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Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision

I just read a great article called Fantasy and Rhetorical Vision: The Rhetorical Criticism of Social Reality by Ernest G. Bormann. Bormann is well known for his Symbolic Convergence Theory. It’s not as technical as it sounds. Basically, he’s interested in seeing how the stories we listen to and tell each other “create a sense of us and them” (Sellnow 97). His research comes out of analyses of small group discussions, where people tell stories to relieve tension. These stories could be quite simple–you just need some characters (real or imaginary) “playing out a dramatic situation in a setting removed in time and space from the here-and-now transactions of the group” (397). The story in question could simply be about what happened at the office last week, or it could be about what happened on a recent episode of Dexter. The key part for Bormann is that the other folks there have to help “chain out” the story, legitimizing it by adding something or making an appropriate response, such as laughing at a joke. If you mention something that happened on Dexter and everyone just scratches their heads because they haven’t ever heard of the show, they don’t share that part of your symbolic reality. 

Bormann thinks that this happens in mass communication as well as small groups, and gives some great examples such as puritan ministers promoting an “internal fantasy life of might grandeur and complexity” to make people living rather dreary lives feel important. There’s also a psychoanalytical dimension: “Just as an individual’s repressed problems might surface in dream fantasies, so those of a group might surface in a fantasy chain and a critic might interpret the manifest content with an eye to discovering the group’s hidden agenda” (397). I was thinking along these same lines awhile back (see CRPG Anxieties). What’s nice about this move is that it gives you something tangible to study (the rhetoric rather than something going on inside an individual’s head). If you told me, for instance, that you had a dream last night in which you were being sprayed with milk by a man in a gorilla costume, we’d have to spend a great deal of time trying to hash out what those symbols mean to you–what is your subconscious trying to tell you? These symbols tend to be highly personal or subjective; maybe, for instance, you were frightened by a man in a gorilla costume when you were a child, and are now having anxieties about your wife getting pregnant (the spraying milk might symbolize lactation). On the other hand, the gorilla costume and the milk could mean something vastly different for the next person. Thus the need for extensive analysis on a person-to-person basis.

If Bormann is right, though, then we could diagnose an entire group (getting at their “hidden agenda,” which I read as their subconscious desires) simply by looking at these “chains.” According to Bormann, “Individuals in rhetorical transactions create subjective worlds of common expectations and meanings,” however, they are stronger since they’re reinforced by the “warmth of like-minded companions” (400). Again, the puritan example he gives makes sense; it’s much easier to “believe” if we’re surrounded by other believers.

This is where I see a link to games, especially MMOs like World of Warcraft. Although Bormann is mostly concerned with language, his theory seems more than applicable to gameplay. What are we doing when we play an MMO if we’re not sharing a rhetorical vision? Likewise, there is strong link to reality–beyond just actually playing the game, we might talk about the scenarios at work, or even modify our behavior to make it more gamelike (see McGonigal’s Reality is Broken).

What I’m more curious about, though, is, given the accuracy of Bormann’s theory and relevance for games like WOW, can we determine the “hidden agendas” of WOW players? Bormann talks about how “individual responses to works of art, when one is ‘transported’ to a world which seems somehow even more real than the everyday world”; “those so transported take up the dramas in small groups of acquaintances, and some of these derivative dramas again chain out as fantasy themes in the new groups: thus the rhetorical vision is propagated to a larger public until a rhetorical movement emerges” (399). You can see why I thought of virtual worlds like Azeroth (or whatever might be on the horizon given the Oculus Rift technology and such).

As we’ve mentioned, many of us can feel lost, hopeless; unable to control the events and forces at work on our daily lives. However, we can always daydream about things going differently–winning the lotto, our hated boss dropping dead, etc. All the more powerful these “daydreams,” though, when they’re in the form of a game that we’re playing with so many people who share the fantasy.

Bormann talks about the abolitionist movement, and how their hidden agenda was that they were “members of a displaced social elite caught in a status crisis. The words of the abolitionists are discounted as being unimportant to the historical reality of the situation” (400). “If the critic can illuminate how people who participated in the rhetorical vision related to one another, how they arranged themselves into social hierarchies, how they acted to achieve the goals embedded in their dreams, and how they were aroused by the dramatic action and the dramatis personae within the manifest content of their rhetoric,” writes Bormann, the critic will better understand the movement and its followers.

So, how do WOW players relate to each other, arrange themselves into social hierarchies, play the game, and respond to the gameplay and (other characters) in the game?

It seems to me that such games (and the people who play them) are not that dissimilar to the wretched members of that puritan colony. We’re not toiling daily just to survive, but the opportunities to truly distinguish ourselves in such an overpopulated and heavily institutionalized setting make us feel just as lost and hopeless. No matter how hard we work, we can’t get ahead, or any closer to any worthwhile goal. We get a raise at work, more money, etc., but then inflation happens or taxes go up. You go to college, make good grades, but end up in a job you don’t care about that doesn’t pay nearly what it should.

I want what’s owed me, you say. I’m not getting what is owed me. You did your part and got left hanging. Now, before you say–wait a minute, nobody owes you anything. Fine–this isn’t Reality we’re talking about, remember?

The “hidden agenda” of games like WOW, it seems to me, is that we still want to distinguish ourselves with better and better Stuff, but much as those puritans were convinced that their Stuff would be given to them after they died (Spiritual Goods), our Stuff is Virtual. Thus, even if you can’t have the nice house, great car, or whatever it is you think you Really Deserve, if you play WOW long enough, you’ll get those epics. Because that’s what Smart people like you and me get, right–the best stuff? The lootz is waiting–just gather up those 24 bear asses.

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