Chapter I: Thinking Across Genres
The computer is the ultimate pattern machine. With it, we can represent new and existing cultural patterns, such as images, video, sound, text, and behavior. Building new media forms on the computer does not mean we start from scratch, inventing new conventions for participation and representation each time we make a digital artifact. Digital media designers, when building new artifacts, reuse conventions and design patterns from many disciplines. Computer science, games, art, literature, music, graphic design, film, landscape design, and system dynamics have all been drawn upon to make digital worlds.
But how do we go about making new types of digital artifacts that recombine diverse practices of cultural pattern making? How should one go about reusing conventions from genres as diverse as games, toys, computer science, comics, and stories? How can we think across different practices, intelligently compare them, and appropriate relevant conceptual tools? How are we to make sense of digital media’s procedural and participatory dimensions?
Diverse design practices don’t always smoothly converge. Hamlet on the Holodeck, which proposes new digital genres that borrow conventions from games and stories, has drawn antagonism from ludologists eager to define the boundaries of a new theoretical practice for games. Ludologists have been quick to interpret Murray’s discussion of interactive narrative, a new genre of digital artifacts that build upon game conventions, as an attempt to colonize the study of games from an alien discipline. In doing so, not only were concepts ludologists should have found useful overlooked, but the argument was appropriated for an entirely different purpose. An attempt to articulate a new genre of digital artifacts was recast as a contest between good and bad game theory: intruders from narrative theory had trespassed into the study of games, turf that requires new theoretical tools by new theorists. While some of the critique is fair, such as Murray’s reading of Tetris [24], ludologists, to date, have been slow to fill the vacuum with a usable critical theory of games.
What we need are conceptual tools for constructively thinking across multiple genres. Janet Murray, in Hamlet on the Holodeck, proposes the term cyberdrama to describe digital things which cross genres. Espen Aarseth proposes ergodic literature and cybertext [3]. Despite their solid conceptual underpinnings, these terms fail to do justice to what designers can and do build with computers. Digital things aren’t always narratively or dramatically informed, and aren’t necessarily literature. Agency alone fails to capture what is unique and interesting about digital media’s participatory qualities.
The signature properties of the digital medium, which Aarseth and Murray agree on, even if their terms do not, are its procedural and participatory qualities. Games, intrinsically procedural and participatory, are of special interest to digital media designers, as they are the most developed genre of expressive digital artifacts. By analyzing exemplary games and the thoughts of master game designers such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright, we can better understand the experiential and structural qualities of digital worlds.
Murray identifies space as another key property of the digital medium. Space is particularly relevant to digital games. Digital games are highly spatial, and the worlds digital games construct are often particularized in the same way as literary worlds. Game worlds articulate particularized environments, agents, and activities. The concept of game, however useful for understanding procedure and participation, doesn’t take us far enough in understanding what we can make with the computer. More powerful conceptual tools are needed to account for space, and the richly reified worlds that digital artifacts often bring to life.
“World’’ sits at the nexus of multiple practices and discourses. Worlds can contain rules, games, spaces, characters, time, action, stories, or any number of other things. “World’’ subsumes categories such as space, story, and game. Defining world broadly is not useful for constructing a function which tells us whether something is a world or not. It does, however, provide a place to stand for leveraging tools from across disciplines, and thinking about the spatial, procedural, representational, and participatory qualities of digital media artifacts as worlds. By conceptualizing an artifact as a world, we can explore it as a space, story, or game, depending on its emphasis.
Design and analysis flows through the concept of world in multiple directions: designers of public parks and maps can draw upon game design to build spaces that afford easy navigation and simultaneously tease and taunt with hidden secrets; digital media designers can borrow conventions from comics, games, and stories to build new types of things altogether; game designers can draw upon stories, literary theory, and city design; web designers can leverage studies of the experience and cognitive representation of complex urban spaces.
Hamlet on the Holodeck describes the aesthetics of the digital medium as immersion, agency, and transformation. Digital media, Murray argues, are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. A world is something which can represent something, contain space, have moving parts, and offer immersion and agency. Immersion, agency, and transformation are useful terms for describing and thinking about digital media, but in practice these elements interact in complex and interesting ways. A twisting path, for example, teases us into imagining its continuation out of sight, and goads us into following it. The Legend of Zelda uses such spatial principles to lure players into exploring a compact yet mysterious world. The Legend of Zelda constructs a world which interweaves space, immersion, and participation. Digital worlds are the children of procedure, immersion, agency, and space.
Hamlet on the Holodeck looks at the landscape of digital media, and so the discussion of games, and their intersection with interactive narrative, is at a relatively high level. Part of the work undertaken for this thesis was designing and building Comic Book Dollhouse, a toy for making interactive storyworlds. Designing and building Comic Book Dollhouse necessitated thinking about the aesthetic, participatory, representational, and authorial conventions of games and other media forms.¹
¹ Storyworlds are digital worlds which emphasize the kinds of dramatic materials found in the worlds constructed by stories.
Understanding how games work intersects the interests of both academics and practitioners. A theory of games should provide tools for understanding how games work, a vocabulary, and generative formalisms. Such tools will help us better understand the space of possible games, and make new types of games. Building new types of games and new types of digital artifacts that incorporate game conventions are really two names for the same thing.
World, space, and game are key concepts that emphasize the properties and possibilities of the digital medium, and link it to other genres and practices. This thesis proposes conceptual tools for thinking across genres, and is an example of how one can study game structure and aesthetics through close analysis. Some language for thinking about games is proposed, which has been called for by both game designers and theorists.
Doug Church makes an excellent case for game analysis, design theory, and language in his articulate essay, “Formal Abstract Design Tools’’ [13]. Markku Eskelinen argues the same point from the opposite direction in the first issue of the academic journal Game Studies [24]. The call has been repeated in both academic circles and game design communities, as evidenced by proliferating sessions at the Game Developer Conference dedicated to the topic, and the recent establishment of the Digital Games Research Association and Game Studies journal. Hamlet on the Holodeck implicitly calls for a theory of games in its charting of the digital media landscape. This thesis contributes aesthetics, vocabulary, and analysis to this endeavor. Understanding how games work will help digital media designers leverage the wealth of game design knowledge towards other practices.
Chapter 2 describes an aesthetic of miniature worlds. This miniature world aesthetic is analyzed both structurally and experientially, and is derived from the work and thoughts of Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, and Seymour Papert. The construction, representation, and interpretation of digital worlds by programmers, authors, and players is discussed in Chapter 3, and a category of authorship tools called magic crayons is identified. Magic crayons are computational languages for representation that integrate conventions of artistic practice. Chapter 4 proposes a principle of ludic playability isomorphic to Marie-Laure Ryan’s principle of narrative tellability. Both ludic playability and narrative tellability seek the diversification of possible worlds, and diversification of possible worlds is analyzed with respect to the aesthetics of both games and stories. Point of view in games is a complex topic, and conceptual tools are currently lacking. Chapter 5 offers conceptual tools for analyzing and describing the operation of point of view in games. Chapter 6 describes the design of Comic Book Dollhouse, and draws upon the conceptual tools and aesthetics articulated in the previous chapters.
Hamlet on the Holodeck introduces many concepts that are elaborated here. A variety of terms are used in place of scripting the interactor, such as inviting, prompting, calling, teasing, luring, goading, or scripting play. Hamlet on the Holodeck also identifies space as particularly important to digital media. Digital worlds can be understood as things which integrate space, immersion, behavior, and participation. Agency is filled out with respect to games through possible worlds theory, which gives us tools for understanding why winning, losing, consequences, and empathy are interesting, and how they are structurally constructed by games and stories. The pleasures of agency and transformation are also elaborated. Transformation manifests itself as worlds in flux, player character transformations, and compound worlds. The fourth wall is elaborated through specific structures that build player safety and encourage participation.
A growing body of work inhabits the space between games and stories identified by Murray. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade uses state of the art procedural animation and artificial intelligence to create the first real time interactive drama. Chris Crawford has worked for years on the Erasmatron, an interactive storytelling architecture. Players have appropriated The Sims and The Sims Exchange as a storytelling medium, a practice with a huge and active community. An unoccupied niche in the space of interactive storyworld software is a storyworld construction kit. Façade reserves authorship for Mateas and Stern, and The Sims is designed to support the construction of houses, not stories or storyworlds. The lengths to which users go to create stories with The Sims indicates a desire for storyworld construction software.
Digital artifacts which combine conventions from games and other media are edge cases that test the power of our conceptual tools. Building Comic Book Dollhouse required thinking about the conventions, structure, and experience of games, spaces, stories, and worlds. Comic Book Dollhouse, a magic crayon for making and playing interactive comic book storyworlds, is designed and evaluated with the conceptual tools proposed for thinking about games, spaces, and worlds.
Comic Book Dollhouse merges conventions from games, comics, and stories. With Comic Book Dollhouse, authors and players can make characters, props, worlds, and stories which come to life. Comic Book Dollhouse demonstrates a productive merging of conventions from separate practices, and the usefulness of cross-discipline analysis for thinking about digital media aesthetics, participation, representation, and authorship.
Comic Book Dollhouse is a toy in two senses: it is a magic crayon for making and playing with storyworlds; the software is robust, usable, and rewarding to play and make storyworlds with. CBD is also a toy in the sense that it doesn’t attempt to do everything interactive storyworld theorists and makers have talked about. CBD is a miniature, internally consistent, and complete storyworld authoring tool. An interactive storyworld toy which is usable, interesting, and malleable is meant to entice people into making and playing storyworlds, which will in turn create demand for better tools. CBD is simple so that it will easily develop in response to user feedback. Encouraging a practice of making and playing interactive storyworlds that maximizes the aesthetics of the digital medium is a specific design goal of CBD. In both senses, storyworld construction toy, and toy interactive storyworld tool, CBD is unique.
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Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons Chaim Gingold © 2003