January 8, 2004

Clicking a Mouse (and Cracking a Whip) in Two Worlds

by Nick Montfort · , 2:48 am

Whilst in Texas recently, I read Jill Walker’s Dr. art. thesis, “Fiction and Interaction: How Clicking a Mouse Can Make You Part of a Fictional World.” One important issue it tackled was one that I noted, but didn’t try to tackle, many years ago. It’s the question of what it means when a “real” action in the world (such as your really sending an email addressed to Online Caroline) is also to be an action in a fictional world (given that Online Caroline is not a real person, you have sent an email in the fictional world, too).

I had noticed in my 1995 undergraduate thesis that some “computer narratives” (as I called them) did something like this:

Another approach to making the interface seem natural is to make the computer an explicit part of the interaction. Activision’s games Hacker and Hacker II employ this technique, as does their interactive fiction Portal and Infocom’s A Mind Forever Voyaging … In these works, the premise is that a computer, in the world of the fiction, is itself the interface between the main character and the fictional world.

Jill’s idea (p. 35) is that this is not just an interface gimmick, but leads to a type of ontological fusion, allowing the interactor to participate in the fictional world:

One way of understanding the user’s position in relation to the fiction is through Thomas Pavel’s theorisation of dual structures (Pavel 1986), where a fictional world is overlaid [on] the actual world. … When I enter the area in front of the screen [in Bino and Cool’s Masterclass] I too become the site of a fusion between actual and fictional: I am an appreciator of art at an exhibition, at the same time as I am fictionally a pupil in a master class. … In wielding the whip I accept a role in the fiction.

(Very nice of Jill for using her interaction with a sadomasochistic piece of interactive art as a critical example, by the way. Certainly a good response to the requirement that you “submit your thesis.”)

Using some theories of Marie-Laure Ryan and distinguishing, as Ryan does, between narrative and fiction, Jill focuses her investigations upon Dream Kitchen, Online Caroline, and games about Osama bin Laden.

I think the implications of this work are very interesting and I hope that Jill doesn’t turn completely away from this to consider blogs full-time. I haven’t yet thought through what the idea of ontological fusion actually means for interactive fiction, much less for other forms, but it seems like a productive idea. The scientist in me wonders what we might think about two interactive computer programs that are exactly alike except that one uses the technique of ontological fusion and one substitutes another means of interacting (but with similar consequences within the fictional world).