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Stings and Scalpels: Emotional Rhetorics Meet Videogame Aesthetics

As part of this special issue devoted to Gaming Across the Curriculum, this essay hopes to explore through a variety of perspectives, how videogaming – taken as a cultural activity and as a particular set of specialized technologies – is working to shift the rhetorical landscapes in which we work. Particularly compelling, I believe, is the emotional stake in videogaming. While individual disciplines may be content to view gaming as matters of textual reading, algorithmic computation, and/or artistic expression, I hope to assemble here a variety of perspectives that open up broader questions of how technology and aesthetics combine in our present moment. At stake is not only the chance to challenge some of the assumptions that govern the study of videogames, but to route a better understanding of videogames towards questions of how twenty-first century technologies change what it means to experience and convey emotion in rhetorical situations. If we reconsider videogame aesthetics alongside various attempts to recover the "emotional skill" component of rhetoric, we can challenge the notion of gaming as a passive activity. We might re-approach the question of gaming in our culture less as a question pertaining to violent or pernicious content, and more as a question about gaming as the systematic development of a particular set of rhetorical "tools," tools which necessarily challenge and rebalance the Aristotelian assumptions called for in our instruction. While some critics may maintain that such attention to rhetorical agency is more a matter of de rigeur Foucault-dropping than a serious attempt to forward a humanistic conversation, I maintain that identifying these "tools" is an initial step toward assessing the impact of gaming culture on the way students encounter the institutional formations of literacy, especially in first-year composition classes.

Emotion, On Beyond Aristotle

While I will not claim to provide any form of exhaustive historical survey in this article, I will explore a handful of thinkers who "route" emotion in ways both traditional and challenging. For Aristotle, I will argue, pathos locates a particular set of concerns, anxieties, and possibilities, and the received history of that term serves as a nodal point for gathering and concretizing those concerns. For all I have heard over the years – and indeed, uncritically rehashed to my students – I had anticipated a lengthy exegesis on how various emotional tactics can sway the minds of the audience, to hear "emotion" cast as a particular sort of rhetorical telos: a destination to be arrived at through a set of prescribed and programmatic tools. Yet, in a disarmingly straightforward fashion, Book II, Section Six stops short of that imagined end. Instead, Aristotle essentially posits that before one discusses emotions, one must determine them, creating set of shared terminology through defining a variety of different emotional states: among them anger, fear, and indignation. But the conversation stops at the stage of describing and defining those emotions, as though their use-value was somehow self-evident to the rhetor.

This project will consider this "self-evident" approach in more specific terms, particularly in how it expresses a potential for viewing Aristotle's approach to emotion more favorably. Regardless of the extent to which we would prefer to valorize Aristotle for his attempt to make room for emotion, over the longer course of the history of rhetoric, the set of binary determinations he constructs ultimately creates the conditions for pathos's expulsion from the scene of rhetoric. We could note first, of course, how Aristotle himself is fundamentally ambivalent about the role of emotion in the framework of rhetoric. Ekaterina Haskins, for her part, sees little ambiguity in Aristotle's subordination of emotion to the process of the logical argumentative enthymeme: "For it [enthymeme] will either drive out emotion or it will be useless" (Aristotle quoted in Haskins 103). Later responses to and departures from Aristotle in the rhetorical tradition tend to affirm this basic point of view. Peter Ramus repudiates Aristotle's approach by redefining the relationships between rhetoric, dialectic, and grammar, reducing rhetoric to a matter of "style and delivery" (Conley 128). Ramus, too, "drives out" pathos by making "the [logical] syllogism ... the proper mode of 'decisive speaking' in disputes, if not in rational discourse in general" (129).

In recovering rhetoric from Ramus, Laura Micciche focuses specifically on recovering emotion.  Micciche latches onto the social dimensions of Aristotle's attempt to account for emotion, but does so in a way that risks turning emotion into a systematic technê for use in the rhetorical enterprise. "Emotion [in all his examples] is experienced in relation, between people within a particular context" (11). This approach is "fundamentally rhetorical" because, as Kenneth Burke might have it, emotion is placed in the dramatic situation, positioned in a scene among various actors. Anger, for example, must always be anger "at a specific person" (Rhetoric 1378a). Yet, for Aristotle's approach to cohere, it must take place in a social arena "where people tacitly agree upon what counts as indignation or any other emotion. That is, only through collective, implicit assent in communal life does emotion have meaning" (Micciche 11, emphasis added). Even if we loosen this critique up by arguing that Aristotle's goal is to transform tacit agreement into something more powerfully open, vocal, and public, the structure that Micciche describes here is fundamentally enthymemic in its structure, in that it is based on the assumed equality of emotional states among agents. Micciche's shared conception provides, through its acceptance of the enthymeme's fundamental validity, a sense of how Aristotle constructs emotionality in the form of a tool. Aristotle's surprising approach in Section Six, cataloguing and sorting a variety of emotions, ultimately provides what we might think of as an emotional toolbox: a set of neutral technologies that can be applied only in situations where the states have been determined, their meanings agreed to in advance. Emotion in rhetoric is rendered here a neutral meeting ground between rhetor and audience.

Rather than approach emotion as something that happens to us, Micciche builds on what I could call Aristotle's "neutral ground" conception, approaching emotion not as a passive happening but as an active process. To cover Aristotle's enthymemic assumption – that the sharing of emotion in relationships between rhetors requires a congruency among emotional states – Micciche seizes upon the possibility that, latent in Aristotle's conception, the emotional element of rhetoric requires more than simply the skill of the speaking agent: "The idea that experiencing an emotion – not expressing, perceiving, or analyzing one – may require skill represents a titanic shift in thinking about emotions" (47, author's emphasis). With this redefinition, Micciche effectively engages Aristotelian pathos through "casuistic stretching," the process defined by Kenneth Burke as "introducing new principles while theoretically remaining faithful to old principles" (229). Though Aristotle's other moves to marginalize emotional "skill" have been cited already, and their legacy encoded into the historical development of rhetoric, Micciche's intervention here offers a potent way of considering how rhetorical situations (including games, a notion to which I'll return shortly) demand more from the audience than simply awareness and processing. Rather, the stability and surety of the rhetorical situation depends on both the capacity to express and experience emotion, not merely the capacity to encode and decode it (the "old principles" already latent in Aristotle's "toolbox" approach to emotion). In that regard, this project hopes to, by a foray into questions of aesthetics in videogames, question how gaming technologies may serve to reconfigure that experience; instead of reading emotions non-problematically as somehow inherent to an individual's experience, we can re-read them as being trained and conditioned through the confluence of technological and rhetorical factors.

Through her (re)configurations of pathos, Micciche herself suggests that there is a sort of rhetorical economy in play, one where the scene of social relations is based on the skill sets through which "emotions take form, and then take on other forms, or become fetishized as fixed forms between people" (50). Such a scene of traffic between emotional skill and "real world" environments creates grounds for conversation that far exceed the banal neutrality of Aristotle's "toolbox" approach; on the contrary, Micciche's sense of emotions "taking form" offers a point of entry into considering how emotion "binds the individual, in complex and contradictory ways, to the to the social order and its structure of meanings" (Worsham 216). What particularly interests me in this take on emotion as a skill is how we might attempt to reconcile the process of videogaming, as requiring a sort of emotional skill-set, with the wider process of how individuals relate to the social order. Rather than mystifying emotion, "stretched" and rephrased here as a question of the "skill" required to process the aesthetic experiences of gaming, Lynn Worsham's account of "emotional schooling" suggests that one of the objectives for rhetorical research is to "offer [an] explanation" for how the wider "sex/affective production system of corporate capitalism (or the dominant pedagogy of emotion)" can be resisted through "returning agency to the subject" (240). While I have no interest here in casting gaming as either a dominant or radical pedagogy in the sense that Worsham's essay explores, I do want to argue that the acquisition through gaming of a particular mediated emotional skill-set could have potentially profound impacts on the way that those pedagogies – refracted through the wider apparatuses of schooling and popular culture – "return agency" in particular ways.

Before considering, though, how the aesthetic theories provide some openings for us to better understand the emotional "schooling" provided by gaming media, I would like to assert that such schooling takes place within environments that are tightly and intentionally designed. I will suggest that we can read gaming media not just as non-problematic offshoots of larger commercial and institutional apparatuses or extensions of more systematic types of emotional schooling, but also as individually designed instantiations of that schooling. I propose that we extend Ian Bogost's notion of "procedural rhetoric" in videogaming, his sense that every game makes through its designed structure of rules a value-laden "argument," to also include the aesthetic and visual dimensions of the gameplay experience (119-20). Though considerations of the "procedural" side of gaming-including the notion that games are rule-bound "possibility spaces" explored by "manipulating the symbolic systems the game provides"-will necessarily form an element of my later case study, I argue that the layer of the experience does not fully account for the "emotional schooling" offered by modern videogaming (121). Instead, I will summon a broad sense of games as both aesthetically and procedurally designed objects, considering a variety of perspectives on the intentionally broad term "design" as a way of generating perspectives on how such schooling is deliberately engineered. Through the se multiple perspectives, I hope to produce a stronger sense of how games differently refract and retrain the "emotional skills" we might take for granted.

"Design," as it has been used in Rhetoric & Composition quarters, has frequently suggested not just a concern with materiality, but a growing sense of the need to consider multiple signifying modalities (text, sound, image, video) in composition curriculum. Furthermore, by considering how "design" itself is positioned in the rhetoric of game development, we may gain further clues as to how the material building blocks of image and algorithm may be configured to lend themselves to the creation of emotional experiences – particularly experiences of "fun," but in other potential experiences as well. Enjoyment is by nature fluid, slippery, and subjective.[1] The goal here, then, is not to locate or define the pleasure of the videogaming experience (either universally or as a function of particular game-texts), but rather to develop a sense of how the material structures of the gaming medium itself seek to reposition, extend, and stretch the contours of that enjoyment. In that regard, my discussion will focus specifically on the high-definition visuality of recent videogaming, and its adoption of more filmic styles, as representing through its "design" a specific challenge to our normally accepted regimes of emotional "skill."  Gunther Kress, considering the specialized functions of image in the grander scheme of discursive design, writes: "Writing is used for that which writing does best – to provide, in fact, an account of events, and image is used for that which image does best, to depict the world that is at issue" (155-6). For the sake of my argument, it is not simply that images are the "best" way to construct artificial worlds, but that the inherence of the visual offers a signifying texture that gives those worlds their distinct impact. In this sense, Kress's notion of design offers a sort of "field" approach to New Media documents; it affirms what I will momentarily be addressing as the "simultaneity" of those documents: their ways of constructing and calling upon multiple layers of perceptual, analytical, and experiential "skill."  In that regard, part of the work of considering how videogames fashion opportunities for rhetorical skill is to consider how particular signifying modalities, going beyond Bogost's emphasis on procedural and algorithmic design, shape the active "work" of the game player on both ideological and emotional levels.

Though not related in any particular way to videogame study, Donald Norman in Emotional Design argues that design is a simultaneously practical and emotional enterprise. His early work is frequently noted in media studies circles for his notion of "affordance" (the sense of approaching an object in terms of what it enables you to do), yet in this book he departs from that purely utilitarian mode of thought into a consideration of design as a fuller rhetorical activity, one that braids a person's emotional state with an object's use-value. He writes: "Sure, utility and usability are important, but without fun and pleasure, joy and excitement, and, yes, anxiety and anger, fear and rage, our lives would be incomplete" (8). In practice, Norman refers repeatedly throughout Emotional Design to a careful balancing of aesthetic pleasures sustained by a careful packing of the design space. Citing Japanese industrial designer Kenji Ekuan: "Packing numerous functions into something and making it smaller and thinner are contradictory aims, but one had to pursue contradiction to the limit to find a solution" (103). In detailing the overlapping complexities of emotion, the extents to which they touch upon our social, physical, and intellectual constitutions, the "contradiction" produced by "packing" must be pushed even further. For a design to provide aesthetic pleasure, a "packed" object must achieve a kind of immediacy, "giv[ing] rise to a never-ending interplay among [its] elements" while simultaneously promoting a scene of passive reflection, "time to study, analyze, and consider such rich interplay" (111). In other words, emotional design, with fruitful connections to Laura Micciche's notion of "emotional skill," connotes both "the skill of the designer in providing a powerful, rich experience and the power of the perceiver" (111). Working through Norman, then, we can start to think of emotional skill as a simultaneously active-and-passive process.[2]  What will remain in this conversation is to read that simultaneity against the configurations of videogames themselves, not to just to observe how they reflect aspects of emotional design, but also to attempt to locate the occasions where this simultaneity enters play.

Games and/as Aesthetic Machines

Aesthetics provides us with a conversation on the "felt" dimensions of experience, and while the long tradition of aesthetic theory from Aristotle to Kant to Adorno has generally focused on the conditions and experiences of reception, I hope to (problematically, I admit) extend some of that conversation's insights to the end of better understanding the sorts of production that occur simultaneously in the spaces of videogaming. Leveraging those insights into the "interactive" process of gaming can shed light on what rhetorical skills are called for by the game, and ultimately suggest how those skills may alter our expectations.[3]

Game designer Raph Koster, though ostensibly more concerned with producing a "theory of fun" for videogaming, nonetheless bases much of his notion of fun on a particular sense of where aesthetics and the emotional skill of gaming coincide. Koster's rhetoric for framing "fun," though, constructs an unproductively tight definition of the skill associated with the imagistic dimension of the gaming experience: "Delight strikes when we recognize [visual] patterns but are surprised by them.... [But,] recognition is not an extended process. You can regain delight by staying away from the object that caused it previously, then returning. You'll get that recognition again. But it's not quite what I would call 'fun'" (94). Koster instead recasts the "skill" of gaming as purely a question of problem-solving, unrelated to any particular visual effect. The aesthetic dimension of the gaming experience, ultimately, is rendered as a fleeting experience of "delight," tied to the skill of pattern recognition, but falling short of the critical emotional experience of "fun"-a priviledged signifier in Koster's rhetoric providing a clear example of the "fetishized" or "fixed" form that emotional discourse takes in gaming. Conversely, "when we meet noise and fail to see a pattern, we get frustrated and give up" (25). In both instances, Koster's notion of emotional "skill" rests on an assumption: that of an aesthetic environment  characterized by order. In a definitional move resonant with Immanuel Kant's "Analytic of the Beautiful," Koster goes so far as to contrast his sense of fleeting "delight" with a sense of true "beauty," which is "only found in settings of extreme order" (94). Koster's allegiance to Kant's neoclassical take on aesthetic experience is useful for my discussion less as a coincidental analogue than as a dramatic oversimplification of Norman and Ekuan's definition of modern design as characterized not by "extreme order" but by an ongoing dynamic "interplay" between elements. This project will bear out shortly what kinds of "interplays" are involved in the packed aesthetic spaces of modern gaming, but before that point I would like to consider other aesthetic theories that address more directly the dynamic interplays and simultaneities of the objects before us.

Especially valuable for this sense of aesthetic and technological dynamism are the aesthetic theories of Walter Benjamin, whose critique of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction represents a drastic turn in that tradition, not in the theory itself per se, but in the attention it wishes to pay to the material artifacts of the popular culture. Whereas the balance of the aesthetic tradition preceding him, from Kant to Hegel and beyond, had sifted apart the domains of art and politics, Benjamin saw the distinction start to collapse all together, a change motivated by the material conditions of the technological media around him: film and photography. From his foundations in Marxist thinking, Benjamin’s incisive analysis lays bare the dangerous potential for these new media to effect potentially dangerous political change, not through political rhetoric as such, but by hailing an entirely new subject-formation into being. In exploring Benjamin's notions of mechanical/aesthetic experience, particularly his notion of "aura," I propose to position Benjamin as a "relay" for the aesthetics of videogaming: his account of the aesthetics of the mechanized image providing a conceptual basis for considering the emergent rhetorical "skills" needed to cope with the similarly mechanized aesthetics of video gaming.[4]

The key to Benjamin’s understanding of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction is his concept of "aura."  The reproducibility of a filmic art-work means the loss of its "core," its "authenticity," its "here and now" (22). In practically the same breath, Benjamin suggests the aesthetic effect: the "destruction of the aura" is a matter of "the stripping of the veil from the object," a statement that references the more metaphysically (or cosmologically) charged tradition of Kant (23). The notion of a "veil" draped over the object resonates strongly with the latter's distinction between the phenomenal matter of the object and its noumenal substance; it acts as a barrier that, in Benjamin's words, enables the non-reproduced artwork to enjoy a status of "originality" and a place within the "domain of tradition" while at the same time enabling "art’s parasitic subservience to ritual" (24). Either way, the veil is taken up in the conversation as the metaphorical point where a safer, more conservative emotional pleasure risks falling into something altogether more challenging. The question remains for my investigation: when the film image is "unveiled," what lies beneath, and what skills does it call upon? 

To help answer that question, let's backtrack to an earlier point in the tradition of aesthetic theory. Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgment takes its most famous detour in considering the philosophical configuration of aesthetic experience, and the basis on which one may render philosophically sound judgments of aesthetic phenomena. His "Analytic of the Beautiful" attempts to distinguish between matters of aesthetic pleasure (rendered by beauty) and matters of personal taste by claiming that  a judgment of "beauty" must not only be "universally valid," but must also precede the feeling of pleasure. While Kant's approach argues for a two-way structure in which pleasure first derives from the "free play of faculties," far more space in Kant's analytic is devoted to a sequence of "moments" in which an observer, free from any "interest" in the matter, reflects upon that pleasure to produce a universally valid philosophical judgment (1.1.§2). This analytic takes the individual from mere subjective enjoyment to an altogether more robust (and, crucially, communicable) kind of pleasure. While both Kant and Laura Micciche regard this kind of emotional experience as a kind of "skill," Kant insists that the proceeds of the experience are only of interest when they can be rendered as stable philosophical Truths, not as contingent performances as in the case of Micciche.

Fortunately, Kant himself provides a kind of alternative, through a second Analytic, this time of "sublime" emotional experience. While not originating in his works by any means, Kant provides the most oft-cited definition of the "sublime" as a segment of aesthetic experience that forcefully overwhelms the viewer through sheer dynamism or immensity: "the sublime is that which is absolutely great" (1.1.§25). Unlike the contemplative beauty afforded by, say, a lovely painting in a gallery, the sublime can be factored into aesthetic judgment only once the viewer has a moment of recuperation, a "deliverance from danger," and is able to feel a "state of joy" distinct from the "fearful" (1.1.§28). The sublime exceeds the beautiful by virtue of its being too-great, too-overwhelming. To use the quintessentially Kantian distinction, the phenomenon of the object cannot be totally grasped or apprehended, and in that moment, some glimpse of Nature's terrifying bigness – its essence, its noumenon – sneaks through (1.1.§26). In the moment when, as Douglas Burnham says, you look at a mountain and see not a simple geometric cone, but an infinitely complex array of ravines, boulders, and cliff faces, then you experience the sublime. Your skills are insufficient to judge the phenomenal whole, only to grasp the thing-in-itself in all its absolute unknowableness. The noumenon, the "stripped object" is, for Kant, a negative concept – the boundary we cannot apprehend through our rational faculties.

The notion of the unveiled "noumenal" slipping through as part of the sublime aesthetic of film is heralded by Benjamin's sense of an emergent aesthetic governed by the loss of "aura." Through the studio structure, Benjamin argues that film presents an "equipment-free aspect of reality [that] has become the height of artifice" (35). In other words, the mechanical reproduction of image via the film apparatus simultaneously thrills with larger-than-life spectacle while simultaneously erasing the traces of its own construction. Under this regime, the organic totality of the painter's art is replaced with the fragmented, flickering assemblies of camera-work: the "height of artifice" refers to the camera's degree of access to the viewer's noumenal "substance," an aesthetic transaction that far exceeds the "veiled" power of the painting. In his most telling analogy, Benjamin compares the aesthetic transaction between film camera and audience to that of a surgeon and a patient. "He [the filmmaker] greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it only slightly by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs" (35). The terror of the "noumenal" is in a sense rephrased as the fear of deliberate manipulation by an/Other. At stake here, as Benjamin addresses in the Afterword to the "Work of Art" essay, is the invasion of a subject's sovereignty: the political machines of fascism and communism have everything to do with the emotional "skills" trained into subjects by their exposure to the sublime force of mechanically reproduced images. "Reception in distraction... finds in film its true training ground. Film, by virtue of its shock effects, is predisposed to this form of reception" (40-1, author's emphasis). Read this way, fascism and communism themselves become the "fixed forms" of discourse through which subject under the influence of this aesthetic communicate. The struggle for the subject, as Benjamin would have it, is to overcome the influence of "politicized art" long enough to assert sovereignty over its own compromised borders, to overcome his/her own "self-alienation" (32).

That "overcoming" – a matter of developing a kind of new emotional skill – is one I would approach through a further reconfiguration of Benjamin's metaphor of the surgeon. Benjamin's focus is necessarily wide, concerned with "the class consciousness of the masses," which I might (via Lynn Worsham) rephrase as a concern over how filmic media create forms of "emotional schooling" by their sheer aesthetic force (33). His adaptation of Kant's "Analytic of the Sublime" takes the technologized "design" of the filmic apparatus as a powerful engine for "schooling" mass consciousness, though I would argue that the stakes in sublime aesthetics do not end in the social sphere. Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, in terms that I believe echo those of Benjamin's "surgeon," celebrates the "ruptures" that occur through art, celebrates the Dionysian chorus through which "an overwhelming feeling of unity leading back to the very heart of nature" emerges (59). Nietzsche's sense of unity, however, is balanced against the tension of the "principium individuationis," the possibility of greater personal integration through aesthetic experience. The "skill" required to experience (Apollonian) Greek tragedy is to view it as "the mirror image in which the Dionysian man contemplates himself" (63). Similarly rooted in a sense of individual (instead of mass) emotional skill, but with a keener sense of twentieth century visual media, Roland Barthes's analysis of "the photographic message" points to what he, in his semiotic idiom, calls "third meanings."  Greg Ulmer, who works within this paradigm to develop his own set of image-based rhetorics and writing practices, summarizes Barthes’s position from Camera Lucida:

What Barthes discovered or observed emerging within photography is a new dimension of signification that he named with a neologism, signifiance, characterized by a meaning that is "obtuse" – a "third meaning," neither literal nor figurative [which he names] the "punctum" – that which stings or pricks one emotionally. The photograph produces a feeling that we associate with the experience of recognition or epiphany… This power of a photograph [is] to stimulate involuntary personal memory. (Internet Invention 43-4)

In the film, these punctum meanings become accelerated; the surgeon’s scalpel could be taken to represent the accumulation of thirty-two stings per second. What is stimulated within the subject, then, is a sort of emotional feedback. Specifically, in his indictment of the fascist political-aesthetic, Benjamin looks with horror towards the aesthetic glorification of the war machine, the deliberate manipulation of the emotional aspect of the image for the sake of generating positive feedback – in effect, neutralizing our capacity for emotional "skill" by programming it in advance. Benjamin and Barthes, both grappling with the aesthetic force of mechanically reproduced images, detect the possibility of an accidental and unbidden emotional experience.[5] Aristotle's original and integral sense of rhetorical agency ("the good man speaking well," as Quintillian later put it), extrapolated by Laura Micciche as a matter of skill experienced in social relation, now finds its fundamental sovereignty undermined by the very aesthetic forces that call on that skill. To further explore and concretize this oscillating form of agency, let's turn our attention to a particular game, representative in many ways of the "design" of modern console gaming, that calls on very particular sorts of emotional skill. From a quick reading of this game, we might infer some qualities of the gaming medium, rooted both in its aesthetics and its interactive structure, that expand and challenge some of our accepted notions of how writers compose their texts and themselves.

Case Study: Bioshock 

My primary case study is 2007's Bioshock. My analysis of the game focuses on a combination of its narrative, game-structure (the sequence of actions that must be performed by the player), and its visual regimes. Published for the PC and the Xbox 360, the game's visuals take advantage of high-definition display to produce realistic effects and textures. The first few moments of the game display this dramatically as the player assumes control of an anonymous subject who has survived a plane crash. As "shocking" as the incident itself may be, the game puts equal parcel in the display of textures and animations through a scene that features rippling water, fiery debris, and a slowly sinking tail section. Briefly, the game's narrative drops the player in the wreckage of a gorgeously-detailed underwater city named Rapture, a would-be objectivist Utopia overrun by murderous Splicers (victims of an apparent zeal for genetic self-modification) and terrifying behemoths of more mysterious origin, known as Big Daddies. And yet, just as in its opening moments, Bioshock participates in a certain technological navel-gazing, lovingly crafting visual displays of profound complexity, as the gorgeous Art Deco architecture yields to displays of rot and destruction (and nearly ubiquitous puddles from numerous leaks to the structure). I argue that it is within the game's visual regime that a more profound play takes place, a play that pushes against the very emotional experience those images provide: moments of delight, terror, and awe.


Illustration 1: Screenshot of Bioshock. Note the sparse display of non-diegetic data.

 From a more proper analytic viewpoint, there is little on the surface of Bioshock's visual display to recommend it as a shining example of sublime aesthetics. Indeed, if anything, the high-level of graphic detail, especially when rendered in high-definition video, seems to edge closer to Kant's classical notion of the beautiful. The environments of Rapture are pieces of art to be admired in themselves, of themselves. One could perhaps invoke the "terror" aspect of the sublime to account for the visceral reactions produced by certain perspective tricks, or through the grotesque violence of the Splicers.[6]


Illustration 2: A moment of terror in Bioshock. (See Note 6.)

Then again, the concept of "terror" in a videogame is hardly novel in and of itself. The "survival-horror" genre, often borrowing heavily from the visual tropes of horror cinema is, in my experience, a traditional critical darling, having given rise to the Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Fatal Frame series. The only particular recommendation for the "terror" reading is the first-person perspective and its capacity to limit detachment from the action of the screen; the sparseness of Bioshock's limited heads-up display allows the image to exceed its own inset frame. The best, though still not entirely convincing, argument for the sublime in Bioshock could come from the speed and ferociousness with which the Big Daddies attack the viewer. On top of moving quickly for their size, their attacks come with speed and violence-the concussions produced by their blows tend to white-out portions of the screen while artificially seeming to slow player-response time. Even in this, though, these eruptions of violence are just that, sudden eruptions. Once the threat has been neutralized – by the death of either the player or Big Daddy – the viewer earns a moment of Kantian reprieve. The shock of the sublime is absorbed by the system into the game's larger aesthetic economy. As Bukatman says similarly of technology in SF film, "The might of technology, supposedly our own creation, is mastered through a powerful display that acknowledges anxiety [in this case, our anxiety over control] but recontains within it the field of spectatorial power" (265). This anxiety, in the game experience, is always crouching at the door, but the continual cycle of player feedback keeps the process stable, guarantees that the anxiety can be mastered and "recontained."

Big Daddy

Illustration- 3: The "Big Daddy" provides much of Bioshock's horror, attacking with sublime speed and ferocity.

In this situation, I would recall Walter Benjamin and his sense of how the sublime emerges from the mechanically accelerated image. His perspective is valuable precisely because of its materialist alternative to Kant: while Kant would render aesthetic experience as a question of artistic content, Benjamin focuses on the frame. The mechanics of film not only overrun the contemplative space of painting through sheer size and dynamism, but, as Roland Barthes's punctum principle suggests, hail a new, subtle order of meaning making. Film always-already overruns its borders; hence Benjamin's fear of the scalpel effect – the incisive forms of control that may (and have) become available from this configuration. If we follow Benjamin, then, into Bioshock's aesthetic matrix – its high-definition visuals, dynamic effects, and (as will become more significant later) subjective first-person framing – we may reach a sense of how the game's interface forecloses on the footholds of "recuperation," moments that are for Kant the only opportunities wherein sublime terror can be converted into aesthetic judgment. (I do not mean to suggest that this feature is somehow native to this particular game; in fact, these notions seem highly portable to other offerings, particularly in the dominant first-person genre.)  This is not to say that every video game, or every moment in every videogame is an a priori sublime experience, but it is to say that the metaphysical fence constructed by Kant to keep the two experiences separate has been either eroded or pried open.

Ryan Office

Illustration 4: The player's encounter with Ryan can be viewed from wherever the gaze is positioned.

And yet, Bioshock's biggest trick has little to do with the aesthetics of the experience, or even with its narrative climax, although that scene sets the stage for it. The first half of the game concerns the unnamed protagonist's search for Andrew Ryan, the founder of the failed Rapture community. You locate Ryan through a series of frankly flimsy activities; a savvy critic could call the first half of Bioshock a series of levels in search of a unifying narrative purpose. The protagonist has to rescue an underwater arboretum, defeat a theatrical madman, and sabotage the power supply – each of which represents a narratively inessential (though still entertaining) diversion from the relatively simple matter of accessing the next bathysphere station. At the decisive moment of your meeting with Ryan, a pane of smoky glass separates the two, and Ryan launches into a dramatic monologue. So far, this is the stuff of James Bond villainy, not sublime terror.

The shock of the moment rests when the player is removed from control of the scene. In Bioshock's confrontational moment, the intimacy and identification inherent in first-person perspective is maintained, without so much as a flicker to denote any change in the perspective. Interruptions of this kind, it has to be said, are hardly uncommon in games, particularly the narratively driven role-playing game (RPG) genre. The Final Fantasy series, for example, makes frequent use of narrative interruptions to forward the plot and develop characters, sometimes using cinematic "cutscenes," and sometimes (earlier in the series, especially) maintaining the same overhead view. Yet, this moment lacks that sense of cinematic detachment in favor of a first-person gaze: the incisive, high-resolution subject-position that is the source of the game's earlier excitement and exhilaration. Within what Scott Bukatman might call an ongoing process of exposure to a "tamed" aesthetic sublime, the player experiences an altogether more radical and disruptive loss of control as the "player" beats Ryan to death, amid Ryan's telling taunts: "A Man creates; a Slave obeys." Is this Benjamin's prophecy come true?  The otherwise rational subject hailed by mechanized aesthetics into an unwittingly dangerous and violent position? Yes and no.

Ryan Death

Illustration 5: the death of Andrew Ryan, which the player cannot control.

Looking particularly at the sublime potential behind cinematic special effects (especially in the work of Douglas Trunbull), Bukatman writes: "Cinematic affect is rooted in cinematic technology, but effects emphasize those underpinnings: if cinema is rooted in illusions of light, for example, then optical effects endow light with an overwhelming physicality" (273). And so in gaming, I've argued: much of Bioshock's affect is rooted in its intense, high-definition visuality. For Bukatman, though, cinematic effects are what push aesthetic contemplation towards brutal, sublime physicality; they, in effect, show the audience the scalpel, show them something beyond the real, and do so with "overwhelming physicality." However, as much as Bukatman's analysis rings true with Benjamin, both are talking about film, not gaming. In gaming, the algorithmic underpinnings of the machine mean that the physicality is always-already in operation: there is always a literal, physical body handling a real controller. Our literal physical augmentation through the videogame machine "relays" the aesthetic motions of sublime imagery towards the subject in ways much more profound and direct than could have ever been anticipated through Kant's scene of art-house reflection and "recuperation." 

As this study of Bioshock may more generally demonstrate, gaming affect is just as rooted as cinema in the display of effects (explosions, icons, and other bits of visual feedback), but the inherent structure of input/output renders the process of that affect continuously. The murder of Andrew Ryan, then, is the gaming equivalent of the cinematic special effect, doubled. Not only does the event dramatize the loss of control and the borders of the rational, but does so through the very self-same cinematic framing that had been, to this point, the site of an affirmative play.[7] Furthermore, the lasting "shock" of that loss puts the lie to the game's earlier, more comfortable pattern, in which the sublime terror wrought by the rampaging Big Daddies can be, through a display of mastery, processed into a state of "fun" (brought back into the logocentric fold, if you will). In saying all of this, I do not mean to position Bioshock as some sort of master text. Rather, I think it serves in our moment as an example of a growing (if unconscious) awareness of the extent to which the cinematic, political, aesthetic, and machinic all seem to dovetail in our moment. Gaming technology in particular, in both pop culture and academia, offers us interesting opportunities to read these configurations from different angles.

Conclusions: Being-Sublime

Already, my discussion here has found many ways to over-reach itself, attempting to theorize (and, by extension, systematize) some notion of how we may come to think of and experience emotion in the videogaming age. To call this set of conclusions "Being-Sublime" is to risk setting the stakes uncomfortably high, though I'd implore the reader to read them tactically, as attempts to stretch our grasp of gaming's rhetoric into largely unconsidered territory. In consulting emotion in the first place, the idea of this chapter was to get at something ineffable and personal. Gaming tends to be a solitary activity, despite the academic attention often lavished on the handful of games (such as World of Warcraft) that offer or encourage social interaction. While acknowledging the importance of the social dimensions of gaming (interactions both within the game world and outside of it, the importance of community, the self-fashioning that happens in online environments), emotion remains an experience that we tend to think of as irreducibly personal, even if that process rarely ends at the borders of one's own skin. Without getting caught up in the bland generalities that paint gamers as solitary and socially awkward, I believe we can attend to these configurations of technology and textuality in an attempt to move our conversation into wiser considerations of how the gaming experience (or, how our encounter with gaming technology) creates new kinds of emotional experience, specifically out of the oscillation of "beautiful" and "sublime" aesthetic experiences. Understanding that experience, through all of this loaded theoretical discussion, is very likely the springboard to creating better scholarship, better teaching, and better awareness of how rhetorical subjects under-the-influence-of-gaming are likely to interface with the world.

Perhaps the most crucial stake raised in this chapter is the notion of the sublime and the ways in which it complicates our notions of "control."  Even while affirming Worsham's views on the public disciplining of emotion (the ideological machinery that makes a logos out of our pathos) and Ian Bogost's desire to do "serious" work with the procedural rhetoric of gaming, the reading I suggest here potentially reinstalls a scene of instability and possibility at the heart of the matter (through Barthes's punctum). This notion of mine of an involuntarily sublime emotional experience may at the very least suggest a kind of oscillation: a rapid exchanging of logics and pleasures in a manner that ideological critique can never entirely account for. Furthermore, my argument about the sublime-in-the-electronic-image can be read as part of a more general historical tendency. David Nye argues in American Technological Sublime that "the sublime has persisted as a preferred American trope through two centuries" (281). Citing throughout his book a combination of natural (i.e., the Grand Canyon) and distinctly technological (the Statue of Liberty, the 1892 Chicago World's Fair, the Atomic Bomb) places and events that have prompted "sublime" reactions, Nye charts a distinct "contradiction," one that he argues undergirds much of how Americans craft meaning out of their encounters with technology. The technological sublime "invites the observer to interpret a sudden expansion of perceptual experience as the corollary to an expansion of human power and yet simultaneously evokes a sense of individual insignificance and powerlessness" (285). Even if one prefers to read against the approach of Ulmer and Barthes, which tends to approach rhetorical skill as a capacity to cope with the multiple overlapping varieties of subjective experience, what Nye calls the "perceptual experience" of the technological sublime suggests a form of emotional schooling at stake in the emergent technologies of gaming that far exceed simple concepts of "fun" or "frustration."  These emotions, and the subjects constituted therein, are part of not just a machine, but of a historical pattern of machines to which a larger project should attend.

What rhetoricians may further consider, in applications ranging from videogame study to composition pedagogy, is how these historical patterns occasion, through their re-wiring of "emotional skill," a reconception of the classically integral and embodied subject. Fredric Jameson posits a kind of impersonality resulting from technologized aestheticity in the "postmodern" era: "This is not to say that cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling, but rather that such feelings ... are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria" (16). Such impersonal "euphoria" manifests a distinct challenge to the longstanding êthos of critical and social engagement in composition studies, an êthos particularly well concretized in the "ecocomposition" theory of Sid Dobrin and Christian Weisser. Just as Micciche's take on emotional "skill" sets the stage for an ongoing ecological circulation of various emotional "forms," Dobrin and Weisser argue in a more general sense for "an emotional approach to the relationships between discourse and environment [that] seeks to locate human values and ethics in a harmonious relationship to our environments" (158). In a sense, Greg Ulmer's invention of "mystory" in Internet Invention is a good start, considering its impulse towards developing compositional methods around the emotional skills summoned up by our increasingly mediated and digital environments.[8] Such pedagogies offer the hope of better interfacing with subjects whose encounters with sublime technologies make the uncritical acceptance of Platonic/Aristotelian rhetoric unlikely.

Furthermore, what the conversation requires at this moment is a turn to the emotional that includes yet risks exceeding ideological critique. Savvy critics will undoubtedly find in a majority of videogames powerful pedagogies for "schooling emotion" in familiarly unappetizing patterns: the production of aggression in particular. While acknowledging the very real problems potentially created by emotionally immature subjects coming into contact with gaming experiences of a too-complex nature, we cannot simultaneously wish for a future of enlightened gamers without understanding better how these gamers are equally emotional subjects. The mechanics of the medium may not bring us into the abode of a more integral and emotional being, but they also cannot entirely discipline emotion out of our bodies. The scene of sublime excess that we find ourselves in may place us on the doorstep of a more powerful understanding of ourselves as emotional beings, of a sense that emotion is in us and around us and can be more tightly woven into our lives. Yet, I argue that if the videogame medium is doing anything, it is creating a set of extensions that place that proverbial doorstep mere inches away from its opposite: the disciplining of emotional experience into so much nonsensical play. Our choice to do more with videogames, to bring our literate lives alongside them and to appropriate them as objects of scholarly understanding, faces the interesting (false) choice here of disavowing emotion or running full-bore towards it. An awareness of the falsity of that choice is what provides what I can allude to as a "third" or other possibility – the chance that the hyper-acceleration of emotional experience produces not just a free-floating "euphoria," but a tantalizing glimpse of some altogether more radical "rhythm that laughs you," the emotion that comes radically unbidden.[9] The joke's on us, though: in making either choice, we will find ourselves within range of its opposite.


 [1] Corbett argues that Aristotle urges the rhetor to "forget" about emotional tactics "in the same sense that someone who has read a how-to book about batting should forget what he has read when he takes a bat in hand and starts swinging at the ball" (Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student 93). The field of design is the closest thing to a science of those emotional tactics – the study of emotional strategies, perhaps – despite the tendency, which it seems traces back to at least Aristotle, to shrug and willfully disavow the possibility of such emotional technê.

[2] Interestingly, Norman remarks in a brief section on videogames that the development of increasingly sophisticated "story-lines" creates "demands upon the player more reflective and cognitive, less visceral and fast motor responses" (131). The wrong-headedness of Norman's move (to place the emphasis on story) is evident, though his gesture to a scene of richer emotional experience is one to which my own discussion will return.

[3] Espen Aarseth's Cybertext famously problematizes the notion that any text is truly "interactive," a position that I find absolutely and completely valid. However, I playfully retain the term "interactive" here to keep part of my project's larger stakes–the re-conception of emotional experience as a kind of rhetorical "action"–in view.

[4] Gregory Ulmer elaborates on the concept of a "relay," a process of taking an established text and using it not as an occasion for criticism, but as the ground work for inventive methods, throughout his books Teletheory: Grammatology in the Age of Video (1989), Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (1994), and Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy (2003).

[5] Though Benjamin addresses film and Barthes addresses photography, the latter does to an extent universalize his account of "the photographic message" to include all forms of photorealistic imagery. The degree of pictorial resolution appears to matter more to Barthes than the distinction between moving and still imagery, and so I opt to treat both he and Benjamin in the same breath, despite the material differences.

[6] In one particularly gripping sequence, a plaster mold of a human being is seated in a chair one moment, then reappears behind the player as soon as his/her back is turned. Upon rotating the view back whence the player came, (s)he is shocked by the statue now standing right behind her, which – of course – rears and attacks almost as quickly as the observation can be made.

[7] This notion, of using the sublime to sketch the borders of rational thought and the possibilities beyond those borders, is at the core of Jean-Francois Lyotard's "The Interest in the Sublime."

[8] See especially chapters 1 and 2 ("Mystory" and "Image," respectively) of Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy.

[9] Diane Davis cites this concept repeatedly throughout Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter (see especially pages 21-30).  Drawn from Helene Cixous's "Laugh of the Medusa," the phrase suggests a reversal in the traditional concept of agency in a way that is germane for my discussion.

Works Cited:

Aarseth, Espen. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.

Aristotle.The Art of Rhetoric. Trans. H.C. Lawson-Tancred. London, Penguin: 2004.

Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version." The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media. Eds. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2008. 19-57.

Bioshock. 2K Boston, 2K Games. Xbox 360, 2007.

Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Ed. Katie Salen. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.117-140.

Bukatman, Scott. “The Artificial Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime.” Alien Zone II: The Spaces of Science-Fiction Cinema. Ed. Annette Kuhn. London: Verso, 1999. 269-75.

Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History (3rd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Burnham, Douglas. “Kant: Theories of Aesthetics and Teleology.” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 2006. 18 February 2008. < /kantaest.htm>

Conley, Thomas M. Rhetoric in the European Tradition. New York: Longman, 1990.

Corbett, Edward P.J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Davis, D. Diane. Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

Dobrin, Sidney I. and Christian R. Weisser. Natural Discourse: Towards Ecocomposition. Albany: SUNY Press, 2002.

Haskins, Ekaterina. Logos and Power in Isocrates and Aristotle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Trans. J.H. Bernard. London: Macmillan, 1931.

Koster, Raph. A Theory of Fun for Game Design. Scottsdale, AZ: Paraglyph Press, 2005.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Interest in the Sublime.” Trans. Jeffrey S. Librett. Of the Sublime: Presence in Question. Albany: SUNY Press, 1993. 109-32.

Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2007.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Norman, Donald A. Emotional Design: Why We Love or Hate Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Nye, David. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994.

Ulmer, Gregory. Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. New York: Longman, 2003.

Worsham, Lynn. “Going Postal: Pedagogic Violence and the Schooling of Emotion,” JAC 18.2 (1998): 213-45.

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