The Flourish

Curator's Note

Debates rage about the social and political functions of videogames. Videogames allow us to enter the bodies and minds of virtual others, explore worlds that exist only in the imagination, and do things well outside the bounds of our own abilities and freedoms. Many of the repercussions of these simulative activities are unknown quantities. We know that games are a peerless teaching activity, but it’s unclear whether they’re able to teach anything other than how they are to be played.

I research what’s called procedural rhetoric. Briefly, it’s the study of expression and persuasion through rules alone. This field of inquiry finds a comfortable home in the current state of game studies and development: For the first time in history (it began sooner if you count Fluxus), we are beginning to consider the designers of games to be artists, and procedural rhetoric is the purest expression of that art. This is the study of games divorced from their original form, as folk traditions and sports without easily identifiable creators. What does procedural rhetoric have to say about sports?

Sports bring groups of people together into simulated conflict predicated on a voluntary, peaceful acquiescence to a set of arbitrary rules. At the most basic level, the procedural rhetoric of a sport is fairness. In the case of videogames, we refer to this as a game’s balance. It means that, no matter what character or weapon build you pick, you have a fighting chance. Something fun about the rhetoric of fairness is that it’s also the driving rhetoric of capitalism and of democracy. We know, from experience with the latter social structures, that this fairness is built upon innumerable ideologies.

The interesting thing about a “fair” system isn’t its creator’s expressive goal. It’s what people do to game that system: to figure out how it’s broken, to exploit its cracks and assumptions, and to thus change how, from that point forward, everyone else has to think about navigating that system. This is how sports developed and evolved before there were game designers. And it’s how competitive videogames, or e-sports, change in the hands of their players away from their original designs. Somebody finds an “unbeatable” strategy or innovative tactic, and an entire community of players scramble to even the odds for themselves.

We call a game a sport when we begin to recognize its players, not its designers, as artists. The fairness of sports, like the fairness of any other designed system, only holds true assuming the equality of its participants. This fairness is an illusion that we hold simply for the pleasure of seeing it shattered. And we call this shattering a flourish.

Tokido becomes Akuma, an alternate reality mind game.


Nice post, Simon. Your idea of the rhetoric of fairness is an intriguing one, and one with ancient origins as I'm sure you know. From the pre-Socratics forward, there has been considerable discussion--and eventually antipathy--about whether or not rhetoric itself could ever be fair. In Plato's dialogues--Phaedrus, Gorgias, Timaeus, Sophist, Republic, particularly--this concern is ever-present, an anxiety that has (understandably) stuck in the craw of philosophers and rhetoricians ever since. No less than Augustine, Ramus, Bacon, Locke, Erasmus, Hume, Milton, Burke, Hobbes, Barthes, Derrida, McLuhan, and Foucault, have written about this matter from one angle or another.

Given this complex history, and your invocation of democracy and capitalism, I'm struck by the layers of fairness rhetorics that compete and co-exist, most of which are actually unknown to people. These are perhaps the "innumerable ideologies" to which you refer. 

Democracy and capitalism, for example, are full of "flourishes" that ultimately contradict their manifest rhetorics: democracy is all about equal rights and equal voices in the governance of the people...except for non-citizens (and even some citizens) who are systematically excluded and even exploited; capitalism is all about equal opportunity for success in the free market...except that without the exploitation of cheap labor in perpetuity (i.e., people who are forced to literally earn their living and are actively denied access to the marketplace except as embodied means of production), the system would collapse.

You write that "This fairness is an illusion that we hold simply for the pleasure of seeing it shattered." I agree--within the realm of actual games like Street Fighter, at least, though less so in the metaphorical game of life. One interesting (and potentially troubling) issue with both of these contexts is that few people are Tokidos, Umeharas, or ClakeyDs, that is, few people actually know the rules well enough to exploit them.

So what might we call a rhetoric that has rules that--if they are even known--change unpredictably? Is it still procedural? In the old days, they called it "dialectic" and it was set in opposition to (or in friendlier environs, partnered with) rhetoric.

Another way to ask the question: Is it still a game--and is the rhetoric of fairness still engaged--if people don't know they're playing?


Thank you for helping me puzzle some of this out! Indeed, this post was shaped significantly by my introductory adventures into reading up on the philosophy of sport. One of the things that poked out at me was what I saw as something that belonged more to sociology than philosophy (which is fine, since both seem to share an equal claim to modern critical theory): I was reading about problems of access in the history of sports, and that's what led me to the democracy and capitalism metaphor. Just as basketball is only fair assuming the equal height (among other metrics) of its players, Street Fighter is only fair assuming an equal understanding of frame sizes and lengths, which, of course, is never true.

One bit that didn't make it in here was a question about the ancients' view of the connection between sport and character. When I was a philosophy student, I remember reading a lot about virtue, but comparatively little about virtue in sports. Yet, from the couple of glosses I did, it appeared that the ancients always assumed that the "character" honed by sport was a virtuous one. Which, of course, Tokido, as a cocky and dirty character, seems to contradict. Yet I appreciate his sportsmanship no less. (If I could post five videos, I'd have picked Tokido's disgusting, brutal subjugation of the entire US team at EVO 2002 in the 3s unblockables matches).

This idea of incorporating dialectic into the study of procedural rhetoric is something I've been interested in for awhile. For my master's thesis, my primary problem with Bogost's version of procedural rhetoric, at least as it's presented in Persuasive Games, is his focus on Aristotle's enthymeme. Instead of saying that a game's rhetoric manifests as a dialectic between a ruleset and a player's personal value system (which is what I wanted to argue), he basically wants to optimize a rule system so that the player only fills in blanks as predicted by the designer (and that's because he's interested in persuasion as much as, if not more than, expression).

Now, as for the biggest problem you raise: I wanted to make this metaphor here, between "fair" sports and "fair" civic systems, to see exactly how far I could separate aesthetic appreciation from civic duty, ethics, &c. We can look at two recent examples of gaming these systems: Bernie Madoff and Julian Assange. Now, most people who want democracy to remain "fair" are huge supporters of Assange and what he's doing. His flourish, his seizure of this information and multiple plans to disseminate it, is appreciated both aesthetically and civically. Madoff, on the other hand, is supported by very few people who want capitalism to remain "fair." Yet, do we deny that his actions are aesthetically appreciable? I know quite a few game designers and academics who love reading about Ponzi schemes and other sorts of cheating, cheapskating, and spoilsporting.

So, that's the issue when you extend metaphors from sport or game design to the real world. I can celebrate cheaters aesthetically without necessarily being compromised morally. I've not yet been convinced by anything I've read about games being ethical or complicit systems. All I see is aesthetics; perhaps that's just me, because I spent so long studying ethics that I could never take an explicit ethical system in a game seriously, nor has one ever inspired me to "reflect ethically" (as Sicart suggests). What does inspire this ethical reflection in me, though, is when I make metaphors between game worlds and the real world, then converse about it to see if I might have been wrong (like we're doing right now).

It's the plight of the war photographer. Maybe it's wrong to aesthetically appreciate cheating or simulated violence to a fair system. But it's a far cry from, say, something scary like Italian futurism. As long as you don't confuse civics and aesthetics, as long as you're just constantly asking questions and doubting yourself, that's a good position for a game critic to be in, in my opinion.

While I was reading your piece, I recalled two pieces of writing that are significant to one of the points you are making: that of game play.

(Actually, if you allow a slight diversion, this is not that far off from the main point of Lawrence Lessig's book CODE: AND OTHER LAWS OF CYBERSPACE, which argues that the programs dictate the constructs of a digital world.)

The first piece that I reference often, which delves quite deeply into the interactions of people in virtual environments, is Richard Bartle's Taxonomy of Players. The piece explains how designers can influence the 4 types of player behavior by through various means (e.g. setting up rules that encourage positive behaviors). 

The second is Julian Dibbell's "A Rape in Cyberspace," which examines these issues of fairness. In particular, this raises in a serious way whether "fairness" as we know it exists in cyberspace as it does in flesh-space. 

I'm interested to hear how you view these pieces in terms of your work. other thought I have is that Dibbell's piece would look different today -- in some ways -- because we have moved from an Avatar World into a Facebook World. Instead of creating personas online we now use our real identities, which I assume (I use that word knowing what's coming) would change our perception of what happens to us in virtual worlds. (e.g. somebody is attacking ME personally and not my DIGITAL PERSONA.)



All three authors you mention are tremendous influences on my writing on procedural rhetoric (not in this piece pe se, though). Some of the first people I knew who got really into the idea of procedural rhetoric were law students, and they visited Georgia Tech to audit Ian's classes while contemplating research into the connection between his writing and Lessig's.

Dibbell's my tiny life, a series of essays beginning with the most famous "Rape In Cyberspace" piece, is still something that I don't think any of the writers (that I've had time to read) on later MMOs has captured, except maybe T.L. Taylor. The book goes on detail the aftermath of Mr. Bungle's rape, attempting to form a body of law for the community that would insure personal freedoms while preventing behavior similar to Bungle's. It's a wonderful, rare contemporary text on the formation of law from a first-person experiential POV.

T.L. Taylor has a piece about how different social tensions and structures arise between U.S. and E.U World of Warcraft servers. This has always been what interested me in the game--I noticed early on that little things would be different whenever I visited other servers. Mostly it manifested as looting and DKP rules. The first server I played on, everybody used Blizzard's built in dice-roll mechanic. On the second server, everybody passed on loot and then rolled through the text communication interface. I got chewed out massively the first time I ran on instance on that second server, because, by the communal laws of that server, I was acting like a "loot ninja."

And the great thing about these rules is that they aren't enforced from top-down. Through some stroke of insane emergence, different people playing on materially identical servers came up with different rules to control the distribution of loot. And there are thousands of examples of this kind of thing. I think this is what Ken is getting at when he talks about "layers of fairness" in civic systems. One weakness of most writing on procedural rhetoric is that, for the sake of clarity (and maybe sanity), it tries to boil a game down to the lowest level rhetoric--like I did with this piece. But, of course, there are multiple layers of rhetoric, procedural, spatial, personal value-based, cultural. It was one of my goals in my master's thesis to begin unravelling them (for instance, using Dibbell and Bartle/Yee to expand on Gee's idea of the projective identity), but I'm certainly not there yet (as attested by the fact that I haven't yet broken up and published my thesis in journals, which I really need to get around to doing).

This thing about the avatar world transitioning into the Facebook world is difficult for me to judge right now. I've played some Facebook games (I even made one during an internship), and I utilized the social features, but I'm still far from understanding how these communities work, let alone being able to think meaningfully on the possibility of doing violence to others in these things.

I'm inclined to fall back on Gee here and say that this is something of a false problem. He was keen to establish that there's a projective identity in between our "real" and "virtual" identities. When we do something morally wrong in a game, it's not the virtual or real identities that are compromised, but the projective identity. It's the space where we place our real identity's aspirations for the virtual identity that we have incomplete control over. And I think the relationship between real identity and avatar and real identity and Facebook identity is more alike that we might think. My online personality is wildly different in different digital social contexts, even though all of them bear my full name. So it's hard to say what would be suffering violence or disappointment. It certainly wouldn't be my real identity.

Thanks for the thought-provoking questions, and I apologize if these answers aren't fully satisfactory!

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