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A Role for Rhetoric in Software Studies, Part 2

Photo Credit: “Persuasion” by reihayashi

Way back when – in October – I opined about how rhetoric might fit with the emerging field of software studies.

Now, I probably should have been a bit more precise with that title. As I noted in that post, rhetoric is certainly present in software studies. Even though Manovich gave us a “reduced” rhetoric in The Language of New Media, rhetoric has continually irrupted in the conversation about software and its cultural implications.

But beyond that, rhetorical theory has even found its way into software studies, and here’s where I should have been more precise. Because what I actually had in mind was a role for the rhetorician in software studies. Rhetoric itself is present in the conversation, and we have Ian Bogost to thank for that.

In Persuasive Games, Bogost develops the idea of  “procedural rhetorics” in his examinations of videogames. Bogost is interested in how game designers are “authoring arguments through processes” (29). For instance, he examines the various procedural rhetorics of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. In particular, he analyzes one of San Andreas’s more innovative features, the requirement that the player-character must eat to maintain stamina and strength: “Eating moderately maintains energy, but eating high-fat-content foods increases CJ’s weight, and fat gangsters can’t run or fight very effectively” (113). Bogost admits that the game’s features with regard to nutrition are “rudimentary” but he also insists that these features make an important argument:

The fact that the player must feed his character to continue playing does draw attention to the limited material conditions the game provides for satisfying that need, subtly exposing the fact that problems of obesity and malnutrition in poor communities can partly be attributed to the relative ease and affordability of fast food. (114)

Thus, through its design (through its computational processes) San Andreas expresses various arguments about problems with inner city life. Bogost’s concept of procedural rhetoric offers us a starting point for understanding these arguments. But Bogost also points out that while classical rhetoric focused on persuasion, contemporary rhetoric is interested in a broader notion of “communication” that encapsulates both persuasion and expression (29). For this reason, he sees procedural rhetoric as being applicable to a broad range of practices: “I intend the reader to see procedural rhetoric as a domain much broader than that of videogames, ecompassing any medium, computational or not, that accomplishes its inscription via processes” (46). Procedural rhetorics are at work in a variety of environments, electronic and otherwise, and Bogost gives us a method for understanding how procedures create spaces and how those spaces make arguments.

As an analytic concept, procedural rhetoric gives us a way to understand software as part of a complex rhetorical situation. Developers and designers of video games work toward various rhetorical ends, and gamers (the audience for the text) make use of that software and are (or are not) persuaded in various ways.

If Bogost provides this bridge between rhetoric and software, what might the rhetorician bring to the conversation? Bogost rightfully notes that most work in “digital rhetoric” does not account for what is different about digital texts. That is, rhetoricians have merely brought the methods of rhetorical analysis to texts that happen to be in digital environments without really thinking through what is different about those environments: “digital rhetoric tends to focus on the presentation of traditional materials – especially text and images – without accounting for the computational underpinnings of that presentation” (28). As Bogost notes, the main difference between digital environments and off-line spaces is computation and procedure. Our various digital agoras are the result of procedural rules, rules that materialize through software. That software shapes rhetorical exchange in important ways.

This is where I see the rhetorician’s role emerging. Software studies scholars continue to guard against an interface bias – that is, they are worried that we have focused too much on interface at the expense of examining the infrastructure. For that reason, Bogost focuses on how software designers are rhetors and how gamers are audiences. What digital rhetoricians can now do is bring the two approaches – the study of both interface and infrastructure – together. How do the rhetorical texts (software) created by programmers shape the rhetorical actions (writing, gaming, or the “traversing” of cybertext in Aarseth’s words) of by digital rhetors?

Digital rhetoric, as I see it, is primed to do this kind of work. We have done a great deal of work with texts online, and we’ve dealt with how texts circulate through networks. The next step is to get into the nuts and bolts of how the production and circulation of text happens, and how those process shape persuasion and communication. We know that digital spaces are important locations of persuasion, but we haven’t quite figured out what methods we need to determine how software clears a space for (or, perhaps, hinders certain kinds of persuasion. This, as I see it, is the role of the rhetorician in software studies.

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