Freedom to Fight: Video Game Rhetoric

“Get off your butt and go play outside or something!” the average mom tells her kid. “You’re going to waste your life away on stupid video games that rot your brain and ruin your eyesight and your health, sitting around in front of a screen all day!”

Hopefully, for all the video game-playing children out there, most moms aren’t quite as harsh as our hypothetical Average Mom. But her sentiments represent the concerns voiced in the general public discussion on the pros and cons of video games. While knocks to video games’ affect on a players physical health are arguably true, there’s just as strong an argument for the educational, or at least persuasive, feature of gaming.

To professor and video game designer Ian Bogost, games create models of reality through which players can explore ideologies and cultural, political, or societal values. The player is presented with a world and an end goal–sometimes it’s war time and you have to capture all the bases, other times it’s a plot of land for a business that you must make profitable, or even an open world for you to create anything you can imagine. Either way, there are certain programmed rules by which you achieve these end goals.

These rules, or procedures, governing the game create what Bogost calls possibility spaces—the multitude of ways a player can work within the games procedures. Some games have very strict, inflexible rules that limit gameplay to a specific story or path, but the most popular games right now take the opposite tack. The Grand Theft Auto series, Skyrim, Minecraft, and the like have complex, open worlds in which you can craft your own story, or at least choose which story lines you want to explore. These games allow nearly infinite possibility spaces.

    Screen shots from Grand Theft Auto 5 (left)
and Skyrim  (below).

Towerfall Ascension, a popular PS4 game released in 2013, lacks the sophisticated graphics and highly detailed world of the Skryim-esque games pictured above, but has still managed to hit success. The visuals hark back to old arcade games, as do the 2-D, static game maps but players clamor for more. The trailer below shows how creators aim to lure in gamers:

The end goal boils down to “kill the bad guys and don’t die yourself” and each map follows the same general “spawn baddies in increasing numbers” setup, but somehow it’s still addictive.

Why? How?

I would say first that the seeming simplicity offers something different from the Bioshocks and Shadow of Mordors of the gaming world, but just as important is the procedural control the creators have given to players.

Questing is simple and goal oriented, but for player-on-player games, you can modify your players abilities, the treasure contents, where the treasure appears and how it looks, and the list goes on, creating multitudes of possibility spaces in which the gamers can follow the good vs. evil story. The simplistic story itself fades in significance—the creators advertised a fight to free the tower from the evil invaders, but in the game play, all you care about is beating the level, unlocking new maps and characters, and playing out the lone assassin/vigilante taking out targets.

The story seems simple, old-fashioned, and not quite as packed with persuasive rhetoric or educational side effects as games like Animal Crossing, as Bogost pointed out in his article “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” However, as you ascend through levels of difficulties, the ease of killing, and even detecting, who the bad guys are decreases. You start off with one-eyed blobs, graduate to knife-wielding reapers, then to humanoid characters close to our level of skill, and finally shadows that take the image of whichever player’s character they see first.

Players select game variants for character battles.

Players select game variants for character battles.

badguy1 badguy2 badguy3

Through the game play, users reenact over and over the game of good versus evil, playing maps repeatedly until clearing the final stage and advancing to the next. Like the more complex, realistic assassin and warfare games, Towerfall Ascension allows players to fantasize about being heroes, vigilantes, and bad-ass warriors who are able to take down any enemy; skillful, athletic, competent killers who are able to enact violence in the name of the greater good.

While recent studies show that violent games do not, as previously assumed, create more violent teens, according to this article. Perhaps, in these worlds, we’re able to release some aggression and find satisfaction in a world where good and evil are simpler. Good will ultimately triumph, no matter what, because you can restart maps at will. We have more control over our world, in this game, and the rules are easy to understand. Unlike life, victory is certain; success is ensured.


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