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Expressive Processing reviews: three perspectives

The first reviews of Expressive Processing have begun to appear, and the three I’ve seen come from three distinct perspectives: a game development veteran who has become a professor, an industry computer scientist with an AI background, and a public relations intern with a games-focused website. I think the collection of perspectives is interesting, but it’s hard for others to take a look because two of the three reviews are behind paywalls. This post provides a quick peek at all three, which may be particularly interesting for those curious as to what’s being said in places where their browsers can’t tread, and identifies an area of disagreement that I hope will be addressed further in future reviews.

Albert Chen — whose credits, according to this interview, stretch back to technical work on Grim Fandango, and who is now a professor at Cogswell Polytechnical College — wrote a review for the April 2010 issue of Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries. (Those with access can read the full text at Choice Reviews Online.) Here are some representative excerpts:

The title of this book refers to . . . a new perspective from which to study digital media. It also refers to the new creative opportunities that are afforded by computational processes inherent in digital works. The author argues that if people improve their understanding of the underlying processes that govern and orchestrate user experiences, they may be able to deepen their analysis of digital media and will thereby be empowered to become savvier citizens in an increasingly digital society. Through insightful examinations of media ranging from simulations to computer games, the author presents an intriguing and cogent argument. . . . Although most references are defined, some familiarity with the various computer games examined in this work would be beneficial to the reader. . . . Recommended [for] undergraduates in upper-division computer science and game design courses or software development programs, researchers/faculty, and professionals/practitioners.

A review for ACM Computing Reviews comes from a rather different direction. Irtaza Barlas, the author, got a PhD at GA Tech working on multi-agent systems and is now (according to his bio at the site) working at Impact Technologies, leading “research and development efforts associated with advanced computing, image analysis, and data mining systems for industry and the US Department of Defense.” Here are excerpts from his generous review:

This definitive book on digital fictions, computer games, and software studies also covers the history, philosophy, psychology, technology, and design of a wide variety of digital expressions, without overwhelming readers. . . . Expressive processing is an umbrella term that Wardrip-Fruin coined to describe the relationship between digital media and its audience. Furthermore, his book presents a new way to understand this relationship by looking at the history of computer games. . . . He is also a gentle critic, and his critique of traditional artificial intelligence (AI) is particularly enjoyable. . . . It is written in an easy-to-read style, with charming side notes that don’t interrupt reading. I highly recommend this book to digital media–games, movies, and fiction–creators, AI students, and engineers.

Finally, the open access review was written by Mark B. Nolan for the blog of non-profit organization The Arts Fuse. According to Nolan’s site he is a public relations intern and the force behind GameKiq. Interestingly, while the other two reviewers are experts in fields related to the book and seem to think I’ve made the material accessible enough for undergraduates, Nolan (a recent BU undergrad) thinks accessibility is the main place Expressive Processing falls down. His review’s final notes are these:

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.

Overall, I’m very pleased that all three of these reviews engage the book seriously and understand that it’s trying to pursue ideas of relevance to creators, critics, and the engaged public. It was certainly my hope to take complex ideas and treat them in as accessible a manner as possible while still delving into them deeply enough to make a novel argument. The jury is, obviously, still out as to the results of this attempt — but I’m glad to have thoughtful reviewers taking up the question.

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