“Like other forms of media, computer games can work to build up, maintain, or reject what players (among others) believe about a wide range of subjects, from the constitution of truth and goodness to understandings of social mores and global politics. Like poetry, fiction, journalism, and film, computer games can work work to maintain the status quo, celebrate liberation, tolerate enslavement, and conjure feelings of hope and despair, assent and dissident, clarity and confusion. They can play equally well on emotion and rationality, pervade radical discourse and common sense alike, and exist comfortably at all points along a semiotic continuum that spans the idiosyncratic to the universal. In short, a good deal of the work of computer games is that they are always making and managing meanings, sometimes by demonstration and sometimes through interpretation. Such work is always simultaneously, then, the work of power negotiation.”
–Ken S. McAllister

In Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture, Ken S. McAllister examines video games as a cultural phenomenon. He compares his method to Kenneth Burke’s dramatistic pentad, setting out to examine agents, functions, influences, manifestations, and transformative locales, a sort of “grammar of gameworks” (1). At the start of the book, McAllister examines the “computer game complex,” reviewing such issues as the cultural impact of violence in video games and games themselves as mass culture.

In discussing games as mass culture, he indicates the importance of power dynamics and the idea that these mass cultural influences are produced by a small number of people with a disproportionately large impact on the cultural landscape (11). Their pervasive appeal also makes them a form of mass media, able to effect real world action by affecting the perceptions and opinions of players (13).

In reviewing games as a “psychophysiological” force, McAllister negotiates conflicting scholarly and scientific conclusions about the “good and bad” impact of games on their players thusly: “the computer game complex is dialectical, a complex and ever-changing system constructed out of innumerable relationships among people, things, and symbols, all of which are in turn connected to other vast dialectical systems: the entertainment industry, the high-tech business, capitalism, articulations of democracy and freedom, and so on” (16).

He goes on to review computer games as economic (18) and instructional (24) forces, which includes the idea (reminiscent of Raph Koster) that computer games are always teaching something.

McAllister puts forth five general propositions as a place for computer game scholars to begin work (31-32):

  1. Computer games are comprised of rhetorical events that work to make meanings in players;
  2. These rhetorical events are constructed primarily out of: (a) developers’ and marketers’ idiosyncratic, homological, and inclusive ideologies, and (b) players’ (or more generally, “experiencers'”) interactions with the systems put in place by the developers, which are also influenced by their own idiosyncratic, homological, and inclusive ideologies;
  3. The set of ideologically determined meaning-making rhetorical events that comprise a computer game is designed to transform players in some way;
  4. Since all rhetorical events take place within the context of the dialectic, where various kinds of struggle are always being engaged, the rhetorical events of any given computer game are also always complicit in these dialectical struggles;
  5. Since dialectical struggles are never wholly discreet, any given computer game-related rhetorical event is always connected to other rhetorical events and struggles that are not game-related.

The Computer Game Complex

Agents: Developers, marketers, players, virtual agents (avatars) (45-46).

Functions: From Brummett’s The Rhetoric of Popular Culture (McAllister 47)

  • Exigent: Discursive interventions by and on agents (47)
    • Consciously aware of rhetoric; signs indicate “suasory intent”
    • Rhetors knowingly take responsibility for doing so (or may be expected to)
    • Interventionist messages take the form of discrete texts defined by their sources
  • Quotidian: Governs day-to-day, minute-to-minute decisions (47-48)
    • Less likely to be aware of management of shared meanings
    • Less likely to take/assign responsibility for rhetorical effort
    • Diffuse rather than discrete texts
  • Implicative: Manages meanings that are uncomplicated/taken for granted (conditions for common sense, fundamental values) (48-49)
    • Far from conscious awareness
    • Explicit responsibility for producing categories as rhetorical is not expected
    • Generally no sense of a “text” at all

 Influences: The influences on the computer game complex are the same as those that the complex, itself, imposes on culture (50).

  • Mass culture forces: Voluntary experiences produced by a few specialists for consumption by mass audiences (50)
  • Mass media forces: One-way communication channels from a small number of producers to mass audiences (51)
  • Psychophysiological forces: The methods designed by developers to engage players’ emotions, intellects, and skills (52)
  • Economic forces: Questions arising from the monetary resources involved in the situation (such as developer wealth) (53)
  • Instructional forces: If games teach players to learn, what questions arise about what is learned, how, why, etc. (55)

Manifestations: Citing Chris Crawford’s The Art of Computer Game Design, McAllister also observes key points in defining a “game”: representation, interaction, conflict, and safety (35-37, 55).

  •  Representation: The ways the world is presented to the players and that the players choose to interact with it (55-56)
  • Interaction: The ways a game is dynamic, reacting and changing based on player choices, and how players respond to them (56-57)
  • Conflict: The ways oppositions are constructed, marketed, and engaged; “What can the construction of these virtual and narratologically specific conflicts tell us about the dialectical struggle, particularly as it concerns the oppositional discourses of the computer game complex itself?” (57)
  • Safety: May be an illusion; assuming safety neglects both possible physical impact of gaming and possible impact on the mind and cognition of the gamers (58)

Transformative Locales: “…mark the sites where personal, communal, and societal transformations occur in relation to the dialectic. They are points at which the assumptions, rules, and constraints of ideology are altered” (60).

  • May be small-scale realizations, such as that a particular maneuver will win a battle in the game, or large scale realizations (metanoia) that pertain to the player’s consciousness in a broader sense, such as deriving a theme or ideological assumption from the text.


McAllister, Ken S. Game Work: Language, Power, and Computer Game Culture. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: U of Alabama, 2004. Print.

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