Games as a Rhetorical Device in Hollywood

Games as a Rhetorical Device in Hollywood

October 18, 2015 0 By EVA

The finest Hollywood script writers and directors often like to use a variety of seemingly obscure vehicles to convey a certain motif and push a story along. For the sake of being creative and saying something without actually saying it, masters of their craft in the movie business will find a way to exploit the core tenets of an activity and use it to add some colourand meaning to their work.

One of the most commonly used tropes in the business is sport. Movies such as Friday Night Lights might have sports such as American football in the foreground, but it’s the exploration of social issues in the background that’s really being discussed by the writer and director. However, more intellectual pursuits such as chess and poker have all the markings of geek culture and they’ve been used to great effect over the years in some major blockbusters.

Mutant Chess Games


With a new movie about chess prodigy Bobby Fischer currently in the public consciousness, it would be remiss of us not to pick out the most perfect geeky combination in movie history: chess and X-Men. Two things loved by geeks everywhere, the famous scene from the original movie featured Magneto and Professor Xavier discussing politics while battling across the board.

Although later X-Men movies, such as X-Men: First Class, also featured chess, the scene shown below is by far the most intriguing as it shows the intimate connection the two opposing mutants have in the fate of the world. While they are discussing the possible outcomes of the war between mutants and humans, it becomes clear that the two characters can’t escape each other.

Just as it is on the chess board, every move one makes there is a counter by the other and so the same is true in the battle between good and evil. As Xavier moves to try and unite mutants and man, Magneto is countering with his own move. This constant battle of attack, defence and anticipation is manifested in the chess game which is being used by the director to show that Magneto and Xavier are bound by each other and, moreover, each other’s moves.

Will we see chess featured in the pending X-Men TV series? If the movies are anything to go by, then it’s likely we will.

Lola’s Roulette Run


Another classic game that’s proved popular for movie directors in recent years is roulette. Known as a game where suspense and tension rule, roulette has been used in literature and film for many years. Indeed, from the great Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Gambler to modern cinematic offerings such as Toy Story 3, roulette has been used to convey a variety of themes and messages.

One of the most interesting uses of roulette as a cinematic vehicle occurs in Run Lola Run. Directed by Tom Tykwer, this film is a video game brought to life and one of the best segments of the film features the eponymous heroine (played by Franka Potente) and a 20-minute battle to win enough money to save her boyfriend. Needing 100,000 Deutschmarks to successfully convince her boyfriend not to carry out a dangerous robbery, Lola makes a series of bets on the roulette wheel (see below) and watches with immense anticipation as the numbers gradually spin in. Eventually she places everything on the number 20 (not a coincidence) and as the bet comes in she lets out a deafening scream as she realises she’s saved both her boyfriend’s and her own life.

So why did Tykwer choose roulette as his game of choice? Simple: there is no other game that can match the agonising anticipation that roulette produces. Watching the wheel turn and the ball bobble from numbered to slot before finally landing where you want it to is high drama, and that can only enhance a scene like the one depicted in Run Lola Run.

James Bond’s Poker Face


In a similar way that X-Men uses chess to depict a battle between good and evil, Casino Royale director Martin Campbell chose poker as his rhetorical device to make Mr. Bond a better hero (although not quite as much of a hero as our top picks). In every battle James Bond faces he is tasked with anticipating the moves of his opponent, reading their body language and using a combination of psychology and technical skill to win.

All these traits are also true of the professional poker player. Serious players such as Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey are not simply luckier than their opponents. The reason they’ve won millions of dollars playing poker is because they understand the mathematics of the game, they can read their opponents and they know how to use psychology to manipulate those around them. This combination of skills makes them capable of winning a lot of money.

During James Bond’s high stakes battle with Le Chiffre, Bond not only beats his enemy financially, but breaks him mentally. This scene is not only used to generate an incredible amount of tension, but to signify Bond’s mental dominance over Le Chiffre. It’s clear from their stature that Bond would win physically, but through this game of poker he is able to assert his mental dominance.

Games like the ones outlined in this article offer Hollywood writers and directors a myriad of ways to get their message across. Whether it’s a battle of wits or as a way to increase the onscreen tension, chess, roulette and poker are all fantastic rhetorical devices.