January 20, 2004

Trying To Break It

by Andrew Stern · , 8:45 am

In a recent discussion about interactive works that try to fuse fiction and reality, the lead writer for Online Caroline mentioned how it can be disturbing if players step over the line when interacting with a virtual character who is supposed to be real and have real feelings.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to somewhat fully fleshed-out and reactive virtual characters, the first thing players (or at least males) usually try to do is push it to its limits, to try to break it, to see how far things can go — e.g., behave badly or cruelly, swear, act lewdly or inappropriately, flirt excessively, etc. So, for an experience in which a virtual character is supposed to be real, when players act inappropriately, I could see how it would seem more disturbing.

Or not. My theory is that even if players willingly suspend their disbelief that the character is real (which can be tough to do, since today’s virtual characters are pretty crude!), players intellectually know the character is fake, and so can get an emotional thrill by acting provocatively to a character who is posing as real. There is no true guilt you should have in torturing your virtual cat with a water spray bottle for hours on end, or allowing your Sims to wet their pants, or running over pedestrians in GTA3 (although none of those characters are posing as actually real). In fact one of greatest pleasures of virtual reality and interactive drama is getting to do things you’re not allowed to do in real life.

Or not? If it’s that easy for you to torture or kill virtual characters, especially ones posing as real, what does that say about you as a person? It’s a slippery slope, right?

In any event, when designing virtual characters, we should expect inappropriate behavior to be the first thing most people do. My question is, since we know players are going to behave badly, as designers, should we reward that behavior, or discourage it?