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Using Games to Teach Procedural Rhetoric

Using Games to Teach Procedural Rhetoric

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dr. Pavel Zemliansky at North Carolina State University about using video games to teach procedural rhetoric. Dr. Zemliansky is an associate professor at James Madison University and co-edits the online open-source textbook Writing Spaces.

Traditional rhetoric is a one way, sender-receiver form of rhetoric (think “I have a Dream”). However, with new digital media (social networks, online collaborative learning, etc) a procedural form of rhetoric has become more and more of a norm as a method of persuasive expression. Procedural rhetoric involves moving an audience towards certain actions through procedural allowances and restrictions in a certain environment (think systems and processes). Dr. Zemliansky described four sources of procedural rhetoric:

  1. traditional rhetoric—procedural rhetoric, like traditional rhetoric, includes an exigence, audience, and constraints and utilizes the three traditional rhetorical appeals (logos, ethos, pathos)

  2. visual rhetoric—images present fragmented arguments which evoke certain attitudes and actions

  3. digital rhetoric—transforming traditional, text-based rhetoric into a digital medium

  4. cultural and societal context

Video games provide a convenient example of procedural rhetoric because they force the audience into a clear set of allowances and constraints determined by the programming. The audience is forced to base their decisions on these allowances and constraints.

The main goal of Dr. Zemliansky's talk was to show how video games could be used to teach procedural rhetoric in the college classroom. This strategy, I think, provides a great way to incorporate active learning and greatly increase student motivation. Students can play a video game, then reflect on the mediated communication and persuasion that occurred. How are the students' attitudes changed after playing the game? How and why do they change? What pathos (emotion) does the game evoke? What logos (reason)? Ethos (character)? I remember my brothers (who were always way more into gaming than myself) purchasing guides for “cheat codes” to every video game they played. These guides would reveal secrets about tricking the code in order to perform restricted actions in the game. This may lead one to question how manipulative actions like these influence the rhetorical message of the game. To what extent is the user “manipulated”? To what extent can the user manipulate? How does this process again change the attitudes of the user as well as the message of the game?

Dr. Zemliansky provided a couple examples of video games that have been used in this teaching strategy, Peacemaker, and the McDonald's Game. Peacemaker is a video game project started by a group of Carnegie Mellon students, who wanted to explore how a video game can change cultural attitudes about war and peace. Watch a great video about Peacemaker here.

The McDonald's Game is another (free!) example of a video game that was developed specifically to push forth a rhetorical argument. The website for the game states their goal is to bring to the fore all the social, political, and environmental processes at work in creating your McDonald's hamburger. Users must grow soy, raise cows, butcher cows, and manage a restaurant.


And if you go bankrupt in the process (like me), you are scolded by the man himself, Ronald McDonald.


I have not experimented with this teaching strategy yet, nor do I self-identify as a gamer, so I am curious to hear from those of you who have more experience in gaming—do you think this would be an effective way to teach? I know that in visual rhetoric, there is a huge debate of whether or not images can argue. Do you think video games can argue?



Hi Molly!

It sounds like what you got was a retelling of Ian Bogost's book Persuasive Games: the terminology and examples come from Bogost, who's a pioneer in thinking about and teaching the subject. You may want to look at his book, which is quite good, and the material on his website.

I've just finished teaching a fat block of procedural rhetoric in my "Games and Culture" senior/graduate seminar this semester: it was a very easy set of concepts to teach to students with a background in gaming. They saw the application of the theory immediately, and enjoyed being able to bring theoretical depth to their own experience.

Here's what I blogged about teaching the material before:

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.

Whether the material would work as well in the converse, teaching games-as-rhetoric to rhetorictians who aren't gamers, is another matter, but I think it could be done effectively.

Happy to talk further about this stuff if you'd like!


Thanks for the relpy John. Yes, I think Dr. Zemliansky's talk was mostly based on Bogost's work. I will definitly check out the book. I'm glad to hear from someone who has used a strategy like this with success.