Rhetoric and Gaming 6.2: Bogost, Procedurality, Rhetoric, Butler, Performativity, and The Walking Dead

Today’s plan:

Bogost, Procedurality, Rhetoric, Butler, Performativity, and The Walking Dead

So far this semester, I have asked you to play four games: Bad Paper, Darfur is Dying, The McDonald’s Game and The Walking Dead. And, of course, we just played First-Person Tutor. Taken together, I think these games offer models for thinking through the kinds of procedural games Bogost introduces. For instance, Darfur is Dying is a prototypical representation of a Serious Game, a game that seeks to instigate change based on the seriousness of its content. However, in terms of procedurality, the game is rather shallow, since the mechanics it presents us, the choices it asks us to make, the way it represents real-world procedure isn’t sophisticated. Sure, it offers us something more profound than Tax Evaders, since it does create a semblance of fear while hiding behind the bushes, or of frustration when trying to keep the town intact.

Up one step on the scale would be the First-Person Tutor game, though I must admit I share this cynically: THIS IS NOT HOW GRADING SHOULD WORK! However, the game does make a procedural comment about the staggering nature of contemporary student debt, particularly the debt accrued by graduate students. That commentary is structured into the operation of the game (since successfully grading a paper only awards about $400, one would have to grade 500 papers to win–an almost certainly unbeatable task). It also makes some representations of faculty to graduate student relations. I leave you to judge those yourself.

Bad Paper is a more sophisticated procedural piece. It incorporates real-world processes in order to shed attention on the frustrations and problems associated with debt. And, of course, the McDonald’s game would be even more sophisticated, since it involves so many choices and processes (although I am sure the executives at McDonald’s would reject as stringently to it as I would to the notion that First-Person Tutor reflects actual grading practices!).

Which brings us to The Walking Dead. In his introduction, Bogost notes that “the types of procedures that interest me are those that present or comment on processes inherent to human experience”(5). Obviously, zombie apocalypses aren’t common to our everyday lives. So, what can we say about the procedurality of The Walking Dead?

Before I answer that question, I want to take a few steps back. Here’s how Bogost describes procedural rhetoric:

Procedurality refers to a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes. And processes define the way things work: the methods, techniques, and logics that drive the operation of systems, from mechanical systems like engines to organizational systems like high schools to conceptual systems like religious faith. Rhetoric refers to effective and persuasive expression. Procedural rhetoric, then, is a practice of using processes persuasively. (3)

I would challenge Bogost’s definition of rhetoric as too narrow, but that is for another time in another class. For today, I want to focus on his concept of procedurality. Later, in his chapter on politics, Bogost will flush out direct connections between his conception of procedures and critical notions of ideology. He foreshadows this in what you read last night:

We often talk about procedures only when they go wrong […] But in fact, procedures in this sense of the word structure behavior; we tend to see a process only when we challenge it. Likewise, procedure and the law are often closely tied. Courts and law enforcement agencies abide by procedures that dictate how actions can and cannot be carried out. Thanks to these common senses of the term, we tend to think of procedures as fixed and unquestionable. They are tied to authority, crafted from the top down, and put in place to structure behavior and identify infringement. Procedures are sometimes related to ideology; they can cloud our ability to see other ways of thinking; consider the police officer or army private who carries out a clearly unethical action but later offers the defense, “I was following procedure.” (3)

I tend to think about Bogost’s take on procedures and law here along the lines of Judith Butler’s theory of performativity and gender. Both require that we fracture human beings in such a way that we can see conscious choice (what in the humanities we call agency) and somekind of unconscious determinism, meaning that often we act in ways that we don’t necessarily consciously “choose.” This is a difficult concept, so let me unpack it a bit. Well, let me start by having Butler unpack this a bit.

Butler’s claim in that video is a large one–that there is a complete separation between sex and gender, that (and I am simplifying here for time, as she is in the video) the way we act is divorced from the biological parts we are given. Way before Butler, Sigmund Freud proposes that we were all born bisexual, and that it was psychological development that later initiated monosexuality. More radical theorists have picked up Freud’s work and suggested that sexuality and desire is best understood as a spectrum, that we are all born in the middle, and that it is culture that pushes us toward heteronormativity. Again, all of this is theoretical and contested. What isn’t contested at this point is the idea that cultural forces play a role in shaping our desire and behavior–and that this behavior happens most often at a level underneath consciousness.

Let me play a game. Let me return to Bogost’s passage on procedurality and the law above, but let me reimagine Butler is writing it:

We often talk about genders only when they go “wrong” […] But in fact, performativity in this sense of the word structures behavior; we tend to see a normative process only when we challenge it. Likewise, gender and the cultural expectations are often closely tied. Schools and cultural institutions structure performances that dictate how gender should be performed. Thanks to these everyday expectations, we tend to think of gender performances as fixed and unquestionable. They are tied to nature, handed down from biology or God, and put in place to structure behavior and identify infringement. Procedures are sometimes related to ideology; they can cloud our ability to see other ways of thinking; consider the teacher or parent who won’t buy their son a My Little Pony and says “But that toy is for girls.”

There are implications to Butler’s work that I don’t necessarily have the time to unpack here, but I will try none the less. I will try via Freud vs postmodern psychoanalysis, and the fetish as perversion vs. perversion as a [Rational, Normalizing] fetish.

This helps me flush out what is at stake when we argue that videogames are procedural, and gives some insight into why such study is important. If Butler is right, and cultural processes structure the way we experience the world and see ourselves, then we need to leverage tools that although us to better see culture at work. We need to value tools that allow us to act, and to feel the consequences of those actions. In describing the game Tenure, Bogost writes:

Tenure makes claims about how high school education operates. Most notably, it argues that educational practice is deeply intertwined with personal and professional politics.

But the skeptic might ask: well, why not just write an essay on such intertwining? What does the game afford us that the traditional text or narrative doesn’t? I’m not sure Bogost answers this question directly; I would answer it by pointing to the intensity of affect, of feeling. It taps into our anxiety by forcing us to make those decisions without foreknowledge of the consequences–the tremor (and potential terror) of the unknown. Even if it is the barest simulacrum of the actual experience of racism, discrimination, terror, helplessness, insecurity, we can recognize its potential ability to persuade someone to reconsider existing social conditions–and perhaps–move to change them.

Games present us with models for how we might behave in the world. They aren’t (as in the case of Walking Dead) necessarily literal. If you play Grand Theft Auto for 3 hours, you probably aren’t going to go outside and mug someone, steal a car, or shoot a police officer. But your attitude toward crime, poverty, and law enforcement might be shaped at an unconscious level.

As I have said, my personal interest is in ethics. One of the first ethical brain teasers you are likely to come across is the Trolley Problem. These kinds of philosophical problems don’t necessarily have a “right” answer, rather, their goal is to help us explore our reasoning and to measure the consistency of our moral choices. They ask us to think about our thinking. Games, from Bogost’s perspective, can ask us to think about our thinking and our acting by acting. Walking Dead, for me, is interesting because in many ways it is a recreation of the trolley experiment, asking us to make painful decisions about who lives or dies, when it is appropriate to tell the truth or lie, how to make terrible choices in a world that often gives us no choice.

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