Composing games: an object-oriented approach #cwcon

Here is the text of my presentation from Computers and Writing for those who requested it (and those who didn't).

Ian Bogost has a piece on Gamasutura taking on one of his favored targets, gamification. It grabbed the attention of the WPA list (mostly because he starts out talking about his experience at 4C's this year) but was also picked up on sites like the Wall Street Journal.  Essentially the objection to gamification is that takes superficial features of games (e.g. points, badges, leveling-up, etc.) and somehow misidentifies them as the games themselves. So, for example, I could "gamify" a composition course by giving students "points" for every "challenge" (i.e. assignment) they completed and when they earned enough points they could "level up" (get a better grade).

Of course, there are games that suck and so there can be poorly "gamified" courses, like the one I just described. However Bogost’s criticism of gamification is that it generally represents this kind of superficial engagement with gaming, and that ultimately it's just vaporware. It's a marketing ploy, a way to get a bunch of executives to pay big money to some consultants or to attend some gamification seminar. Bogost spends much of the article exploring why the term gamification is so rhetorically effective and how we might oppose it. In short, gamification reflects a kind of superficial engagement with gaming. It's a largely empty gesture that tries to show that one is keeping up or in touch with the kids or whatever without really taking up the deeper lessons that games can offer us. That said, while gamification may be superficial, that doesn't mean there aren't other ways to investigate and take up games in learning. As Bogost writes,

for gamification proponents, the idea that adding points and incentives to things fails to engage the power of games as interactive systems is … nonsensical. Doing that would be hard. It would require changing the practices of entire industries. It would take time and effort. That's not what marketers and educators and politicians and executives want. They want easy answers and fast results.


I'm thinking about this in similar terms, and in some respects it is not so different from the challenges composition continues to face with social media, mobile technologies, and such. We embrace these things on a superficial level (e.g. post your papers on a wiki instead of handing them to me), without exploring the interactive systems that operate. Even if we take it one step further and create assignments that leverage the affordances of a technology (e.g. having students keep a blog over the course of a semester), we are still likely conserving our ideas about what writing is and how it works. I've been blogging for years and I can say quite confidently that writing doesn't work the same way on a blog as it does in your word processor. Yes there are many things that are similar, but if you've struggled to keep a blog while still being able to be successful writing elsewhere then you should realize that blogging is different. To really take up social media composing one would have to adapt one's understanding of writing itself to incorporate the interactive systems one finds there. Not because blogs are better or wikis are the future, but quite simply because they are writing and if your theory/practice of writing doesn't account for them then there's something wrong with your theory/practice, right?

But I've digressed into a lengthy analogy there. Let's return to games. If we want to think on this deepest level about games, I think we can come at it from two directions. The first is in terms of rhetoric and composition; the second is in terms of pedagogy. As Bogost's procedural rhetoric suggests, games can seek to persuade through their procedures: the design of the game play, the rules of the game, the choices the game allows you to make, and so on. One example Bogost discusses is SimCity, a fairly popular and familiar game, and also one I've played so it works well as an example for me. SimCity offers an argument about how to build a thriving city. It demonstrates the impact of taxation, providing education and other civic services, building parks and museums, public transport and so on. Now perhaps SimCity is making an explicit political argument in its design. Certainly one could easily imagine how the procedures of the game could be tweaked to support a liberal or conservative argument about taxation. At the same time the game has some obligation to reality or at least the game player’s perception of reality, for example the relationships between police and safety, schools and education, public transportation and traffic. So at the very least we might imagine some implicit ideology at work.  However, there’s another key factor at work: the playability of the game. In designing a successful game like SimCity one clearly has to consider how many variables a player can handle. There is a balance to be struck between realism and playability. In Persuasive Games, Bogost's examples all deal with clearly intentional attempts at persuasion: politics, advertising, and education. The obvious educational example would be a flight simulator. However, in our field the educational objectives are not as easily parsed in gaming terms. Whether one wants to imagine a game that one would play within a composition classroom, to learn about audience awareness for example, or to recast composition instruction in its entirety through the lens of game theory and design, one of the fundamental hurdles one encounters is the link between the gaming experience and a specific message.

My interest is in thinking more expansively about this procedurality to places where intentionality is dimmed. If we can imagine compositional processes, then we can start to think about their procedural rhetoric as well. I view such processes in terms of Latour and DeLanda, so I am thinking about the actor-network that participates in the procedure of this presetations's composition. I am thinking about the assemblage that is at work right now, de/re/territorializing this presentation. And I am thinking about the distributed rhetorical procedure of thinking. 

To do this I need to loop back briefly through some of the material on my blog and which I addressed in my C’s talk in Atlanta.  In taking up Latour and DeLanda, as well as Bogost, I have been moving toward an object-oriented rhetoric. For a few folks here, this might be a recognizable term, but I imagine for most it is not. 

An object-oriented rhetoric is an effort to explore the rhetorical dimensions and implications of an emerging philosophical position, object-oriented ontology, which in turn is part of a larger movement termed speculative realism. I won’t have time to do these concepts full justice in my presentation, but I will lay out some fundamental elements. Speculative realism is a response to what French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has termed the correlationist perspective that dominated twentieth century thinking, which we might think of as “philosophies of access.” These philosophies essentially argue that we are inescapably caged within thought and/or language to the extent that a knowledge or access to a world independent of our own thinking is not possible. It is a philosophical position that is, I think, quite familiar to our field and the humanities and is perhaps even paradigmatic, a largely unspoken assumption or shared belief. Speculative realists respond to correlationism in a variety of ways. Object-oriented ontology, spearheaded by the philosopher Graham Harman, argues that the condition that correlationism describes is not one that is a special case for humans. Instead, he argues, drawing on Heidegger and others, that all objects withdraw from one another and thus are fundamentally unknowable. This would be the first principle of object-oriented ontology, and I will add two more key principles: First, objects exist independent of relations, as such they need not enter into relations and the relations they have do not exhaust their being. Second, following upon that, objects exist in a flat ontology, meaning that there is no hierarchy of objects where one is dependent upon another: all objects are equally real. That is, Popeye, a quark, and a sandwich are all equally real and exist as objects independent of one another. 

I will be happy to address some of the nuances of these matters later, but I am just going to move forward from that brief accounting. Though in OOO, relations are not necessary for being, one might argue, as I do, that relations are necessary for cognition and agency. As I discussed at C’s, if one moves rhetoric beyond the correlationist frame, which would limit it to human thought and symbolic action, one begins to speculate on what the limits of rhetoric might be.  I have suggested that rhetoric is, at its root, a study of relation, and that the minimal rhetorical relation among objects would be one that was productive of cognition or agency. Perhaps this begs the question of how one defines cognition and agency. I won’t attempt to resolve that in the next five minutes but rather suggest that this is one of the interesting avenues open for the object-oriented rhetorician to investigate. 

I will say that when we begin to view thought and action as emerging from relations, from a network, that we significantly, and I think productively, reframe some of the quagmires of postmodern thinking, particularly around agency.  To return back to the topic of video games then, to put it in the most straightforward of terms, we must consider how the relations we enter into with others (human and otherwise) through a game’s procedures result in thinking and agency. No one, by the way, should mistake these procedures as deterministic. Relations are far too dynamic and singular for determinism and can never exhaust our being. Nevertheless, it is certainly possibly to investigate these relations, theorize them, and experiment with them.

So that's one angle.

The second angle, as promised, relates to education. And here’s one of the ironies of this situation. As rhetoricians, and presumably as humans, we don’t want games, or any other relations, to be deterministic. As a principle, we would probably say that we desire relations that expand agency and thought rather than restricting it. Yet, much of the history of rhetoric, especially as it has been taught, has worked in the opposite direction: to emphasize clarity and strengthen persuasion in order to have a determinable effect upon one’s audience. As I think the history of the field of cybernetics has demonstrated, there’s a complex relationship among information, communication, agency, and thought. In this mix, pedagogy seeks to operate cybernetically, to steer students toward a predetermined set of learning objectives and experiences. Hence, when we turn toward educational or serious gaming, there is a desire to make the gaming experience deterministic, to result in the learning of specific knowledge and/or skills. 

Here we can return to Bogost's point about the desire for quick fixes and not making real changes to industries, like higher ed.  In my 4C's presentation last month,  I discussed the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, specifically in relation to flow, which is a subject of great interest to game designers and game studies. Briefly, flow is a psychological state in which we find ourselves fully engaged, succeeding by pushing ourselves to the limits of our ability. We find games engaging when they ride a crest between challenge and success. Too hard and it's frustrating. Too easy and it's boring. Good games give us the experience of achievement, even if that achievement often has little material consequence outside the game itself. Furthermore, games give us a way of socializing and strengthening relationships and community. These are things we all probably already know from our own experiences with games, and now they are being borne out by cognitive research and such. The result is that gamers develop a strong sense of intrinsic motivation toward gameplay. And I believe it is really that sense of intrinsic motivation that we are seeking to develop in our pedagogy when we turn toward games.

Unfortunately, gamification, at least in its standard forms, ignores the fundamental qualities of games that produce intrinsic motivation and instead gives us only the superficial, extrinsic motivations of points and such. Psychological research demonstrates that extrinsic motivation, carrots and sticks, work quite well for certain kinds of rote activities. So you can pay your kids to do chores around the house. Furthermore, some baseline level of extrinsic reward is often necessary to ensure good work. That is, employees will often not perform well if they believe their pay is unjustly low. However, once one passes a certain baseline level of extrinsic reward and moves into more complex activities, particularly ones, like writing, that require creativity, extrinsic rewards can actually have a negative impact on motivation. So the extrinsic rewards that typify gamification might work effectively for certain rote activities in a classroom, but they will have little impact on the core task of discovering an intrinsic motivation for writing. 

To truly turn a composition classroom into a game would require significant rethinking of the industry, which perhaps is warranted. It would mean shifting the relations among students and teachers. To a degree, it would mean developing a new ethos for pedagogy. Specifically, it would require a willingness on the parts of both students and teachers to take on what Bernard Suits terms "unnecessary obstacles." Unnecessary obstacles are integral to games. It's why you can't just take the golf ball and drop it in the whole. It's why you play the game in the first place. It is rarely necessary to play a game. This is largely counter to the practices of the composition classroom, where for the most part we are engaged in pursuing a rational and direct route toward producing a finished composition. Games, at least on the surface, do not appear especially efficient, especially if we are only measuring cost and benefit in terms of extrinsic rewards.

Are we willing to spend time playing the workshop game or the revision game rather than just workshopping or revising? In some obvious way, the workshop game will make workshopping more difficult and time consuming, but it might potentially make the experience more engaging, but only if we accept those unnecessary obstacles. In the end though, the challenges the student writers have to face are the ones they encounter in their own writing. So ultimately I would suppose the task is to imagine games that facilitate students thinking of their own writing if not as a game then as a series of unnecessary obstacles that they must discover the intrinsic motivation to address.

As I think we all know, writing is replete with obstacles. As experienced writers, I would hope that we recognize that the obstacles we encounter are not evidence of some deficient within us. To the contrary, writing is the search for obstacles, relations with others that engender new thought and action on our part. Without such obstacles, writing would be some rote recitation of a predetermined set of relations. Writing would be undertaken without thought or action. In short, writing would not be rhetorical. Of course, one could argue that this has been the state history of writing instruction, to eliminate rhetoric from writing. However, that’s a topic for another day.

However, if we follow along that line of thinking, even briefly, it is possible to see the clear connections that might exist between composing and gaming. In any rhetorical relationship, any relationship that engenders thought and action, there lies the possibility of identifying an unnecessary obstacle. In our mundane lives, most object relations slip by us. But we also encounter situations where objects confront us with their elusiveness, with their strangeness. We might refuse such invitations, as we do in our writing when we decide that we will bypass a question or difficulty, setting it aside for another article or presentation perhaps. However, we can also enter into a more complex relation with such obstacles. Games provide rules for how such relations might proceed. Composing is more complicated, though we might invent rules, heuristically for proceeding.  In doing so, we make composing like a game. We activate certain kinds of agency and identify terms for success. 

To think about gaming in this way is not to imagine a video game in an online composition course. It isn’t to imagine following clues around the campus with a mobile phone. And it isn’t to imagine dice or cards in the classroom. All of those things could be wonderful. I would encourage anyone interested in pursuing them. I might pursue them myself. They could also be horrible. There is no magic pedagogy and I would suggest that we need not pursue one.

Instead, I view the emergence of games and the growing interest in seeing human relations in terms of games as a pan-disciplinary opportunity to rethink our understanding of rhetoric and education. Bogost has suggested that taking up the interactive systems of games would demand reworking the practices of entire industries, such as higher education. I agree. I’m not sure what that reworking would look like in the end.  However I do believe that investigating the procedural rhetoric of games can suggest a very different understanding of the relations among humans and other objects. Games offer a view of humans that ultimately does not fit with the solemnity of modernity’s desires for humans and society. Games share this with rhetoric and composition, which have not fared well in the modern era despite strong willed attempts to turn rhetoric into rationality and efficiency. Games and rhetoric share an implicit recognition that life as we experience it flourishes in the complexity of unnecessary relations, not in the modernist streamlining of process. What both gameplay and composition offer us is the recognition that our thoughts and agency come into being through our interactions with others.

Thinking along these line, Bruno Latour offers a compositionist manifesto where in place of modernity’s futurity we examine the prospects that our available to us.

Faced with those new prospects, the first reaction is to do nothing. There is a strong, ever so modernist, temptation to exclaim: “Let’s flee as before and have our past future back!” instead of saying: “Let’s stop fleeing, break for good  with our future, turn our back, finally, to our past, and explore our new prospects, what lies ahead, the fate of things to come.” … instead of a future of no future, why not try to see if we could not have a prospect at last? After three centuries of Modernism, it is not asking too much from those who, in practice, have never managed to be Moderns, to finally look ahead. (487-8)

Gaming will not restore modernity’s future. We will not save the humanities by turning it into a game, just as we won’t save the humanities by going digital. One could say it has always been a game or gamified at least. As interesting as I find games to be and as worthy as gaming in some real sense can be as part of a pedagogy, it is finally the opportunity games offer us to rethink our fundamental concepts of relations and ethics that strikes me.