Narrative Rhetoric and Procedural Rhetoric

“The specific purpose of this post,” explains Jordan Shapiro near the end of his brilliant article about the two planes of rhetoric in videogames, “is to say something about both games and schools.”

School.  Source

School. Source

His post made me understand my own project a little better. Although good thinking and writing about games is filtering through to the mainstream more and more, it almost always comes with a spoonful of sugar in the form of a social lesson or entrepreneurial tip. That fact niggles in two small ways. First, the implication is that discussing games cannot be valued in its own right — it must be attached to something of real value. Second, I know from discussing these types of article with non-gamers that the sugar is gobbled up and the medicine ignored. The messages about games don’t make it through.

9pp is a little fantasy world where everything can just be about games for games’ sake, with no payoff in the real world whatsoever. My work will never be sabotaged by a gross, parent-baiting headline about “The Hidden Moral Messages In Video Games” (and the other side of that coin is I certainly don’t have to worry about having any readers).

So here’s a digest of Shapiro’s article in which I demote the good and interesting message about schools to a mere example that explains the equally good and interesting message about games.


Jordan Shapiro’s exposition digested by a gamer

There are two forms of rhetoric in games: narrative and procedural. Narrative rhetoric is just “the same laws of persuasion that Plato described”. Procedural rhetoric is the values inherent in a system of actions and rewards. Videogames are interactive systems, and so express procedural rhetoric. To help explain that, consider a more familiar (for some) interactive system: school.

The narrative rhetoric around school is that being a good, compassionate person counts most. Shapiro provides evidence to back this up in the form of surveys of teachers and parents. However, the procedural rhetoric around school is different. Which actions are rewarded? Which traits lead to progression in the system? “Sitting still in rows” and other “behaviours associated with listening, retention, and perseverance”. (Evidence provided: this time surveys of kids.)

And that’s how it is in games. There’s a narrative metaphor saying one thing, and a system saying something else. Schools show us how when those two planes of rhetoric aren’t aligned, there’s a confusion of purpose. The full rhetorical power of that interactive construct has not been tapped. There lies the route to better videogames.


And what that gamer thinks

Shapiro’s opening to the whole article is, with my emphasis, “Things get confusing when thinking about video games because the narrative content and the mechanics are rarely aligned”.

I think (-slash-hope) that the typical and accidental misalignment of system and metaphor will turn out to be the defining characteristic of this era of videogames. The era considered as such probably began as technology advanced and non-abstract, narrative-driven metaphors became normal and expected. I guess that means we were certainly here by the time we got to Playstation. The era will end once the deliberate and inventive alignment of system and metaphor is normal and expected.

Maybe when we get to that point, games will be discussed in mainstream publications without any sweetening. Maybe games will even be the sugar to help the schools go down.


(Check out my browse page for more articles like this one.)



Photographer and writer covering Tokyo arcade life – the videogames, the metropolis and the people