Saturday, November 9, 2013

Jenga: Simple Rules for a Simple Game

Jenga: a highly popular and simplistic game night essential. It is likely that you’ve played whether you own it or not, and you could probably play right now without being told the rules. You probably don’t remember the first time you played, and you probably don’t remember ever reading the rules of Jenga. Maybe you never did. There are, however, official rules to Jenga. They are a great example of Plain Style in use.
            The activity systems in action in influencing the production of the rules of Jenga include the Hasbro Company and a vast range of players. The thing about Jenga is that it is a universal game truly “fun for all ages.” The box states that the game is for “ages 8 to adult.” This means that their rules need to be readable by players as young as 8 year-olds, but they still must appeal to an older audience. This creates an initial conflict in activity systems. It is difficult to imagine other situations where an author would be writing to such a diverse range of ages. This speaks to the versatility of the game, but would likely be a nightmare for the rule writer. If the rules are written down to eight-year-old intellect and this becomes obvious, older players may be deterred feeling that they are not meant to be playing this game. The secret to the success of Jenga is its simplicity. No one wants to read directions. We are a society focused on instant gratification. When we decide to play a game we want to play immediately. Hasbro however is interested in making sure that we are playing the game that it is intended and so written rules become a necessity. Even inside the company there may be conflict. The makers of the game may prefer a more specific and concrete set of rules, whereas marketing might say there is not room for that in their design of the box. Thus, there is a conflict among activity systems. A plain style that does not condescend is the effective compromise that Hasbro makes to reach the entirety of their audience of player of all ages. This same style delivers the necessary rules as efficiently as possible to avoid stealing too much time from the aforementioned instant gratification lifestyle.
The compromise reached by Hasbro is an effective Plain Style with minimal embellishment to hold the attention of readers of all ages without being overly robotic and monotonous.
            Jenga rules begin with an object (after listing the contents): “Remove one block at a time from the tower, and stack it on top. The last player to stack a block without making the tower fall wins the game!” Simple enough. This bulleted statement uses coordination, but not to complicate the sentence, only to combine sentences to avoid an overly choppy objective. In this objective we also see the repetition of the word block. If the authors of this rule set were more concerned with creating a creative or official style they may have tried to vary the ways they referenced the wooden Jenga blocks, calling them “bricks” or “pieces” or “prisms.” Well, maybe not prisms.
            After the object, the Jenga rules contain directions for set up. The first of these directions reads, “Empty wooden blocks onto a flat surface.” This statement is nothing but plain. It is a set of directions . In terms of “who is kicking who” it is implied that you are the kicker and you are emptying blocks. It may be unnecessary to include this direction as it seems obvious, and this raises questions about writing instructions like these. When is it okay to exclude what you perceive to be obvious?  The writers might have considered leaving this out to respect the intelligence of older players, but is it perhaps beneficial to the 8 year-old portion of their audience?
            The first rule in the next section titled “Gameplay” is as follows, “The player who built the tower goes first. Play passes to the left.” This is an even better example of a clear, active, who kicked who sentence. The player is doing the action of going first.
            The rules continue on like this maintaining simplicity and straightforwardness. The only way that the rules seem to veer away from a strict Plain Style is in the addition of additional information. One gameplay rule states, “As play proceeds and the weight of the tower shifts, some blocks become looser than others and are easier to remove. You can touch other bricks to find a loose one – but if you move a block out of place you must fix it…” Anything before “You can touch other bricks…” is extraneous regarding how to play. Hasbro may have considered leaving this out if there only intention was to present exclusively streamlined Plain Style information. Similarly, there is an entire additional section of the instructions titled “Game Variation – Solo Play.” Here, no new information is presented and the rules do not change except for the fact that only one person takes turns. Also under this section is included a bullet point which asks, “How tall is too tall? Find out when the tower falls!” Again this is unnecessary in terms of communicating the rules of Jenga, but after all it is a game.
            Hasbro does an excellent job finding a happy medium for broadcasting the rules of Jenga, their household favorite to a wide range of audiences while keeping their rules brief and palatable. This compromise involves a mastery of plain style but not a strict utilization thereof. Some extraneous information is added for embellishment. This avoids the monotony of too much text in textbook Plain Style and may be necessary to keep a reader from extreme boredom as caused by plain style even in a brief text. These deviations can be accounted by the massive variety of readers particularly ages.
            So then is there ever a place for an entirely plain style? The variations from a straight plain style in this essay seem to give the rules personality. Writing entirely in plain style would be entirely sterile. The only thing that comes to mind might be a set of precautions, but even then, is a personality-less plain style the best way to get people to listen? I would bet more people could tell you how to play Jenga than what the precautions are on an oven that they use more often than they play board games. I believe there would be some value to talking to people responsible for writing such texts. Much of this discussion is based on inferences about their motives in writing.

Spencer A

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Plain Twenties

Lists are a popular attraction in modern-day media. Websites, magazines, Facebook - they all have lists, because when a complex or difficult topic can be simplified into a list of top ten it suddenly becomes manageable. The current generation is not willing to commit a lot of time to reading an article. A list provides the option of simply skimming the bullet points and not reading the details. Huckabee, the author of “20 Things Every Twentysomething Should Know How To Do,” is aware of this. He is a managing editor of a magazine specifically geared towards people in their twenties, so he is certainly familiar with the techniques that work and those that do not.

The magazine Huckabee writes for, RELEVANT, also has a large presence on their website. Huckabee’s list of twenty things was featured on the magazine’s website near the beginning of October, 2013. At the time of writing this critique, several thousand people had viewed the article.
There are many actors involved within the activity system of this online article: Huckabee (the author), the readers of the article (older people trying to understand younger people, younger people trying to understand older people), the intended readers of RELEVANT (presumably twentysomethings), people who have not done much in their twenties, and the people who have done a lot of things in their twenties. Many people could be affected by Huckabee’s article, but judging by the title and the short introductory paragraph the intended audience are twentysomethings who haven’t done much with their lives.

Huckabee’s purpose is evident early on in the article. He begins by encouraging people that it is alright if they haven’t published a book or gotten married by the time they are thirty. So he doesn’t come across as harsh. But then he ends the paragraph (right before the list begins) by saying, “That said, there are a few things every twentysomething should know how to do.” So his purpose is to give an encouraging kick in the pants to many twentysomethings who apparently don’t know how to do much. It is a simple objective, but one that could easily be difficult to convey had not the plain style been used.

To accomplish his goals, Huckabee uses several tools that are typical of the plain style. He keeps the sentences short and less complex, with about 13 words per sentence, and 1.4 syllables per word. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease is 74.4, and the average grade level is 7.3. Overall, this piece is quite easy to read. Minimal jargon, little redundancy, and use of the second person help Huckabee keep the article simple and easy to read. But Huckabee doesn’t stop there. To further clarify, simplify, and minimize distraction Huckabee repeatedly uses the rhetorical devices of exemplum and metabasis throughout his article. It is the hope of Huckabee that by using these devices the reader will be the least distracted, thus receiving the most possible from the article.

One of the rhetorical strategies Huckabee employs is that of metabasis. Metabasis is simply stating what has been said and/or what will follow. It is often used to provide a summary of previously discussed topics. In the case of this article, however, metabasis is used to inform the reader what will come next.
Before the list begins, Huckabee writes that, “there are a few things every twentysomething should know how to do.” This statement tells the reader what the list is going to be: a list of things every twentysomething should know how to do. Throughout the list metabasis is further used. Each item in the list is titled, and then described. The first item, for example, is “1. Make a Great Breakfast.” This sentence is an example of metabasis, because it is telling the reader that the paragraph underneath this subheading will be describing how or why to make a great breakfast.

Huckbee uses metabasis in this list-style for a few different purposes. First, it keeps the writing clean, organized, and manageable. If there are too many words it is easy for millennials to lose interest or get lost in the fog. It helps to clarify and minimize distraction so that the reader will retain as much information from the article as possible. It also provides a means for someone to “read” the article without actually reading it. They can skim through the list, choosing to read the detailed explanation of any listed items they find particularly interesting, but not being forced to read every word to understand the main point of the article. The ability to do this makes the article all that more appealing. In Huckabee's mind the article is required to be appealing, along with accessible, if it is going to be memorable.

Perhaps one of the simplest and most common rhetorical devices is providing a specific example, known as exemplum. Examples help to bring concepts down to earth and make the points of the author tangible. It helps the reader relate, and makes the author's point more clear.

Huckabee's writing is full of examples, since every one of the 20 listed items are examples. Each subheading is an example of a thing every twentysomething should know (Parallel Park, Limit Your Online Life, Tip Generously), but there are further examples within the paragraphs under the headings. One listed item that may not be extremely clear is “17. Be Alone.” The reader may read the subheading and wonder what exactly the author means by being alone. Fortunately, Huckabee provides examples in the explanatory paragraph when he writes, “Be able to sit quietly – reading, writing, praying or listening to the silence – and use that time to truly evaluate how your spirit is.” By using examples Huckabee helps the reader relate to what he is trying to convey, and it is his hope that this will ensure the reader retains some of the message of the article.

Huckabee tries to reach a relatively difficult demographic in his piece, “20 Things Every Twentysomething Should Know How to Do.” College-age young adults who are media-conscious and may or may not be in the “real-world” yet. It is clear that Huckabee believes that most of his potential readers do not know how to do most of the listed items, otherwise he would not have written the article. Judging from the context and the activity system of which RELEVANT magazine and Huckabee are a part, it appears that the purpose of the article is to rouse unexciting or disinterested millennials into doing more with their lives. The article then is a response to the negative criticism that is often directed towards current-day twentysomethings. Often depicted as lazy, spoiled, and unproductive Huckabee writes a call-to-arms. Essentially he is saying, “Listen folks, people say that this generation is lazy and we don't know how to do anything. Let's prove them wrong. Here are 20 things you need to know how to do to start the campaign.”

This message is important for many reasons, and has a personal significance to Huckabee since he is a twentysomething. Therefore it is very important that his article is easy to take in, clear, and memorable. Huckabee uses the rhetorical devices of exemplum and metabasis to create an easy-to-read and easy-to-remember article. Most would consider him successful since the article has been shared on Facebook almost 121,000 times.

-M.C. Reynolds