Blog Post

Occupy Enthymemes

(x-posted from my blog, Aporia: I do my seminar students' weekly blog assignment along with them)

I’m at the Renaissance Hotel in Seattle for #ir12, blasting Armin Van Buuren and trying to stay coherent. It’s been a long day.  So, this might not be the tightest of my Stealth Seminar posts.

This week, Ian Bogost‘s Persuasive Games.  It’s a hard book to write about: my dissertation argument is built on his notion of procedural rhetoric, as the grounds for being able to analogize from management of political issues in virtual spaces to management of larger-scale complex adaptive systems outside the virtual context. So, saying one thing about Bogost is hard.

Here goes. Bogost says that one of the rhetorical tools by which videogames persuade is the “enthymeme,” the syllogism with a missing piece that we fill in, in games by procedural interaction with the game.

Enthymemes are powerful shit, playing to both the logical and illogical natures of our cognition. I used to teach LSAT prep, and prelaw workshops: learning to spot and engage critically with enthymemes was one of the most extensive and challenging bits of my courses. When we fill in those blanks ourselves, typically utterly unconsciously, the missing statements of the syllogism are much more powerfully enforced than if we’d been told them explicitly. Training people to consistently spot and critically engage with them is hard.

Interestingly, gamers seem to be really good at engaging with enthymemes in games: while we didn’t use the terminology, in our undergrad class last semester we had the students play a game a week, and they were all over the rhetorical tools and shortcomings of the games. Getting them to be okay with critically interrogating academic texts in the same manner was a lot harder: they were products of an authoritarian public school system that discouraged that sort of thing. Games were more of an egalitarian medium for them.

Reading media coverage of the #OccupyEarth protests, I’m seeing the enthymeme process in action: the Occupy movements are offering an enthymeme. Critics see a missing premise of specific conventional political actions, and declare Occupy nonsense, as The Economist does this week (while recognizing the enthymeme structure, in an editorial entitled “The Inkblot Protests“), or supply nonsense-premises of their own as Nicholas Kristoff did in an unintentionally hilarious piece last week.

So, what would a procedural-rhetoric model of Occupy look like?

In our readings in the Stealth Seminar, we’ve looked a bit at (and will get more of later in the semester) the spoilsport/cheat/player distinction, first drawn kind of sloppily by Johan Huizinga. Where the cheat is passionately engaged with the rules of the game, but just breaks them, the spoilsport mocks or attempts to negate those rules. Griefing/trolling is textbook spoilsport behavior, denying participant “seriousness,” or adhesion to the rules.

There’s another sort of behavior with regard to rules, that Raph Koster discusses at length in A Theory of Fun, but that doesn’t, I don’t think, have a clear label. It comes up in his discussion of tic-tac-toe: this is a stupid game, and there’s nothing to learn by continuing to play it.

That’s where mainstream critics like The Economist, mainstream supporters like Kristoff, and reformists everywhere go wrong, along with rainy-day players of classic board games. Yeah, you can tinker with the rules of Monopoly (less so if you’ve got one of the new damn electronic-ATM versions), but it’s still a boring and unfair game. Go play something else.

State corporatism is a boring and unfair game, and tinkering with the ruleset isn’t going to change that.

It’s time to go play something else.

I think that’s the elided premise of Occupy’s syllogism.

So what’s the procedural-rhetorical version of Occupy?

Put Monopoly away. Go play something fair and fun.

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