The Rhetoric of Video Games: How Game Design Makes Meaning

(This article was written as part of my graduate thesis and is part of my on-going research in education, rhetoric, and games.)

A few weeks ago I took part in a panel at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco that explored the relevance of video games—of what scholar James Paul Gee calls a “problem of content,” in which we only value an artifact as educational if it provides tangible content (22). At the conference major developers and game designers gathered together to talk about what the medium of games was to become with the incessant invectives of games being “a waste of time” or “a phase to grow out of.” If that’s all games are, then what’s the point of working in them? As a field, we need to find a way to elucidate these claims. We need to shine light on video games as a medium that has the potential to serve alongside traditional artifacts accepted in an artistic and academic setting, while also realizing that some games are simply meant to be used as entertainment or escapism. Regardless, the level of interactivity games allow have proven to provide profound effects on cognitive enhancement, but we can only use them progressively if they are taken serious both by their audience and their creators.  Ian Bogost argues that games should be discussed alongside “traditional media subjects,” and that “teaching games alongside reading, writing, and debating them as argumentative and expressive practices” can help evolve the way we look at rhetoric in new media (136). Thus the aim of this project, inspired largely by this conversation, is to explore how video games create meaning through their design—ultimately looking at how games apply and use multi-modal rhetorical devices to influence players in a manner that other mediums may not be able to.

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Within this piece, we will be looking at a survival horror game called Silent Hill 2, which released on the PlayStation 2 in 2001.  For us to explore how Silent Hill 2 uses rhetoric, however, we first need to define what rhetoric is—a definition that often bears a varying and often convoluted meaning. But this definition is important to address nonetheless because rhetoric does not purely mean argument and the game Silent Hill does not establish a direct argument for the player. Rather, Silent Hill 2 bases its argument on individual player experience through meaning. This game in particular is an interesting title to study because the entirety of the game is meant to establish realties through player perception—it is designed with psychology in mind and in many ways “plays the player more than the player plays it” (Perron 112). And though the narrative of the game could lead to an argument about sexual aggression in men, lead game designer Akihiro Imamura said the larger purpose of the game is to “create fear which gets deep into human instinct. Not by surprise, but by creating a feeling of anxiety” (Perron 28). The purpose then, is to establish a reality of innate fear around the player—in this context, the player is ultimately being persuaded to feel a certain way.

In terms of defining rhetoric to fit the style of a survival horror game like Silent Hill 2, let’s specify what this project considers rhetoric. Considered one of the fathers of the field, Aristotle defines rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the means of persuasion,” and William Covino goes as far as to say that rhetoric is a magic used to “control the demons of change” and ultimately change reality (25). While there are more restricting definitions of rhetoric, limiting it to fields of speech and language (even Covino pointed out how language is used to create reality), these definitions expand the capacity of rhetoric, taking it from something that makes an argument to something that creates meaning (affects reality) through different devices. So, in the context of this project, I am focusing on rhetoric as something that helps to establish meanings and realities.

This question—how something outside of language creates persuasion or meaning—is not novel. David Fleming did the same inquiry with visual rhetoric, something now commonly taught as an artifact for analysis in composition courses and often used in fields like marketing with a direct goal of persuading an audience.  But in order to explore a medium as complex as video games, we need to pull apart the different rhetorical devices the game uses. In this, games can be considered a form of digital rhetoric that scholar Mary Hocks says, “focuses on the multiple modalities available for making meaning using new communication and information technologies” (632). In short, what Hocks means is that digital rhetoric relies on multiple forms of media, not simply oral persuasion, to form meaning or communicate expression. Thus, we will be looking at Silent Hill 2 through the lens of digital rhetoric, picking apart the modalities of visual, oratory, and procedural devices that the game uses to establish meaning within players. To support this research, I collected data from six different play testers with varying gaming experience who played through select portions of the game for forty minutes, twenty minutes with sound and twenty minutes without. Players had to follow think-aloud-protocol and were also asked to answer specific questions during and after their gameplay experience. Ultimately the data concluded that Silent Hill 2 establishes a use of rhetoric by influencing meaning, human expression, and fear through its multimodal and procedural design.

Visual Rhetoric

One of the first modes or devices utilized in Silent Hill 2 is its overall aesthetic. The study of visual rhetoric, is the use of “visual strategies used for meaning and persuasion” (Hocks 629). An image’s ability to create arguments has been debated for quite some time. While some argue that it is impossible to persuade without language, Anthony Blair proposes that an argument can be made without language if its purpose can be identified linguistically (25). Essentially, as long as the methods of an image can be discussed, it can be considered to be using rhetoric. Hocks expands on this, explaining that digital rhetoric brings in visual on top of other modalities to create a stronger influence in persuasion. This is largely the case for a game like Silent Hill 2, which relies on its atmosphere to push the player to feel a certain way.sds

Figure 1: James’s line of sight is limited to the flash light and affected by fog

One of the first choices in Silent Hill 2’s visual design is its use of player vision, often called line of sight. As the game starts off the player must navigate the protagonist, James, through an area covered in dense fog (Figure 1) only to discover that the entire town of Silent Hill is covered in it. Even inside buildings, there is no reprieve for James, who is forced into darkness until he discovers a flashlight. Yet despite having a flashlight, the player must turn at a painfully slow pace to uncover areas around James, as the device only allows the player to see in a small circle directly in front of him (Figure 2). Game designer Masashi Tsuboyama explains, “The existence of fog and darkness is an important element for creating fear. When we created this, I became aware of how this created a certain strangeness that was present in our daily lives. What I mean by strangeness is unexplained occurrences… it makes the fear more oppressive because there is a familiarity in it” (Perron 29). In this respect visual design becomes indirectly tied to personal meaning and experience. The game’s setting may not necessarily be scary in itself. There may be little jump scares to experience, but the player is persuaded into their own fears through their imagination of what they cannot see in the visual design of the game itself. Paul Wells, an expert on the genre of horror mentions that “the most persuasive horror is the one suggested in the mind of the viewer [or in this case, the gamer] rather than that which is explicitly addressed on screen” (29). Silent Hill, in this respect, persuades its audience with their own mind. The lack of line of sight accompanied by the unexplained disturbing imagery and creatures that mimic humanity in ways of disgust and sexuality combine to illicit a deep sense of curiosity and dread in the player.

With the lack of vision and disturbing imagery in mind, I recorded the reactions of play testers as they begin their journey as James. During the first ten minutes of play, Tester One displayed a deep sense of anxiety as he explored the foggy streets of the town. He would often look away from the screen and express his discomfort at not being able to see anything. He also complained about the lack of ability to control the camera angles, which are yet another aspect of the game that control player line of sight. As the fog increased, Tester One grew more and more tense, often pausing for a moment to assess his surrounding before moving forward. The tester was so nervous that he would take about five steps forward before pausing, sighing, and then progressing, describing the situation as “helpless” and that he “had no idea what to expect.” Despite the fact that nothing scary had occurred in the game yet, the player was already being persuaded into a sense of fear through his own perception of what awaited him in the fog.

Tester Two explained that he felt as though the small line of sight in the game was “leading him along” through his curiosity to uncover what was in the fog and dark areas. Although he was apprehensive about progressing, he felt as though he needed to despite the sense of danger that “there could be monsters anywhere,” which was an interesting observation to make, as he was at a point in the game where no monsters had been encountered yet. Other testers focused on how distracting the lighting was, which seemed to frame itself around blood splatters and empty hallways. The visuals, or lack thereof, in Silent Hill 2, are the first step into the creation of fear, a reality or meaning ultimately set in the mind of the player from the design of the game’s aesthetic. However, during testing, players began to express a sense of ease as they explored certain areas that they had previously encountered. As they became familiar with the style and space, they sat back, were less jerky with their gestures, and seemed far more confident in searching the town. In order to counteract this sense of ease or lack of persuasion within the game, other modes must be used.

Auditory Rhetoric:

Out of all the senses, sound has the most profound effect on the human mind. It has the ability to increase levels of dopamine in the brain and can even alleviate symptoms of dementia. But what do these profound effects mean in the context of persuasion?  Auditory rhetoric, or the use of sounds to create meaning, is in the midst of being ushered into composition classrooms for analysis alongside visual rhetoric. Cynthia Selfe notes that aural composition (speech, music, sound) is yet another type of device that can contribute to the multimodality of digital rhetoric (616). This conversation has led to the analysis of things like music and levels of tone in language—an important site of inquiry that Selfe argues is missing in the field of rhetoric and composition as a whole. She believes that being literate in aural composition will break the limitations in understanding multi-modal digital texts. To expand on this, Selfe mentions the importance of the sounds around us, from ambient noises and music, and how those affect our realities and also reflect communities and cultures (618-621). In the context of digital rhetoric, Selfe’s argument is a given—sound is often a part of digital rhetoric, layered over written words and visual aesthetics, and in understanding how it is applied and how it creates meaning we not only learn about how sound affects us, but how it affects others as well.

Silent Hill 2, outside of its use of visual persuasion, is a game that provides an experience inundated with sound and music. To accompany the sense of helplessness and uncertainty in the lack of line of sight, Silent Hill 2 continues to play with the players mind with its use of aurality. Eerie sounds like footsteps and growls happen in the background, even though there may be nothing around to actually harm the player, and as tense moments build up the music grows violent. In fact, there are entire gameplay mechanics that rely on sounds within the game for James to survive. Towards the beginning of the game, the player discovers a radio sending off harsh static noises. Around this time, the first monster within the game appears as an armless human-shaped beast. Eventually, the player learns that the static produced by the radio was a result of a monster in close proximity. Suddenly, this meaningless noise becomes associated with immediate dread.

It is a catch-22—hearing the noise means enemies are near, but the warning can also save the player’s life given the fact the enemies are often out of James’s limited line of sight. It was also this very sound that the play testers recalled the most. To test the effects of auditory rhetoric on the play testers, I had each tester play a portion of the game with the sound on and then play a session with the sound turned off completely. To achieve the full effect, testers wore a sound-proof surround sound headset. The results of the testers playing with sound were almost universal. As the game began, each tester stopped moving James whenever they heard a noise (a rattling bush or footsteps) and then continued on more slowly than they had previously been traveling. If the music in the game picked up, the testers would run forward and mash buttons on their controller in a panic to escape whatever the loud music meant, even if it meant nothing. The same reaction occurred as soon as the testers picked up the radio. Once they were able to carry the device with them, the testers were more confidant in progressing despite other ambient noises, but as soon as the static went off, they would tense up once more. Tester One described the radio as “a source of guidance that was helpful and concealing at the same time,” something that “made the experience more intense but also more intuitive.” In these actions, sound strategically accompanies visuals in order to make an even deeper reality for the player to immerse themselves in.

These results are backed further by the reactions of testers as they played the game with no sound. Only one out of six testers described the experience as more terrifying and “dangerous,” largely because he could not hear the location of enemies, especially when trapped in a small room. He also stated that he felt more “disoriented with the controls,” an issue that was reflected in how he began to play the game with more apprehension than with the sound on. However, the other testers were immediately more confident when they couldn’t hear enemies. While three participants did drop the controllers from brief jump scares, those moments lasted only a few seconds. Tester Three described his experience without sound as “virtually non-existent.” In the post-test questionnaire he expanded, saying that he had actually began to mute tracks of other games to play his own soundtracks over them. He explained that soundtracks actually changed the way he felt while playing particular games. In a way, this tester was establishing his own realities around him—and this makes me wonder if auditory rhetoric is perhaps more persuasive than visual. Five of the six testers, when asked what they would remember most from their game experience, said that they would remember the static sound and the overall ambiance it provided for the game. Despite it being such a small element within the design of the game, sound design created a deeper meaning within the gameplay experience, more-so than visual.

Interaction:

One of the last elements used for the creation of meaning in game design is a modality unique to this medium alone—one that requires interaction and participation from the player or “audience.” This is what Ian Bogost calls procedural rhetoric, which is “a general name for the practice of authoring arguments through processes . . . its arguments are made not through the construction of words or images, but through the authorship of rules of behavior, the construction of dynamic models” (29). James Paul Gee expands on this, defining the term as “set[s] of experiences a player participates in from a particular perspective” (23). In short, procedural rhetoric uses systems, methods, and processes to represent meaning, reality, persuasion, and argument. It explores how games use these systems of play persuasively, ultimately looking at how designers themselves craft meaning through player interactivity. In “Persuasive Games” Bogost suggests that video games can even provide models for real systems that reflect corporations and politics. However, procedural rhetoric can expand past simulation games and into more expressive titles through what Gee calls “embedded empathy” which can be seen when players put themselves inside the lives of the avatar (the character/protagonist) they are playing as, saying things like “I died” or “I won” when it was not them who died, but their avatar (31). Understanding a players association and overall identification with an in-game character is vital in understanding just how persuasive procedural rhetoric can be.

Unlike cinema, where a world is projected at a certain audience, a video game projects the audience (player) into a world the player feels that they can control (Parron 98). In short, a player becomes a participant rather than a passive audience—they experience rather than watch—and many game designers argue that this makes games a more intensive experience than a movie or book. In Silent Hill 2, the character is immediately put in the shoes of James, who is a blank slate for players to take control of. No one knows who he is or what is past was like—and yet from his initial actions we can tell that he may be suffering from some psychological trauma. James suffers from memory problems as well, a characteristic that immediately sets a connection between player and avatar by a deep yearning to understand what is going on. This connection can even become physical, as the players witness pain in the face of James and then feel the controller vibrate in their hand (an action that led a few of the testers to drop their controllers in their lap). This is what Bernard Perron calls gameplay emotions—emotions created from interacting with the world of the game (122). Through a combination of visual and auditory rhetoric, the testers already expressed a sense of how their participation of being projected into the world as a character in how they reacted to the different multi-modal devices of the game. In a sense, the sounds of the game especially are designed into the systems of Silent Hill 2 in that they become necessary for the game to be played at all.

The overall actions of the testers within the systems of Silent Hill 2 were elicited from the game itself. The game purposefully restricts players from valuable resources, forcing them to run from enemies rather than right. This persuades players to interact with its systems in a certain manner. These systems (i.e. resource and combat) made four of the testers feel as though their gameplay was “guided” by fear and necessity to find more resources and solve puzzles. Yet what was interesting is that each player approached the game differently in terms of solving puzzles. While one tester would incessantly search every inch of an area possible, others would run in a straight direction by following the map. Some testers would attack enemies while others would conserve ammo and run. In this respect procedural rhetoric is unique is that it becomes attached to the individual and how they respond to it. After their playthroughs I asked the testers if they would be as affected by the game if they were simply watching the game being played—all six participants answered with a resounding no stating that without interactivity, the meaning of the game is “greatly diminished.” Ultimately, interaction is what separates games from other mediums in the digital realm.

Conclusion:

There are many directions this project can go, from taking in more testing participants and focusing on more specific modalities, to looking at different games that are focused more on a single type of rhetorical device. But what we can see from this data is that games create meaning holistically through modalities of digital rhetoric in a unique way. They use elements of traditional media alongside procedurality and systems to create an experience and argument that a player can project themselves into. As we have seen, Silent Hill 2 does this, particularly in the realm of auditory rhetoric which it implements directly into its own game systems. Even in terms of the game’s systems, procedural rhetoric allows meaning to be created where there is none through how the player chooses to play the game—in this respect, they are creating their own meaning and experience. Do they rush through Silent Hill 2 and ignore its complexities, or do the play the game more carefully? Now that games are slowly creeping their way into an academic realm perhaps now it’s time to unlock the potential of what they can do, both in the context of game design itself, and even in education. If games allow the player to enter a set of data and patterns rather than passively accepting them, imagine the potential they could have in the field of education. It is in the very nature of games to teach through interactivity, and if we show how games create meaning perhaps we can explore that even more. Moreover, can games truly persuade and create a more personal meaning over other mediums? These are all topics and questions that will push this conversation and research into the future.

Works Cited

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games. MIT: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Blair, J. Anthony. “The Possibility and Actuality of Visual Arguments.” Argumentation and Advocacy.       ddddd33 (1996), 23-39. Print.

Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, and Literacy: An Eccentric History of the Composing Imagination. fdfdfdAlbany: State U of New York, 1994. Print.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Hocks, Mary. “Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments.” College Composition and Communication. 54.4 (2003), 629-56. Print.

Perron, Bernard. Silent Hill: The Terror Engine. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2011. Print.

Selfie, Cynthia L. “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” National Council of Teachers of English, 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <http://www.kathrynpieplow.pwrfaculty.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/Selfe_movement-of-air.pdf&gt;.

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