Critics Speak a Language and It Speaks Us

Laura Parker argued recently that BioShock Infinite made it clear, at least among critics, that a video game can be art, and Chris Suellentrop responded with a defense of the vibrant state of video game criticism in 2013. For what it’s worth, I think having this conversation take place on The New York Times’s Arts Beat blog shows how far video game criticism has come. But, that’s not the exigency for this piece.  Rather, it is Parker’s claim that “more questions must be asked about how well games achieve their purpose and how well they speak to the audience.”

There are two notions here that speak volumes to those of us in communication studies: achieving a purpose and speaking to the audience. Communication studies, as a field, has no small obsession with what we call the “rhetorical situation,” which is the combination of intentionality and/or context that drives/invites a person to speak/create a text. Lloyd Bitzer (1968) argued it was an exigency arisen from context that drives a person, Richard Vatz (1973) argued it was intentionality that invites a person to construct the context and speak, and a dozen or more since then have weighed in on the subject (so don’t go to Wikipedia expecting to find the summary). William Benoit (1994), who offered a good but brief overview of the rhetorical situation argument, claimed that the “language employed by theorists and critics surely shapes our conception of rhetoric (p. 343). I’m of the mind that this same statement, with “rhetoric” replaced by “video games,” applies well to the game studies discipline.

When we think about the rhetorical situation, as critics (of rhetoric), either we arbitrarily decide whose idea of the rhetorical situation we’re going to base our criticism upon, or we critique a product without a presumption of knowing the rhetorical situation that led to its conception/delivery. This is routinely the first methodological decision we make as critics. And this is where Parker’s statement got my attention.  It makes an assumption that video games have their purpose and that a video game’s purpose is decipherable. It makes an assumption that video games speak to the audience and that this speech is direct, hypodermic, and reaches some kind of universal audience.

In the years since the rhetorical situation argument began, scholars of rhetoric developed a new appreciation of “text” (the material object of study). We began including Barthes’ “death of the author,” Bakhtin’s “dialogic” of the text, and Derrida’s “absence” of the author—So much so that Michael McGee (1990) made deciding the limits of the “text” the second methodological decision we must make as critics.

But, Parker’s suggested questions of purpose and speech appear ignorant of one of the most accepted conceptualizations of art in the 20th century. Umberto Eco (1974) proposed that all works of art were “open,” meaning they were “characterized by the invitation to make the work together with the author” and are interpreted anew in every performance (p. 63 – 4; emphasis original).

Eco’s “open work” is especially salient to video games where it is enshrined as one of—if not the only—defining aspects of video games: interactivity. As video games are considered “possibility spaces,” they are not merely open works by virtue of their infinite interpretations contained within finiteness; they hold Eco’s open work as an essential aspect of their very form. In this way, Eco describes the art-work of video games exceedingly well:

The author offers the interpreter, the performer, the addressee a work to be completed. He does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own. It will not be a different work, and, at the end of the interpretative dialogue, a form which is his form, will have been organized, even though it may have been assembled by an outside party in a particular way that he could not have foreseen. The author is the one who proposed a number of possibilities which had already been rationally organized, oriented, and endowed with specifications for proper development. (p. 62)

Here, the author is the corporate or individual group of developers, designers, and writers that produced the game and the interpreter, performer, or addressee is the individual player, critic, or viewer. I won’t go into authorship in games here, that’s Stephanie’s gig. (And Mark Filipowich wrote an awesome piece on Barthes’ death of the author).

Instead, I want to focus on the video game “text.”  When we look at games, as critics, we typically approach them as open works. But, when Laura Parker asked us to question where video games succeed at their purpose or speak to us, she tells us to imagine a video game as a closed text—as some 21st century creation by a medieval artist with a specific meaning that we will get. Mattie Brice’s “Death of the Player” argued for a video game as hypodermic needle for which we, player-critics, are the monolithic universal audience. But, I’m not making an argument that video games as media have to be one way—No “Fuck Videogames” here. Instead, the way critics represent video games makes a difference in how video games do art-work.

And here’s the rub, the language employed by theorists and critics surely shapes our conception of video games. We critics should appreciate the way our language about video games is part of the mainstream representation of the art-work of video games—part of the reason writers like Laura Parker misperceive us as not asking the right questions.  It’s why Roger Ebert’s auteurism and loosely Aristotelian idea of art struggled to appreciate video games. In this sense, the representation of video games as “closed works,” or otherwise not open works, plays into the hands of the auteurism that would deny the art-work of video games, see Clint Hocking’s argument about auteurism. Criticism plays an important role in the representation of video games, and that same representation affects everyone who produces them.

When Robert Yang divided games into the “sub-disciplines” of game studies, game design, and game development where game studies did not speak to development, I believe video game criticism is the feedback mechanism through which that speech happens—and in the methods and practice of criticism, our language can predetermine what we were trying to say.


I was down in New Orleans for my friend and fellow JGC editor Joshua Comer’s wedding, and we had a good discussion about this piece.  So, to be clearer, when we imagine video games as a medium (singular) with an author (auteur) and a message (singular) for the audience (universal), we begin from the perspective of the “closed” work. This makes a certain amount of sense if only because we’ve begun from this perspective in every previous medium that has been considered as art by someone. This is a perspective that limits video games to the paradigms of film and fiction (and visual art of old). It’s a perspective whose premise denies the context of modern video games.

Instead, we need to accept video games as open works. When we begin by acknowledging video games as open works, we can see how they are greater than the sum of their convergent media, i.e., appreciate them as video games.

References that are less available, thanks to academic publishing standards:

Benoit, W. (1994). The genesis of rhetorical action. Southern Communication Journal, 54(4), 342 – 355.

Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1(1), 1 – 14.

McGee, M. C. (1990, Summer). Text, context, and the fragmentation of contemporary culture. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 54, 274 – 289.

Vatz, R. (1973). The myth of the rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 6(3), 154 – 161.

About Gaines Hubbell

Gaines Hubbell is an assistant professor of English at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. His dissertation tracks the history of topoi and loci of invention in twentieth-century rhetorical theory, pedagogy, and criticism. His research focuses on the historical and contemporary development of rhetorical theory and its adaptation for newer media environments.
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5 Responses to Critics Speak a Language and It Speaks Us

  1. It seems incredible to me that anyone could argue that video games are closed works…. since, by definition, they are made to be “games” that are utilized and interpreted by users (viewers). But then again, every angle has to be examined in academia – even the incredulous ones.

  2. It surprises me in a way too, but I also understand where people like Mattie are coming from, especially because she’s both a critic and a developer/designer. It’s easy to believe that a text has a specific meaning when you’re the author of the text; we often think of our own communications as having the meaning we intend. The hypodermic needle model of communication is one that’s very easy to practice, even inadvertently.

  3. Pingback: Dialogue Options: Where’s the Rhetoric? | Higher Level Gamer

  4. Evan says:

    Without endorsing thinking about games in wither a more closed or open way, I have trouble accepting the stance implied by the article and made most clear by your addendum, where you seem to draw a sharp divide between a more ‘closed’ nature in other media and a more ‘open’ one in games. While there are relative merits in thinking about media in either way, I don’t particularly see games as being apart in this respect. The fact that Eco’s quotes speak so well to games demonstrates this, as he was not thinking of video games when he wrote them. Likewise, I think one can frame games as closed texts as well as one can frame literature, film, etc, as closed texts. The implied divide has not been well demonstrated.

    • Evan says:

      Pardon the typos above. Also, I should note that I am speaking primarily about single player games as multiplayer complicates the issue by adding a new dynamicism to the games.

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