I have begun reading some of the scant literature on where rhetoric and gaming come together, Immersive Gameplay and The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games, and I’ve stumbled into something new. For several weeks now, I’ve been trying to take some of the things I’m learning in Rhetoric and see how they might apply to RPGs. Well, there’s an old RPG phenomenon that I’m seeing now in rhetorical literature – the jargon problem.

Games can be horrible about their jargon. Armor Class, Initiative Tests, and every time we trip over something, we’ve failed a dex check somewhere. It’s a common enough phenomenon – we use a common dialect to identify who’s a member of the tribe and who isn’t. It can create its own problems – stay tuned for my discussion about how gamers can be the industry’s worst enemies – but to see the same sort of exclusivity-making word choice working its way into rhetorical study is bothersome in the extreme, if for no other reason than it cuts against the whole point of rhetoric.

Rhetoric is, for most academic definitions, the study of the methods of persuasion. Once upon a time, this meant that rhetoricians spent most of their time studying speeches: when an orator (a rhetor who attempts oral persuasion) was successful, the rhetorician breaks down how and why the speech was successful. Lloyd Bitzer came along with “The Rhetorical Situation” and broadened the field’s horizons, but the resulting expansion has let in some antithetical habits, mostly from our more well-funded cousins in the sociology department, which have added to older jargon in producing a somewhat depressing result: the study of persuasion is going to a place where it will only be able to preach to the choir.

If I speak to you about the exigence, the audience, and constraints, you probably have a working idea on at least two of those concepts, and probably all three. Now what if I want to talk about the enthymeme or the illocutionary intent? Now let me throw in references to Focault, Discourse Analysis, or Crypto-Normativity. A mere 10-15 minutes in professional writing analysis can make you feel like 1984 was prescient, but only about academia. The Newspeak is here and its purpose is to create a class of navel-gazing scholars who can do little but comment on each other’s work, since that’s the only language they speak anymore.

And it doesn’t have to be that way. If Rhetoric is about how we persuade, how can we allow it to devolve into this pseudo-social-science? What is the use of created knowledge that is inaccessible to any that haven’t been through the post-grad rite of passage? Even if we do happen on new insights about the nature of propaganda or the power of a broadly accepted big idea (aka the aforementioned enthymeme), of what use is knowledge about language that cannot be broadly communicated?

I think that’s part of where this blog and other social media outlets about rhetoric can play a role. It’s not about dumbing down – for my money, isolating jargonization is where the stupidity lies. It’s about what we’re all told should be our goal as advanced academics – the creation of knowledge. I’ll do my best to take up a few of these terms over the next few weeks and try and elaborate on them, what they mean, and how the concepts they embody might be used in game terms.

It doesn’t have to be confusing or elitist. I don’t understand why it is.


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