System Design

Our third short project asks you to design or modify a system and to consider how systems function as persuasive and expressive modes of composition. Designing a system involves attention to procedural rhetoric, to the way that processes, rules, and logics make available and constrain possibilities for actions within a system. Following Ian Bogost and James Paul Gee, our thinking on systems here is broad and inclusive. These authors focus primarily on video games, but they help us think about different types of systems: conceptual, educational, political, religious, economic, mechanical, computer, etc.

Using procedural rhetoric to design a system can be a way of making an argument about how the world works (or how it could, should, or doesn’t work). It is also a way to facilitate different types of actions, activities, social practices, and social relations. For example, when I design a course about Writing in Digital Environments, I’m making an argument of sorts about how the field works and what sort of practices are important. The assignments make available particular experiences, modes of writing, and possibilities for interacting with others. Any given system works in this way: systems encourage us to adopt certain types of values, perspectives, behaviors and actions, and relationships.

To take up this notion of procedural rhetoric and the challenge of designing systems, this project asks you to either design or modify a system. Your work should be organized on a post or page on your class site and should include at least 700 words of writing.

System Design
For this approach to the project, you would design a new system. Following our readings, this system can represent or make an argument about how some aspect of the world works (procedural rhetoric), create a new semiotic domain with its unique set of social practices and codes, or make available a particular sort of experience. While you need not be limited by these suggestions, here are some of the main possibilities that come to mind for me:

  • Create a game. Describe your vision for a game in specific detail. You could also do this for any other sort of computer program: an app, a social media platform, a piece of software. Your design should consider the following sorts of questions: What is the game about? What are the rules of the game? What sort of decisions or actions do players have to take? Is there a narrative or characters? What does the game consist of materially? Cards, game pieces, game board, etc.? If it’s a video game, what does it look like? You should also explain the rationale behind the game. Why did you design it this way? What did you hope to express, communicate, or achieve?
  • Design an institution or organization. This approach involves thinking about how institutions (educational, political, economic, religious) and organizations (student organizations, community organizations, volunteer organizations, charity organizations) function as systems. Your design should consider the following sorts of questions: What do you want to achieve through this institution or organization? How does this institution or organization embody a departure and improvement upon existing institutions and organizations? What values, priorities, and assumptions motivate the thinking behind this institution or organization? What does participation in this institution or organization entail? What practices and activities do people engage in? What rules, logics, and processes guide these practices? Your thinking on the institution or organization should also have a visual design component. What would this institution or organization look like? Think about possible points of comparison here – existing universities, capitols and palaces, churches and temples, etc. How does the visual and material manifestation of the institution or organization complement it conceptually?
  • Design a major, a class, or an assignment. This approach asks you to think about how educational systems are designed, how they make available a possibility space that students get to “play” in. If you want to design a major or a class or assignment, you can take up any subject matter or goal. Explain how the major or class or assignment works, what work is involved, and what the purpose is.

System Modification
For this approach to the project, you would propose modifications to an existing system. This modification can occur with any aspect of the system, but it should substantially change how the system works. For example, this Monopoly mod changes how the game is played in order to represent structural inequality; “Cards Against Humanity” plays with the same rules as “Apples to Apples,” but the different content on the cards makes for a more risqué and adult-themed playing experience. If we think about religious systems, Protestantism works as a modification of Catholicism.

Depending on the nature of the system you are modifying and the modifications themselves, your submission for this approach could take on a few different forms. Most likely, you will capture the modification in writing. For example, if you are changing the rules of a game, your submission should include a formal overview of the new rules. If you want to modify a video game, your write-up should describe in detail how the modification would work if we had the resources to actually change the game. If you are proposing changes to Bonaventure’s parking system, you should describe the changes in detail and explain how they will work. But there are also possibilities for going beyond simply writing up and describing the modification. You are welcome to design game pieces, to make new maps for Bonaventure parking lots, etc.

The written component of the system mod should also explain the rationale behind the modification. Why did you modify the system in this way? What do you hope to achieve through this modification? How does this change the meaning or experience of the system?

Hacker Questions
Regardless of which approach you take to the project, keep in mind Parrish’s hacker questions. These questions help us consider the ethical aspects of our system design work.

  • Who gets to use what I make? Who am I leaving out? How does what I make facilitate or hinder access?
  • What data am I using? Whose labor  produced it and what biases or assumptions are built into it?
  • What systems of authority am I enacting through what I make? What systems of support do I rely on? How does what I make support other people?
  • What kind of community am I assuming? What community do I invite through what I make? How are my own personal values reflected in what I make?

The System Design project is worth 10% of our final grade, and you will thus be graded on a 10 pt scale that corresponds roughly to letter grades (10 = A+, 9 = A, 8 = B, 7 = C, etc.). You will be graded on the purpose (does your system design work have a clear sense of purpose? is it doing something engaging and interesting?) and execution (how thoroughly do you describe the system? do you think through the implications of the system, both practically and ethically?) of the system design work.