yeah, I can hear the snickering now about the title of this column. "You
must be the expert," you’re saying. But I’m serious. If you want a
more boring, academic sort of title, then this column is also called "Inducing
Complex Emotions in Interactive Media Participants." How’s that?
years ago there was a debate in the game developers’ round table on GEnie
(remember GEnie?) about whether or not a computer game could make you
cry. It was already well-demonstrated that one could make you laugh. Computer
games can make you feel frustration (though not always intentionally),
excitement, exhilaration, suspense, horror… but can a computer game make
you cry? Or to put it in a broader perspective, what are the emotional
limitations of the medium?
will of course ask, "Who cares? Games are about fun! Who wants to
feel anything else?" But that’s too narrow a viewpoint. Games
may be about fun, but interactive entertainment is about, well, entertainment,
and there are lots of ways of being entertained. Books and movies inspire
an entire range of emotions. Should we be restricted to "positive"
or "happy" emotions, just because our medium is interactive,
or non-linear? I certainly hope not.
the GEnie crowd came up with was, yes, a computer game can make you cry:
consider the death of Floyd the robot in Planetfall. Planetfall
was an Infocom text adventure in which you spent a fair amount of
time in the company of a rather smart-alecky robot named Floyd. Eventually,
however, Floyd gave up his life for you, and there was no way to avoid
it. It was a sad moment.
experience I ever had playing a computer game was with the original Adventure,
Colossal Cave. I was playing very late at night on a terminal in a cavernous,
but empty, computer center. It was very quiet. I was completely mesmerized
by the game, trying to find my way around without getting lost or being
killed. All of a sudden, as I moved from one room to another, I got this
footsteps in the darkness behind you.
jumped out of my skin. I hurried away to another room, but the footsteps
followed. This happened for several more turns. Eventually I lost them,
but I was still terrified – alone in this enormous, mysterious, dangerous
cave, surrounded by darkness, carrying only a flashlight whose batteries
were weakening by the minute…
never gave me that sense. Doom had its creepy moments, and it often startled
me, but the world’s a lot less scary when you’re carrying a rocket launcher
around with you.
I was thinking
about this the other day, and began to wonder if a computer game could
make you feel weird. Unsettled. Disturbed. There are movies that do this
extremely well. Rosemary’s Baby, for example, is a classic creepy
movie – not a slasher movie, not a monster movie, but a psychological
suspense movie. Rebecca is another, although it’s more of a mystery.
In both cases, we’re sympathetic with the lead character’s growing fear
and disorientation, but we – and she – can’t tell if these emotions are
justified, or the products of an overactive imagination.
it’s particularly difficult for our medium to generate this feeling. Interactivity
is about giving the player the power to make choices, to control her own
destiny to some extent. The protagonists in Rosemary’s Baby and
Rebecca both seemed trapped, unable to get away. Myst has a weird
feel to it, but that emotional tone is muted by the artificiality of a
mechanistic user interface. I click here, I go forward. I click there,
I go back. I think perhaps one of the things that creates weirdness is
a changing, dreamlike quality to the spaces we’re moving through. That
suggests a) that we need analog rather than digital control over our motion;
and b) that the connectivity of the spaces must either change randomly,
or preferably, according to some subtle underlying principle. In dreams,
you can walk through a place and it somehow changes around you and becomes
another place. We need to investigate that.
characteristic of dreams is that labels and objects get mixed up. You
will be with a person whom you know is Fred, but who looks nothing like
Fred. In fact, he looks exactly like Joe… but you still know for a fact
that he’s Fred. I don’t know quite how this could be implemented in a
computer program, but it’s worth thinking about.
problem that we have is that nothing matters. As players, we’re
too used to dying and going back and trying again. We’re very aware that
what we’re doing is a simulation, that it’s just tomato-sauce blood, that
it’s all make-believe. It’s all make-believe in the movies, too, but somehow
we suspend our disbelief. We worry about whether Rosemary is really being
used by a coven of witches in a way that we never do when playing a computer
game. ("Oops! You’re pregnant and Satan is the father. Do you want
to restart the level?")
game that made me feel really weird, in a very different way, was Balance
of Power, which came out in 1986. Balance of Power was a simulation
of global geopolitics. You played either America or the Soviet Union,
and the idea was to increase your global prestige and decrease that of
your opponent by supporting the governments of countries that were friendly
to you, and fomenting coups or revolutions in countries that were unfriendly.
You could do this by sending economic or military aid, signing defense
treaties, and other means. But every action you took was being scrutinized
by the other side, and might provoke a crisis. A lot of prestige was at
stake in a crisis, and whoever backed down first was bound to suffer mightily.
(If you didn’t ever back down, you risked a nuclear war, which ended the
might sound a little dry, even dull. The user interface for Balance of
Power consisted of a map, some newspaper headlines, a few dialog boxes…
and it was in black-and-white, no less! It ran on the original Macintosh
or on the PC under, believe it or not, a standalone version of Windows
1.0. But the extraordinary thing about Balance of Power was the way that
your opponent behaved. Each time you played, the Russian leadership was
different. Sometimes they were particularly tough and hard-nosed, driving
every confrontation to the brink of nuclear disaster. Other times they
were pushovers, backing down at the slightest complaint. Sometimes they
were adventurous, interfering all over the world – even in Mexico, right
next door! Other times they stayed quietly at home and didn’t get involved
in foreign entanglements.
the weird part: I normally played Balance of Power from the American perspective.
But one day, I tried playing it from the Russian side. I discovered then
that the game was not symmetric. The Russians had a lot more manpower,
but a lot less money. Although they could easily send in troops to prop
up a government they were supporting, they couldn’t buy much friendship
with economic aid. And that wasn’t all. They were surrounded by a ring
of steel: NATO in the west, Japan in the east, Canada over the pole. Even
though China was a Communist country too, it was hostile and suspicious.
While the U.S. had Britain, France, Germany, and Japan for allies, most
of the U.S.S.R.’s friends were poor as church mice.
first time in my life, I got a direct and immediate insight about why
the Russians seemed so paranoid, so confrontational (this was during the
Reagan administration, remember). The hugely powerful United States and
its allies had declared that the entire Soviet way of life was wrong,
and were using their unimaginable wealth to turn the world against them,
hedging them in, denying them their rightful role as a great power in
the community of nations.
simple, even silly, in retrospect. But getting a personal understanding
of what the Soviets were up against left me with an odd feeling that lasted
several hours. You can learn a lot by playing the other side.
get that feeling playing the Germans in a World War II flight simulator.
I wasn’t raised to be suspicious and unsympathetic towards the Germans,
the way my country taught me to be towards the Russians. I was born fifteen
years after the end of the Second World War, and the (West) Germans were
our friends and allies. It’s now nearly fifteen years since the end of
the Cold War. Maybe children born now will be able to regard the Russians
as friends and allies too. I hope so. But the lesson I learned from my
experience playing Balance of Power is that challenging your assumptions
is entertaining and instructive and weird in an extremely worthwhile way.
I think we need to do more of it.
weird, however, is antithetical to puzzle-solving, winning, or any form
of goal-oriented play. If you’re trying to get something done, weird behavior
on the part of the computer just becomes an obstruction, an irritant.
If a product is going to act strangely, it had better not require achievement,
and that means that it isn’t really a game, although it could still be
interactive entertainment. It might even be (gasp) art.
of weeks ago I spent a day at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Among the works on display there is a curious electronic device. From
a small box on the floor, two heavy armored cables twist up along the
wall, each ending in a rectangular cathode-ray tube, not mounted in any
kind of frame, just stuck to the wall. The two tubes were flickering and
displaying, in yellow monochrome, still images of various things, static,
and occasionally the words "NOT" and "BROKEN." This
piece is called "Not Broken," appropriately enough, and is the
work of a Bay Area artist named Alan Rath.
a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from M.I.T., and his work
appears in a number of places including the San Francisco airport. It’s
intelligent, interesting, funny, and strange. Some of it is also interactive.
"Joy Lick" consists of a joystick in front of a CRT which is
displaying a human mouth with a tongue licking its lips. As you move the
joystick around, the tongue moves around.
know that Rath is telling us anything in particular; I don’t know
that he has a message or a theme or any of that other deep art stuff.
I do know that his works are weird and entertaining to look at. I also
like them because they demonstrate engineering competence, and thus at
one blow Rath shatters two stereotypes: one, that artists are too sensitive
and airy-fairy to handle mathematics and engineering; and two, that engineers
are too humorless and nerdy to create art.
to end this column with a quote from Bruce Sterling, the science fiction
author. He delivered a brilliant banquet speech at the 1991 Computer Game
Developers’ Conference called "Follow Your Weird." Among the
many fascinating ideas he gave us that night was this:
computer entertainment lacks most, I think, is a sense of mystery. It's
too left-brain... I think there might be real promise in game designs
that offer less of a sense of nitpicking mastery and control, and more
of a sense of sleaziness and bluesiness and smokiness. Not neat tinkertoy
puzzles to be decoded, not ‘treasure-hunts for assets,’ but creations
with some deeper sense of genuine artistic mystery."