January 28, 2008

EP 1.5: Audiences and Processes

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 6:15 am

In this chapter I have talked about the perspectives from which I look at processes — perspectives that are authorial, critical, and political.

So far, however, there’s been little mention of something quite important about digital media processes: the fact that they don’t operate on their own. From web-based knowledge repositories to console-based video games, the operations of digital media are, in important ways, only truly realized in contact with audiences. A wiki’s processes mean little if the audience doesn’t use them to add data, edit it, and follow the connections embedded in it. Similarly, many of a game’s processes never come into operation if the game has no player.

None of this is any surprise. But we generally understand this situation from the audience’s perspective, looking at both the audience’s actions and the work’s behavior as though the work is a proverbial “black box.” I believe it is also important to understand this situation more reciprocally: to think about the relationship between the audience’s experience and the system’s internal operations.

Throughout this book I look at this relationship in different ways. I discuss three “effects” that arise from differing relationships between the audience’s perception of a work’s processes and the actual internal operations. I consider the suitability of processes for the audience experiences they are meant to support — focusing on issues in the realm of story and character, but in other ways operating quite similarly to how Bogost looks at the suitability of processes for the rhetorical ends they are meant to serve. Finally, in a few cases I examine audience experiences that only make sense when we think of the surface of a work as part of a process-driven system.

First, however, I return to the diagram of digital media developed over the course of this chapter. Figure 1.4 adds a representation of interaction to figure 1.3. While “interaction” is certainly a contested term, for the purposes of this book I am defining it as a change to the state of the work, for which the work was designed, that comes from outside the work. Interaction takes place through the surface of the work, resulting in change to its internal data and/or processes. In many cases, some trace of interaction is immediately apparent on the surface (e.g., an audience member types and the letters appear as they are typed, or an audience member moves her hand and a video image of her hand moves simultaneously) but this is not required. Interaction, while it always changes the state of the work, can be approached with the primary goal of communication between audience members — as when communicating through a shared virtual world such as World of Warcraft or Second Life. Finally, given the definition of interaction that I am using, it also becomes clear that digital media works interact with more than audiences — which is why the revised diagram also notes the possibility of interaction with outside processes and data sources.

Figure 1.4: Adding interaction to the diagram of digital media.Fig 1.4

It is my belief that being able to consider both internal operations and audience actions at the same time will give us a fuller understanding of digital works and audience experiences.

Operational logics

The primary goal of the model of digital media developed in this chapter is not found in its individual components. My main hope is not that readers will come away with an understanding of every nuance of what I mean by “data” or “surface.” Rather, my hope is that a basic understanding of these components will provide the foundation for a new approach to thinking about digital media (and computational systems more generally). I use the term “operational logics” to name a new type of element, specific to procedural systems, that this type of thinking can help identify and analyze.

When a work of digital media operates, this can be seen as an interplay between the elements of the model discussed so far: data, process, surface, interaction, author, and audience. Observing the specifics of this interplay can be very informative. Is the system actually doing what it is described as doing? What unspoken assumptions are built into the ways in which operations proceed?

At a higher level of abstraction, however, we can also notice patterns in this interplay. I call these patterns “operational logics.” In my first discussion of them (2005) I talked about common graphical logics, such as “collision detection.” This is a term for when a graphical system notes the virtual “touch” of two simulated objects. When the Pong ball bounces off the paddles and walls, this is collision detection. It is also collision detection when the Doom engine prevents players from walking through walls — and when it determines that a bullet (or chainsaw) has hit a target.11

From these examples it is probably clear that the same operational logic can be implemented in a wide variety of ways on a continually-expanding set of platforms. Once we have identified a logic it can be informative to make comparisons between different instances. These comparisons can delve deep, into the specifics of how the logic is implemented for different works, or operate at a higher level, looking at how the same logic can contribute quite differently to the experience of a set of works. This is true not only of graphical logics, but of many operational elements of systems. Later chapters will consider elements ranging from the quest logics implemented in many computer games to the assertion and inference logics implemented in many symbolic artificial intelligence systems.

However, while operational logics will, I hope, prove powerful for comparative studies, in this book they are primarily used within the examination of individual works. More specifically, while an operational logic can be seen as a pattern that arises in the interplay of the elements of a digital media system, I am interested in the examination of the interplay of a system’s operational logics — and in this as a starting point for critical interpretation. I pursue this method most explicitly in this book’s chapter on Tale-Spin, which identifies planbox-based planning as the work’s dominant logic, driving the others (a fact invisible when examining only the work’s surface). Though not as explicit in other chapters, this approach underlies much of this volume’s analysis — and it is my hope that these examples will encourage others to further develop their own versions of this method.


11The idea of “operational logics” is my attempt to find a way of talking about aspects of digital media with which other people are also concerned. Given this, should be no surprise that operational logics are related to some of the ideas others have proposed for thinking about digital media systems. Bogost’s Persuasive Games, for example, positions my notion of operational logics as the “tropes” of procedural rhetoric (which seems appropriate, at least for those logics that clearly structure audience experience). The concept of operational logics is also not unrelated to Bogost’s figure of the “unit operation” — though Bogost’s aim is in some ways more general, in that his work creates a foundation for “any medium — poetic, literary, cinematic, computational” to be “read as a configurative system, an arrangement of discrete, interlocking units of expressive meaning” (2006, ix). At the same time, Bogost’s aims are also more specific. For example, he writes, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems. . . . In software technology, object technology exploits unit operations; structured programming exhibits system operations” (3). In my current thinking, I use the concept of operational logics only in reference to computational systems (not, for example, traditional cinema) and in a manner than encompasses both what Bogost calls unit operations and system operations.

Game design, of course, is one area for which it is particularly important to consider the parts of a system that operate, and connect, and that can be combined and adjusted to create a successful audience experiences. One influential framework for thinking in these terms is called “MDA,” standing for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics (Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek, 2004). In the language of game design, particularly for those familiar with the MDA framework, what I call operational logics might often be called “mechanics” — except that MDA mechanics are framed as being limited to operational logics experienced by the audience. As Hunicke, LeBlanc, and Zubek write, “Mechanics are the various actions, behaviors and control mechanisms afforded to the player within a game context.”

Coming from a rather different direction, computer science has also thought quite a bit about the question of system operations. A general computer science term for a more abstract level of consideration of the operations of process and data is “algorithms.” This concept certainly shares the relatively implementation-independent nature of operational logics (an introduction to algorithms class may implement the “bubble sort” algorithm in many languages and on many platforms). However, an algorithm is usually thought of as an effective procedure for doing something (e.g., how to sort in a particular way) whereas my focus, with operational logics, is on a somewhat higher level: what is done (e.g., sorting of a particular type). Also, of course, there is little emphasis in computer science education on considering algorithms, and their relationships, critically or aesthetically — rather than in terms such as efficiency.

28 Responses to “EP 1.5: Audiences and Processes”

  1. Barry Says:

    Hi Noah,

    On the first and last lines here, I think the first blunt and direct comment on this subject I know of was made by Ermi and Mayra (2005), ‘Fundamental Components of the Gameplay Experience” from DiGRA in Vancouver — and the full ref would be to the edited volume of papers — but that was certainly the position that informed the editorial of Videogame, Player, Text, and a fair few of the essays in that volume. I don’t know how footnote heavy this volume is going to be, but if you are going to make the ‘little mention’ move do you think some citation of that growing body of work (at least in game studies) might be?

  2. noah Says:

    I certainly could say more in a footnote. Right now I’m basically saying, “We all know this and I haven’t mentioned it, what gives?” (see the first sentence of the next paragraph). But I could definitely go deeper and say, in a note, “There’s also deeper thinking to be done about this seemingly-obvious point” and then cite some references. Do you, or others, have further writings on this topic you think it would be particularly good to mention?

  3. Barry Says:

    Actually, I am an idiot — I was missing the referent of the ‘so far’ as being to your internal monologue on the book, and was thinking about the state of criticism, where the absence of recognition of the player in early game studies has kind of been addressed recently. Sorry (and shows that I have more problems doing this kind of thing on screen than I do with hardcopy), I’ll shush now.

  4. noah Says:

    Barry, we all know you’re far from an idiot. And now both you and Ian have found the self-reference in this chapter problematic. I’ll have to put revisiting it on my list of things to do.

    And please don’t shush. It’s been great to have you engaged with the project!

  5. Bryan Says:

    For additional commentary (and one of my favorite expositions of code’s agency), you might want to (re)visit the first chapter of Alex Galloway’s _Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture_.

    Galloway’s model does not immediately jibe with the definition of “interaction” you outline in paragraph no. 5 (i.e., Galloway’s discussion of non-diegetic machine action allows for machinic capacity to influence code or process), but might help push the scope of this particular chapter a bit.

  6. noah Says:

    I’m definitely a fan of Gaming (it’s coming up on the syllabus for my graduate workshop this quarter) but I’m not immediately sure how to put your suggestion into practice. Perhaps you’d like to see this EP chapter talk about different kinds of processes, along the lines of Gaming’s distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic machine actions? Could you say more?

    Also, I’ve been intrigued by Nick’s suggestion that Gaming’s model be extended with an axis ranging from computation to playback. As Nick says, this is related to Chris Crawford’s notion of process intensity (discussed earlier in this chapter of EP). If you have any thoughts about this angle I’d also be intrigued.

  7. Bryan Says:

    Sure thing, Noah. I shouldn’t have initially posted so hastily between other tasks, because my response and suggestion became somewhat ambiguous. Hopefully I can provide more detail now.

    I think the phrases “processes . . . don’t operate on their own” and “media are . . . only truly realized in contact with audiences” made me think immediately of Galloway’s chapter because the first chapter of _Gaming_ seems to point to gamic moments in which process can in fact operate apart from human intervention (moments such as ambience acts). For instance, Galloway calls an “ambience act . . . an action executed by the machine and thus emanat[ing] outward toward the operator (assuming he or she has stuck around to witness it)” (p. 11). I take this to mean that process can operate independently of human presence — that video games, for instance, can in fact “operate on their own.”

    Galloway also seems very explicit about the fact that process is much more than merely “what humans ‘make’ of it.” This is to say: is a process really no-thing until a human comes into contact with it? Galloway’s work aims to “resist equating gamic action with a theory of ‘interactivity’ or the ‘active audience’ theory of media. Active audience theory claims that audiences always bring their own interpretations and receptions to the work. instead, I embrace the claim, rooted in cybernetics and information technology, that an active medium is one whose very materiality move and restructures itself . . .
    (p. 3).

    I understand the aim of your book is to directly explore the way(s) in which human beings interpret code, and thus your concern lies more squarely in the notion of audience and interpretation. However, would a nod to previous work on the ontology of various action(s) be appropriate here?

    Thanks for taking the time to listen to my ramblings. I’m enjoy the book so far, Noah!

  8. noah Says:

    Bryan, don’t worry — I’m writing short blog comments between other tasks as a matter of course. The good thing is that we can communicate and ask for clarification.

    I think you’re absolutely right that not all processes happen in interactive response to the audience. What I really mean to say is that, when we’re talking about media, we shouldn’t forget that there is an audience. When I say that I want to think about “the relationship between the audience’s experience and the system’s internal operations” in many cases the relationship includes audience lack of knowledge and misunderstanding. To investigate these sorts of relationships I advocate seeing the processes two ways: both as they are constructed and as the audience experiences them.

    So, really, I think I’m basically in agreement with you and Gaming on this point. Is there a revision to phrasing, or perhaps a footnote, that you think might help clarify this?

  9. Bryan Says:

    Ah! I now read your third paragraph as a more direct exposition of your work’s locus. I doubt anything further would be necessary (i.e., a footnote or re-write).

    In paragraph no. 4, you preview the many facets of your argument regarding the “relationship between the audience’s perception of a work’s processes and the actual internal operations.” The “effects” of this relationship you detail in this paragraph seem to favor the “human” or “operator” axis (if we’re still thinking in terms of Galloway’s model) — that is to say, the way audiences experience media, the way processes are suitable for human needs, and the way humans “make sense” of media. I wonder how the “other side” of this relationship might look: how processes constrain human experience or agency, how the materiality of processes is altered in interaction (with humans or non-humans), or how this materiality structures various subjectivities? Appreciating the action and motion of code and process might help us view it as something other than that which is merely lying dormant, waiting to be “read” or “interpreted” by the almighty human observer.

  10. scott Says:

    Second sentence insert “there” before “should be”

  11. noah Says:

    Good catch. A word like “there” or “it” will be inserted in the revisions.

  12. noah Says:

    Bryan, I realize blog comments can be a difficult place to lay out complex ideas, but can I ask you to say more? For example, could you expand on the idea of the materiality of processes structuring various subjectivities? I think I might know what you mean, but a couple examples would be invaluable.

  13. Bryan Says:

    I can try, Noah!

    Lately I have been trying to think through what McKenzie Wark in _Gamer Theory_ calls “the final question for gamer theory” (paragraph 233). Namely: how does one “move beyond the phenomena of gaming as experienced by the gamer to conceive of gaming from the point of view of the game?” (ibid). I find this such a poignant challenge that I return to it every time I attempt to read, write, or think about video games and the practice of video gaming. I know how I “interpret” the games I play, but I wonder how the digital apparatus is complicit in constituting the subject who’s making those interpretations. How is the material space in which those interpretations take place always already structured by the code or process or algorithm?

    Galloway and co-author Eugene Thacker in _The Exploit: A Theory of Networks_ carefully note the ways in which “human action is parsed according to specific physical algorithms” (p. 113) And they prompt: “Imagine the ‘noise sequences’ that have been erased” (p.113) in situations of _processes_ “interpreting” _operators_.

    How are infinite complexities parsed by/for machinic and algorithmic entities? Exploring the “effects” of audience-operation relationships (the project your book undertakes) must be sensitive to the ways in which the audience is also such an effect. Yes, “the operations of digital media are . . . only truly realized in contact with audiences.” But how am I realized by the informatic systems that modulate, modulate, modulate to structure possible spaces for my activities, my existence? The value of a wiki’s processes are important indeed, but what of my value in relationship to them? When certain voices are privileged by an algorithm — realized in a database — how do I materialize from the “point of view of the game [or process]?”

    One final quote from _The Exploit_ (since I just love it too much to let it sit here on my desk): “. . . [F]orms of informatic play should be interrogated not as liberation from the rigid constraints of systems of exchange and production but as the very pillars that prop those systems up. The more video games appear on the surface to emancipate the player, raise his or her status as an active participant in the aesthetic moment, the more they enfold the player in codified and routinized modes of behavior” (p. 115).

  14. Barbara Says:

    Hi Noah,

    have you thought about the relation between your operational logic to the cognitive structures of Piagets Theory?


  15. noah Says:

    I haven’t. Can you say a little about the connections you see?

  16. noah Says:

    Clearly I need to read The Exploit (nice quotes). But, in the meantime, I think I now understand what you’re getting at. I think you’re talking about how the structures of digital media shape who we are when we experience and interpret it — and how a certain interpretation of audience actions is fundamental to the operation of many works. We’re familiar with conversations about how computational processes define possibility spaces — with actions outside those spaces unrecognized or impossible, and “playing along” necessary to playing at all — but you’re correct that such ideas are not really foregrounded in the chapter as it stands. Still, this strikes me as very much an aspect of “the relationship between the audience’s experience and the system’s internal operations.” It’s not the aspect on which I’ve chosen to focus, but I don’t think it’s outside of the area to which I’m trying to call attention. Would you agree?

  17. Barbara Says:

    Piaget studied the development of forms of thinking and acting. Such a form is the cognitive structure or the organizational procedure of human processes.

    Here I use my understanding of process: the organizational procedure as ONE dimension of the activity process, including the materiality of the process as the other dimension.

    I follow you in that we can reduce a process to the abstract functioning and strip off the material dimension.

    But as soon as we analyse concrete processes even computational processes without any audience we encounter the effects of the material dimension.

    Piaget understands those formal structures like we understand software as (mind-)maschines.

  18. noah Says:

    Barbara, this sounds intriguing. Have you written anything that explores these ideas in more detail? Most of my exposure to Piaget comes from the fact that my mother is a linguist, rather than through any study of my own.

  19. Barbara Says:

    I have written something about these issues – but not in english :-(

  20. Bryan Says:

    Yes, I definitely recommend _The Exploit_! Happy reading!

    I don’t necessarily agree that the issues we’re discussing are part of “the relationship between the audience’s experience and the system’s internal operations” — though they do influence audience experience. When describing the materialization of bodies as they are real-ized by informatic systems, I’m thinking of moments that are pre-concious, or logically anterior to conscious experience. Understanding audience interpretations is critical — for sure! — but we can’t forget that the bodies that could potentially produce these interpretations are rendered in particular ways _even before they’re privileged with the capacity for interpretation_. The moment of “contact” you describe above — and that’s the perfect word to use, too — marks a fissure that enables-constrains action and opens-closes what you call “possibility spaces.”

    So I suppose I would say “yes” when you state that I’m “talking about how the structures of digital media shape who we are when we experience and interpret it.” But this process is not always one of conscious experience.

  21. noah Says:

    Agreed — I’m certain we’re not conscious of all the ways that systems shape our experience of them. But I would see both the conscious and unconscious portions as part of our relationship with the system. (Conscious interpretation is far from the only form of relationship.) However, even if we don’t agree there, it sounds like we’ve reached a point at which our only differences are in terminology and emphasis, rather than core conception.

    That said, I think the manuscript as a whole might benefit from more attention to the areas of emphasis you’re describing — and I’d certainly appreciate it if you could draw my attention to appropriate moments for such shifts as the review continues. It might also be good to put a note here, making it clear that it’s important that we not conceive of this relationship on the purely conscious level.

  22. Bryan Says:

    I agree, Noah, and will continue to contribute what I can as the review process continues. As you indicate, a note for the final manuscript might be warranted — or perhaps a brief nod to work that might complicate the issue of works’ agency (which is, I think, where this whole discussion began).

    Thanks for a nice chat!

  23. noah Says:

    Is it in German? That’s not a language I can read, but I do plan to be in Germany for a conference in November (organized by Peter Gendolla and Jörgen Schäfer at Universität Siegen). Maybe we could find some way to discuss things further.

  24. noah Says:

    Yes, I’ve very much enjoyed the exchange. Here’s a draft note:

    Of course, at the same time that processes come into operation through audience actions at the surface, process and surface also define some of the possibility space for audience actions, and thereby shape the audience. For example, while an audience member may, at any time, press a particular button on a console controller — which may or may not have any meaning in the current game — for many games the process of successful play requires becoming trained to reflexively take the actions that are recognized by the system. The intervention of conscious thought would make it impossible to time a sequence of leaps in a game such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (discussed in a later chapter). In the context of a much earlier game (the version of Breakout for the Atari VCS) this is one of the core observations of what may be the first classic book in computer game studies: David Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld. In other words, the relationship between audience experience and system operations includes both the interpretive work of the audience and the system’s shaping of the audience that performs the interpretation.

    In a series of comments on Grand Text Auto, Bryan G. Behrenshausen (2008) drew my attention to how this is formulated in Alex Galloway’s work. For example, in his collaborative book with Eugene Thacker, The Exploit:

    [F]orms of informatic play should be interrogated not as liberation from the rigid constraints of systems of exchange and production but as the very pillars that prop those systems up. The more video games appear on the surface to emancipate the player, raise his or her status as an active participant in the aesthetic moment, the more they enfold the player in codified and routinized modes of behavior. (Galloway and Thacker, 2007, 115)

    That said, the system itself is far from the only force shaping the audience. Those skilled player/dancers who add additional physical flourish to their interaction with Dance Dance Revolution do so not from the encouragement of its sensor pad and on-screen instructions (which regard their performance as no different from one who takes the minimal physical actions). The crowds that gather around them in the arcade know this.

    How does that strike you?

  25. Bryan Says:

    That’s a nice addition, Noah. I like it. I’m wondering what you mean by the use of the word “reflexively” in the statement: “. . . for many games the process of successful play requires becoming trained to reflexively take the actions that are recognized by the system.” I would probably also argue that the pads on a DDR machine do encourage players’ dance flourishes, but that might be a discussion for another time! I like that you note the intersubjective influences on play, too.

    Funny you should mention _Pilgrim_, as I’m also currently working with it. I think it’s a great text to invoke here, especially as it seems to counterbalance Galloway and Thacker. This is to say that for Sudnow, nothing could have been more sublime than complete and utter immersion in an informatic system. In fact, the phenomenologist claims he was most successful when his body and the game apparatus’ (that of the Atari VCS) seemed to be working in complete unison — an aesthetic in-corporation of operator and machine.

  26. noah Says:

    Bryan, good catch. I mean “by reflex” rather than, say, “in a reflexive frame.” Maybe it would be better to end the sentence like this: “for many games the process of successful play requires becoming trained, at a pre-conscious level, to take the actions that are recognized by the system.”

    Glad you’re a fellow Sudnow fan! PitM was the first major text for my undergraduate computer games course last Spring. I’m hoping it’ll get back into print some time before too long.

  27. Bryan Says:

    PitM would be a great way to begin a course on computer gaming; I can imagine that beginning with embodied, lived experience and tracing some of these vectors in and through technical or processual issues really opened some neat spaces for discussion.

    I also like the revision to the note!

  28. Mark M. Says:

    Okay, this is similar to my previous note, but isn’t there potentially a surface between the outside processes and the processes of the work — or do we imagine that those happen in an exchange without surface. To push this further, can those “outside” data sources be audience members?

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