December 4, 2003

Magic Crayons and More

by Andrew Stern · , 9:32 am

Recently I made some free time to fully read Chaim Gingold’s Masters thesis on game design and interactive narrative, which we briefly posted about last May. I’m going to offer some informal feedback and comments in this post. Frankly I found this thesis as substantial and useful as most PhD dissertations in the field. It could also serve as a game design handbook! Chaim’s really trying to present theory and make it accessible and useable to practitioners, which I found impressive. (This should have been turned into a paper presentation at LevelUp, not just a poster…)

The title, “Miniature Gardens & Magic Crayons: Games, Spaces, & Worlds,” is a bit misleading; at first I expected the thesis to focus exclusively on microworlds, and in a sense it does, but in fact it goes pretty broad with several universal design principles for enjoyable interactive experiences, about more than just “games”.

Some of the thesis defines and describes several common-sense design principles, such as consistency, balance, intelligability, plasticity, safety, etc. Chaim talks about syntonicity — a fancy word for “how we relate to worlds”. The points he makes about the risks of building complex worlds are very good — that they can become snarled and hard to understand, without clear feedback on the effects of player’s actions; how higher resolution but “dead” data makes a world inert.

The thesis has a good deal of discussion of two “masters” of game design, Shigeru Miyamoto (Donkey Kong, Mario, etc.) and Will Wright (SimCity, the Sims, etc.). I found it very useful for the major gameplay and design features of Miyamoto’s work to be identified and analyzed like this. And some interesting design practices of Will Wright are revealed, gleaned from personal conversation, that I hadn’t read elsewhere.

(All of this analysis of well-designed virtual worlds made me think more explicitly about the nature of the (small) virtual worlds I’m personally interested in building. I realize I want to build worlds that are consistent, intelligable and plastic, but not perfectly “safe” — worlds than can get under your skin, and bother you later. Worlds that have some sort of “real” consequence for players, that force you to think twice about acting destructively or recklessly in them, or worlds that at least flirt with that feeling of danger… Perhaps rather than elegant, cleanly designed worlds (“miniature gardens”), I’m interested in messier, more complex, more ambiguous worlds. Well, actually, I do want there to be clean design — but with some messiness, some noise, that allows for some trangressive behavior…)

Chaim’s term “magic crayons” is a nice way of framing the idea of languages for authoring dynamic, computational objects and worlds. He’s trying hard to promote the idea of creating new, powerful, expressive authoring tools for non-programmers :-) — a big, critical issue the field faces, due to get more and more attention over time. In the discussion he is simultaneously paying attention to the programmer of the languages, the author using the language building a work, and player who finally experiences the built work. He compares the activities of each — each of their “possibility spaces”. Following thoughts of Will Wright, he makes interesting points as he relates and compares paint programs to games. I liked the line about “mountain climbing in Kansas.”

At one point he begins breaking down the components of point of view, and discussing them in various games.

In the final 25% of the thesis, following the design principles he identified earlier, Chaim describes how he has begun building his own (still-under-development) magic crayon, “Comic Book Dollhouse,” discussing the design process he went through. (I suppose if this had been a PhD thesis, CBD would have been even more complete, but have taken another year or two of work…) CBD allows players to create storytelling objects and characters, and attempts to collaborate with the player to create new (fixed) sequential art (comic) narratives. The creation of the comics is the primary activity of CBD; the narratives generated are non-interactive.

“CBD, unlike other story generation or interactive storyworld software, emphasizes authorship and story construction as the primary mode of participation for both players and authors. … CBD is intentionally designed to solve the problem of storyworld participation and authorship, and leave the question of generation for later.My hypothesis is that the problem of generation will not be so hard once we have a grasp on the design problem of authorship and player participation.” This a design approach that I bet could work well, perhaps really well.

Chaim gets a bit into the realm of story generation, with CBD’s feature of suggesting alternate future narratives sequences: the system looks at the existing author-created patterns, to learn new ones. The only problem I can imagine with this, is that at first with only a few example stories for the system to look at, it will be suggesting plot fragments of things that were recently authored, making it seem limited or repetitive? This system probably needs to be stocked with a nice set of existing plot fragments (which Chaim suggests in the Sculpt vs. Specify section).

Come to think of it, the name “Comic Book Dollhouse” isn’t perfect. “Dollhouse” does convey the idea of a microworld, but unlike the Sims, from what I can tell in CBD the setting of the stories you can create aren’t necessarily in a house. So maybe something like “Comicbook Doll World” might have been a little more accurate?

Chaim loves the word “inchoate”; I gotta start using that (just like I learned “aleatory” during a previous Fiction and Recombinant Text discussion.) A miscellaneous little suggestion: I think Section needs a diagram of what overviews look like…

I had time to read the thesis but not yet a chance to play with CBD itself (available for both Mac and PC!). As much as I like the ideas that went into CBD, personally I’m afraid I’m not sure I’d enjoy playing it — but I’m sure that’s just me, accustomed to using expressive AI-based languages I helped develop to create interactive stories, so I’m probably a really bad test case, not who CBD is meant for (non-programmers). However, it’s not just that… hopefully this will be constructive criticism: As a story is being made, there’s something depressing about seeing the finished comic on the left of the screen. It feels dead, fixed — which those frames are at that point, yes? (although undoable and modifiable, if the user wants). Perhaps that’s just an interface issue; if we only saw the present and future, and not the past, I would probably not feel that same dragged-down feeling. I’m wondering if seeing the (now dead) past alongside the present and future suggests too much to me that the point of this is to create a static comic for enjoying later; instead I want to enjoy the moment itself, and only later perhaps look at a trace (the static comic) of what happened.

Chaim ends his discussion of CBD with, “Ultimately, I want players of storyworlds to feel they are taking risks, making strategic choices, and solving problems while engaging miniature dramatic worlds, and authors should feel they have a magic crayon for making these worlds.” From what I can tell, the version of CBD described in the thesis (perhaps CBD has advanced since then, I don’t know), doesn’t yet accomplish all of this. Ideally the thesis would have done a little more thinking about how to acheive those things, although those are hard design questions, that will most likely need significantly more R&D to answer.

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10 Responses to “Magic Crayons and More”

  1. B. Rickman Says:

    “expressive authoring tools for non-programmers… a critical issue the field faces” — I think this notion needs some examination, this “crisis of the non-programmer”.

    If the “field” suffering this crisis is New Media, then the call for non-programmer tools is wholly self-serving. It is saying: New Media needs tools so that its students can participate in the creation of New Media without all that bother of teaching the students how to create New Media.

    It is understandable that New Media would like to make itself into a self-perpetuating enterprise. But putting tools in a toolbox is not the way to accomplish this. New Media’s perpetuation has to come about by teaching people how to build new tools.

    At the same time, this crisis of the non-programmer only exists for those who are trying to push their own creative forms onto an unwilling audience, those creators of “magic crayons” who are frustrated by the lack of an audience. Flash is a medium that absolutely does not suffer from the non-programmer crisis; yes, there are hordes of people who would like to know how to “do Flash” and are frustrated at the technological level, but there is an equal horde of non-programmers who are able to figure it out. But Flash, as a tool, does not focus in on the problems of narrative, interactivity, &c in a controlled laboratory way. Flash is a medium, it is more than a form.

    Just some thoughts.

  2. andrew Says:

    Brandon, perhaps there’s truth to what you’re saying about capital-n-capital-m “New Media”, I don’t really know; personally I consider myself more of an independent artist who sometimes collaborates with people in academia or industry. But in any event, when I referred to “the field” I suppose I meant something more general, like the overall effort underway — whether it be by academics, artists, game companies, amateur game-modders, bloggers, “hobbyists”, your average game player — to create more sophisticated, expressive, interesting-to-play, interactive games, stories, worlds, experiences.

    Also, I’m not sure I’d call the lack of expressive authoring tools for non-programmers a “crisis” quite yet, but it’s an important issue. My hunch is that non-programmers often feel left behind to some extent, unable to create the kinds of things that programmers can. E.g, Flash is great, but it’s still pretty limited. (Am I just imagining this? I don’t think so.)

    Believe me, I think the best solution is in fact for non-programmers to learn programming, that programming will be required to achieve a maximum level of authorial control and expression, and therefore “New Media” educators should try their best to teach it to students. However, it’s probably unfair to require everyone that wants to be a part of this “field” to learn to program. Or put another way, projects / products that do offer “magic crayons” will be more successful (at least in terms of public popularity) than those that don’t. Or put even another way, lately I’m convinced that at least “magic crayon”-level competence should become part of everyone’s general literacy these days, along with reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

  3. B. Rickman Says:

    I’m glad you got something out of that, I thought it a bit rambling. :)

    As to a crisis, I’m just trying to extrapolate/exaggerate the difference between tool creators and tool users. I think anyone seriously involved in New Media(*) is going to pursue the former, they are going to build the story engines, game engines, animation engines, &c which will be handed down for students to use. Students as content creators. But I don’t see what the ultimate goal is of teaching students how to use tools, it is simply technical training; politically it does nothing but teach them how to produce a basic form of wealth, giving them the means for their own exploitation.

    I think the goal of New Media education should be to make students dissatisfied with the tools they have at their disposal, i.e. the creation of discontent. To know the limits of, for example, Photoshop and to figure out how it works. New Media education should be about disassembling “magic crayons”. Unfortunately, most of the crayons used in colleges are proprietary. There are three strikes against this kind of approach: the source code is not available, the applications themselves are considered sacrosanct by System Administrators, and — thanks to recent legislation — the reverse engineering of applications may in fact be illegal in the US.

    (*) The term “New Media” leaves room for you to be an artist and a non-academic. It does have some connection to New Genres, the term occasionally used to describe the new forms of art that came out of the 60’s-70’s, such as installation and video art. And New Media is ambiguous; maybe it is about the things we create with digital media tools, or maybe it is about the creation of new kinds of media. I prefer the latter. In fact, I think I’d like the term “New Forms” better, because I believe the activity we should be encouraging is the proliferation of new forms. New Forms is a term that won’t expire.

  4. andrew Says:

    I like what you’re saying. I think you’re right… But how can we include those unable or unwilling to program? (I’m talking about more than students, also average users out there.) Perhaps at a minimum, always be sure to explain how the tools and technology work, to suggest ways you could imagine changing it, even if you don’t have the technical skills to do so.

    This brings up a related issue, in regards to the kind of interactive art/entertainment I’m interested in making — experiences that effect an illusion of life, a real feeling of presence. The problem is, that effect gets busted when you start revealing how it works under-the-hood… It’s not that I feel I must hide and protect big secrets about the technology or something, it’s more of a theatrical / magician way of operating. It’s hard to do theater at the same time as disassembling the stage. Of course, there is a tradition of theater of exactly that nature, but sometimes I will want to achieve those old-fashioned qualities of immersion, catharsis, etc…

  5. chaim gingold Says:

    Tool Making vs. Tool Using

    At a Georgia Tech talk a couple years ago, Ken Perlin talked about how programs like Director and Photoshop, which have opened up the expressive potential of the digital medium in many new ways, were built by people with both deep programming knowledge and domain knowledge (photography, opera, animation). He also observed that being able to understand, question, and disassemble the tools you stand on is invaluable to making new, better tools. Perlin’s 3d sculpted face is an excellent example of this. By not using standard 3d modelling techniques (static geometries, geometric primitives), he procedurally constructs a face mesh out of sculpture deformation primitives that he made. A programmer who uses art assets from a 3d modelling tool would never have come up with this approach. Understanding and making tools is an important process, but it requires very special brains.

    I like to make things in C++. Most of my work is done with off the shelf tools. I don’t want to write my own C++ compiler, but at the same I’m not afraid to make a new language that is tailored to solve a specific problem. I don’t want to have to write my own graphics system, build my own computer from logic gates, or write my own TCP/IP stack. I can stand on these tools and be creative. I can also take them apart to be creative, if I want to.

    The point of this is that there are two stances which I don’t find contradictory at all:

    – Tools that black box and encapsulate design expertise (The C++ language, a C++ compiler, Photoshop, Maya, Flash, etc…) are highly desirable and useful. Tools are good and necessary.

    – It’s important and useful to understand and make your own tools. Deeper understandings of somethings inner workings can help you push the envelope of what is possible. Being able to share your understanding with others in the form of a tool is one of the most sophisticated manifestations of that expertise. Everyone should become a programmer and dig deeper to break new ground.

    Are these stances contradictory? I don’t think so.

  6. B. Rickman Says:

    Chaim – I think your two stances deal with two different activities, and I’m not sure if those activities are opposite but equal.

    On one side there is the technical activity of using tools. This is the activity which makes good tools “desirable and useful”. But this desire is, generally, immature and unrefined. Tools-that-do-more-things are not better than tools-for-specific-leverage, as anyone who has ever gotten a 50 piece modular screwdriver set can tell you. Give me a real screwdriver every time.

    On the other side is tool making, a vague process that might be called design, development, programming, capital production, and so forth. Confusion arises because most of those terms are also used for the “technical” application of tools, in particular with digital tools, because the digital hardware is the, er, substrate on top of which both activities occur — technical operations are performed in the same place where new operations are being constructed.

    Now it just so happens that the substrate is itself the result of certain technical operations, the software was “written”, the hardware was “engineered”. But this doesn’t make digital technology unique in respect to the traditional arts. A painter works with a canvas and pigment, and bother canvas and pigment can be re-engineered to change the way they behave as a medium. The great painters didn’t just paint with the tools they had, they were forced to make new tools, to design new brushes, new supports, new pigments and new colors.

    And in the end, it might be to your advantage to write a new compiler or TCP/IP stack. You don’t have to work only at that level, but you do need an awareness of that level.

    Now I’m not advocating this as an educational program for everyone, only for the self-selected group who want to pursue New Media/New Forms and related fields.

    Andrew – I have to take you to task for choosing the “illusion of life” as an interesting goal. Every system falls apart when you look at it too closely, and if the success of what you do requires you to prevent people from looking at it too closely then I’m not sure of its value. It is an animistic practice; spirits make the leaves move, not the wind. I do like the magician analogy, but it is the closing off of the backstage that irks me. It is kind of a Microsoft way of doing things.

  7. andrew Says:

    I’d love to respond more to the above comments, but sadly I don’t have time at the moment.

    Brandon writes, Andrew – I have to take you to task for choosing the “illusion of life” as an interesting goal.

    Yes, please do :-) Let’s start a new blog post thread on the topic in the near future. If you want, you could start off, and I’ll post your comments for you as the top-level post that begins the discussion. Otherwise I’ll create a post at some point, to start the discussion.

  8. Jim Andrews Says:

    I just finished a tool called Windows for Shockwave 4.0 ( ). I’m selling this online and have sold $1500 of it in less than a month so far. It’s a tool for Director developers.

    I didn’t set out to make this tool as a commercial product. I needed windowing in my shockwave art, and needed menus and so on, and it just isn’t supported natively for Shockwave, though it is for projectors (exe’s). So I had to write it myself if I really wanted it.

    If you insist on doing what you really want to do, it can take you a long while. So you have to be pretty selective about what you insist on. WFS 4 took me about 9 months.

    But the alternative is to do stuff that probably others are doing also. Which is OK if you want to do stuff that others are doing. But I don’t. Kafka’s hunger artist ( ) says at the end that he’d have been a regular eater and drinker like the rest if only he’d found food he liked. But he never did. He was a hunger artist only because there was no food that he liked. Then he died.

    So it’s not looking good any way you cut it, but if you want to do something that’s your own, you should either leave things like Flash and Director alone or learn how to program.

    But that’s a tall order. It’s a lifetime. Learning how to program and also knowing other arts and media. But there’s the hunger artist.


  9. Jim Andrews Says:

    It’s interesting how the people in this discussion acknowledge the value of programming to ‘digital writing’. It strikes me this morning how far away we are, then, from the notion of ‘the writer’ that most ‘digital writers’ would recognize (or possibly approve of).

    That measure of distance travelled, that metric, can apply not only to ‘the writer’ but the work.

    The work can be as far from ‘writing’ as the sort of writer we’re implicitly describing can be from the previous writer. You feel it. And in the antagonism, also, the hostility you encounter to this sort of change in writing. But it might be a sign you’re doing something right, also.

  10. S. Williams Says:

    [I’ve read part but certainly not whole thesis]
    On a positive note this revealed to me that miniature gardens cuts to the chase of much of Shigeru Miyamotos work.
    As a result I have gained interest in miniature gardens, and looked around the web about it, and its clear Miyamoto makes many references to miniature gardens.. even saying Hyrule is like a miniature garden.

    In an online scan of a Nintendo Power magazine feature about ‘the making of Super Mario Bros. 3’, Miyamoto concisely recommends assembly language. Perhaps that is his particular choice for recommending a magic crayon. Perhaps there is room for both high level and low level tools.

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