Assemblage Theory

Minimal rhetoric: unit operations and gamic flow

Here’s the text of my C’s presentation.

Undoubtedly there is a growing interest in potential connections between games and learning extending from early childhood through college and onward into corporate and military training. At the same time, there is certainly skepticism about this trend. This is a familiar habit of mind that we have slipped into in thinking about technology. The common objections to educational gaming should be familiar to us as they echo historical complaints regarding rhetoric. Games lack substance. They distract us from serious matters. They manipulate our attention and desires. They can mislead us. If we think about other colloquial uses of gaming, such as “gaming the system” or “playing mind games,” the connection to rhetoric is easier to see. However, just as we clearly see rhetoric as describing a far wider range of activities than simply persuasion or manipulation, gaming also describes a spectrum of relations. Indeed by exploring the affective relations among objects produced through gaming, we can come to see rhetoric as well as the investigation of affective force relations, as what Diane Davis terms an “always prior rhetoricity that is the condition for what is called the ‘art’ of rhetoric” (2).

To do so, what is required is a more nuanced theory of affect and a related concept of procedures that will allow us to map affective processes and design for them. While composition obviously has a long-standing general concept of writing process, it is ultimately not a concept that has been designed to consider the affective dimensions of composition. Instead, the writing process really imagines composition as fundamentally rational. While there are clearly many affects that can be produced, gaming has a particular interest in the affective experience, the psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi termed “flow.” Flow is not some blissed-out state, nor is it some mindless pleasure from idiotic repetition. Instead, it is an active state of engagement in which one’s abilities are pushed to their limits and one encounters an opportunity for new achievements. In other words, flow is not simply about pleasure but rather about the state of happiness that results from intrinsic motivation.

Of course, in education we don’t often consider happiness to be our concern. I don’t think we’re opposed to it; we’re just not often in search of it. Certainly we can attest that the typical student’s educational experiences with writing do not often coincide with happiness or flow. What concepts such as flow potentially offer composition is an understanding of the affective dimensions of the intrinsic motivation that is so crucial for long-term development and success as a writer. The point I want to make today is that what we need to learn from games lies in the connections between gaming and the experiences of intrinsic motivation that they generate, and that an object-oriented analysis, such as the kind Ian describes, provides a useful method for that investigation.

Concerns about flow and intrinsic motivation are not wholly foreign to our discipline. For rhetoricians with scholarly interests in a Vygotsky-inspired activity theory, Csíkszentmihályi’s flow represents a kind of fellow traveller that investigates the affective spaces of proximal development. In the work of rhetoricians such as Charles Bazerman and David Russell, activity theory becomes a way of developing more genre-focused approaches to writing pedagogy. Indeed the writing studies approach put forward by Elizabeth Wardle and Doug Downs reflects an understanding of writing and learning to write that is underwritten by activity theory. On the other hand, our colleagues in cultural studies or psychoanalysis would likely have concerns with flow and the positive psychology movement with which it is now associated. Certainly from a psychoanalytic perspective one would want to raise a question about the experience of “enjoyment” that characterizes gameplay. From a critical perspective, as I suggested at the start, enjoyment is something to be met with suspicion. In this talk though I am less interested in systematizing the gaming or composition experience than I am in discussing a methodology for investigating the relations among objects, which Ian Bogost explores in terms of “unit operations” and “procedural rhetoric.”

Procedurality has been an issue of long-term interest in new media and game studies. Janet Murray identifies it as one of the defining characteristics of new media. Procedurality is clearly at work in Lev Manovich’s principles of new media in his articulation of automated operations. Bogost pushes the procedure further through his unit operations, which he describes as “an understanding, largely arbitrary, certainly contingent, of a particular situation, compacted and taken as a whole” (2006, 13). In other words, through unit operations, one might investigate the specific appearances and relations of objects in a given situation without immediately reaching for some larger systemic explanation. Indeed, Bogost distinguishes unit operations from system operations noting, “In the language of Heidegger, unit operations are creative, whereas system operations are static. In the language of software engineering, unit operations are procedural, whereas system operations are structured” (2006, 8). As we will see then, unit analysis offers an object-oriented approach to the study of procedures. In his following work, Persuasive Games, Bogost turns specifically to the question of a procedural rhetoric, which he defines succinctly as the “practice of persuading through processes in general and computational processes in particular” (2007, 3). As such, Persuasive Games takes up rhetoric in a specific way to examine the capacity of videogame procedures to make persuasive arguments in politics, advertising, and education.

However, I want to modify this conception of procedural rhetoric, shifting it back toward unit operations as an object-oriented rhetoric. From this view, we might understand rhetoric as the study of the capacity, even indeed the obligation, for relations among objects. This is “minimal rhetoric.” It is perhaps not necessary to imagine all relations, all procedures, all unit operations as rhetorical, but neither is it necessary to begin such an investigation by establishing some firm border between rhetorical and a-rhetorical object relations. For the particular concerns of this discussion, the examination of how a videogame-inspired understanding of procedurality can productively intersect with a composition pedagogy, we can certainly expand our understanding of object-oriented rhetoric to include the kinds of affective forces that underlie flow. My interest might be understood as a mapping of the rhetorical relations of the unit operations of flow or as flow’s object-oriented rhetorical procedures.

I have described this flow as “gamic.” In games studies, there is this apparent neologism, gamic, meaning “of games” or game-like: thus a gamic flow would be the flow from games. While gamic is a new word, gamic is not. It comes from the Greek word for marriage and refers to sexual reproduction. This is an unexpected encounter, and yet one that is perhaps easily played out through the connections between flow and desire. It is one game to play. But there is a third definition, from geometry, where “gamic edges” are the “corresponding edges of an autopolar polyhedron.” Polyhedrons are slippery to define, depending on the type of geometry one employs, but gamic here, ultimately retains its Greek roots, as a marriage, a meeting of two shapes along an edge, that propagates a third. So, as I will discuss, this is my interest, the minimal rhetorical relations in a particular unit operation: the flow extending from the encounter of gamic edges unfolding a new object or composition.

That’s some fairly abstract language, so I want to back-up and approach this now from a different, games studies angle.

Bernard Suits, the well-known philosopher of games, describes games as the attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles by which I understand him to mean that games fashion rules and challenges solely for the purpose of providing some impediment to achieving a goal. Golf wouldn’t be much of a game if you could just pick up the ball and drop it in the hole whenever you wanted. It wouldn’t be surprising for a student to view a composition course as a series of unnecessary obstacles. So why do we happily engage the obstacles in a game but not those in composition. Is it solely because composition is required? I don’t think so, although the universal requirement does interfere with the experience of autonomy that is integral to intrinsic motivation. Perhaps it is because we try so hard to convince students that the unnecessary obstacles of the classroom are crucially necessary–crucial to their success as a student, a professional, and even as a citizen. In fact, when we do so we might be contributing to students’ negative experiences by ramping up the external pressures rather than encouraging intrinsic motives.

So commonly we see two opposite tendencies. As game players our students elect to engage in overcoming unnecessary obstacles with really very little tangible outcome. As composition writers on the other hand, they scrupulously avoid obstacles in search of the shortest path toward the far more tangible outcome of a good grade, though really in the end a grade is no more tangible or valuable than leveling up. Credits and grades are really quite like experience points, levels, and virtual trophies. So why do we joylessly toil after the former and happily pursue the latter? And to anyone who believes that games are simply fun or pleasurable in some uncomplicated way, I can only imagine that such a person has never watched his or her child in tears at the loss of soccer match or spent a frustrating hour trying to defeat a boss monster in a video game or engaged in the repetitive labor in games such as World of Warcraft that are termed grinding. It isn’t simply about feeling good. In fact, as writers we have all likely experienced flow in the act of composition; as such, we should recognize that it is not some simple form of pleasure but is nevertheless highly rewarding. So why do our students pursue such moments in gameplay but seemingly avoid them in writing?

I’m afraid I don’t have a clear answer to that, except to speculate that as writers our students fail to recognize that their encounters with the strangeness of words, that their struggles to compose, are analogous to the challenges they face in alien gamescapes. That the challenges they face are surmountable, even if they do fail 70% of the time, as gamers do playing video games. They do not recognize that, as with gameplay, by meeting these compositional challenges, they will unlock new knowledge and writerly abilities. Instead, they appear to believe that composition is an uncomplicated, rational process and that, as such, their failure to compose reflects some inherent subjective deficiency.

I wonder what gave them that idea?

Now I want to put together these notions of flow, motivation, and unnecessary obstacles with those of unit operations, gamic flow, and minimal rhetoric. Or at least juxtapose them more closely in terms of invention. If we think about invention as a unit operation and in terms of gaming, then we might understand it as the acceptance of unnecessary obstacles. It is important to note that we do not get to choose those obstacles; we either confront those obstacles and play the game or not. The golfer can break the rules, but then he’s ceased playing golf. As writers we either confront the obstacles we encounter in our writing or we cease to write. As I say that, I realize that I am speaking of a particular kind of writing, not the kind of transactional workplace writing that we all perform, but rather writing that seeks through its practice to explore the world, figure things out, and communicate those findings to others: a writing that might be in the tradition of poetics or rhetorics or both and might find its way into many genres because ultimately it is a description of the affective states of the unit operations of a particular flow state composition rather than the product that results.

When we think about rhetoric, minimally, as a unit operation, we are discussing the affective encounter of two objects. As Ian puts it, we have a “particular situation, compacted, and taken as a whole,” though we can also begin to map a network of these operations. The particular situation may typically be the writer and the words on the screen. Of course then we can map this network of operations extending outward into the broader context. We might even map a near infinite number of operations in between and in some sense, within, the words and the writer-as-subject. However we can also argue that the words and writer, as objects composed of other objects, are also more and other than any sum of component parts, and that, as such, the writer and the words encounter each other as well, just as the gamer encounters the game. Words, language, is an unnecessary obstacle in writing, an obstacle we must choose to confront if we are to write. Even as we, in some sense, choose our words, they remain stubbornly alien.

In the mundane world, we have an accord with alien language. We use it in an uncomplicated way and allow those words to fill our mouths and minds. But as writers, some words confront us with their strangeness, as with my encounter with gamic. In our encounter we are exposed to an affective force. The words do not conform to their uncomplicated meanings. Here is one unit operation game, a game/operation of invention, where we pursue these elusive alien words. Of course, we never catch them. Just like the creatures in a first-person shooter, we may think we kill them, but their bodies just disappear from the screen to repopulate the world before us. However something happens. In our pursuit, a new object, a text in this case, is composed.

From this perspective, flow is the intensified feedback in the encounter between these objects. Words push us to our limit. The alien encounter unfolds a new territory for us. In the study of games, we can investigate how these minimally rhetorical, affective, alien encounters generate the unit operations of gamic flow. We can see similar operations at work in compositional procedures. And while in this brief time I can only juxtapose this language of unit operations and object-oriented rhetoric with that of flow and intrinsic motivation, I hope that it is at least clear that composition rests upon these affective, minimally rhetorical relations and the flows they produce, and that it is in such dimensions that we might explore composing games.


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