“Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out”
by Wendi Sierra
Before presenting me with its first challenge, Semiotic Domains reassures me I’ll be able to succeed. I smile, perhaps a bit too smugly. Of course I’ll figure it out, I’m a lifelong gamer and I study and teach about games. I quickly regret my hubris, as I enter the first area and am immediately stumped. Not stumped, perhaps, but slowed; the first challenge is a maze, and I find myself trekking back and forth repeatedly as I lose my path attempting to solve the puzzle. I look for markers and begin to read the space more intently, paying more careful attention to the various landmarks placed throughout the garden maze. Finally reaching the end of the level, the game offers a gentle barb: “So you’re a lever pulling expert now, eh?”
Semiotic Domains offers a quick and easy to play example of procedural rhetoric, a term Ian Bogost coined to refer to “the practice of using processes persuasively” (28). Games provide players with challenges and choices, and through the experience of these procedures, players learn and, perhaps, are persuaded by the systems they interact with. In each level of Semiotic Domains, meant themselves to represent different semiotic domains, the game demonstrates Gee’s key points about semiotic domains. Namely, players are required to “[learn] about and [come] to appreciate the interrelations within and across multiple sign systems” to solve puzzles and progress forward (49). In one level a stool might be mere set dressing, while in another level it becomes key to unlocking the puzzle. Though brief, each level required I train my eye to identify possible tools to solve problems, modeling the act of learning a new semiotic domain through the gameplay.
The game also consistently highlighted my own agency in the process, an interesting feature and an important part of the concept of semiotic domains. In addition to acknowledging my successes, I was frequently reminded “onwards or backwards, it’s always your choice”. Abandoning the game was always an option available to me, meaning that moving forward was my own active choice to continue learning and expanding my semiotic domains, at least within the game.
Semiotic Domains is an enjoyable way to introduce an important concept. The playful tone and characters keep the game bright and cheery, and the final explanation firmly grounds the game in the literature on games, learning, and semiotic domains.
Gee, James Paul. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive games: the expressive power of videogames. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press, 2010. Print.