The Rhetoric of Gaming

In college, I took a philosophy course on Plato, in which we explored his interpretations of truth, love, beauty, and justice. But really, what stuck with me after all these years was Plato’s classic argument against game devs locking essential PvP gameplay mechanics behind a loot box revenue model.

I jest.

But that is the stance he would take.

“The loot box revenue model is not very geometric” — Plato

Rhetoric vs Philosophy

In Gorgias, Plato writes of a debate between Socrates and Gorgias. Socrates argues for the value of philosophy, the art of discerning the truth, whereas Gorgias argues for the value of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Socrates compares philosophy to medicine and rhetoric to cookery (e.g. pastries) — medicine is good for your body, regardless of how it tastes, whereas pastries taste pleasant, but may be bad for your health. As these dialogues go, Socrates gradually gains the upper hand through persistent inquiry. He exposes contradictions in Gorgias’s arguments to explain why philosophy is an art worthy of pursuit in and of itself, whereas rhetoric is but a means to an end.

Does this mean, then, that there is no merit to the pursuit of rhetoric? Hardly. Generations of bards, actors, painters, writers, and musicians would beg to differ. In fact, so would the ancient Greek education system. Rhetoric concerns itself with persuasion, the skillful expression of thoughts and ideas. It can be said that to devalue rhetoric would be to devalue art, and to devalue art would be to devalue the human experience.

For all their love of philosophy, the ancient Greeks still ended up putting Socrates to death for his “impiety” and “moral corruption”.

It was really just his attitude — his rhetoric — or , rather, his lack thereof.

A means to an end

If we extrapolate from Plato’s example, it isn’t hard to see the value in cookery. As NBC puts it, “Salads are nice, but burgers are really what sell”. According to a research survey by Technomic, 47% of Americans say they would like restaurants to offer healthier items (e.g. salads and baked potatoes), but only 23% tend to order those foods. We may understand rationally which option is better for us, but at the end of the day, we want what we want.

Every few years, it would seem, scientists rediscover a basic principle of human decision-making: People don’t do what is right — they do what is easy. Self-control has its limits.

This is not just to say that we are ultimately driven more by instinct than by reason. Rather, it’s because we have evolved to be efficient with our energy expenditure. Psychologists love clicking their tongues at controversial heuristics, but at the end of the day, they agree that there’s a reason why heuristics exist in the first place — to autopilot us through the barrage of microdecisions we encounter in our daily lives, and let us focus our attention on the decisions that really matter.

Practically speaking, rhetoric is the dressing on the salad, the story of the moral, the drink that helps you open up at a party. Rhetoric makes it easier for us to do the right thing when we don’t have infinite time and energy at our disposal to examine all the details.

Thus, Aesop’s Fables have saved children from countless hours of lecturing, and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” conveyed a warning against toxic masculinity to the young men in his generation with its catchy tune and memorable lyrics. Greeks, Christians, and Buddhists all employ storytelling through memorable characters and dramatic events because they know how well it works — the same people who scoff at preachy lectures would be happy to sit down for a good story about Zeus, Jesus, or the Monkey King.

The carrot often works better than the stick.

And gaming is the shiny new carrot of our generation.

Gaming as a rhetorical device

While the term “gaming” often conjures images of video games and board games, people tend to forget that tennis is just as much a game as Candy Crush. Yet, going by the Merriam-Webster definition, we can say that sports-obsessed America has been infatuated with gaming since the 80’s, and the meteoric rise of the video game industry in the late 90’s and early 2000’s has only solidified gaming as a pillar of American culture.

While classic media tends to wrap a message up in pleasant stories, sights, and sounds, games focus on drilling the message in with their interactivity. Soccer teaches its players the value of teamwork and sportsmanship through optimal field play and repeated game sessions, while chess teaches strategy and resource management through competitive gameplay mechanics.

While the US educational gaming boom in the 80’s and 90’s was brought down by a combination of bad management and high R&D costs, recent developments in digital gaming technology have given professional game developers the tools to approach teaching from a different angle: Using elegant game design to cultivate specific behaviors. Interactive movie games like Detroit: Become Human invoke opportunities for introspection by asking the player to make crucial decisions that determine whether their favorite characters live or die. Music games like Dance Dance Revolution and Beat Saber can directly showcase how practice makes perfect by tracking a player’s improvement over time. And exercise games like Ring Fit Adventure can provide personalized workout experiences that have even been praised by professional gym trainers.

Ultimately, games take pride first and formost in their ability to cultivate intrinsic motivation, each in their own way. Competitive games encourage hardcore players to hone their mental and physical skills against each other, while casual games provide casual players a chance to unwind and solve puzzles at their own pace. To quote Satoru Iwata, the late President of Nintendo: “Video games are meant to be just one thing. Fun. Fun for everyone!

Games have universal appeal.

Just like rhetoric.

Conclusion

Rhetoric is a worthy pursuit, a means to an end, and gaming is the newest rhetorical device of our generation. A successful game designer knows how to build an interactive experience to cultivate intrinsic motivation, much like how a successful rhetorician knows how to speak to one’s core beliefs to persuade them.

Of course, as a fan of Plato’s Gorgias, I cannot argue that rhetoric and gaming are worthier than the philosophical pursuits of truth and justice. But I do believe that, as your average everyday guy, I would like a bit of dressing on my salad every now and then, and a life without pastries would be a sad life indeed.

MBA at Yale SOM. Wears many hats.