January 21, 2005

Why Johnny must program (procedural literacy revisited)

by Michael Mateas · , 4:52 pm

I recently wrote a paper (draft) that builds on previous posts on GTxA on procedural literacy (1 2). It argues that New Media scholars and practitioners must be procedurally literate (which includes knowing how to program), and that games (and game-like artifacts), because of their fundamentally procedural nature, can serve as ideal objects around which to organize a New Media-centric introduction to Computer Science. I welcome any comments on the draft.

13 Responses to “Why Johnny must program (procedural literacy revisited)”

  1. Barry Says:

    A very short comment on the post that makes me less inclined to read the draft (and I have programmed in the past, even if C++ is like cuneiform to me):



  2. nick Says:

    Barry, I think Michael is using “must” much as people might say “scholars of English literature must be familiar with Shakespeare’s plays,” “humanists must have some knowledge of a foreign language,” “experimental psychologists must understand statistics,” or “computer scientists must know how to program.”

    Remember, Michael is actively involved in developing a curriculum, and his paper is part of this effort. He is obliged to inquire about what should be required of his students, about what should be at the core of their studies. Anything that isn’t a “must” is optional.

    I don’t think his statement is meant to deny that there can be value, for instance, in sociological and psychological studies of how people behave in online virtual environments, or that existing scholars and scholarship has to be thrown out of new media. He’s offering his view on what a digital media curriculum should teach (to everyone, as a requirement), and on what skills and literacies are fundamental to understanding new media and to having a creative practice in new media.

  3. Barry Says:

    Point taken Nick. The imperative is always interesting, though. I sort of agree (although I have worked with literature academics with NO knowledge of Shakespeare, which I can now admit freaks me out not a little, and I know a few games academics who have never dabbled with code whose work I nevertheless respect), but I suppose I would rather say ‘I work with and talk with experts who can code’ than say ‘I have coded’ (because there was a time when nothing ran unless you could)? I have a feeling that in any kind of new media scholarship, rather than curriculum design — or at least games scholarship — there is a tension between the individual, the person the university wants to recognise as published author of something, and the realities of the production of artifacts by teams of differently skilled people. We need to be ‘literate’, and I really do agree, but the present tense of ‘Johnny must program’ sounds less like the absolutely commonsense ‘we would be fools to forget that games are procedural artifacts’ than ‘if Johnny can’t program then’… If Johnny can’t program, then surely he needs be able to be literate enough in common language to communicate with Joanne who can?

    Anyway, not trolling, I swear.

    And I will now go and read the draft.


  4. Bryan-Mitchell Young Says:

    While I agree that learning some programing is a good idea for videogame scholars, I think that to emphasize games over the people is only half the battle. I think a solid background in ethnography, anthropology or even sociology is just as, if not more, important than programming skillls. After all, are we studying games or the people who play them? Can you study one without the other?

  5. scott Says:

    Thanks for this paper, Michael. It helps me to understand where you’re coming from and in the most general sense, I agree, but with a few significant caveats:

    A) Black box analysis has certain obvious limits. A games scholar who merely studies a game as played can’t do a comprehensive formal analysis of the game as a program. However that scholar can ably analyze that game as it is experienced by the majority of its audience, can recognize its tropes, patterns, allusions, its structure on a phenomenological level, its use of generic conventions, its utilization of narrative devices, its situation with the media culture. A games scholar who knows little to nothing about programming can analyze game-play, and can “read” games on the experiential level as the games’ intended audience. For a certain type of “deep” structural analysis, a new media critic should be able to read the program itself, but I don’t think that the corollary here is an English professor who has never read Shakespeare. While a game developer who sets out to write a game without learning how to program is much like an author who sets out to write a novel without bothering to learn to read and write, I think that a games scholar who does not know how to program is more on the level of an English professor who claims that she is able to analyze a sonnet without having studied theoretical linguistics. This does not mean that I think that the programming should be bracketed off as a minor concern. I agree that procedural literacy is necessary for this field. I just don’t agree that extensive procedural literacy is a prerequisite for all types of insightful analysis of new media. Bryan-Mitchell Young’s comment makes a lot of sense to me. We’re lacking a valuable tool if there is no deep structural analysis such as you advocate, but there is a risk of myopia if one focuses exclusively on games as computer programs, as if they could be read apart from the experience of game-play, the social situation, and the culture in which the player operates.

    B) As I reflect not primarily on games but on electronic literature, I’m not sure that the fact that “Procedurally illiterate new media practitioners are confined to producing those interactive systems that happen to be easy to produce within existing authoring tools” bothers me all that much. Just how limited are the available authoring tools? How much emphasis should be placed on the development of an innovative “interactive system” at the expense of creating a meaningful, compelling, and/or aesthetically pleasing artistic or literary or ergodic interactive experience? In other words, if an artist decides to work within the constraints of a given system, rather than custom-developing a system, is the resulting art worth less as a result of this lack of systemic innovation? While in some very special cases (Facade comes to mind) the artist and the toolmaker are one and the same, and the tool used to produce the art is an intrinsic part of the art, when I think about the admittedly wee canon of electronic literature, the most compelling works have been produced in pre-existing systems. Shelley Jackson didn’t write Storyspace before writing Patchwork Girl, for instance. She wrote Patchwork Girl, not the program that provided its technical constraints. There are many compelling works of digital poetry produced in Flash, with its formal constraints. Even most works of IF, while “programmed” are written utilizing existing authoring tools. I disagree completely with the notion that having a tool available necessarily makes something “easy” to produce, or makes the result of the work less valuable. Van Gogh managed to make some magnificently innovative paintings, in spite of the fact that he invented neither paint nor the paintbrush. Writing and other art forms tend to benefit from the same constraints that limit them.

    C) The tone of the statement “writers must be programmers” (not that you’re specifically saying that here, as you have elsewhere) is way off. It situates writing as a subset of programming and seems more like a “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” sign than one which encourages us to “COME PLAY.” I’m not sure that this is your intention, but I chafe at the establishment of this kind of hierarchy, a form or proselytizing which is bound to drive more people away than it is liable to convert. Again, I don’t think this is necessarily your belief or intention, but it seems to me that the statement presupposes a world in which multitudes of writers are running around willy-nilly creating poorly programmed electronic artifacts, and that this is a situation which most be brought back into some semblance of order. My perspective is that the reverse is true. Not enough writers are running around creating poorly programmed, or well programmed, or unprogrammed, new media artifacts. Sure, encourage procedural literacy, but avoid the imperative. Hang out a different sign. Try “Vacancies! Writers welcome!” Try “Dialogue needed! Quickly! Send help!” Try “Please, for the love of God! Send us a decent plot!” Regardless of where the ludologist/narratologist debate sits this week, the game industry has spent millions and millions of dollars developing nonlinear narratives that, for the most part, SUCK as narratives. I have no doubt that part of the solution is more procedurally literate writers, but the other part, which should also be taken into account, is developing literate programmers. While your writers are off studying Java, send your programmers to Shakespeare class. The authors of the interactive dramas of the future should learn how to write natural language processing systems, but maybe they should also spend a semester away from the computer, taking a playwriting workshop. Send the game developers to poetry school. Programmers must also be writers.

    Having said that, your course sounds superb, and I think that your curriculum looks terrific. I think you’re right about a general need for greater procedural literacy among new media practitioners and in the culture at large.

  6. mark Says:

    While a game developer who sets out to write a game without learning how to program is much like an author who sets out to write a novel without bothering to learn to read and write, I think that a games scholar who does not know how to program is more on the level of an English professor who claims that she is able to analyze a sonnet without having studied theoretical linguistics. This does not mean that I think that the programming should be bracketed off as a minor concern.

    Somehow this comparison doesn’t seem quite right to me—theoretical linguistics is on a level more akin to programming language theory, or perhaps even theory of computation, IMO, and both are potentially relevant but not necessary. Being fluent with programming languages and tools isn’t quite the same as having an extensive background in the underlying theory. I’m drawing a blank trying to come up with a good analogy in the Sonnet case (there may not be one?), but I’d compare it to someone studying theater (the good old-fashioned non-interactive drama). It’s possible to study theater merely by watching a lot of plays: observing what happens in them, observing audience reactions, observing marketing, and anything else, treating the play itself as a “black box”. However, it seems like it would be useful to be able understand what goes on in putting on a play—the whole mess of stagehands and props and lighting and scripts and casting that goes into the final product.

  7. Matt K. Says:

    I think the analogy you’re looking for with the sonnet is prosody, not “theoretical linguistics.”

    More from me (maybe) after I’ve read the paper.

    PS: Shakespeare . . . wasn’t that a movie?

  8. Jonathan Says:

    Barry, I don’t want to get into an irrelevant discussion here, but it’s simply not the case that you’ve ever met any Anglo-American “literature academics” with NO knowledge of Shakespeare. They may have known surprisingly little, but they could have told you the plot of Hamlet or the gist of Romeo and Juliet through cultural osmosis alone. And probably much more, I suspect.

    Scott, there’s a difference between the formal constaints of Flash imposed by the design of the program itself and the formal constraints imposed by just copying templates. And I think that anyone who’s mastered Inform enough to be able to produce an interactive fiction with it would qualify as procedurally literate in Michael’s sense.

    As a game-player, I often lament the lack of traditional literacy in game designers. There were enough solecisms in the Baldur’s Gate series to depress an English teacher for an eternity. And that’s not even considering the paucity of imagination issues (which are certainly market-constrained), which a literary education can do a greal deal to broaden.

  9. scott Says:

    There isn’t a very good analogy — I wasn’t really thinking of prosody, which could be studied by reading a bunch of poems, but of the underlying system that produces the observable language. Of course, in the case of a computer program this is more empirically knowable than in the case of language. Almost any analogy is a stretch. Plain old written language doesn’t operate in the same way as a computer program. I was mostly responding to Michael’s analogy here: “Code is a kind of writing; just as literary scholars wouldn’t dream of reading translated glosses of work instead of reading the full work in its original language, so new media scholars must read code, not just at the simple level of primitive operations and control flow, but at the level of the procedural rhetoric, aesthetics and poetics encoded in a work.” which I feel is a bit off target, or at least in need of qualifiers. My sense is that Michael is generating an image of the “new media scholar” that is bit too narrow, one that transforms and limits new media scholarship to those who are also “software scholars.” Another question I would ask here: Will most games scholars even have access to the code of the games they study? Should no one write about the Sims, or Grand Theft Auto, or Halo 2 without having read the code? Michael, in the text I quote above, are you referring to the readily observable rhetoric, aesthetics and poetics that one could comment on after having played a game and studied it on the “surface” level, or the rhetorical, poetic, and aesthetic codes that are, well, encoded in the code?

  10. michael Says:

    I wrote this comment off-line before the most recent comments. I’ll write more shortly.

    Scott, if you replace “Writers must be programmers” with “Writers must be procedurally literate”, does this make a difference for you? I’m not referring to disciplinary “programmers” (people trained in computer science departments to write code, often for large organizations); I’m not saying “New media practitioners must be trained in computer science departments to write code.” It seems like some of the negative reactions in this comment thread stem from a sense that I’m saying New Media practice, game studies, writing, should all be subsumed by the CS department. No no no. In fact, many (most?) computer scientists are not procedurally literate: “As described at the beginning of this article, procedural literacy is not just the craft skill of programming, but includes knowing how to read and analyze computational artifacts.” A traditional computer science education does not teach you how to read and analyze computational artifacts, to understand the interplay between code and social and cultural processes, to unpack the rhetoric and ideology of code. In CS curricula, computation is taught as engineering and math – the engineering practice of making complex tradeoffs to solve technical problems, and the mathematical practice of proving properties of abstract formal systems (useful because, if one is so inclined, one can browbeat actual digital computers with real running processes into more or less approximating various formal systems). A procedural literacy curriculum teaches computation as a medium; engineering and mathematical practice may play a role, just as learning the mechanics of the five paragraph essay or studying grammar play a role in achieving natural language literacy, but are not the focus of the curriculum.

    So I’m not positing some hierarchical relationship between disciplines, not demanding that new media folk all run to the nearest CS department and start taking classes. I’m saying that procedurality is itself a new medium, that coding is a form of writing that gives us a whole new way to talk about and reflect on the human condition, that New Media is the “field” exploring this new form of writing (the creation of machines through writing), and that, consequently, New Media folk need to understand procedurality as well as sociological, cultural, political, rhetorical, aesthetic, etc. issues.

  11. scott Says:

    Michael — My own perspective is something along the lines of “Procedural literacy is one vital aspect of new media studies” — not that I’d change that in your paper. Polemics are useful, even when I don’t agree with them. I do agree with the last sentence of your most recent comment.

  12. Grand Text Auto » Our Manifesto Machine (and More) Says:

    [...] nally say – discuss. We don’t form a unified front here. When Michael declares that new media creators must be programmers!, Scott writes [...]

  13. Grand Text Auto » Chronicle Articles Get with the Program Says:

    [...] idea of procedural rhetoric. This isn’t the first position paper on the subject – there is one from Michael Mateas’s for instance, and educators at Dartmouth were taking this position decades ago, and teaching the [...]

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