Real Community Play
The history of composition and rhetoric instruction provides examples of an essential awareness of the political power of rhetoric to tap into the resources of a group’s collective intelligence—especially in times of crisis—and of serious play to facilitate rhetorical education through simulation. Isocrates is clear about this in the Antidosis:
When danger threatens the state, the state must call upon those who speak best upon the question at issue and act upon their advice. (p. 248)
In this statement Isocrates attempts to unite theories of rhetorical and political engagement, through praxis, into one common program by identifying the collected assembly as the place where language becomes an effective tool for collaborative problem solving. Susan Jarratt has used such statements to argue that sophistic education’s attempts to apply the skills learned in the classroom directly to the polis is what sets it apart from other types of instruction, most notably modern composition instruction (p. 84). James Berlin offers us a useful adjunct to Jarratt’s point, stating that modern composition instruction has the ability to “prepare students for assuming their political responsibilities as leaders or simply as active participants” (p. 189).
For Isocrates, Jarrett, and Berlin it is the ability of discourse to engage a public, steer its collective intentions, and harness their productive capabilities in the best interest of the “civic good” that shapes both the classical and modern conceptions of what it means to provide students with a distinctly rhetorical education. By using rich, dynamic, and multimodal simulations and games to teach rhetoric as a public dialogue on critical issues, people are given both a means for interaction and a way of controlling the material effects of living in a capricious reality.
In a similar fashion, players can motivate themselves to use in-game skills to tackle real-world concerns. While The Beast began as a murder mystery, charging players with finding out who killed character Evan Chan, it ended up becoming something else. The Beast demonstrated the facility and enthusiasm with which large collectively engaged audiences can traverse the “magic circle” of play. In her piece, “This is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play,” game designer and “Participation Architect” Jane McGonigal relates how, in the days following September 11, 2001, numerous players of The Beast thought they could harness their collective intelligence to “solve 9/11” much like they decrypted the narrative elements of the game. McGonigal quotes a player’s posting on the (now defunct) “Cloudmakers” forum--an online bulletin board set up by players to exchange in-game information--which states “we have the means, resources, and expertise to put a picture together from a vast wealth of knowledge and personal intuition” (p. 1). The response was so immediate and intense that forum administrators felt it necessary to step in and remind players that, despite the “This Is Not A Game” assertion that characterized The Beast, they were following a scripted alternate reality, not real, chaotic events. Since then, players have suggested applying their collective skills and knowledge to solving other real world issues such as government waste and the hunt for the 2002 “Beltway Sniper” in Virginia and Washington D.C. (McGonigal, p. 7).
This rapid and seamless shift of a perceived ability to contribute problem solving skills from an alternate to an actual reality illustrates not only how effectively ARGs blur the line between the fictive and the real, but how players are willing and able to fuse together the interests of organic in-game communities and real primary loyalties. We can see the same potential in simulation games’ ability to “open up” a fissure in the magic circle through which the real and ludic spheres can interact and have an impact on one another.
World Without Oil demonstrates the potential for ARGs not only to teach but also to actually perform, civic engagement and political advocacy. World Without Oil shows how ARGs can harness the power of a large group of players to imagine and react to an alternate reality where the world has entered into a profound crisis brought on by depleted petroleum reserves. WWO was an enjoyable experience for participants that successfully engendered an entire self-regulating, organic community that wrote letters to politicians, researched and drafted white papers and position statements for policymakers, and conceived of alternative sources of energy. Through such a project we, as instructors, can demonstrate the ludic qualities of civic participation and public service and perform them by encouraging students to join the community of players, hear their voices, learn their concerns, and be both critical and supporting of others’ work. This is not to mention the resources of a huge community of online “editors” and commentators who are just waiting to work collaboratively on the one piece of persuasive writing (or persuasive gaming) that truly bridges the “gap” between the game and reality, a gap that is becoming increasingly irrelevant and difficult to locate.
WWO demonstrates several potential uses of serious play to influence society. Interaction with players and non-players, online and off, brought people together to effect change in the real world. Individual players could not set up a community garden alone. In both the game and real worlds they had to work together amongst themselves and involve the community, negotiating different motivations and interests. A public protest on government policy was in-game for players, but strikingly real for those outside the game community. Just like the real community gardens initiated by players, the in-game protest had a real-world effect by educating the public about the power of collective intention, persuasive language, and political and social participation, and energy policy, not to mention ARGs.