Making Games Matter: Games and Materiality Special Issue Introduction 

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video game shelf

Steve Holmes, Texas Tech University

Rebekah Shultz Colby, University of Denver


Researchers across rhetoric, composition and technical communication have increasingly engaged games as a research area in the past decade (Sabatino, 2014; Alexander, 2017; Holmes, 2017; Shultz Colby, 2017; Arduini, 2018; Eutenueur, 2018; Jiang, 2020). In the wake of foundational books like Ken S. McAllister’s (2004) Game Work and Ian Bogost’s (2007) Persuasive Games, researchers have published numerous articles, books, journal special issues, and edited collections through diverse methodological areas (Moeller & deWinter, 2014; Eyman & Davis, 2016; Henthorn, Kulak, Purzycki, & Vie, 2019; Colby, Johnson, & Shultz Colby, 2013, 2021). As the guest editors of this 2022 special issue of Computers and Composition and Computers and Composition online, we find ourselves in an enviable position. Given the excellent past and emerging work, we are able to shift from field establishing moves or arguments for topical inclusion (e.g., “researchers should study games”) to conceptual and methodological refining moves to highlight areas for further inquiry. tower of games

The theme of this special issue is materiality in games from a rhetoric and composition-oriented perspective because how games rhetorically persuade through their embodied materiality has been largely unexplored by rhetoric and writing scholars until relatively recently (Alexander, 2017; Holmes, 2017; Arduini, 2018; Eutenueur, 2018; Jiang, 2020), even though several rhetoric and writing scholars have also exploded the dichotomy between play and work/learning within the classroom (Rouzie, 2005; Colby & Shultz Colby, 2008; Moberly, 2008). Examining materiality within gamification is so specialized that it has been largely ignored within rhetoric and writing (Frith, 2015). To be sure, many game studies scholars have explored gamification (McGonigal, 2011; Deterding, 2014) and some have even examined how in a post-Fordist information economy, games have been co-opted as a form of unpaid labor (Golumbia, 2009; Jagoda, 2013; Deterding, 2014), turning the world into a “gamespace” (Wark, 2007); stemming from seminal pieces like Sudnow’s (1983) Pilgrim in the Microworld, game studies scholars outside of rhetoric and writing studies have engaged materiality and embodiment in many ways (Ash, 2013; Pozo, 2018; Marcotte, 2018; Hammar, 2020). Our goal for this collection is to extend and further these areas of thinking by offering a dedicated thematic platform grouped loosely in the idea of bringing to bear a wide variety of contemporary material philosophies and methodologies on games.

To be sure, readers can readily find the word “materiality” in past rhetoric and writing studies treatments of games. As a case in point, McAllister’s (2004) notion of “gamework” observed how videogames’ “psychophysiological force . . . [can] cause players to sweat, to go without food or using the toilet, to get violently angry or frustrated, to enable the release of stress” (p. 52). With the rising popularity of causal gaming and mobile media play on cellular and tablet devices, we suspect that few would argue that materiality is not already an important part of analyzing the various rhetorical situations of games, play, and writing through and about play. Indeed, as the contributors to this special issue will confirm, it is the definition of the idea of “materiality” that is at stake. McAllister’s emphasis follows a post-Marxist intellectual tradition of discussing materiality’s significance with respect to human economic relationships and labor: “When games are given meaning (and also make it) through tactile and psychological prompts, they necessarily manifest traces of the dialectical struggles to which they are connected” (p.134). Others in game studies also sought to link the material force of games to economic relations. In the “Great Game” of “colonial-exploitation” as McKenzie Wark (2007) memorably put it in Gamer Theory, “. . . you may spot some capacitors made by Kemet, or maybe semiconductors from Intel [in the guts of your machine]. These probably contained tantalum, a marvelous conductor of election . . . they were quite possibly made with coltan . . . dug out the ground in the Congo” by exploited non-white bodies (p. 45).

McAllister (2004) also should be commended for even considering materiality in his initial treatment of the rhetoric of computer games. By comparison, overall theoretical interests in materiality had been in general decline since the 1970s in favor of hermeneutic paradigms grounded in subjectivity, culture, discourse, ideology, and language in which materiality was largely overlooked. This dismissal of the material led the agential realist philosopher Karen Barad (2003) to note that “Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretative turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every “thing”—even materiality—is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation” (p. 801). In response, more recent work in new materialist philosophy and theory such as Jane Bennett’s (2009) Vibrant Matter and Diana Coole & Samantha Frost’s (2010) New Materialisms edited collection similarly encouraged us to consider more directly the agentive role of nonhuman material actors in assessing cultural or symbolic forms of meaning beyond (and certainly not excluding) human-initiated labor practices. Materiality as a definition concept for interpreting cultural texts like games had another important ethical role: a philosophical program of further decentering the anthropomorphic concepts of culture that established human agency and symbolic action as the only actors worthy of consideration.

The entry point for more recent work on materiality stresses the agentive capacities of nonhuman actors to enable or thwart human agency. In examining the 2003 Great American Blackboard (e.g., a collapse of a large electrical grid), Bennett (2009) notes that nonhuman actors like electricity behaved in aleatory manners to help produce expected or emergent outcomes. At one point, “the transmission lines along the southern shore of Lake Erie disconnected, the power that had been flowing along that path . . . immediately [and unexpectedly] reversed direction and began flowing in a giant loop counterclockwise from Pennsylvania to New York to Ontario and into Michigan” (p.27). Invoking the Deleuzian term “assemblage,” Bennett (2009) writes, “The electrical grid is a volatile mix of coal, sweat, electromagnetic fields, computer programs, electron streams, profit motives, heat, lifestyles, nuclear fuel, plastic, fantasies of mastery, static, legislation, water, economic theory, wire, and wood—to name just some of the actants” (p.27). Among other goals, the point of these analyses is to ground human agency—like energy conglomerates or electrical deregulation lobbyists—in a more accurate description of the full range of distributed agencies at play.

In games studies, scholars have already been exploring how the “play moment” that the player experiences as T.L. Taylor (2009) put it is built upon a complex network of documents, designers, marketing initiatives, code, and circuits—an assemblage. In fact, even though he does not term it as such, this networked game development assemblage is also what McAllister (2004) rhetoricaly examines in Game Work. Even a cursory keyword search for the term “materiality” in pages of the international journal Games Studies will reveal countless explorations of materiality from a variety of older and newer paradigms. Within rhetoric and composition, countless scholars have engaged these conversations to include actor-network theory, agential realism, new materialism, vitalism, ambient rhetoric, and object-oriented rhetoric in the past 10-15 years. (Rickert, 2013; Finnegan, 2015; Gries, 2015; Barnett & Boyle, 2016; Gouge & Jones, 2016; Boyle, 2018; Sundvall, 2019).