As a part of our work on a newsgame authoring tool, the
newsgames team has been working on ways to dissect and analyze the raw components
of classic videogames. One term we've used to describe the fundamental dynamics
of game-player interaction is the "micro-rhetoric," which can be described as
a discrete impression created by the smallest possible aspect of a mechanic or object parameter. For example, enemies moving according to a slow and predictable
displacement rule will result in pattern-driven play, producing a micro-rhetoric of "routine," whereas enemies with quick and unpredictable movements will require twitchiness from players and create an impression of danger.
Even the simplest video games have the potential for numerous micro-rhetorics
depending on factors such as movement speed, firing patterns, numbers of lives, and scoring variations. The classic Atari title Kaboom
, which has served as a Rosetta Stone for our ludic
deconstructions, contains at least 16 micro-rhetorics.
One thing that we quickly learned during our
deconstructions is that individual micro-rhetorics are rarely unique.
Variations on enemy health, movement, and attack speeds result in different
shades of aggression and evasion while different scoring and reward structures
reinforce or discourage certain patterns of play. It is the various
combinations of these existing micro-rhetorics that produce unique procedural
arguments. There are rarer mechanics that are particularly expressive, however.
The neutral zone in Yar's Revenge has
a number of rhetorical applications. It can be a shelter, or a place to hide.
Retreating to it can be considered an act of cowardice or an intelligent
As a means of testing out our terminology and seeking out similar unique micro-rhetorics, we thought it might be productive to search for micro-rhetorics in contemporary videogames. One modern title that has won several hearts among the newsgames team is Minecraft, an independent PC game that is currently in development. The current paid beta edition of the game places players on an island populated by animals and monsters with nothing but their bare hands to keep them alive.
Unlike most videogames, which feature either a scoring system or a narrative to structure gameplay, a Minecraft player is simply left to experiment and explore the randomly generated world she finds herself in. Rhetorically, this makes the game something of a cipher as a video game's victory or scoring condition is usually central to its procedural argument. Instead, we must interpret the game's micro-rhetorics based on the potential experiences it can offer.
The player can break apart the world's terrain to receive blocks of material which can then be used to build structures or craft items. Through crafting, a player can create weapons and armor as well as various tools such as mining picks, work benches and ovens, which allow for further crafting. As a player digs deeper into the terrain, she will find more valuable materials that allow her to create more durable and complicated tools, though these valuable materials are rare and difficult to mine.
The game's main source of tension is its monster spawning system, which causes hostile creatures to appear in dark areas. When night falls in the game world, monsters appear rapidly and continuously. Most of the hostile masses die away at dawn, however, as sunlight steadily burns them. There is no limit on the number of times a player can die and re-spawn, and there is no way to permanently defeat the swarms of enemies that appear in the dark.
The relatively simple mechanics behind this premise are rhetorically rich. Monsters move swiftly, have a large amount of health, and cause considerable damage to the player with each attack even when she is protected only by rudimentary armor. Night establishes a micro-rhetoric of being menaced. Consequently, the best survival strategy is to build a shelter and wait for daybreak. There is something of Yar's neutral zone in constructing a house, though there is also a great deal of potential for artistic expression.
Players have built mansions, castles, and even scale replicas of cities in other videogames. In fact, a player could construct an impressive dwelling out of dirt, stone, and wood without ever exploring the depths of the game's randomly generated caverns. If the player hopes to obtain the most complicated items (like a jukebox with a diamond core), she will have to brave the darkness and risk losing track of daylight as she digs deeper into the ground. This establishes a straightforward dynamic where risk increases in a nearly direct correlation to potential rewards.
There are more specific, situational micro-rhetorics that arise in gameplay as well. Green monsters known as "creepers" wander the world and explode upon close proximity to the player, doing catastrophic damage to the player and destroying most nearby terrain. While it is possible to kill a creeper with melee weapons, nine times out of ten, they will explode before the player can deal a coup de grâce. The preferred method of dispatching creepers is a bow and arrow, though ammunition for such weapons is sparse and creepers can sustain quite a beating before dying.
The player can hide from creepers for a time, but, unlike most monsters, they are immune to sunlight, all-but ensuring an eventual confrontation. There are wrinkles to this scenario however. If the player is building a house or other structure, she will be motivated to prevent the creeper from detonating near her construction project. This situation transforms the creeper into a threat to the player's creativity, producing a micro-rhetoric of suppression, or censorship.
It is worth noting that Minecraft can be set to a "peaceful mode" where monsters vanish from the game world and hazards such as lava do not damage players. What remains is a platform for building and exploration, not unlike Legos. While peaceful mode Minecraft does has ludic potential, it is no longer a game so much as an elaborate toy, or a virtual world. Even in this state, Minecraft does exert something comparable to a micro-rhetoric on users. An unexplored, randomly generated frontier makes a strong appeal to players' curiosity, urging them to seek out the unknown.
In many respects, this argument for exploration is "purer" than most other titles featuring similar micro-rhetorics of exploration. The horizons of massively multiplayer role-playing games such as World of Warcraft will have inevitably been discovered and charted by other players, beta-testers, and developers. Similarly, the unexplored world maps in games like The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy are identical from cartridge to cartridge. Furthermore, while players are required to explore these worlds to slay dragons and rescue princesses, they generally exert very little change on the environment over their quests. Indeed, it is the player's ability to alter the land she discovers that sets Minecraft apart from other games with randomly generated levels. It is not only a micro-rhetoric of exploration, but one of settlement.
Inventive as it is, this micro-rhetoric does not obviously translate to newsgames. Such a complicated system could not be easily applied to current event or reportage games, which strive for timeliness, and by extension simplicity. The subjectivity of the system also places itself at odds with editorial games or tabloid games which strive to impress a clear and concise opinion on players. Many video gamers are perplexed by the lack of a clear objective or system of progression and topics such as "I don't get Minecraft," or "What is the point of Minecraft?" are a frequent sight on gaming news sites and message boards. That said, the sense of immersion that Minecraft's randomly generated worlds offer might be a highly desirable trait for documentary games.