May 12, 2003

How to Destroy Possibilities

by Nick Montfort · , 5:56 pm

I’ve been corresponding with IF author and theorist Emily Short recently about an issue that relates to all sorts of digital practice and interactive design — perhaps to all sorts of art-making. One thing I’ve heard over and over in discussion of the design of virtual spaces, computer games, and other sorts of works is that creators have to constrain the interactor, limiting a world of possibilities to just a few so that the experience can be controlled and contained.

I don’t like this assumption. It harkens to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” approach: put the docile participant in a little car on a track and bring them the experience of the space in exactly the order you want. Of course, some might say that this destruction of possibility is exactly what Oulipian techniques, of which I am so fond, enforce. Italo Calvino talked very directly about this idea of eliminating possibilities, specifically in relation to the computer generation of literature, in his lecture “Cybernetics and Ghosts.”

I wonder if this is a problematic or at least unexamined assumption. Why don’t people ever seem to think about interactive design as building up possibilities from what are, initially, no possibilities at all? (I’ve tried to think in this way, at least at times, but I can’t say that a masterwork has resulted from this approach.) It seems to me like a world that is constructed perfectly, is so complete and coherent that it could not possibly contain anything less or anything more, would present exactly the right possibilities. Perhaps Will Wright has already accomplished this with Sim City and its progeny … perhaps Andrew and Michael have done something similar with Façade. It seems that those creating many different sorts of work could fruitfully take this perspective. Authors, artists, creators: Do you find yourself more often wondering “how can I force the interactor do this cool thing?” or more often thinking “what great possibilities can I create for the interactor?” And do you feel good about that? Has that perspective always been a fruitful one?