The Rhetoric of Serious Game Genres: Issues for Analysis and Design

Lee Sherlock


A number of frameworks based on the idea of serious game genres or categories have been developed to understand the range of purposes and actions that serious games engage with. While such frameworks attempt to describe the relationship between particular games and their "real-world" purposes, I argue that these genre definitions obscure both the co-construction and negotiation of meaning through the process of play and the "procedural rhetoric" (Bogost, 2007) involved in digital gameplay.

In response to this problem, I interrogate the status of serious game genres, evaluate the criteria used in constructing those genres, and consider the various "possibility spaces" (Sawyer & Smith, 2008) that players, designers, educators, and other groups might employ to articulate how serious games are experienced across a variety of purposes, disciplines, and contexts. The primary work informing this analysis is drawn from rhetorical genre studies, including work on genre ecologies (Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000; Spinuzzi, 2003) and genre and play theory (Christensen, Cootey, & Moeller, 2007).

As part of this genre analysis, new connections between rhetorical genre studies and serious game design and play issues emerge. One implication is that we can develop new analytical models for understanding how gameplay extends outside the game itself to include other digital texts, forms of learning, and modes of social action. This presentation will also consider the game design implications that can be drawn out of genre-based critique, such as the possible application of "genre ecology diagrams" and "organic engineering" as heuristic tools (Spinuzzi & Zachry, 2000, p. 176). In drawing out these implications, the underlying argument is that the construction of serious game genres needs to be examined not only as a set of critical or analytical terms, but as a particular orientation or mode of thinking that is linked to particular design affordances and constraints.