost's Persuasive Game: The Expressive Value of Video Games. The first chapter of the book can be found on the MIT press website.

 For basic training in multimedia authoring, the Web has a variety of free tutorials to instruct you and your students. I hold three multimedia authoring workshops, each designed as a elementary overview to Photoshop, Audacity, and Camtasia. For Photoshop, I show students You Suck at Photoshop, a tongue-in-cheek tutorial series covering basic layers, masks, cropping, cutting and photomontaging. Audacity's website has a list of tutorials for getting started with the program, and TechSmith provides excellent tutorials for Camtasia, most of which can be accessed through the program's interface on demand.

My aim in having students create multimedia is to get them used to some of these programs' graphical user interfaces, the metaphors of which get repeated across different programs. If you feel this step is too involved, the lesson plan can be implemented using pen and paper is less time (about 1-2 class periods). Creating multimedia artifacts seems to get the students more invested in the project, but the major aims of the lesson plan can be achieved through just having students think about procedural rhetoric and how to create procedural arguments.

Prior to this lesson plan, students wrote a standard classical argument to an audience of their choice. Since I'm having students create multimedia (which is a time-intensive endeavor), each group turned in one paper that was researched and written collaboratively. If you choose to not have them create multimedia, then a possible alternative would be to have students read each others' final arguments in small groups, and then each group chooses one argument to proceduralize.

Instructions For Students: 

Unit 3 will work toward a concept of a single video game produced by you in groups.

A philanthropic organization has agreed to meet with you about funding your Serious Game. You are tasked with creating a multimedia presentation for this organization that argues why your game is important for the audience you chose, and how you plan to proceduralize this argument into a video game.

The presentation should last approximately 15-20 minutes, and should incorporate some form of digital media. For example, you could create a short film, a machinima using an existing game platform, static image promotional materials using Photoshop, remixed sounds & music, or even a working prototype. If your group is having trouble coming up with your presentation format, schedule a meeting time with me and I can give you some ideas. Outstanding presentations will be submitted to the Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects, a peer-reviewed online journal.

Pay close attention to the rhetorical choices you make in creating your multimedia artifacts. How does the use of jump cuts in your video juxtapose two ideas? How does the addition of music to a scene argue for a particular interpretation? How do the visual elements of your game cover work together to argue your point?

The most important part of this assignment, however, is the procedures you use to enact your argument. To proceduralize your argument, you'll need to think of both the reasons you have for your thesis being the way to think or what to do, and the assumptions your audience already holds about the topic. Think of the "gap" in a procedural enthymeme, the logical step you have players enact. What will your video game ask the player to do? How can these actions argue either implicitly or explicitly for your thesis?

Note: if you choose the non-multimedia route, I would suggest revising the multimedia paragraphs to outline a deliverable of storyboard sketches and text.

Evaluation Suggestions: 

Since I use the Learning Record Online for evaluation, this assignment was not graded. However, the processes students used in participating in this project can be used in their Learning Record assessment. In addition to the various documentation of their process, I require each student to submit an evaluation of their group's work. Both the documentation and their group's assessment can be used in the Learning Record.

Were I to use this in a "traditional" assessment course, I would most likely assign a completion grade. If students focus too much on the product, I believe it could stunt some of their personal growth. For example, if the assignment had an evaluation at the end, some students may be more inclined to stick with what they know and not branch out into using other programs for multimedia authorship. The quality of the final product is not what's important here (as this isn't a course in how to use Photoshop professionally), but instead the processes they used to collaborate and proceduralize arguments.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

So far, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to this project. Students have pushed the boundaries of the assignment, opting for multimedia authoring tools not covered in the class and investing themselves in creating fascinating games. One group decided to use the game Little Big Planet, not as a platform for their game, but instead as a presentation platform (something I might look into in further lesson plans), while another is using the program Game Salad to prototype their game. The goals of getting students immersed in a project and thinking creatively about multimedia authoring seem to have been met.

I approached the multimedia component as studio work, where students learn basic principles from the workshops, but are free to develop other skills and teach them to the rest of the class (myself included). I believe this freedom led to much of the innovative work on the students' part.

Were I to change anything in the lesson plan, it would probably be the amount of time needed to complete it. I, personally, am interested in multimodal scholarship, but would also like to see how the "pared down" version of this lesson plan would pan out. Is it the multimedia that is engrossing students, or the prototyping of the game?

Course Description: 

This course seeks to explore video games as a moderndiscursive medium. Far from being mere “mindless entertainment,” many videogames make explicit or implicit arguments about gender and sexuality, economicsystems, corporate practices, geopolitics, and both real and imaginedsocieties. What arguments do these simulations and simulacra mount about howthe world is? What arguments do they mount about how the world should be?

Much of the past and current study of digital rhetoric seemsto look at the content of computers through applying older means ofrhetorical analysis, looking at the text and images contained on computersrather than the processes through which this content is represented. What weseek to explore is a relatively new field—procedural rhetoric—and the ways thisnew field can inform video game criticism. How do the procedures inherent invideo games make arguments about the world?

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