As Ian Bogost explains in this video from the Media Systems gathering at UC Santa Cruz, his work in procedural rhetoric is not “operationalizing” particular rhetorical tropes (the way Nick Montfort’s work operationalizes elements of Genette’s Narrative Discourse) but rather:
It’s a theory or a design philosophy. It’s a way of making things. A way of thinking about the process of translating systems in the world into representations of those systems in the computer…. It gives you a framework through which to ask questions about what a particular situation might demand.
In other words, Bogost’s procedural rhetoric is a theory about how and why to do operationalization, or other forms of procedural representation, rather than a project to operationalize certain elements of pre-existing rhetorical practice. Bogost introduces this work with a short overview of the history of rhetoric, including its expansion into areas like written and visual rhetoric. He concludes this by coming to the procedural mode of inscription, made much more widespread by computers, which procedural rhetoric engages.
Bogost re-tells two powerful stories about examples of procedural rhetoric: the first about the importance of institutional politics in education (through the Plato game Tenure) and the second about the dynamics of long-term debt (through the Nintendo game Animal Crossing). He then discusses a number of his own projects — including Fatworld and Points of Entry: An Immigration Challenge — created with the goal of engaging the complexity of the world in a substantial way, which other media often abdicate or are challenged to provide. For example, Bogost discusses how most news articles discussing the 2007 merit-based green card proposal in the U.S. Congress cut and pasted examples of how the system would function from press releases. Points of Entry, on the other hand, operationalized the proposed rules, and situated them in a game framework, giving the public a place to experiment with (and develop a deeper understanding of) the way such an approach would work in practice.
In the discussion period, one of the issues raised was that of evaluation, a topic that was also an important theme for the Media Systems gathering. Bogost pointed to the conversation-oriented evaluation approached used for some of David Shaffer’s “epistemic games” — demonstrating a difference in discourse before and after play, which might provide an evaluation up to the complexity of the topics and understandings Bogost hopes computational media will engage. Further discussion of this video is possible in the comments here or on Twitter with the #MediaSystems hashtag.
Like Nick Montfort’s talk posted last week, PDF slides are available on the main Media Systems page for this talk. Watch for Mary Lou Maher’s provocative talk on operationalizing creativity here next week!
About the author: Noah Wardrip-Fruin is an Associate Professor at UC Santa Cruz and the author of Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies.