The Rhetoric of Reversals

This is actually more of a placeholder post for the moment – I want to say some things about the use of “reverse” game mechanics for rhetorical effect, but I’m not sure I’ll gather my thoughts sufficiently this evening to do a good job of it.

So, what I mean by this is that in games – perhaps particularly “serious” games, but games in general too – you sometimes see the designers reverse expectation and tradition in order to achieve a particular rhetorical or emotional effect.

A classic example of this is the game September 12th in which Gonzalo Frasca reverses the standard video game “point and shoot” mechanic in a couple of ways. First, he removes the ability to be accurate by having the missiles the player fires be delayed long enough to be essentially guaranteed not to hit the target the player had in mind. Second, he has the effect of the missiles be essentially the opposite of what the player presumably intends – they increase, rather than reduce the prevalence of terrorists. (Do go play it if you haven’t, it’s one of the more significant serious games out there.)

So, September 12th uses these reversals of gamer expectation in a poignant way to comment on certain aspects of the war on terror (“our” lack of control and effect). I used to think that this was a vaguely cheap trick, or at least very limited in scope (see Don’t Shoot the Puppy for a more comical argument for inaction), but I’m not as certain about that now.

Video games are a great medium for exploring powerlessness because they are traditionally about being powerful. It’s semiotics, baby – a meaning emphasised and amped up through its negation. Thus, we can also expect that video games would be powerful for talking about other aspects of life, such as diversity, being so often linear (see: Every Day the Same Dream); or maybe about ineptitude and error, for instance.

A kind of play-it-backwards situation?

13 July 2010
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