Designing Rhetorical Peaks

The Prototype

As described by Matteo, the RP prototype led the student/player through a series of quests in order to accumulate evidence that could be used to make an argument as to the identity of the killer of Professor Gorgias, a rhetoric instructor in the fictional town of Rhetorical Peaks.  The player would take on the role of Gorgias’s student and would interact with the non-player characters (NPCs) populating Rhetorical Peaks.  The three main NPCs would each send the player on a quest, and each quest would require the player to demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental rhetorical appeals – logos, ethos, and pathos.  For example, the player would have to show concern and sensitivity for threats to the environment, a demonstration of ethos, in order to gain the trust of Woodsy the raven and thus hear Woodsy’s evidence.  Having completed the quests, the player would be prepared to make a causal argument regarding Gorgias’s death.  This argument would be made outside of the game proper, either through class discussion or as a paper.  No “correct” answer was built into the game, and a range of valid arguments could be made using the evidence made available by the NPC’s stories and testimony.

In his article, Matteo noted two main limitations of the prototype.  Most importantly, as a module for NWN, the RP prototype required users to own a copy of NWN or to be individually registered to use it.  The workgroup also wanted to move away from the medieval aspects of NWN and to allow RP to develop its own unique playing experience.  In addition to the confinements imposed on the prototype by NWN, Matteo also noted a possible limitation in the conception of the game itself: with reference to the quests that challenge the player’s understanding of logos, ethos, and pathos,

Rhetorical Peaks seems to be designed to exercise each of the three Aristotelian rhetorical appeals in isolation from one another.  To some specialists in rhetoric and persuasion, this aspect of the game may appear to reflect a somewhat limited or problematic understanding of rhetorical theory. And, indeed, if the game did teach that the three types of persuasive appeal as clearly and certainly and absolutely separable, it would be a poor tool for teaching argument and communication. The other game designers and I recognize that there is a strong case to be made that no rhetorical appeal (logos, ethos, or pathos) is ever made in isolation, that in other words, any attempt to persuade any audience always involves some degree of each type of appeal.  (67)

Although Matteo goes on to note that discussion of RP in the classroom could encourage students to recognize the interplay of the three rhetorical appeals within the game, the workgroup nonetheless was concerned that, by organizing separate quests for each appeal, students would be more likely to treat them as isolated concepts.  With these limitations in mind, the workgroup set out to reconceptualize RP during the 2007-08 academic year.


Remapping Rhetorical Peaks

The workgroup addressed the first limitation of the RP prototype – the game’s dependence on NWN – by applying for and receiving a ~FAST Tex grant from the Division of Instructional Innovation and Assessment (DIIA) at UT.  This grant will provide the video game workgroup with technological assistance from a team of undergraduate students with technological savvy, allowing us to build a new version of the game independent of NWN.  I will elaborate on the expected future developments of RP with reference to this grant in the last section of this paper.

Our initial meetings with ~FAST Tex representatives in the fall of 2007 also shaped the new direction in the concept and script of RP.  Already suspecting that we wanted to shift the game in a new direction, Coco Kishi further encouraged our workgroup to simplify the technological aspect of the game as much as possible.  Having assumed that we would apply for the ~FAST Tex grant in order to build an immersive 3D version of RP using an animation program like Blender, we shifted our thinking upon Kishi’s recommendations.  As the manager of all ~FAST Tex projects, Kishi stressed the importance of meeting pedagogical goals rather than simply developing sophisticated technology.  In this sense, ~FAST Tex had no interest in developing an expensive and time-intensive 3D game that would not be successful in the classroom.  Kishi specifically recommended The Daily Intelligencer, the project of UT professor Steve Frieson, as a simple but effective model.

With this model in mind, we began to shift the focus of RP away from quests that would ask the player to navigate a 3D environment and toward more straightforward interactions between the player and NPCs with a greater emphasis on dialogue and sound.  Rather than immersing the player in a world of sophisticated animation, we would create a dense textual world that would require the player to be engaged constantly in rhetorical analysis in order to evaluate the testimony of the NPCs and to glean as much evidence from them as possible.  Whereas the prototype asked the player to focus on one rhetorical appeal at a time, the new script would present the player with situations and conversations in which all of the rhetorical appeals were constantly in play.  Having developed part of this new script, we began to experiment with possibilities for incorporating sound, an element that could increase possibilities for rhetorical analysis without demanding complicated technology.  Spoken dialogue and background music could thus be used to affect the player’s understanding of an NPC and his/her testimony.

Before offering a more detailed account of this new vision for RP, I would like to note another event that shaped the design of the game.  During the spring of 2008, I presented the script to a handful of my students—students familiar with rhetorical analysis—for their feedback.  While generally encouraging, several of these students pointed to a limitation in the reconceptualized RP: the focus on dialogue limited the ability of the game to interest the player, and it also threatened to underutilize the possibilities of the video game format by presenting a text that could perhaps be just as easily presented outside of the context of a game.  With this input and further suggestions from the students, we recognized the opportunity to include a wider variety of texts, including but not necessarily limited to pictures and/or video footage of the crime scene, written texts such as letters, a diary, etc., and perhaps less forensic elements such as dreams and/or visions.  These new textual elements could enhance both the pedagogical opportunities within the game by making available for analysis a variety of texts and media simultaneously and the player’s experience by offering a more complicated and interesting environment.

The specific changes made to the prototype (again, conceptually and in the script) over the last year include the following:

  • Characters.  The game’s victim is now Lisa Sophist, the best speaker in the town of Rhetorical Peaks.  Professor Gorgias now appears among the living NPCs.  The player’s persona has shifted as well, from a student of Gorgias to Agent Rederick, Federal Bureau of Argumentation.  A similar range of NPCs still populates RP, each representing a specific relationship to Lisa.  These changes were motivated by a few factors.  We intended the change from Gorgias to Lisa to make the story more appealing by shifting the victim and the victim’s close friends toward the player’s demographic.  This change also allowed us to shift the possible motives for Lisa’s killer.  In the prototype, most of the suggested motivations for Gorgias’s killer were professional—e.g., a rival professor seeking revenge in light of Gorgias’s academic dishonesty.  The possible motivations for Lisa’s killer tend to be more complicated, ranging from professional motivations to personal ones.  While Gorgias’s unknown killer could have been supplied with a similar range of motivations, we felt that players would more likely recognize and perhaps identify with the attitudes surrounding a college student than the attitudes surrounding a professor.  Finally, we intended the change in the player’s persona from a student of Gorgias to Agent Rederick to make the game’s rhetorical situation more realistic.  A student in the town of Rhetorical Peaks would naturally have specific attitudes toward Gorgias and the other NPCs, attitudes of which the player would not be aware.  By asking the player to embody a character already figured as an outsider in the community, the story would reflect more accurately the playing experience.  This shift also foregrounds the necessity of establishing ethos within the game; as a stranger to Rhetorical Peaks, the player must constantly be seeking to establish her own authority in order to gain the trust of NPCs.
  • Settings.  As noted above, one of the main shifts in RP’s conception was to downplay the role of the virtual environment.  Rather than creating an immersive 3D world, RP will create settings through two-dimensional images, even real photographs.  Little to no animation will be required to build this virtual world.  This shift will not affect the quality of the rhetorical challenges presented to the player; the only likely effect will be on the player’s gaming experience.
  • Game play.  As with the settings, the shift away from a 3D environment will shift the gaming experience as well.  Rather than directing an avatar through a 3D world, the player will simply need to click on dialogue and command options on the screen to move through a sequence of conversations and events.  The game will present the player with stable images with little to no animation. 
  • Dialogue.  Lacking the quests of the prototype, the reconceptualized RP will embed its challenges within the player’s interactions with NPCs.  Rather than performing a series of actions to demonstrate an understanding of the fundamental rhetorical appeals, the player must demonstrate this understanding through dialogue choices.  Certain choices will lead NPCs to offer further evidence or to shut down the conversation.  Having accumulated evidence through these conversations, the player would then be asked to demonstrate rhetorical skills further by analyzing this evidence and making an argument about it.

To offer an example of what the player of RP might experience, I will describe a possible interaction between the player as Agent Rederick, FBA, and Professor Gorgias, NPC.  Asked to surmise whether Lisa had any enemies, Gorgias indicates that Lisa’s classmates were jealous of the attention she was receiving as the town’s best speaker and recently had turned against her.  While Gorgias points toward possible killers and possible motives, he hides his own motives.  Other NPCs will suggest variously that Gorgias’s relativistic teaching philosophy might have led Lisa to find all of her work meaningless and also that the professor might have attempted to establish an inappropriate relationship with his student.  Gorgias’s other responses to the player shape her understanding of the NPC as well.  For example, a particular line of conversation shows Gorgias executing faulty logic.  Another line of conversation puts Gorgias on the defensive:  when asked to describe his relationship with Lisa, Gorgias responds, “I’m not sure what you’re suggesting, Agent Rederick.  Our relationship was purely academic, although I often find that a certain mysterious attachment invariably arises between instructor and student when education reaches its most rigorous and rapturous peak.  We shared our passions, Agent Rederick, but our passions were only words!”  In the context of class discussion or a paper, the player will have the opportunity to evaluate how Gorgias’s responses encourage the player to read them and whether his testimony should be privileged or discounted in light of testimony from other NPCs.

Each interaction with each NPC points to different possible killers and different possible motivations.  The trick is that the player’s time will be limited so as to prevent the player from experiencing every possible interaction that the game has to offer.  For example, if the game includes thirty minutes of possible interactions, the player will only be allowed to navigate through the game for fifteen minutes.  Each player would thus have a different gaming experience, encountering different NPCs for different amounts of time and thus accumulating different evidence.  After playing the game once and engaging in class discussion to analyze their experience, students would be prepared either to write a causal argument or to return to the game to test out different possibilities and gather more evidence.