Janet Murray responds in turn

Janet Murray responds in turn

2004-05-02

Animals and invaders populate the space of Janet Murray’s counter-response.

Both Espen Aarseth’s and Bryan Loyall’s responses make me hopeful about the future of the new digital medium.

Aarseth misinterprets my position. I do not see games as a subset of stories, or a critique of games as a “colony” of narrative critique. I start not from narrative but from a view of the digital medium as having its own properties. I think a critique of games will be very helpful in developing the digital medium, as well as fostering a more conscious creation of non-digital games. Aarseth and I come to digital artifacts from different positions, but they are not at all contradictory positions.

Nor is there any need to assert that games are older than narrative, as Aarseth does. Aarseth’s assertion that animals play games is a fascinating one, but obviously deserving of more focused consideration than he gives it here. Of course human beings may construct the behavior of animals as game playing, but how would we know if animals themselves do so? At what evolutionary stage does game-like behavior emerge? How is it different from, or tied to, social behavior? Do animals play solitary games? Is a cat pouncing on a toy mouse playing a game or just practicing her predation skills? How would we know if she thought of it as play or work - or neither? Animals interacting with one another definitely engage in behaviors that seem analogous to human play - intrinsically enjoyable, instinctive behaviors that do not have immediate survival value, but that seem to mimic or practice survival skills. Lion cubs pouncing on one another have some things in common with human football players - playful spontaneity within clear social patterns, controlled aggression, high energy. But playfulness is not gaming. Of course human beings play games with animals, but “fetch” is one thing to a person and something else to a dog. Though both may find it enjoyable, only one of them can demonstrate an awareness of the abstract structures that make it a game. To believe that animals play games would require assumptions about animal consciousness that we do not have much basis for. We might just as well assert that bees tell stories because they signal to one another in a way that “narrates” the path back to a honey source. As Aarseth’s casual reference makes clear, one of the first tasks for the new field of ludology should be to add to our understanding of the distinction between play and gaming.

I stand by my assertion that all games are stories, but that does not mean that they are a subset of stories or that they are nothing but stories. Football teams may not hire narratologists, as Espen playfully suggests, but they do make tremendous use of narrative. The coach spends much of his time scripting, narrating, and rehearsing potential “plays,” and they depend on sportscasters and sports writers to sustain fan interest by turning individual and collective stories into oral and written epics. However, Aarseth is right that games have their own structures and the more effort that is spent in naming those structures and differentiating them, the better the practice of game design.

Aarseth misinterprets my work when he suggests that I think of all digital artifacts as having the same form. I see the computer as analogous to print or film, and as inheriting its representational conventions from all previous formats of human expression. I see all digital artifacts as sharing the core affordances of the new medium: its participatory, procedural, spatial, and encyclopedic qualities. Therefore I would privilege the digital nature of a videogame rather than its game structure. Just as Aarseth is uncomfortable with what he (mistakenly) sees as my attempt to assimilate digital gaming experiences into the category of story, I am uncomfortable with attempts to assimilate all participatory narratives into the category of game. Some digital environments, like the IF traditions that Nick Montfort describes, or like online text-based role-playing environments, are only marginally gamelike. Without demeaning gaming in any way, I would rather leave the category of participatory artifacts more open. Hence the need for a term like “interactor” or “participant” (which Bryan Loyall uses) rather than “gamer” to describe the digital experience.

Bryan Loyall, as an expert practitioner of the new medium, makes clear what we would lose if we thought about the digital arena as only a location for the kind of games we already know how to play. The research and development group originally founded by Joe Bates as the Oz group at Carnegie Mellon, of which Zoesis is the commercial offshoot, is among the world’s leaders in combining computational sophistication with aesthetic ambition. The characters this group creates have a dramatic presence that derives from their procedural and participatory design: by the scripting of the artifact by computer code and of the interactor through dramatic structures. The characters Loyall describes have complex inner states, and are programmed to respond to more complex social cues than the predator/prey structure of most character-focused worlds. The Oz group’s “participatory drama” framework, a more graceful name perhaps than “cyberdrama,” has proven to be an extremely productive approach, and the successes and near-misses of this group are worth serious attention from ludologists and game designers.

It is significant that this group has again discovered that computer glitches can be unintentionally expressive, sometimes more expressive than explicitly programmed behaviors. In his seminal article on emotion in believable characters, Joe Bates described an earlier character who elicited sympathy by a programming glitch that caused him to twitch in a way that viewers interpreted as frustration [Bates, 1994]. The issue here is one that can be found in other computationally ambitious, agent-driven projects, including the appealing characters of Bruce Blumberg’s Synthetic Characters group at MIT’s Media Lab and the enormously popular Sims. In my view, all of these agent-based story worlds have difficulty with communicating dramatic focus. The characters may have a great deal of action going on under the surface as their inner states rise or fall, but they may not be making their behavior visible. The most complex computer-based characters often fail to “take focus” as theatrical actors are taught to do; their motives and reactions may be present in the code but they do not “read” well on the screen. The distorted behavior such characters may exhibit when afflicted with a serious programming bug is dramatically emphatic in a way that the intended behaviors are not. What such user-testing results should tell us, as developers, is that we must develop intentional gestures with the same dramatic power as the glitches. To do this will require elaborating an expressive vocabulary for dramatizing inner states. Among the most successful characters to do this, in my view, were the engaging cats and dogs in pfmagic’s Petz series. They were successful because they were able to draw upon the rich visual and dramatic conventions of animated creatures that have been elaborated in comics and films for at least one hundred years. The visual traditions we inherit from older art forms - including comics, illustration, narrative painting, theater, and films - can provide a much richer vocabulary of interactive gestures and facial expressions than we currently see in digital artifacts. Ken Perlin’s work is particularly promising in this regard.

Along with dramatic focus, a related problem of agent-driven environments is lack of dramatic compression. The action unfolds in real time, unlike in the theater or the novel where it is event-driven. Although a story may seem to be presented in real time in these older formats, in fact there is a high degree of selectivity involved that lets us focus only on those events that move the plot forward or deepen our understanding of character. In The Sims, characters go to the bathroom - in fact, they must be taken to the bathroom or they might pee on the floor. This turns the participation of the interactor in a chore. I would argue for the importance of creating environments in which “game play” or participatory activity is structured to afford the experience of dramatic agency. Dramatic agency occurs when the procedural scripting is so well-matched to the cueing of the interactor that what the interactor does within the environment results in a satisfyingly appropriate effect. Dramatic agency can take many forms, from petting a virtual cat and hearing it purr, to hiding a clue from a digital detective, to choosing which character’s point of view to follow in an unfolding scene. It need not mean changing the action, but it should mean changing the dramatic experience. The most ambitious attempt at an interactive story environment that combines dramatic compression with complex computations of story state is Façade, the collaboration of Michael Mateas of the CMU Oz group, and Andrew Stern, co-designer on Petz - described elsewhere in First Person (in Mateas’s essay and in Stern’s response to Bernstein and Greco). The story content is particularly ambitious, aiming for a dramatic seriousness comparable to a stage play about a troubled marriage, such as Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. However far Mateas and Stern get in achieving these ambitious plans, Façade is a promising research project that pushes the formal boundaries of participatory drama, and is very likely to further our understanding of digital storytelling techniques.

Among active game designers, Gonzalo Frasca’s work is among the most promising of current attempts to connect gameplay with dramatic resonance. He epitomizes the promise of the welcome new field of ludology for marrying sophisticated critique with expressive practice. Compare these two Web-based responses to September 11 `01 and the ensuing war in Afghanistan, one from more conventional gamers, one from Frasca’s ludology.org site. Both were posted within weeks of the events.

While commercial videogame makers rushed to take images of the World Trade Towers out of their games, one French game site created a game called “New York Defenders” in which multiple planes repeatedly attack the towers while the interactor is told (in French) “to combat your feelings of impotence, use the mouse.”


The game exploits the sensational power of the images in a rote manner, without showing the casualties of the event. It takes the eerie impersonality of the real-time photographs and translates them into a truly empty world where the people are not just unseen but altogether absent. One might assume from such a game that the digital medium offers only an extension of pinball gaming by other means, and therefore lacks the interpretive and contextualizing power of older media.

Gonzalo Frasca, by contrast, posted to his ludology.org website a game called “Kabul Kaboom.”


Frasca’s game focuses on the situation of an Afghani child, presented as a figure from Picasso’s Guernica, a painting that is emblematic of the horrors of civilian bombardment. The child is positioned in a game screen similar to Space Invaders, in which bombs and hamburgers, rather than space ships, fall from the skies. The game is a political cartoon on the irony of a “humanitarian” war, in which the U.S. is dropping both food and bombs on an already war-ravaged and famine-threatened country. The irony of the game is that you cannot move the figure so that the screamingly opened mouth can receive the food instead of the bombs. Like a child caught in the horrors of war, you are helpless to determine which is your fate. And like a civilian under a bombardment campaign, you cannot shoot back - or even choose when to end the game, since it begins again as soon as it is over. “Kabul Kaboom” works because it subverts our expectations of a game. It immobilizes us where we expect to have power, forcing us to experience the dramatic situation that is the focus of the expression.

In the end, it does not matter what we call such new artifacts as The Sims, Façade, or “Kabul Kaboom”: dollhouses, stories, cyberdramas, participatory dramas, interactive cartoons, or even games. The important thing is that we keep producing them. It is rare in human history that a wholly new medium of representation comes into our hands. Let us not welcome it with academic turf wars. Let us resist the temptation to define it in terms of legacy practice, either critical or creative. Instead, let us bring to it every analytical and creative approach we have, in a global collaboration to expand the range of human expressiveness and the capacities of human understanding.

Reference

Bates, Joe. “The Role of Emotion in Believable Agents.” Communications of the ACM, Special Issue on Agents, July 1994.

Frasca, Gonzalo. “Kabul Kaboom,” on http://www.ludology.org.

Uzinagaz, New York Defender. http://www.uzinagaz.com/index.php?entry_point=wtc

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