Rhetoric and Gaming

ENC 3435 | Fall 2014 | University of South Florida

Dr. Marc C. Santos
Assistant Prof. of English
Office: Cooper Hall 301c
Email: marcsantos at usf dot edu / insignificantwrangler at gmail dot com
Professional Writing, Rhetoric, and Technology major


Even those outside of the “hobby” recognize video games as the fastest growing media field. Yet, despite their increasing popularity and sophistication, video games receive an underwhelming lack of scholarly attention. And though growing, their pedagogical impact is even lower–rarely do games show up in education. In designing this class, I hope to correct these oversights by addressing two important, interlocking issues:

  • First, how can traditional humanities/critical methods inform the way we think about and appreciate games?
  • Second, how can playing games help us invent new critical methods?

For many in the humanities the first question is the easier to address, since it simply encourages us to apply our existing critical models to new, emerging forms of media (note the use of the plural here–to refer to video games as one monolithic genre is akin to referring to literature to one amorphous pile of books; game genres, like literary genres, are diverse and uneven). The second aspiration is a bit more ambitious, since it suggests that attending to games will require us to invent new methods for critical analysis–and that games might render some of the older methods irrelevant.

The earliest imagining of this course was titled “Rhetoric and Video Games,” but I changed it to Rhetoric and Gaming. I use the gerund for three reasons–first, I have developed into something of a board game addict, and I wanted to use a term that was as inclusive as possible, leaving us open to examine a wide variety of games and gaming. Second, and more importantly, I wanted to stress that we are thinking about gaming as a form of action–not video games as static objects. While our first few projects will treat games in terms of objects, our latter projects will treat gaming in terms of engagement having direct and indirect impact on how we maneuver in the world.

That brings me to my third reason for using the gerund “gaming”–I want to stress that gaming is increasingly gaining recognition as a kind of philosophy (meant in the most broadest of terms as an approach to life). Game theory has circulated in academic circles for decades, and more recently, the term “gamification” (the perhaps overused buzz word for this growth, Ian Bogost in particular has argued against the term) marks interdisciplinary study on the impact gaming has on economic, social, and political life. Thus, the goals of this course extend beyond studying video games as textual/aesthetic objects, and into how those games can explicitly and implicitly shape behavior and identity.

And that’s what brings us into the realm of rhetoric. Rhetoric’s two most common definitions are persuasion (Aristotle) and identity (Burke). Games, as Bogost has highlighted, have powerful impact on both, persuading us toward particular attitudes and behaviors by subconsciously shaping our sense of identity. Following Bogost, we’ll utilize critical methods for thinking about what games mean and we’ll invent methods for thinking about what gaming does (to me, to my community, to my economy, to my culture, to my world). This course focuses on “gaming” much more than on rhetoric; but throughout the course I will use the term rhetoric to mean either 1) how we explicitly attempt to shape what people think/do/feel or 2) how we implicitly affect how people see themselves, how they identify.

But this course isn’t just about analyzing games–since its inception, I have wanted this course to have a strong productive dimension. This semester, I have decided to dedicate 8 weeks to the process of developing and promoting a game. We will go through prototyping, ordering components, developing usability tests, responding to user feedback, and assembling the core components of a Kickstarter campaign. By the end of the course, you could potentially have a game ready to pitch.

Course Materials:

Here’s a list of the thing you will need to purchase this semester:

  • Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games
  • Telltale Games. Walking Dead: Season One (any operating system will do; I will be playing the iOS version)
  • Schell, Jessie. The Art of Game Design: A Deck of Lenses Second Edition. Note that this is the deck of heuristic playing cards; the complete textbook is listed as optional

Course Missions

Level One: Video Games and/as Art

If a man hacking in furry at a block of wood, make therein an image of a cow, is that image a work of art? If not, why not?” Joyce Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, 218

In his infamous April 16th, 2012 diatribe “Video games can never be art,” film critic Roger Ebert asserted that games lack emotional and symbolic depth. Furthermore, the end of a video game is “winning,” rather than experiencing. Ebert writes:

Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care. Do they require validation?

I would argue that we do not require validation as much as recognize the importance for including games in our educational institutions. Thus, we require justification for endorsing such an inclusion. Rather than dismiss Ebert’s criticisms–I suggest we develop such justification by tackling them head on. What are the artistic values of video games?

To address this question, you need to begin by developing a theory of art; in both pieces, Ebert stresses the importance of a definition of art, although I would argue that his own definition is too ambiguous, too nebulous. In the earlier piece, he defines art: “My notion is that it [artistic merit] grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” We’ll start with this definition, the ability to “improve or alter [our human] nature through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision,” but we’ll compare it to some of the other major theories of art. I will ask each of you to develop a better theory of / definition for art, and to justify one (or more) games as an example of this definition.

Of course, attempting to define art risks descent into an endless abyss. For most of us, art is a visceral, affective experience that testifies to the wisdom of Justice Potter’s words: “I know it when I see it.” Yet a few prominent theories can help us reflect on precisely what we are seeing, or in our immediate case, playing:

  • Aristotle, Poetics
  • Tolstoy, “What is Art?”
  • Baraka, “The Revolutionary Theatre”
  • Popova, “The Value of Arts”
  • Dali, “The Moral Position of Surrealism” [PDF]

In an article response to Ebert of 1500-2000 words, I’ll ask you to respond to Ebert’s column by focusing on the aesthetic quality of one particular game (or one particular series). In essence, we’ll be working together to create a canon of video games–seeking those games that transform our nature.

Your response will have to offer a definition of art, drawn from any of the sources we have read in class (or anything you might read outside it). There is no such thing as a right or wrong definition of art–but there are definitely good and bad definitions. Your task will be to offer a good enough theory of art to base your claim for the sophistication of a particular game, and, in turn, to use a particular game as a justification for a theory of art.

Level Two: Representations of Race and Gender in Video Games

In our fist unit we looked at video games as aesthetic objects; in our second unit we will examine them as socio-cultural artifacts. While scholars are increasingly noting the pedagogic potential of video games (particularly, James Gee’s oft-cited What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Literacy and Learning), they also note, with growing concern, the rather myopic presentation of women, minorities, and other cultures in games. If games are going to advance, then they will need to be sensitive to these issues.

Our second project will turn a critical eye to games to see how they measure up to 21st century standards for identity politics. We will be building off the work of Anita Sarkeesian and here Tropes Vs. Women in Games series. Of course, Sarkeesian’s work has drawn sharp criticism, and contributed to the Gamergate movement. In assessing Sarkeesian’s work, we will also be addressing the validity of Gamergate’s critiques.

While Sarkeesian’s project focuses on gender, I will be interested in expanding the premise to also look at representations of race. My premise here is simple: if we are to elevate games into cultural objects worthy of a place in our schools and universities, then games will need to become increasingly sophisticated in their representations.

Of course, here we should also be wary of over-generalizing: after all, we wouldn’t say that all books belong in high school classrooms, so I am not saying that all games do, either. But it does warrant looking at the most popular games in a variety of genres to see what kinds of identifications and procedures (thinking ahead to Bogost) these games ask us to internalize.

Some resources (more to come):

  • http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/566429325/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games
  • http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/06/13/tropes-vs-women-in-video-games-vs-the-internet/
  • http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-07-09-anita-sarkeesian
  • http://www.tannerhiggin.com/videogames-as-critical-race-pedagogy/
  • http://www.juliandibbell.com/articles/a-rape-in-cyberspace/
  • immersion (http://www.psychologyofgames.com/2010/07/the-psychology-of-immersion-in-video-games/
  • http://www.pcgamer.com/hearthstone-tournament/
  • Penny Arcade, dick wolves, and trigger warnings
  • Rock, Paper, Shotgun
  • http://www.nymgamer.com/

Level Three: Making a Game

For your final project, you will work in teams of 1-4 to make a board game. This will be an 8 week project, broken down into four distinct stages:

  • Stage One: Concept and Prototype
  • Stage Two: Usability Feedback and Revision #1
  • Stage Three: Usability Feedback and Revision #2
  • Stage Four: Packaging and Marketing

We will be using Schell’s The Art of Game Design heuristics and other readings such as Sauli Laitinen’s Better Games Through Usability Evaluation and Testing during stage one. Then we will design usability tests and forms (see NN/G’s “Turn User Goals into Task Scenarios for Usability Testing”). Groups will revise their game based on user feedback. Then the games will go through a second round of testing and revisions. Finally, groups will work together to make a promotional package: 2 short videos (one an introduction and one a playthrough) and some descriptive copy that could form the basis of a kickstarter campaign.

  • http://alistapart.com/article/usability-testing-demystified
  • http://alistapart.com/topic/usability
  • http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/planning-usability-testing.html
  • http://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/resources/templates/usability-test-plan-template.html

Grade Breakdown

  • Games as Art: 15%
  • Race/Gender in Games: 15%
  • Game Prototype: 10%
  • Game Usability #1: 10%
  • Game Usability #2: 10%
  • Game Promotional Materials: 10%
  • Final Game Product: 10%
  • Game Journal: 10%
  • Twitter Participation / Class work / Quizzes: 10%


Attendance is mandatory. I expect you will be in attendance for every meeting. That said, things happen. The most important thing is to keep me informed so we can make arrangements. I will give you 3 absences. After that, you will incur a 10 point penalty per absence on your final grade.

I will excuse any absences for major religious observances provided I am notified of them within the first two weeks of the semester.


Students with a disability and thus requiring accommodations are encouraged to consult with the instructor during the first week of class to discuss accommodations. See Student Responsibilities: http://www.sds.usf.edu/. Each student making this request must bring a current Memorandum of Accommodations from the office of student Disabilities Services.


I am available via email at marcsantos at usf dot edu. I generally check my email twice a day–in the morning (around 9:30 am) and before I leave the office (around 4:30 pm). I try my best NOT to answer emails on the weekend.

I am also available on Twitter. Quick questions can be sent there. If you can’t ask it in 140 characters, chances are I don’t want to try and answer it in 140 characters either. My handle is @Oisin16. It is pronounced O-Sheen. It is the name of a Gaelic warrior from a Yeats poem. It was my tag name in SOCOM 1 and 2. Yeah, I’m that guy.

I will hold office hours on Tuesday from 2:00–4:00. I am also available outside of this window by appointment (send an email or a tweet in advance to arrange a meeting). I highly encourage you to come to office hours, whether it is to discuss a particular project, the course readings, or Red Sox baseball. My office is 301c in Cooper Hall (look for the door with all the quotes on it).

Furthermore, I’ll encourage you to swing by and say “hi” anytime my door is open. Education is about forging relationships and building networks. Don’t be an island.

Academic (Dis)Honesty

Plagiarism is bad. Don’t do it. If you do, then I have to follow University policies, which include an automatic failing grade for the assignment and notification to the Dean’s office. Don’t make me do all of that. Remember to give credit anytime you use text, images, audio/video files, or even ideas that are not yours.

Credit doesn’t have to be a formal citation system (like MLA or APA). It can also be a simple in-text acknowledgement. In other words–even in video projects you need to make it clear when you are using other people’s thoughts and images.

The University has a lot of official language about plagiarism on the Graduate School website.

George Carlin

The very existence of flamethrowers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

This Guy Won’t Teach Me Anything

A general statement: my approach to teaching is “postpedagogical.” In short, this means that I do not view teaching as a transmission of knowledge or expertise from teacher to student. I actually thinking the idea of “teaching” in this manner is impossible (even if, as the rise of standardization and assessment indicates, it is seductive). I do, however, believe strongly in the possibility of “learning.” In a postpedagogical model of learning, it is my job to create problems and your job to invent solutions. I assess you on the ingenuity and sophistication of those solutions. In short, a project might not necessarily have a “right” answer, but the lack of a right answer does not mean there aren’t wrong approaches. If this is already making your head hurt a little, good.

Course Calendar

Week One: Games And/As Art

Tuesday: Introduction / Ebert’s 2010 “Video Games Can Never Be Art” and “Ok Kids Play on My Lawn”.
Homework: Read an abridged version of Aristotle’s Poetics and the Wikipedia entry on “Mimesis” (particularly the section dealing w/ Aristotle).

Thursday: Set up digital accounts: Twitter and Google Docs. Game Journal, Aristotle’s Poetics. Discuss Aristotle: Mimesis, Ethos, and Catharsis
Homework: Read Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?” and compose a 5 sentence summary in your game journal. Also, play your game for at least one hour and write about it for at least 15 minutes.

Week Two: Games And/As Art

Tuesday: Discuss Tolstoy.
Homework: Read Dali excerpts (PDF) and write about Dali in your journal.

Thursday: Discuss Dali by way of Rockwell.
Homework: Read Baraka’s “The Revolutionary Theater”

Week Three: Games And/As Art

Tuesday: Discuss Baraka by way of RATM.
Homework: draft paper (check in class).

Thursday: “Writing a Paper”
Homework: Revise paper, Project One Due Monday by 11:59pm

Week Four: Representations of Race and Gender in Games

Tuesday: Introduction to project / game genres and group formation (w/ Google Doc)
Homework: Read Tanner Higgins on critical race pedagogy.

Thursday: Approaching Gamergate.
Homework: Read Bogost. Work on your representation project and document your workflow in your group google doc.

Week Five: Representations of Race and Gender in Games

Tuesday: Discuss Higgins. Discuss Bogost. Play 20 minutes of Bad Paper!
Homework: Work on your project. Read Bogost.

Thursday: Play 20 minutes of Walking Dead. Discuss.
Homework: Work on your group project, progress reports via Google Docs.

Week Six: Representations of Race and Gender in Games

Tuesday: Play Walking Dead for 20 minutes. Discuss. Work with your groups.
Homework: Work with your groups.

Thursday: Work with your groups.
Homework: Read Story gaming

Week Seven: Representations of Race and Gender in Games

Tuesday: Work with your groups.
Homework: Bogost and Walking Dead

Thursday: Bogost, Procedurality, Walking Dead, and the “Trolley Problem”
Homework: Project Two Videos Due in Class on Tuesday

Week Eight: Representations of Race and Gender in Games / Game Production Project

Tuesday: Watch videos in class
Read Schell introduction (pdf).

Thursday: Introduce project 3. Play some cool games.

Week Nine: Game Production / Prototype

Tuesday: Play some cool games.
Homework: Complete game pitches.

Thursday: Game pitches. Component Websites.
Homework: Work on game.

Week Ten: Game Production / Prototype

Tuesday: Developing documentation.
Homework: Complete rule book for game. Usability reading.

Thursday: Create usability forms.
Homework: Complete usable prototype of your game; bring it to class on Tuesday for f2f usability test.

Week Eleven: Game Production / Usability

Tuesday: Usability testing day.
Homework: Write-up usability responses.

Thursday: Group working day; processing usability reports.
Homework: Revise documentation based on usability reports. Bring revised documentation and game to Tuesday’s class.

Week Twelve: Game Production / Usability

Tuesday: Game distribution for take-home usability tests.
Homework: Work on game and usability testing.

Thursday: Introduce promotional materials.
Homework: complete usability test and feedback form.

Week Thirteen: Game Production / Promotional Materials

Tuesday: A Deck of Lenses day.
Homework: Summarize usability feedback; create response plan; work on promotional material.

Thursday: An emerging genre, the Kickstarter campaign .

Week Fourteen: Game Production / Promotional Materials

Tuesday: A deck of lenses day.

Thursday: Open work day.
Homework: Promotional videos due in class on Tuesday

Week Fifteen: Game Production Project Deliverables Week>

Tuesday: Watch promotional videos

Thursday: Play games!

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