Last week, I wrote toward the rhetorical situation of videogames. Of primary focus and inspiration was Ian Bogost’s recent op-ed about the function and content of certain statements about videogames. At least in an initial way, I attempted to relate Bogost’s observations to Vatz’s argument about the myth of the rhetorical situation. However, I want to take one step back from that. I’m curious if it’s possible to argue for seeing videogames themselves as rhetorical situations. This may either illuminate Bitzer’s argument or further support Vatz’s refutation. Regarding the possibility of performing both, I’ll save Consigny’s “Rhetoric and Its Situations” for a future post.
In “The Rhetorical Situation,” Lloyd Bitzer puts forth a series of hypotheticals in which “words suggest the presence of events, persons, or objects” (1) and ultimately views rhetorical situation as “a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which invites utterance” (5). There’s probably an argument to be made on whether or not a videogame is a natural context, but that’s not my interest right now. Again, I’m more interested in seeing a videogame as a rhetorical situation. To get at this, let’s look at what Bitzer considers the three constituents of any rhetorical situation: exigence, audience, and constraints.
The constituent of exigence appears workable for both rhetorical situations and videogames as Bitzer explains exigence as “imperfection marked by urgency” which also functions as the situation’s organizing principle, specifying “the audience to be addressed and the change to be effected” (7). In a videogame, this can happen in terms of design (how far Mario can jump), narrative (“your princess is in another castle”), or both.
However, the constituent of audience may be an area in which my curious argument fails or at least gains a greater degree of complexity. According to Bitzer, the audience of a rhetorical situation consists “only of those persons who are capable of being influenced by discourse and of being mediators of change” (8). In the case of a videogame, the player is also the audience, the one both capable of discursive influence and mediating change. Or is it the videogame that’s the audience, influenced (or at least responsive) as it is to player action?
But maybe this is where such an argument falls apart, too, if we understand that the vast majority of player actions in a given videogame have already been accounted for by the designer. Even in an open-world videogame like Grand Theft Auto 4, there are limits. This does lead us to Bitzer’s third constituent, though: constraints. There are two main classes, “those originated or managed by the rhetor and his method” (8), which we might see as analogous to a speedrun, and “those other constraints, in the situation, which may be operative” (8), which we might see in a multiplayer session of Halo: Reach.
Now, perhaps some parsing is needed between rhetorical discourse and player action, between rhetorical situation and videogame, but I want to close here with a simple copy/paste endeavor in an attempt to prove a point. In saying that rhetoric is situational, Bitzer offers a series of statements about the relationship between discourse and situation. Below is an attempt to show a similar relationship between player action and videogame.
Player action comes into existence as a response to the videogame. An action is given rhetorical significance by the videogame. A videogame must exist as a necessary condition of player action. Many videogames mature and decay without giving birth to player action. A videogame is rhetorical insofar as it needs and invites player action capable of participating with the videogame and thereby altering its reality. Player action is rhetorical insofar as it functions (or seeks to function) as a fitting response to a videogame which needs and invites it. The videogame controls player action in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution.
Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric (Winter 1968): 1-14.