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Dramatic Interactors: Collaboration, Constraints, and Engagement in Human-Computer Interaction

Human-computer interaction is like drama in the sense that the principal designer is not the only human source of artistry in the completed whole. In human-computer interaction, there may be a legion of programmers who have designed and architected programs on which a given kind of action depends, graphic designers who create images and animation, wordsmiths who authored text and so on. As Brenda Laurel explains in this excerpt from Computers as Theatre, 2nd Edition, a fundamental but sometimes overlooked source of human artistry is the people who actually engage in the designed interaction; that is, the interactors.
This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

For the nonspecialist, the idea of a dramatic model may seem to have more to do with content—interesting situations and colorful characters, for instance—than with structure. As a structuralist, I have been assailed by both theatre and computer people for taking what they perceive as a rather bloodless approach. Structure is not always well understood, and even when it is, its uses are seen to be analytical rather than productive. When we see a good film or go to a good play, we are moved by things that seem to transcend structuralism—a beautiful image, dialogue and action that speak deeply and genuinely about life. There seems to be a contradiction here—if it’s all so structured, how does it get to seem so lifelike? Surely there is more to it than structure, more to it than a computer could be programmed to create. People sometimes criticize my approach by countering that a computer program can never be smart or sensitive enough to make a beautiful work of art. Yet artists use computational tools to do so, and those in turn are enabled by the artistry of designers and programmers.

These observations point to the artistry that is essential in every beautiful made thing. Artistry transcends and saturates the process. We do not know what it is that gives a person the ability to conceive of or create magnificence in art. Structure is not a wholly sufficient explanation for beauty. Human-computer interaction, like other art forms, requires artistry that can only be contributed by human imagination. Artistry is deployed within the constraints of the medium, the tools, and the formal and structural characteristics of the kind of thing that one is trying to create. Artistry and structure are interdependent; both must be present if beauty is to be the result. Perhaps more important in this stage of the evolution of computer-based media is the fact that artistic sensibility should drive the notion of desired experience, from which the design of technological components must be derived.

Human-computer interaction is like drama in the sense that the principal designer (or playwright) is not the only human source of artistry in the completed whole. In theatre, the director, actors, designers, and technicians who are involved in rendering a performance all make contributions that require artistry. In human-computer interaction, there may be a legion of programmers who have designed and architected programs on which a given kind of action depends, graphic designers who create images and animation, wordsmiths who authored text (or text-generating algorithms), and so on. A fundamental but sometimes overlooked source of human artistry is the people who actually engage in the designed interaction; that is, the interactors.

Human-Computer Interaction as Mediated Collaboration

Real-time human-computer interaction is a mediated collaboration between designers and interactors. Mediation occurs through the unfolding of the experience itself in terms of time-displaced collaboration or real-time intervention by designers. The plot can be described, in retrospect, as the story of the whole action that interactors tell themselves (in much the same way as one remembers a film or a day in the park). Wardrip-Fruin (2009) defines interaction “as a change to the state of the work—for which the work was designed—that comes from outside the work. Interaction takes place through the surface of the work, resulting in change to its internal data and/or processes.” Designers and interactors co-create the whole action in intricate ways, even though they are not literally co-present. The final form—the element of plot—cannot be exclusively controlled by the designer; it will also be shaped by the choices and actions of interactors. In this sense, the designer loses a significant measure of formal, top-down control as the interactor’s choices move the plot from possibility to probability to necessity—the ending of the particular plot that has been created in a player’s traversal of a game (or the performance of an activity by a “user”) (see Figure 3.2). Unlike branching tree structures, computationally intensive games may enable player outcomes that the designers could not have foreseen. Such was the case with the game “Prom Week” created in 2013 by students and professors at the Center for Games and Playable Media at U.C. Santa Cruz.1

The authorship of the designer(s) is of a different order than the creative inputs of the player; the designer authors the world and its affordances, while the player creates a distinct path through the game world that can be said to be the player’s “plot.” This is a stronger force than the reader-response theory, but weaker than the authorship of the designer(s). As Wardrip-Fruin (2009) points out, without players there is no game.

To explicate the diagram shown in Figure 4.1, I want to walk you through it in terms of the four causes (in gray). In Chapter 2, we discussed the efficient cause as the author and her tools. In human-computer interaction, the “authorship” of the interactor’s particular experience is shared in interesting ways. Designers of interactive media are part of the equation, typically working as teams that include many specializations. Their “tools” can be described as representation, computation, and research. Tools for representation include those used for creating graphics, animation, audio, layouts, and interface affordances. Computational tools include the programming of the interactive application itself as well as the code that powers authoring tools for the design team. Another sort of tools, often overlooked, are the methods of design research—studying the intended audience, looking at comparable products, and creating and testing mock-ups and prototypes. Beta testing without the benefit of other design research methods is inadequate. Remarkable resistance to human-centered research persists in many areas—especially in the game industry, with “serious games” as a notable exception.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. A model of mediated collaboration between “designer” and “player” (or “interactor”). For both collaborators, the formal-material relationships between elements remain constant.

Interactors typically share in authorship to a lesser degree than designers in that they create under varying kinds and levels of constraints as provided by designers. Affordances for interaction are the most intimate level of collaboration between designers and interactors in the sense that they circumscribe the means, manner, and scope of the interactor’s creative contributions and provide the tools whereby interactors can influence the action.

We have said that material causality reflects the influence of materials upon how they may be formulated at any level in the hierarchy of dramatic elements. The palette of multisensory materials offered up by the designer constrains the sort of patterns or rhythms into which they can be formulated, and those patterns or rhythms constrain how the semiotics or “language” of a piece can be formulated. Thought as expressed or available by inference constrains the formulation of characters, and so on.

Recall that formal causality works in the other “direction,” where the most formal element—plot—constrains the sorts of characters, thoughts, etc. that are appropriate to the action. These two causal forces are at work simultaneously, rather like taking inductive and deductive approaches simultaneously in problem-solving. Game designers often iterate on the basis of observations of or interviews with play-testers and players. Their privileged position allows for intervening and tweaking a game over time. Will Wright famously strolled about The Sims in various forms to observe game play and provide new materials and functionality as he observed emerging play styles (Laurel 2004).

I refer again to the additional causal chains suggested by Michael Mateas (2004). He posits that the player’s intention creates a new chain of formal causality. Mateas’ formulation points to some key differences between drama and dramatic interaction in the operations of causality. But for my purposes, I see the player’s intention as part of the end cause for the player as a co-creator. Mateas also suggests that “material for action” is a separate causal chain in that material requires some sort of interactive affordances in order to be usable by the player. I agree that such affordances are essential, but I see them as being provided by the designer at the level of enactment. If we look at things this way, we may not need to introduce additional complexity to the model.

The authors are working toward similar end causes—the representation of a whole action that produces pleasure. But differences exist. As Mary Flanagan (2009) observes, many players intend to subvert the game—that is, to deny the game’s authority to set the player’s goals. She has produced many games that deliberately leverage this subversive spirit to increase activism and cultural change. Other players may intend more than “winning” or “experiencing” the whole game; they may intend to find personal meaning that transcends a game’s structure. Henry Jenkins, renowned for his work on fandom and popular culture, makes the point that, in order for people to become “fans,” they need to be able to appropriate characters, elements of plot, etc. to construct their own meanings. Jenkins points to the “slash” phenomenon in Star Trek and other cultural properties where fans construct new stories that are personally relevant by writing stories or constructing videos from pieces of the originals that have new plots. Much slash focuses on creating relationships (usually homosexual) or backstories that are not supported in the official canon (see Jenkins 1992 and 2006a). Several sources of causality outside the purview of Figure 4.1 will be discussed ahead.

Interaction among Interactors

Interaction among interactors is not new, but it has become much more complex and significant since the widespread availability of the Internet. A little history is relevant. The ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), ancestor to the Internet, was conceived in the early 1960s and first deployed in 1969. Its general goal was to support communication and collaboration among scientists and companies in their work on government-related research and development. However, discouraging purely social communication by users did not prevent it.

Multiple interactors engaging in discourses of all kinds go back at least to the earliest BBS (Bulletin Board System). An early precursor to dial-up BBS-like systems was the Community Memory Project in Berkeley, created by Lee Felsenstein in 1973, an electronic walk-up kiosk that worked like a physical bulletin board. Usenet, established at Duke University in 1980, supported threaded discourse among distributed interactors. A person could sign up for a “news feed” on any number of topics. Readers responses were emailed in for moderation, and if they passed the test, their responses would likely show up in the feed in the next few days.2

My traversal through some of this space began in the mid-1970s at CyberVision, when I was introduced to the Control Data PLATO system. PLATO was heralded as the first “computer-aided instruction system,” created by the University of Illinois beginning in the early 60s. PLATO introduced me to multiplayer flight and maze games as well as message boards, real-time chat, and multi-person forums, some of which had the makings of early collaborative work environments. PLATO also provided me with my first experience of flame wars, in which two or more users would go at one another with ever-escalating vehemence, often “baited” by an original message intended to be provocative. Flame wars can be dramatic, but they pose great challenges to moderators.

The role of the moderator in these early forms was liminal and dynamic. Some of the earliest BBS systems were not moderated, or the “moderator” was likely to be a systems administrator just trying to keep things running smoothly. With the increasing complexity and scope of systems, the mediator’s role tended to become more actively engaged with the community, struggling with governance, setting or enforcing policies, and censoring inappropriate comments, actions, or characters. There was also a pastoral side to the moderator in keeping the virtual community connected, vibrant, and safe.

Free speech and censorship have been abiding issues. Whether getting “toaded” on a MUD or mediated into silence on Usenet, people had things they wanted to talk about that didn’t fit into “polite societies.” Pornography was the leading topic (and probably still is), but all sorts of marginalized voices—from Furries to faeries—wanted to participate in these new forms of communication and community where their own voices can be heard. The alt.* hierarchy was created by John Gilmore and Brian Reid in 1987 in response to a reorganization of Usenet that would eventuate in greater censorship of topics. “Alt” referred to topics that were “alternative”; that is, not part of mainstream popular culture. Although sexual interests made up a fairly large percentage of alt.* topics, many were (and are) also devoted to activism, human rights, and free speech issues.

The WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), founded by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, became a very tight community in which many of the digerati of those days found a home. The community was friendly toward the Whole Earth movement and reflected some of the distinguishing bits of Northern California culture (e.g., technology; the Grateful Dead). It was originally a dial-up BBS, morphing with technology into its current form as a user-owned virtual community on the Internet.3 The WELL required that people use true names, removing the shield of anonymity that had characterized many early systems. As the World Wide Web became popularized, BBS systems and their kin tended to morph into or be replaced by wikis, Internet forums, websites, and social media.

Other forms of interaction among interactors happens in the domain of computer-supported collaborative (or cooperative) work (CSCW). The aim here is to facilitate collaboration on a particular problem or opportunity by people in different geographical locations. CSCW relies on any of a variety of computational tools: file-sharing, shared “whiteboards” and tailored work environments, VNC (Virtual Network Computing) as a way to share screens, specialized tools related to the task (e.g., industrial design, architecture, or any of the sciences), video- or voice-conferencing systems, blogs or email, and IRC (Internet Relay Chat), used heavily by such distributed communities as Linux programmers. The tools are varied and rich. Shared goals, the facilitation of collaboration, and working toward consensus distinguish CSCW interactors from participants in forums or social media.

This tiny history reveals the complexity and centrality of interactions among interactors in non-gaming communities. Once the architecture for a BBS or Usenet group or forum has been set up, its content (except that which is “moderated away”) is entirely user-created.4 Designers create formal constraints and affordances while interactors provide material all the way up to the level of plot, depending upon magnitude and shape. Interaction between or among interactors may become the primary creators of the plot—the whole actioncomplete with complication and resolution, discovery, surprise, and reversal.

Of course, many different kinds of “interactions among interactors” are possible in such systems. People may exchange information, opinions, or goods. One may respond to a post or start a new thread hoping to begin a discussion and possibly to form a new community. One may work with distant colleagues on an invention or a problem. Or one may search anonymously for providers of illicit goods under the anonymity afforded by the alt.net or various “black market” Web sites. In social networks, relationships are power, and groups of like-minded individuals can take meaningful political action. One may enjoy the lives of one’s children by “friending” them on Facebook (ahem).

Habitat, developed by F. Randall Farmer and Chip Morningstar at Lucasfilm, was first launched as a prototype in 1986. It stands as an extremely important transitional form. More than a series of chat rooms or a community like the WELL, Habitat was a graphical virtual community that was both a descendant of the forum and an antecedent to massively multiplayer online games. They called their interactors “players” because they meant the world to be an environment for entertainment and play. Each player took on an “Avatar”—a graphical representation of a character with various signifiers—to represent them. One could also argue that Habitat foreshadowed what became “social media” in the early 2000s (avatars got married in Habitat—in-world only, of course). Randy and Chip’s vision was to make a real instance of “cyberspace,” which, they asserted, was “necessarily a multiple-participant environment” (Morningstar and Farmer 1991). Each of the thousands of “regions” in the game contained “a set of objects which define the things that an Avatar can do there.” The object-oriented approach in building the system was the key to the sort of play that was enabled.

Chip and Randy were constantly observing and tweaking the prototype precisely because it was not a game with rigid rules:

  • Habitat . . . was deliberately open-ended and pluralistic. The idea behind our world was precisely that it did not come with a fixed set of objectives for its inhabitants, but rather provided a broad palette of possible activities from which the players could choose, driven by their own internal inclinations.

The unexpected actions of players kept Chip and Randy busy, both writing new code and intervening in-world as Avatars. They, like Pavel Curtis, were working at the transformation point of the role of “moderator” from sys-admin to dynamic designer of a community. The success of the prototype and its influence on future forms demonstrate how robustly interactions among participants can shape the dramatic action.

Of course, “non-game” interaction did not end with Habitat’s excursion into an entertaining, graphical, social world. But I see Habitat as a pivotal precursor to later online communities—the world of wikis, Web sites, and blogs—as well as graphical multiplayer games and even “social media.”5 The spirit behind it was fundamentally experimental, even though the external driving force was to create a “product” for Quantum Link.

Interactions among Players

The following wee history is meant to provide a little background on the evolution of multiplayer gaming and some of its sub-genres. Note that many of the games mentioned are still being played in 2013. Interaction among multiple players is as old as Spacewar!, a two-person space combat game first developed in 1962. In the PLATO system, Spasim (1973) was one of the offspring of Spacewar!, with several planets and up to 32 simultaneous players. And PONG, of course, was a two-player action game created in 1972 that eventually led to Atari in all its magnificence.

MUDs (Multiple-User-Dungeons, originally based on Dungeons and Dragons gameplay, later revised to the more generic Multiple-User Domains) arrived on the scene in the late 1970s in the form of Adventure (1975) and Zork (1977). These were text-based multiplayer adventure-type games, and I personally loved playing them (age check). The PLATO system also hosted progenitors for MUDs and MOOs (MUD Object-Oriented) during this time period.6 Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) showed up in the late 1980s. An explosion of games in the genre followed, while the genre itself branched out to include great new acronyms like MMORTS (Massively Multiplayer Online Real-Time Strategy games) and MMFPS (first-person shooters). Doom is an example of the latter; later examples of the genre include Halo and Call of Duty. In 1991, Neverwinter Nights, published by America Online, was the first graphical online role-playing game (MMORPG). The MMORPG genre was popularized on the Internet by Ultima Online (1997) and Everquest (1999). MMORPG games dominate the landscape today, although the MMFPS and MMORTS forms continue vigorously as well.

The elephant in the marketplace is World of Warcraft, originally introduced in 1994 and going strong with over 10 million subscribers in 2013—the largest MMORPG in history. Various types of interactions are enabled by the various “realms” of the game, each with distinctive play properties to suit the palate of the player (for example, how much fighting they want to do). Non-player characters (NPCs)—often with fairly sophisticated AI structures—serve as enemies, friends, wizards, familiars, monsters, and other sorts of forces on the level of character to shape dramatic action. Through devices like deeds, quests, and guilds, WoW as well as many other games of its ilk, provides affordances—often necessities—for significant interaction among players, to work together for common goals or against common enemies.

Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO, launched in 2007) employs similar structures that necessitate collaboration. Player-characters have vocations and talents, and most quests cannot be completed by a solo player because they don’t have the requisite talents. For example, the “vocation” of the player-character consists of two talents that go together and one that does not. A Tinkerer, for example, can find ore, make jewelry, and collect wood. She can’t make anything out of wood, but someone who can will trade her for it. “Everybody gets good equipment out of exchanges,” says regular LotRO player Lisa McDonald. Trade and commerce—the internal economy of the game—are extremely important to gameplay.7

Beginning in the early 2000s, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has grown as part of multiplayer game experience. Players use a voice channel to shorten communication time, for example. They also use it in-game for social chat and networking. This channel of communication is human-to-human, not to be confused with speech recognition. Voice can enrich the game experience in many ways, from direct impact on the strategies and actions of a player or group to emotional depth and social interaction as well as opportunities for shared criticality.

Like other kinds of properties, multiplayer games engender enthusiastic fan activities outside of the game world, including fan art, conventions, Cosplay, and intertextual fan activities (Jenkins 2006a). These activities form economies of attention as well as legitimate commerce. They provide ways for fans to extend their personal constructions of meaning. Purple Moon provides an earlier example, but one near to my heart. Near the end of the company (and its eventual acquisition), we discovered multiple fan sites where “scarce” gifts and objects from the Web site were being traded by girls. In 2012, the mother of one of the original players alerted me to a Facebook Community called “I Miss Purple Moon.” Sweet!

Of course, interaction among players has its dark sides. Sexual harassment continues to be an issue. Cheating in various forms continues as a thriving parasite industry. The ready availability of “legitimate” cheat books and websites suggests that the game industry has had to give up on controlling many forms of cheating and find ways to embrace them. Some forms of cheating may be “blessed” as “subversive play,” but not all. In many cases, the player simply wants to “get ahead” without breaking a sweat—and that’s not subversive, just lazy in a human sort of way.

“Black market” activities are a constant plague for players and companies alike. The sale of virtual gold for real-world money in WoW has been a flashpoint; Blizzard (publisher of WoW) and Antonio Hernandez, a WoW player, have both filed suit against companies for such practices. Hernandez’ suit, filed in 2007, was meant to be a class action against Internet Games Entertainment (IGE). Patentarcade.com, a website devoted to IP protection and the gaming industry, reported that:

  • The amended complaint in the Hernandez suit alleged that “IGE’s calculated decision to reap substantial profits by knowingly interfering with and substantially impairing the intended use and enjoyment” of WoW through its gold-farming, camping spawns, and spamming chat . . . led to lost time, competitive disadvantage, and diminished experience for honest game subscribers (Patentarcade Staff 2009).

Both of these suits were settled, but such practices continue to pop up in ephemeral companies that form fluid but irrepressible parasitical industries, including the sale of accounts with highly valuable characters—a practice forbidden but not snuffed out by most publishers of multiplayer games.8 Hey, sounds like a good game premise to me. I’m sure somebody’s done it.

In conclusion, the previous two sections are intended to illustrate many of the ways in which interactors or players exert causal influences through their interactions with one another that are outside of the direct control of designers. By providing affordances for discourse and discussion as well as affordances that encourage or require group action within multiplayer games, designers create conditions for an efflorescence of possibilities for action and experience. At the same time, designers rely on the social, strategic, and artistic actions of individuals to enhance the dramatic shape of incidents and whole actions. Both designers and players can fall prey to parasitic forces that intend to subvert the intended experience. In many cases, designers have had to “embrace and enfold” such forces because of their power (e.g., sale of in-world materials for real-world money) or popularity, as in the case of “cheats,” acknowledging to varying degrees that they have become normative. Both designers and interactors are constantly called upon to deal with the various dark economies that plague (and tempt) them. It is up to the designer (or publisher) as well as the virtual community of interactors to safeguard the experience.

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