Originally Published: 06/09/2015

“We all play occasionally, and we all know what playing feels like. But when it comes to making theoretical statements about what play is: we fall into silliness. ” (Sutton-Smith, 2005).

Sutton-Smith’s theories on the ambiguity of play are broad philosophical ideas that can be used to cover a wide range of play. However, his statements and theories can easily be applied to video games, particularly the social interactions in online multiplayer games. I would like to examine Sutton-Smith’s theories in relation to the strange social ambiguities that surround online quick-chat in the popular game Rocket League.

Like most online multiplayer games, Rocket League has some quick-chat hot-keys; these are separated into four categories: Information, Reactions, Apologies and Compliments. Due to the game’s fast-paced nature, people rarely type or use voice chat to communicate with team mates, with the majority choosing to utilise the quick-chat options. Sutton-Smith’s ‘silliness’ can be observed when we watch players and their treatment of the games chat system. This playful banter among each other is something socially ambiguous, but it also becomes part of Garfield’s theory of Metagames (2004, Salen Zimmerman). It is a strange relationship that occurs between the players themselves and is something that occurs without and within the game itself; it is a natural part of gaming and almost essential to the game itself.


Players face a fair amount of uncertainty when using these chat systems, both for players making the statement and the players trying to interpret it. An example would be if Blue Player 1 scored a goal, to which Orange Player 2 retorts, “What a save!” Is it a self-deprecating statement? Is it made in jest or a sarcastic comment aimed at criticizing members of their own team? One can’t help but wonder if it is because of this amusing social ambiguity that people prefer using the quick-chat instead of voice-chat. Using voice-chat would allow players to hear tone and better gauge the intent of the speakers comment, but is rarely used in game.  In a study regarding the Social Complexity of Game Talk, Wright, Boria and Breidenbach examine the intricacies of player chats and non-verbal expressions which go beyond the games standard rules (2002). Players don’t just play the game but play with the rules of the game; interestingly, they observed that creative game talk is best viewed in the use of humour, word play and online joking (2002, Wright,Boria and Breidenbach). Therefore, it would be fair to assume that most players seem to take these ambiguous social interactions in a light hearted manner and simply as an extension of the play itself.


The idea that players prefer this ambiguity is apparent when we examine Rocket League’s chat categories in relation to Sutton-Smith’s Seven Rhetorics. While there may not be an exact comparison of Rocket League’s quick-chat to Sutton-Smith’s own examples of the rhetorics, he himself stated that “…each rhetoric is discussed in the singular, there are multiple variants within each category…” Each of the games own quick-chat categories can be understood by more than one of Sutton-Smiths Seven Rhetorics:

The Information category encompasses the rhetorics at the core of game play- Play as Power and Play as Progress. Players use this category to communicate, establish a sense of leadership and dominance in the game by doling out instructions or information at team members.  While it is a communication of trying to establish power, it also progresses the play and allows for more coherent team work.

The Reactions category encompasses a more communal stance on the rhetorics of play– Play as Fate and Play as the Frivolous. This category is usually used when actions seem to have been out of the player’s control, as a means of comforting players. These chat options also have a tendency to be frivolous as a way of brushing off the foolishness of a mistake.

The Apologies category encompasses the more personal rhetorics- Play as Identity and Play the Rhetorics of Self. While Play as Identity is usually associated with celebrations, in the Apologies category it could also be seen as a way of apologising to the team, to recover lost credibility after a mistake. This leads it to be a Rhetoric of Self; by using these Apologies, players are forgiven for mistakes, even if it just by themselves and can continue their desirable experiences – their fun, relaxation and escape.

The Compliments category encompasses the most rhetorics and are usually the options that are open to the most interpretation – Play as the Imaginary, Play as Identity, Play as Power and Play as Progress. On the positive side of Play as the Imaginary, this category can be used to compliment playful innovation; more negatively though it is often used as a point of playful sarcasm or criticism. Sutton-Smith’s own description of Play as Identity is literally applicable here, with communal celebrations advancing the power, progress and identity of a community player.

For the most part, the above interpretation is made with the quick-chat’s original intentions in mind. However, this categorisation can be changed just as quickly, as they are merely tools for players to use potentially out of context or in a different tone. These are such subtle human interactions, and are difficult to understand by those who have never personally interacted with the game or more specifically the Quick Chat Meta in Rocket League.  However, from this we can see how easily Sutton-Smiths rhetorics can be used as a framework to help us interpret and understand the subtle ambiguities that surround Rocket League’s quick-chat system. It is this social side of gaming, falling under the banner of transformative play, which developers rarely account for, yet is often a huge contributor to the games success. Social interactions that have been simplified into quick-chats are no less complicated or ambiguous as any other human playfulness can be. “The larger play rhetorics are part of the multiple broad symbolic systems… through which we construct meaning of the cultures that we live in.”



  • B. (2006) Play and Ambiguity. London, England: The MIT Press
  • Psyonix(2015) Rocket League. [Video Game]. Various Countries: Steam, PlayStation Network
  • Mahugama (2015) Rocket League Funny Gameplay- Abusing the Chat!!!! [Game Play Footage] Video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDAVs1n7eTQ
  • K, Salen. E, Zimmerman (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. [p.402] The MIT Press.
  • Wright, T. E, Boria. P, Breindenbach (2002). Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games. The international journal of computer game research, 2(2) Retrieved From: http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/wright/
  • (2015) Quick Chat Meta/ Baer & Pals Play Rocket League. [Gameplay Commentary]. Video retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEf5owloIYw

Image Reference:
 Psyonix(2015) Rocket League. [Video Game]. Various Countries: Steam, PlayStation Network
All images where taken as screenshots in-Game.


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