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Paperback | $18.95 Trade | £13.95 | ISBN: 9780262517539 | 504 pp. | 7 x 9 in | 29 b&w illus., 3 tables| February 2012

Expressive Processing

Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies


What matters in understanding digital media? Is looking at the external appearance and audience experience of software enough—or should we look further? In Expressive Processing, Noah Wardrip-Fruin argues that understanding what goes on beneath the surface, the computational processes that make digital media function, is essential.

Wardrip-Fruin suggests that it is the authors and artists with knowledge of these processes who will use the expressive potential of computation to define the future of fiction and games. He also explores how computational processes themselves express meanings through distinctive designs, histories, and intellectual kinships that may not be visible to audiences.

Wardrip-Fruin looks at "expressive processing" by examining specific works of digital media ranging from the simulated therapist Eliza and the first major story-generation system Tale-Spin to the complex city-planning game SimCity. Digital media, he contends, offer particularly intelligible examples of things we need to understand about software in general; if we understand, for instance, the capabilities and histories of artificial intelligence techniques in the context of a computer game, we can use that understanding to judge the use of similar techniques in such higher-stakes social contexts as surveillance.

Most books on digital media focus on what the machines of digital media look like from the outside but ignore the computational machines that make digital media possible. With this book--the first to approach computational processes from the perspective of media, games, and fiction--Wardrip-Fruin examines both the outside and the inside of digital media's machines.

Software Studies series

About the Author

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the coeditor of four collections published by the MIT Press: with Nick Montfort, The New Media Reader (2003); with Pat Harrigan, First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game (2004),Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (2007), and Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (2009).


“Wardrip-Fruin has given us an arsenal of rhetorical firepower and a powerful set of examples for how one might teach algorithmic literacy across the curriculum without delving into the syntax of any particular programming language.” — Doug Reside, Digital Humanities Quarterly

“In Wardrip-Fruin's Expressive Processing, the field of “interactive entertainment” comes of age; its theories and methods are native to its medium, rather than borrowed from literature, film, or history....Required reading.” — Annette Vee, JAC

“I highly recommend this book to digital media—games, movies, and fiction—creators, AI students, and engineers.” — Irtaza Barlas, Computing Reviews

“Through insightful examinations of media ranging from simulations to computer games, the author presents an intriguing and cogent argument.... Recommended.” — Albert Chen, Choice

“The perfect volume to begin the new publication series in software studies.... Inspiring.” — Raine Koskima, Game Studies

"Wardrip-Fruin has given us an arsenal of rhetorical firepower and a powerful set of examples for how one might teach algorithmic literacy across the curriculum without delving into the syntax of any particular programming language." Doug Reside Digital Humanities Quarterly


"This book feels like a major step forward towards developing a critical language and framework for understanding interactive media. By zeroing in on the relationship between what's happening on the machine versus what's happening in the brain, Noah brings tremendous clarity to what can seem like a daunting subject."
Will Wright, co-founder of Maxis, designer of SimCity, The Sims, and Spore

"Expressive Processing has the perfect combination of technical expertise, historical rigor, and dogged determination to get inside of the black box to make it a kind of primer on what Henry Lowood once called 'the hard work of software history.' It is, therefore, a model of a new critical approach. This is a must read for anyone working in fields such as new media, game studies, software studies, and AI. Because Wardrip-Fruin writes so confidently and clearly about complex systems, this will be a powerfully enabling book for graduate students, and advanced undergraduates as well."
Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English, University of Maryland, author of Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination

"This book does a marvelous job of capturing the excitement of a promising infant discipline as it takes its first tentative steps. Noah Wardrip-Fruin covers a large amount of material, drawing fascinating connections between very different kinds of software projects. But this is not superficial coveragehe goes deep into a number of systems, with penetrative technical readings of the program-as-text."
Richard Evans, Senior AI Architect, The Sims 3 / Electronic Arts

"At last, an analysis by somebody who truly 'gets it'! We have seen plenty of first-generation books on interactive entertainment, in which an author with expertise in another field presents a bystander's perceptions on the subject. But this is a second-generation book, written by an author whose background is entirely within the field. Wardrip-Fruin was brought up on computer games and educated in the thoughts of the first generation thinkers. Now he has integrated them into a new perspective that builds on those ideas at higher levels of abstraction. Looking back at my own ideas from Noah's new vantage point was an educational experience for me."
Chris Crawford, former head of Atari's Games Research Group, and cofounder of Storytron