I. Teaching Games and Procedural Rhetoric

Rhetoric and composition courses are a staple of university education, bringing students into a critical practice of academic inquiry, disciplinary familiarity, and rigorous participation in the discourses around them. Usually, these courses introduce students to a set of critical tools with which to analyze arguments and traditional texts on which to hone these tools. Books and essays provide examples of verbal arguments, while film and advertisement expand inquiry to include visual rhetoric. Students come to understand what makes for effective argumentation and expression even as they learn to identify logical fallacies and cultural blind spots, such as sexist representation and ableist language. But many modern discourses take place in complex systems, systems with conflicting incentives, with rules and objectives, with mixed participants and stakeholders. Our increasingly online and divisive world present challenging discursive obstacles that include formal requirements of mediums and tricky expectations of etiquette. Researchers and theorists have identified a focus on games in the classroom as a productive means to support what is called the “4Cs” essential in college composition—critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration (Hayse 288)—even as they appear to “intensify active learning, classroom engagement, and student motivation” (290). This essay argues that an intentional study of games as cultural texts helps illuminate arguments buried in the rules of systems that surround us. The study of tabletop roleplaying games, which entail the use of discussion to achieve collective goals, allows us to specifically examine the systems that govern and contextualize discourse itself.

In this essay, I lay out some theoretical foundations for analyzing the ways that games make arguments and for ways to use tabletop games in Rhetoric and composition classrooms to study these arguments. This form of rhetoric, called “procedural rhetoric,” provides students with tools to analyze how the systems we create to simulate and regulate human behavior (academic, legal, political, etc.) all entail their own arguments about the things they simulate and regulate— for example, the hand-raising practice in a college classroom which makes implicit arguments about the purpose, direction, and power assigned to participants in that space. My paper looks at two nontraditional tabletop roleplaying games, Lasers and Feelings (2013) and The Deep Forest (2014), in comparison with early versions of Dungeons and Dragons (1974), to illustrate how these and other games make procedural arguments. We explore the limitations of these games even as we track how the game rules dispute problematic claims embedded in early RPGs, which unintentionally reinforce racially essentialist views, recreate structures of Western hegemony, and valorize capitalist individualism. Ultimately, we discuss how these games of collaborative discussion can replicate pitfalls in real-world discursive practices, and how an analysis of the constraints, assumptions, and goals of these games might point us to where these discussions are confounded in everyday life.

In a world where students are increasingly faced with forms of discourse that entail constructed procedures, including the forms of engagement allowed or disallowed on social media, it is crucial to make these unexamined processes visible and to develop a vocabulary for and habit of thinking critically about the mediums. bell hooks calls such critical thinking “a way of approaching ideas that aims to understand core, underlying truths, not simply that superficial truth that may be most obviously visible,” (9), and rarely are these distinctions between what is visible and invisible more challenging than in the systems which structure our expressive acts. Insofar as critical thinking is what “empowers us” (11) to understand and challenge inherited ideas as hooks argues, the purpose of this unit is to develop in students an introductory vocabulary and attention to the way constructed systems and processes imply and proceed from arguments about what they structure.

Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games (2007) lays out a comprehensive framework for analyzing the arguments games make, coining the term “procedural rhetoric” to describe “the art of persuasion through rule-based representations and interactions rather than the spoken word, writing, images, or moving pictures” (Bogost ix). Such rhetoric might be most easily identified in the arguments made in the designing of a city-building simulator game, like the SimCity series, which allows players to manage a city by building infrastructure that affects statistics like crime rate. In designing the game, its authors encode a numeric relation of structures like prisons and police stations that correspond to a city’s crime, which is an argument about that relation, an argument about crime that another designer might challenge as being correspondent instead to, say, the number of schools or a community centers. Bogost argues that rules-based systems offer a “way to make claims about how things work,” (29) and thus our analysis of these systems unpacks the claims their authors presume and mount, including the argument made about the relation of crime to police presence. I teach an excerpt of Bogost in my class to frame these ideas for students and to encourage them to identify the systems surrounding them and the arguments they entail, including a careful look at my own syllabus, not dissimilar to the rulebook of a game, and how it argues for what constitutes the demonstration of skills and knowledge the class is meant to assess.

I next introduce students to philosopher C. T. Nguyen through his interview on the Ezra Klein Show podcast, the recording and transcript of which is available on the New York Times website. Nguyen’s arguments pair nicely with Bogost’s, drawing attention to the way applications like Twitter/X gamify communication and therefore incentivize certain behaviors by what it tracks and rewards. Nguyen provides a useful definition for games, paraphrasing Bernard Suits, to claim that to play games is to “voluntarily take on unnecessary obstacles for the sake of making possible the activity of overcoming them” (Nguyen). Nguyen explains key insights about how game designers use tools, such as the point system, to induce in the game player a new agency that has been sculpted for them to inhabit. Our class considers some familiar systems for the procedural rhetoric and agency manipulation they entail, asking: What arguments are made by US voting processes? By university degree requirements? What agency does social media sculpt for us to inhabit? What about a classroom?

Before students are ready to jump into their own analysis of games and the procedural rhetoric and agency manipulation they entail, it is helpful to introduce the popularizer of the tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons, and model an analysis of it. There are many videos online that describe and demonstrate the game, but the aptly titled “D&D Explained in 5 Minutes” video by “The Dungeoncast,” available on YouTube is perfectly sufficient for explaining how characters are generated through player choices accompanied by dice rolls to determine attributes, how actions are undertaken and their success determined by rules, dice rolls, and the game master’s arbitration, and the aims of enrichment, empowerment, and adventure which drive the play. This video provides a suitable lead in to the 2-page section, “Procedural Representation and Procedural Rhetoric…,” of Gerald Vorhees’ “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying Games” essay, available for free on the Games Studies website. After watching the video, this section is read aloud in class, discussed, clarified, and used to consider how design decisions that go into D&D make arguments that can feel neutral or invisible in simulating identities and actions but carry clear ideological implications.  

II. Lasers and Feelings, The Deep Forest, Individual Identity, and Collaboration

After introducing students to these thinkers and concepts, we play Lasers and Feelings (L&F) as a class. Students take home the rules pdf, read it carefully, and analyze it for its procedural arguments. I ask for volunteers to act as “Game Masters” (GM) and to come up with a loose story, as well as a few events, characters, and challenges for their group. The remaining students write character backstories as part of the day’s homework after reading. They play L&F in class, saving the last fifteen minutes of class time to analyze and discuss the game system as a group. L&F is a free-to-download, simple, playful, and open-ended RPG by John Harper, and the one-page description describes the rules system, the game’s goals, the guidelines for the GM and players, and even a template for creating the story. L&F is heavily indebted to Star Trek, and the game’s core mechanic, endowing characters with strength in either “lasers” or “feelings,” alludes to the depiction of Spock, and his association with rationality, in opposition to Kirk, with his overriding passion. Players choose a number to determine whether they will be better at “lasers” which represent “technology; cold rationality; calm, precise action,” or whether they will be better at “feelings” which include “intuition; diplomacy; seduction; wild, passionate action.” Some of the questions we ask as a class are how the game formulates identity and what characteristics are determined to be significant, how the game simulates taking action and what determines success, where and how power is distributed by the rules, and how the design prioritizes certain values and goals at the expense of others.

In its primary mechanic, the game creates some distinctive procedural arguments. D&D has players roll for six attributes, simulating a breadth of characteristics that one randomly receives from the lottery of birth, a process Gerald Voorhees says implies “reductive determinism” (Voorhees) insofar as one’s characteristics like “strength” and “intelligence” are imposed from without and constraining to one’s agency. L&F presents what first appears to be an even more pinched view of individual capacity, modeling only two attributes significant to a person’s agency in the world in either “lasers” or “feelings.” However, the significant attribute is chosen in L&F, rather than randomly generated from a dice roll, which suggests that the salient part of one’s identity is instantiated by that individual. The player chooses a number between two and five, a higher number makes the player better at tasks under the “laser” umbrella, and a lower number better at those categorized as “feelings.” When undertaking an action, players roll the dice and try to get either over or under their number, meaning tasks which a GM designates as “rational” are inversely difficult for players who chose a number associating their character with “feelings” and vice versa.

Taken together, these rules make procedural arguments about what attributes make up a person’s efficacy. Some of these are thoughtful and interesting, such as the idea that our gifts are what we choose rather than what we receive. Some arguments are perhaps problematic, such as the reification of the rational/emotional binary which plays into historic racial and gendered stereotypes, including a long practice of defining men and women in opposition across this distinction and valuing being “rational” as superior. Among other aspects of the game lie key components that provide further arguments about the nature of action and identity. Compared with the original D&D, in which actions are primarily singular in nature, a test of the individual’s skills, attributes, and luck, L&F allows players to roll an extra die on their action attempts if another player is “helping them”. This design choice argues for the power of social support as a meaningful compliment to individual strengths in overcoming challenges. L&F also avoids the troubled racial history of D&D, wherein a player’s chosen race bestows essential benefits and limitations to their characters’ basic aptitude and, in the original version, even defines the moral limitations of some races and the potential roles they might choose. In L&F, race is purely cosmetic in nature, part of the primary goal of the game: aesthetic, collaborative storytelling.

Toward these ends, the game’s rules entwine the language of regulation with a tone of playfulness, such as the line, “[g]ive your character a cool space adventure name. Like Sparks McGee or something” (Harper). The imperative structure of the sentence is ironic alongside the subjective language of “cool” and the silly example, underscoring this aesthetic priority. Likewise, the “Player Goal” is described as getting the “character involved in crazy space adventures and try[ing] to make the best of them” while the GM is encouraged “to find out how the [players] defeat the threat.” Because of the sparseness of the rules and the shared aim of the objective, the game’s collaboration is untroubled by cross-pressures. The skills required are not rule familiarity or problem-solving but improvisation and creativity in crafting something mutually satisfying. The game presumes players succeed and is run to see how they do, giving players time to respond to threats and to discover how their choices end up working out. Because of the presumption of success, it may be tempting to argue that the game makes a grand procedural argument about the nature of collective action toward disrupting society’s bad actors. Many have noted the optimistic liberalism in Star Trek, the game’s inspiration, a show that projects into the future Western liberalism as a force for good that opposes and overcomes forces of oppression and degradation. But it is hard to take this argument seriously in L&F due to the playful, camp trappings. Instead, the game’s more sustained procedural rhetoric explores the nature of individual aptitude and what it suggests about identity and collaboration.

After playing L&F, I introduce my class to another game, The Deep Forest, having them read the fifteen-page rulebook and annotate its procedural arguments. As Tyler Brunette suggests, in tabletop RPGs “both players and rules mediate the gameplay. Rules provide a framework for the players to interact with in the creation of stories, and the physical possibilities, metaphysical conventions, and ideological implications of those rules implicitly shape the types of stories that can and will be told by players” (Brunette). These elements guide our analysis of the game. Students break into groups to play together across two days, saving the last fifteen minutes of each day for discussion of their analysis of the reading and the actual play of the game. Students consistently find that the game presents an even more radical break with the conventions of D&D—with which we compare it, based on the previous class materials—than does L&F. TDF functions less as a means of collective storytelling and more as a test of empathy, asking players to imagine the challenges in a community they create.

Where conventional tabletop RPGs feature character sheets that inscribe the features and wealth of the character, incentivizing capitalist imperatives toward self-improvement and personal enrichment, The Deep Forest is described as a “map-drawing game” that invites players to “collectively explore the struggle of a community of monsters, trying to rebuild and heal after driving off the human occupiers” (Alder & Truman). There are no character sheets, players speak on behalf of many different monster groups, and the map is a shared space of symbolic marking. Sitting with the themes of decolonization, players mark the map with symbols that represent elements of their monster community and its road to reflection and healing. Players are encouraged to “work together to create and steer” the community, voicing their responses to various story prompts drawn from a traditional deck of cards that correspond to predefined events. Players are encouraged to let subjective discretion guide their choices but not necessarily toward what is fun or cool but, rather, the “option that [players] find the most interesting and fitting”. The action is constrained by time, the opening sketch taking “four minutes at most” and turns limited to “2-3 minutes.” In addition to the dice and paper required by L&F, TDF also needs a deck of cards and a score of small tokens which can be set on the map to represent what the game calls “contempt,” a feature that provides some of the game’s most interesting procedural arguments.

Contempt comes about when another “player starts a project that you don’t agree with,” the rules say, adding that “you don’t get to voice your objections or speak out of turn” (Alder & Truman). Instead of vocally disagreeing, players are “invited to place a piece of contempt” on the board for the rest of the game, acting “as a reminder of past contentions and slights, signs of discord within a diverse community.” Players can remove contempt tokens only by “diffusing tensions” or “by acting selfishly.” The procedural argument in these dual options is curious. On the one hand, the idea that one might dissolve contempt by collaborating with the offending party argues that such tensions are resolved through harmonious actions. But the other approach implies that acting selfishly removes the stings of past hurts in a way that might seem less persuasive, and which certainly cuts against the broader directives to use the game to act out a process of collaborative healing.

A similar procedural tension between the game’s broad aims and its rules exists in how voicing concerns is simulated, the process for which diminishes the potential for players to see ideas challenged or to need to support them. Part of the tension is a function of the time limits, with 2-3 minutes being too brief a window to discuss any meaningful action—a point the game reinforces by explicitly discouraging deliberation. In fact, a player has near full control over what is done by the community during their turn, including one of the main categories of action which is “Agree on Something.” In the description of “Agree on Something,” the acting player makes a statement about a problem or issue in the community, and “everyone else then gets to weigh in once, sharing their agreement with [the] statement or describing what their silence looks like” in the voices of monsters they choose to represent (Alder & Truman). There is no immediate mechanism for reversing course if many stay silent. Instead, the game says that if “any [players] feel like [they] have more to say on a topic, [they] can always Agree on Something about it at a later point.” The language here feels vaguely Orwellian since the action is called “Agree on Something” but there is not necessarily any agreement; rather a claim is made with no allowance for disagreement. Only silence is permitted in dissent, and, in counterargument, a player waits for their turn and uses their own uncontestable time to voice a different position. This is an interesting simulation of dialogue for a tabletop RPG but may help us identify the challenges inherent to adjudicating disagreement in forums devoted to validation rather than inquiry. Between the sharply constrained timeframe and pressure to either agree or create a parallel narrative, the game ends up replicating some of the features of modern social and news media, notorious for grandstanding and for creating siloed discourses, in a way that students may consider for its significance and alternatives.

III. Constraints, Assumptions, and Discursive Practice in Games and the World

It is on this final point that I will end, pointing to a difference between the two games, how the aims and rules of each frame the discursive practices of the players, and what they can teach us. In L&F the rules are so light as to be non-existent, the conceptualization of character reflects some problematic stereotypes but is both self-directed and negotiable, in that players can argue that their gifts are an asset to any action at hand. But the agency crafted for the player is one oriented toward collaborative storytelling and L&F is most significantly shaped by these broad directives to make a satisfying and fun story, presuming that the players are ultimately successful and in good faith. The game facilitates creative storytelling but does not encourage players to consider serious questions or model the difficulty of their resolutions. In TDF players’ agency is crafted to encourage speaking loosely and variously on behalf of a variety of individuals and groups and to do so to explore and reflect on how traumas persist and develop over time. It decentralizes the power structures of conventional RPGs by replacing the game master with a “facilitator,” who does not have final say in rule arbitration but is encouraged to “[a]llow players to be the ultimate arbiters of their own contributions” (Alder & Truman). TDF likewise resists individual empowerment fantasies in which players pursue personal power and wealth, encouraging players to expand their empathetic imaginations by “speak[ing] for different monsters throughout.” However, several ideological presumptions, unspoken values, and procedural rhetorics undermine some of the game’s otherwise promising potential for encouraging intellectual curiosity or interpersonal discovery in this process.

In a way, both games reflect the philosophical importation of the yes, and from improvisational traditions, which discourage responses that begin with no, but in collaboration to instead build on each other’s ideas without stalling out in disagreement. Referred to as “the bedrock of all improvisation,” yes, and is an approach which is meant to decrease the degree to which ideas feel, “judged, criticized, and rejected too quickly” (Leonard & Yorton 13). In L&F this is uncomplicated by the nature of the game: to have fun, to work on the side of liberation against oppression, and to do so in a format whose playfulness does not presume to simulate the real complexities of politics and trauma. But TDF uses the yes, and formulation in ways that can be stifling and reflects how sensitive political conversations may take on censorial procedures. In the last decade, several social movements have worked their way into public conversations, but not without rhetorical difficulties. Political discussions frequently struggle to deal with in-group disagreements of interpretation and strategy, especially when reflecting on harm. Stipulations about who gets to speak, ungenerous assumptions about intent, and illiberal pressures to silence disagreement can result from such challenges. One can absolutely see and sympathize with the motivation behind phrases like “just believe her” in discussions of sexual violence and dismissive terms like “concern trolling” or “tone policing,” which admonish against challenging the testimony of marginalized individuals. But as we see modeled in the game TDF, such bans on crosstalk, however nobly motivated, can constrain our ability to sharpen ideas, collaborate toward greater understanding, and delineate important distinctions.

A place we might see such procedural rhetoric outside the game world which functions similarly is the internet forum Reddit, where users post comments in moderated “subreddit” communities. One subreddit called “ShitRedditSays” boasted millions of users at one time, and a dedication to the noble goal of watchdogging prejudicial comments on Reddit as a whole, encouraging users to link posts they found sexist or racist in other subreddits. But among the rules for the ShitRedditSays subreddit was a ban on arguing whether something was, in fact, racist or sexist—comments that disputed another poster’s interpretation of a post were summarily deleted as a matter of procedure. It’s not difficult to see the reasoning behind this rule: the desire to make space for people’s feelings of outrage and to avoid getting bogged down by bad actors. But it is also easy to see how such a community could struggle to adjudicate what counts as problematic language and perhaps unsurprising that an independent study by data scientists found that the subreddit was the site’s “most toxic community” as measured by the amount and intensity of personal attacks on other users (O’Brien). It is often in these sorts of online communities, from social media to news comment sections, where many people engage most directly in rhetorical acts and these sorts of procedural factors that shape the effectiveness and tenor of that discourse. In analyzing L&F and TDF for the ways their rules shape communication, the tensions and harmonies that rules help to produce, students can export their observations of how other mediums, and the engagement they allow or incentivize, shape discourse that runs through them.

There is one final element worth pointing out here. Unlike the inevitable happy ending of L&F, in TDF the “human heroes” are fated to return at a time unknown but inevitable, and thegame ends, bleakly and tellingly the moment that card is drawn. While not necessarily related to the game’s insistence that players move quickly through the rounds, avoid debate, and “refrain from free-wheeling discussion,” the game’s inevitable ending, the dramatic irony of which is told to the players at the beginning, nonetheless shapes the way discussion takes place—or does not—in the game. The game presumes real progress and change are not possible, that characters must move quickly and without resistance to achieve whatever immediate validation they can from voicing their anger without challenge. And as such, anything that slows these moments takes away from this palliative purpose and robs the community of the only solace it might discover, since substantial change is always already impossible. One cannot help but think this game and the discussion it simulates would be different if it wasn’t presumed the struggle for healing and rebuilding was doomed. What if the game were allowed to move more slowly? What if players were allowed to disagree and digress? We ask these questions in class not to design a new game or to critique the one we play but to analyze how systems frame discourse, allowing us to consider, for example, how the presumption of either possibility or of intractability in the climate movement, for example, can shape its discursive practices.

In teaching these games, I prioritize letting students work through the rules and play them without oversight. I assign students an excerpt from Persuasive Games, Nguyen’s Ezra Klein Show interview, and some demonstration of what it means to play and analyze conventional RPGs beforehand. Then we spend a week playing these games in class. At the end of each day, we discuss the meaningful procedural arguments we can tease out of these games’ designs and how they differ from the procedural arguments of each other and of other, real-world systems, like that of our classroom. We discuss how such designs allow, delimit, or encourage the adoption of certain agencies. I ask students to consider how the rules, assumptions, sculpted subjectivities, and mediums affect the act of discourse. Just as we might ask how Twitter incentivizes, bars, or rewards certain forms of expression and debate, just as emergencies or power differentials shape communication, so too do other procedures, contexts, and presumptions shape discourse. We are empowered when we can analyze and identify the meaningful rhetorical constraints, procedural and otherwise, in the systems of our world. And analyzing games is a meaningful step to identifying how these systems work.

IV. Initial Findings and Further Possibilities

My initial experience has been promising, with students choosing to unpack military-style shooter games for analysis projects, students designing financial management boardgames as advocacy projects on economic precarity, and students using the terminology of procedurality and agency manipulation to discuss social structures ranging from dating apps to political enfranchisement. These and other conversations deepen immeasurably with the tools that studying games provides to think about the arguments made by systems. Though instructors should be aware of the novelty of these concepts to students and treat materials like those listed above as a baseline necessity for students to engage with these concepts, many other adjacent materials will work just as well. Likewise, the adoption of different RPGs in different classrooms to different ends will add significantly to our collective understanding of games, of rules-based systems, and of discursive practices. These materials can be easily adapted to adjacent disciplines that focus on various forms of analysis, interpretation, or argumentation such as Literature, Philosophy, Communication, or even Public Policy. Further study in these areas can only deepen students’ and faculty’s understanding of the structural arguments that surround us. There is great potential for critical, theoretical, and pedagogical inquiry in the rich arena of RPGs—and the relatively inexpensive and brief materials make indie RPGs, such as L&F and TDF, promising options for this inquiry in the classroom.

Works Cited

Alder, Avery, Mark Diaz Truman. The Deep Forest. Independent, 2014.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. MIT Press. 2007.

Brunette, Tyler. “The Rules of Utopia: The Procedural Rhetoric of The Book of Cairn.” Vector, 6 July 2022, https://vector-bsfa.com/2022/07/06/the-rules-of-utopia-the-procedural-rhetoric-of-the-book-of-cairn/.

Gygax, Gary, Dave Arneson. Dungeons and Dragons. TSR, 1974.

Harper, John. Lasers and Feelings. Independent, 2013.

Hayse, Mark. “Tabletop Games and 21st Century Skill Practice in the Undergraduate Classroom.” Teaching Theology and Religion. Vol 21, Issue 4, 2018, 288-302.

hooks, bell. Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom. Routledge, 2009.

Dungeoncast, The. “D&D Explained in 5 Minutes.” YouTube, uploaded by The Dungeoncast, 26 June 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BgvHNlgmKro.

Leonard, Kelly, and Tom Yorton. ‘Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses ‘No, But’ Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration. Harper Business, 2015.

Nguyen, C. T. Are We Measuring Our Lives in All the Wrong Ways. The Ezra Klein Show. By Ezra Klein, 2022.

O’Brien, Chris. “Reddit Study: ShitRedditSays is Site’s Most Toxic Thread; TheRedPill is Most

Bigoted”. VentureBeat, 2015, https://venturebeat.com/media/reddit-study-shitredditsays-is-sites-most-toxic-thread-theredpill-is-most-bigoted/.

Roddenberry, Gene, creator. Star Trek. Desilu Productions and Paramount Television, 1966.

Voorhees, Gerald. “The Character of Difference: Procedurality, Rhetoric, and Roleplaying

Games.” Game Studies, 2009, https://gamestudies.org/0902/articles/voorhees.

Dr. Justin Cosner

University of Iowa

Justin Cosner is a Lecturer of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa where he teaches classes that include the Rhetoric of Videogames and Videogames as Art and Advocacy.