Representation vs. Simulation

0 0 1,717

Recently I joined an international group of scholars who are exploring how traditional strategies for making meaning from the world through representation are being supplanted by new approaches that emphasize simulation. Of course, simulation often gets a bad name because techniques of simulation are assumed to alienate people further from real life concerns, and technologies like gaming and virtual reality are assumed to distract and confuse their audiences with illusions. However, simulation is increasingly important in the sciences to model complex systems and interactions and to understand complicated phenomena occurring in real time like global climate change.


Contemporary digital curators and artists are now creating computer screen simulations that emulate the processes of reading, writing, and researching. For example, MIT professor Fox Harrell created an interactive simulation that showed an email inbox and composing screen for an imagined human resources manager at “Grayscale,” an imaginary tech company. The simulation helped people understand how ambivalent sexism might produce workplace harassment by exploring the story and its multiple endings that are dependent on the user’s action. Similarly, the Salman Rushdie Digital Archive profiled by the New York Times displayed how the famed writer might have navigated files on his Macintosh computer workstation with an “exact replica” in an “emulated environment.” In the Rushdie archive at Emory University, the user can role play as an author poking around desktop folders, sticky notes, drafts of a novel in progress, and even the contents of a virtual wastebasket.


In Understanding Rhetoric we largely relied on representational approaches to teaching people to become better readers and writers. The fact that we used a comic-book format that depicted Jonathan and I as cartoon characters was a strategic choice. We even differentiated the representational approach of using hand-drawn figures from other possible representational approaches like photography in our introduction that discussed the topic of visual literacy. In other words, to teach reading and writing, we depended on abstract symbols that may have been less vivid and interactive than a 3D digital world or a constantly shifting simulation created with computational media that could react to the actions of a user or player.


Obviously using images rather than just plain text alone was intended to do more showing and less telling in bringing rhetorical situations to life. As Scott McCloud has argued, visual communication sometimes benefits from a more iconic approach that allows people to more easily imagine themselves occupying particular roles.


With our new feature, “Walk the Talk,” we hope that the game-like page spread will suggest more ways that instructors and students can incorporate more simulation and role play in the process of learning to become more effective readers, researchers, and writers. Although the board games we show are designed with a single path, we know that the process of composing often branches in many directions. And often new directions for communication and publication can emerge over time.

For example, in Understanding Rhetoric we showed part of a research paper written by a student who had traveled to a university archive and then to the Japanese American National Museum to understand how her family members had created traditional crafts from recycled materials in the Poston internment camp during World War II.  Recently the Smithsonian Museum of American History opened a new exhibit called Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II that included artifacts similar to the bird ornaments produced by her grandparents. The exhibit explains that “to combat the boredom of their forced leisure, many inmates learned new skills through classes taught by fellow prisoners.” Today that student’s research journey might have included more kinds of online research.




The phrase “walk the walk” suggests an admonition in favor of doing rather than saying or showing rather than telling, since it is generally opposed to “talk the talk” in colloquial English. To walk a walk is to reenact a vivid experience and to follow closely in someone’s footsteps in the manner of simulation rather than representation. By asking students to “walk the talk” we demonstrate that rhetoric mixes doing and saying, showing and telling, and performing and composing. You might also ask students to “talk the walk” as they look at the trajectories of the writing process and critically reflect about the paths not taken.

About the Author
Elizabeth Losh is a Director of Academic Programs at Sixth College of the University of California, San Diego. Elizabeth is collaborating with Jonathan Alexander, Professor of English and the Campus Writing Coordinator at the University of California, Irvine, are collaborating with artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon of Big Time Attic on Understanding Rhetoric: A Graphic Guide to Writing, a forthcoming comic-style text for first-year composition students.