Rhetorical Analysis 2: Analyzing a Videogame

UPDATE: Two sample essays are available in Moodle in the new “Sample Essays” folder at the top of our class page. We’ll discuss them in depth during week 6, but you’re welcome to read them over before then. Neither is perfect, but one is clearly stronger than the other.


Man playing Pac ManIn his chapter “Semiotic Domains,” James Paul Gee writes, “I want us to think about the fact that for any semiotic domain, whether it is first-person shooter games, architecture, or linguistics, that domain, internally and externally, was and is designed by someone” (30). Gee’s emphasis on design overlaps neatly with the goals of a rhetorical analysis, which could be defined as an explanation of the way any piece of communication was designed to be effective in its particular rhetorical situation.

Like Gee, I’m interested in videogames as sites for rhetorical analysis because they are examples of designed, multimodal spaces. (“Multimodal” means “uses more than one modality,” like sound, text, video, or image.) And one of the primary questions we’ll ask in this class is “How is multimodal rhetoric similar and different from written and spoken rhetoric?” Therefore, by analyzing the rhetoric of videogames, we’ll start to critically consider the ways these multimodal spaces are designed for rhetorical effects–that is, how they persuade.

To make things easier, we’ll analyze games that were designed with very explicitly rhetorical goals. Specifically, we’ll discuss games at Games for Change (http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/), a site that indexes games that are designed for a “social good,” in the words of the site’s About page.


Choose one game that is featured under the “Play” tab of Games for Change and write an essay that analyzes the game’s rhetoric.

For ideas about what kinds of things to analyze, see the Tips section below and the notes from our class on September 16, when we played a number of games together. (I typed our class notes into the Shared Notes document, which is available through a link at the top of our Moodle site.)

You must provide a link directly to your game the first time that you mention the game’s title, like this: “While playing Plague, Inc., I came to realize that….” You don’t need a Works Cited/References section unless you rely on material outside of your videogame (like an interview with the game’s creator).

As with RA1, you’ll post your essay on your blog, but the content of your essay will still follow many conventions of academic essays. Once again, think of this assignment as a merging of the two genres: use strong organization, clear evidence, intriguing ideas, and sentences that are powerful and varied. Follow the grammatical and mechanical rules for standard written English, but feel free to write conversationally and use the first person.

There is no length requirement. Write enough to reflect this assignment’s importance to your final grade (see “Assessment,” below).

Extra Credit: Include a Screenshot and Fair Use Statement

For 5 extra points in your Evidence category, consider including a screenshot from the game and a statement about why you believe your use of the image is fair use. (Put your fair use statement at the bottom of your post, separated from the text of your essay with a heading to make it clear that this is a separate section.)

You should only include an image that is an important part of your analysis. That is, don’t include an image just because “it looks cool” (like the images on this assignment page, for example). Instead, only include images that you discuss in some way. For instance, you might write this: “In the image below, the abundance of the color red is obvious: [image]. Notice especially how red shows up in places where you wouldn’t expect it: in lines through the sky and in pools of water. This use of color suggests….”

If you include an image, please be sure to crop it so that the screenshot focuses on the most important part of the image for your analysis.


This assignment is worth 10% of your final grade.

Your essay will be graded in four areas: quality of ideas, organization, evidence, and style. I’ll use the same rubric to guide me that I used for RA1 (pdf here).

Due Dates

Bring a draft of your essay to class on Monday, September 23  for peer review. This draft can be messy, including lots of notes to yourself. It can also be digital or printed, depending on your preference. The main thing is that you must be able to discuss your draft with a partner in class, explaining what you are trying to communicate and showing your efforts so far. (We’ll be in the computer lab that day, allowing you to share a digital version if you prefer.)

Post your completed essay to your blog before class begins on Friday, September 27.


Kids playing Super Mario Bros

Strong Ideas Scores: The best way to get a good grade in the Ideas category is to identify a number of insightful strategies that you see the game’s designers using to convince you. It’s even better if you can articulate how those different strategies work together–that is, if you can explain the patterns you see in those how those strategies function as a whole. So a C- or B-level essay might list the strategies in a game (X kind of music, Y kind of visuals, Z kind of text), but an A-level essay would explain how all of those strategies fit together (to create an overall atmosphere of A, which was designed to help persuade players of B, the designers used X, Y, and Z).

Gee’s Chapter: You might want to address some of these questions suggested by Gee’s chapter. (They’re not required, but they fit naturally in this kind of essay.)

  • In what semiotic domains does this game seem to fit? Does it rely on any common logics/grammars/systems that tie it to other games you’ve played?
  • What are some characteristics of the internal design grammar of this game? (28)
  • What affinity groups might be drawn to this game? Which wouldn’t?
  • What modalities does the game use? Is one more privileged than the others?
  • Gee’s concept of critical learning involves thinking about how a system was designed. Is there anything about the game’s design that allows or constricts certain kinds of actions? What do those design elements imply about the game?

And like last time, for more general questions about rhetorical analyses, see “Basic Questions for Rhetorical Analysis.” You’ll see that some questions apply to this assignment more than others, but the list as a whole is excellent.

Organizing Your Paragraphs: If you’re not sure how to structure this kind of essay, consider following an organizational pattern similar to that in your first rhetorical analysis essay: 1) an introduction that introduces the topic and states the rhetorical strategies that you want to discuss in this essay, 2) a paragraph or section that briefly explains the game, its rhetorical situation, and what its designers’ primary purpose seems to be, 3) (most important) a body organized to help your reader understand what rhetorical strategies you’ve found in the game, split into paragraphs that are fully developed and proven with evidence, 4) a conclusion that discusses the broader significance of this conversation (instead of summarizing). (This is only one suggested organizational structure; if you’re confident that another structure will work better for you, go for it!)

Referring to Videogames: You may decide to italicize or not italicize the name of your game, as long as you’re consistent throughout the essay. (I can’t find a common consensus on this, though I’ve seen game titles italicized more often than not.)

I also write videogame as a single word, following the advice of The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual (pdf), published by The International Game Journalists Association and Games Press. But if you split it up (as many publishers do, including Gee’s), that’s okay too.

Credits: joyrex, “Pac Man” and smgee, “level 1.1

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