Wordplay and Video Games

Designing Words, Design, and Play

Review - Wordplay

‘In the wake of ‘big rhetoric’, the tools of rhetorical analysis offer a perspective for scholars interested in studying how knowledge and situated truths are established in and surrounding games. Rhetoric can address the entire discursive environment of gaming as virtually everything can be described as rhetorical’ (Christopher A. Paul p. 6).

At a rhetoric conference I attended last year, a presenter was asked whether his analysis of video games would have been better executed using Aristotle’s Poetics rather than his Rhetoric. The question of the appropriate tools of analysis for video games occupied the discussion at the conference, and is the central methodological question in Christopher Paul’s analysis of video games in Wordplay and the Discourse on Video Games: Analyzing Words, Design, and Play. My goal in this review is to assess how the author situates his analysis of video games within rhetorical criticism from the perspective of rhetoric theory. As I will show, although the text does not define or deploy the tools of rhetorical criticism in any specific way, it effectively demonstrates the persuasive characteristics of video game play.

To begin, the text is comprised of an introduction, eight chapters divided into two sections titled ‘The Contexts’ and ‘The Texts’ respectively, and a conclusion. In the introduction titled ‘A New Rhetoric of Video Games’, the author provides a brief personal context of video games, and then identifies ‘wordplay’ as his primary method of analysis, stating that he will use ‘the tools of rhetorical criticism’ to examine ‘the design, play, and coding’ of videogames (p. 2). Using terms central to rhetorical criticism, the author describes wordplay as a method that ‘facilitates analysis of how videogames persuade, create identifications and circulate meanings’ and can be used to address the three meaningful areas of videogames, words, play, and design, suggesting that these areas construct video games as ‘cultural objects (p. 2).

From the first, using the term ‘wordplay’ to analyze videogames creates a bit of a cognitive dissonance for the reader: wordplay – to state the obvious – is concerned with words; games are not typically associated with words but with images, sounds, and rules. Lack of contextualization compounds this initial confusion. As it is used by literary scholars, ‘wordplay’ analyzes the formal elements of literature, usually in epic works – Shakespeare, Homer, Joyce, etc. – to explore the literariness of language through meta-analysis. It also has a context in literary theory: ‘play’ connotes Derridean deconstructive analysis, wherein play indicates a mode of analysis that examines subversive signification in texts to show meaning and definition as unfixable. Further, ‘play’ is a significant term for video game scholarship which uses the term to denote the significance of the mental and physical work of engaging with video games on material and symbolic levels. Despite its context, however, the author does not explicate how his use of wordplay is different or similar to its standard use in closely related fields.

Texts and Contexts

Despite the energy dedicated to introducing rhetoric and wordplay in the introduction, however, both of these terms all but disappear from the textual analysis. In the first section titled ‘The Contexts’, chapter one examines how gamers are ‘socialized’ through various factors in game play, in which the author describes how certain features of games construct a particular lexicon that influences how gamers think about and play games. The second chapter explores the association of video games as children’s toys and the ethical problems this association poses (given the restricted content of some games), suggesting that this position should be re-evaluated given the broadened audience of current gamers. The third chapter explores how gaming communities inform game design, arguing for a historical understanding of game consoles as they reflect how games are played and the beliefs and values of the gamers at the time.

In the second section, ‘The Texts’, the author examines how humour, obsolescence, rewards, optimization, theorycraft, and meritocracy operate in specific games such as WoW, EA Sports, and GTA. The author contextualizes how these video game concepts are important within games, the gaming community, and society. Important to these analyses is the author’s explanation of how the intricacies of game play reflect the mandate of the game and gamer and ultimately change the trajectory of the game and how it is played, and even suggesting a larger scope of societal influence. The final conclusion titled ‘Words, Design, and Play’, iterates the claims established in the introduction, but does not offer further consideration of wordplay or rhetoric. Although the concepts mentioned in the introduction – human action, language, knowledge production – are broadly present, they are not explored using rhetorical analysis. In fact, in the way that the author interprets human activity as creating meaning within larger social spheres, the analysis appears to share more similarities with principles of sociology than with rhetoric.


I’d like to start my commentary on the book by returning to Paul’s initial definition of wordplay. After explaining that wordplay will analyze the elements found ‘within and around’ video games to address ‘how video games are made to mean’, in a subheading titled ‘Rhetoric’, the author lays out the theoretical framework for wordplay’s association with the tools of rhetorical criticism (p. 2). The author sets up his theoretical framework within the discipline of rhetoric by starting with a description of rhetoric’s association with classical oratory and the rift between Plato and the sophists. He defines rhetoric as the use of symbols to persuade – a fairly conventional definition – using Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Susan Schultz Huxman’s textbook. For his critical methodology, the author provides a paragraph summary of a few preeminent figures in rhetorical criticism: Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, R.L. Scott, and David Zarefsky. The author references Burke’s well-established argument claiming the symbolic dimensions of language, citing Burke’s assertion that ‘the whole overall picture [of reality] is but a construct of our symbol system’ (p. 4). The author then references Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s observation that ‘there is no neutral choice [in language]’ (p. 4), and then quickly moves to Scott’s famous assertion that ‘rhetoric is epistemic,’ from which the author asserts that ‘rhetorical analysis is a tool that can be used to investigate how situational truths are constructed and what, in turn, these newly established truths function to do’ (p. 5). The penultimate paragraph quotes Zarefsky’s claim that ‘big rhetoric’ is a turn toward a rhetorical perspective, to ask the questions such as ‘what’s going on here’ and ‘so what’ (p. 5) which the author interprets to mean that ‘[a]nything can be analyzed rhetorically through a critical examination of the dynamics of the message’ (p. 5). In his final assessment of rhetoric and rhetorical criticism, the author concludes that ‘a broad understanding of rhetoric is well suited for analysis of video games and forms the base of wordplay… Rhetoric can address the entire discursive environment of gaming as virtually everything can be described as rhetorical’ (p. 6).

The author’s statement that he will proceed from the critical position that ‘everything is rhetorical’ indicates that he understands rhetorical criticism as not the application of specific tools, but rather more general ways of thinking. This poses a methodological problem, since the tools discussed above are not necessarily those solely of rhetorical criticism, but analysis more generally: his description of communication as symbolic, argumentative, epistemic, and as something that should be questioned, are the primary guiding principles of reasoned inquiry in the humanities and elsewhere, and are not specific to rhetorical criticism. Criticism is distinguished by specific methodological procedures which feature a central object of analysis; in rhetoric, methods proceed from a systematized understanding of communication and human action, and artefacts as persuasive within symbolic systems. Failing to specifically define these parameters creates a lack of critical focus and precision in this study. Moreover, and important to rhetoric as a discipline, identifying the tools of rhetorical analysis in such broad terms does a disservice to rhetorical criticism by failing to acknowledge the artistic characteristics (technē) of persuasive communication. In the author’s hands, rhetoric becomes malleable, one size fits all, subject to capricious application rather than rigorous interpretation, and forced to serve the needs of the critic rather than employed to exercise the imperatives of the discipline.


Yet, despite the lapse in methodological rigor, the remaining text is significant in that it provides a cogent and informed – albeit entirely subjective – perspective of an individual who is entrenched in games, detailing how he orients his life through games and gaming. At times the analysis takes a very personal tone, describing how video games acted to bring him closer to his father, how he sewed earned Atari patches on his jacket and wore them, and how he organized his waking and sleeping life to maximize game play. In this sense, the analysis can be seen as a sort of instruction manual, a gamer’s imperative, as it explains how to successfully negotiate the social, perceptual, design, and material elements of gaming, and then, in the second section, how to apply these principles to specific games.

Understood in this way, while the text does not adequately address successful applications of rhetoric in video games, its detailed rendering of personal, professional, and social realities provides an interesting artefact for rhetorical analysis. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke describes rhetoric as ‘rooted in an essential function of language itself…the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols’ (1950 p. 41). According to Burke, all human action is symbolic, or persuasive, in the way that it structures and informs human relations and meaning. In his descriptions of gaming as producing and maintaining associations between gamers, games, and society, the author exhibits how game play operates as persuasive action within symbolic dimensions, creating new ways to negotiate games and to think about games.

The author’s suggestion that game design is structured through the game play, for example, shows that he understands play as doing something in the world beyond that of simple mechanics. We can also see the gamer’s actions as persuasive in the language the author uses to analyze his interaction: rather than simple indicative mood, the text is written in an oddly modified imperative mood evident at the level of sentence construction. When describing game play, the author avoids using the subjective ‘I’ choosing instead to say ‘the player’ or ‘players’ but then refers to his reader using the pronoun ‘you.’ For example, the author observes in his discussion of Eve Online that ‘the game is played by the fewest people of any examined in this chapter’ and then remarks that ‘this means if you know anyone playing Eve, you are going to be playing with them’ (p. 134). Passive sentence construction that oscillates between objective and subjective indicates a formal yet colloquial tone, as if he is personally instructing his fellow gamers, even in a formal academic context. From the perspective that the author’s instructions exhibit symbolic action, these frequent sentences constructions serve as markers of social cohesion that speak to strong degrees of familiarity among gamers, showing game play as symbolic in dimensions beyond gamer and console, even pervading this study.

In this instance and in others, the author provides the epistemological tools required to negotiate the world of gaming, while at the same time articulating the persuasive characteristics that occupy the existence of a gamer. These are tools of gaming but are more broadly also the tools of systematization which create meaning within the gaming community. What these aspects show, and perhaps the point of a text like this, I think, is that the question of method is more challenging in game studies than in other disciplines because of the way that the tools of game play are bound up within the critical tools of analysis. Although opportunities to analyze this tension are frequent, critical delineation of the tools and method of game play remain unacknowledged in this text.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth (1966). Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Burke, Kenneth (1950). A Rhetoric of Motives, New York, Prentice-Hall.

Derrida, Jacques (1967). ‘Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences’, in Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, London, Routledge, 278-294.