Book Review: “Expressive Processing” for the Masses?

Author Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues that each of the sometimes tangentially related processes in a video game shapes “the audience’s experience as fundamentally as the specifics of the images used in a motion picture.”

Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies by Noah Wardrip-Fruin. The MIT Press, 480 pp, $34.95.


Reviewed by Mark Nolan

How do all the components that make up video games create a compelling experience? And how dependent is intelligent discussion of games based on articulating the interaction of technical and non-technical aspects of the experience?

These are essential questions for the future of the criticism of video games, and Wardrip-Fruin is part of a movement that wants to elevate the discussion of video games to a more mature, educated, and general level.

In this book, he argues that each of the sometimes tangentially related processes in a game shapes “the audience’s experience as fundamentally as the specifics of the images used in a motion picture.” He also stresses that, though these different processes can be understood individually, critics of digital media could (and should) create a framework and language that would allow them to more thoroughly examine their significance. The catch is that he ends up speaking to the technically initiated rather than the common reader.

Wardrip-Fruin’s first chapter describes Eliza, which the author calls “a groundbreaking system” that used natural language processing to make the user think that he or she was engaged in a real conversation. At one point the author gives an example of a famous interaction with the system (capitals denotes the computer responses):

Men are all alike.
They’re always bugging us about something or other.
Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
He says I’m depressed much of the time.

It’s hard to imagine today, but people were pretty impressed with this simulation of real conversation when this system was developed in the mid-1960s. There wasn’t any simulation before Eliza that gave the appearance of talking to another human nearly as accurately. Wardrip-Fruin launches into a revealing discussion about how the system works. It takes keywords and manipulates these words into new questions or statements that are likely to be related. For example, if you mention the word “mother,” the system will know that you are talking about your family and may ask a question about your family as a whole, rather than just your mother.

The author then explains how severely limited interaction (i.e. just typing sentences into your computer) and broad statements (questions like, “why do you ask?”) helped Eliza to be more realistic. This story about the early process typifies the approach the book will take to explaining vital concepts: that the processes behind games and computer programs work together to make the whole gaming experience.

While exploring Eliza and its long history, including academic discussions, Expressive Processing discusses the`Eliza breakdown,’ a principle based on the idea that, if you explore the components that make up the program too closely, the illusion quickly starts to fall apart. This notion of disillusionment applies to Expressive Processing itself — that if you pick apart all the different pieces that, together, make a computer game, the magic of that game will fade.

However, the book counter argues that sometimes understanding a system’s components is a good thing. Its prime example is Will Wright’s classic game SimCity, which is a city-building simulation exercise that spawned an entire genre of simulation games. Far from losing its magic, the joy of SimCity is understanding all the pieces and hidden processes that make the game work. When you play SimCity, you have to fully comprehend the ideas of traffic patterns, zoning regulations, revenue, taxes, and a number of other different variables, and then use that knowledge to create a better city. You have to build up your knowledge about the city’s functions and operations to craft a successful urban center and “develop a working understanding of the underlying model of city operations.”

Expressive Processing also studies computer game fictions and how game designers create the stories that drive games, how those stories are presented, and how dialog is navigated and represented to the player. An experienced gamer will notice the different styles of dialogue that exist on the surface of various games, but may not ever consider how the designers decide what to implement and how to make more convincing dialogue.

While this is an interesting creative area to explore, examining the method by which the script is presented, rather than the formation of the script itself, makes the process seem robotic process. For example, the book discusses the dialogue trees that are employed by the recent game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and how the structure of these dialogues affects the player’s experience, but Wardrip-Fruin ignores how the written words of the dialogue trees are crafted and how the script manipulates the player in creative ways.

The processes that Wardrip-Fruin discusses are the actual computational processes that define the rules for behavior in systems such as computer games or digital narratives. Expressive Processing explores the functions of these processes, which includes artificial intelligence, language choice, and dialogue patterns, and the basis of computer game fictions. Exploring computer games at a deeper level and dissecting their components is certainly worthwhile, but the book falls into a familiar trap, at least for the general reader, of going into so much detail that at times the tome becomes tiresome and overly technical.

Ironically, Wardrip-Fruin concludes that he would like to empower the general public to “engage software critically, [be] accustomed to interpreting descriptions of processes, able to understand common pitfalls, and aware of what observing software’s output reveals and conceals about its inner workings.” A worthy goal, especially since video games are now outpacing films in terms of revenue. The growing cultural power of games makes it increasingly important for the general public to understand what software can do and how it accomplishes various tasks. But Expressive Processing is aimed at those who already have secure understanding of the processes of software — the general public is still left out of the debate.

Still, Expressive Processing stands as a welcome addition to the limited academic discussion about video games, because it delves deeper into complex issues that previously have only been lightly considered. The challenge remains to make these ideas part of the broader cultural dialogue.

1 Comment

  1. Harvey Blume on October 9, 2009 at 10:31 am

    Joseph Weizenbaum, who wrote Eliza, was horrified to find that his secretary, who knew it was a program, nevertheless wanted to do therapy with it.

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