February 8, 2007

Interactivity a.k.a. Narcissism

by Andrew Stern · , 8:52 pm

I just got the latest Atlantic Monthly in the mail, and in it there’s a letter to the editor commenting on November’s article about our efforts to build interactive drama. It contains an unusual critique, one that I’d never considered; I think it’s worth posting here for discussion.

Here’s a link that expires in 3 days, but I’ve taken the liberty to cut-and-paste the whole letter here:

Art For Art’s Sake

In reading about the exploits of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (“Sex, Lies, and Video Games,” November Atlantic), I was reminded of a scene from the film version of Fahrenheit 451. The fireman’s wife, Mrs. Montag, is sitting in front of her room-sized television screen watching a soap opera. Suddenly, the characters turn to her and ask, “What do you think, Mrs. Montag?” What she decides determines how they proceed. François Truffaut (and Ray Bradbury) used this scene to depict the mesmerizing power of video media, which is exerted at the expense of all other forms (especially books) and entraps people with an enveloping technological superiority.

Messrs. Mateas and Stern turn the warning on its head and call it art. But books (or any traditional art form) have one thing that interactivity will never have: a natural respect for the human need to experience perspectives different from one’s own. Whereas adding one’s own point of view to a movie or video game would ultimately only reinforce that point of view. In the end, however clever it may be, it is an act of narcissism, not art.

Andy Voda
Putney, Vt.

The first paragraph is simply a fear of new media, no biggie.

But I haven’t come across the concept of couching interactivity, particularly first-person agency, as narcissistic. It’s funny — to many players and gamemakers, us included, the holy grail is to make an interactive experience centered around you — yes, you, Time‘s Person of the Year for 2006. This is one of the distinguishing, progressive features of interactive media, a major reason it’s an exciting new form, or arguably a revival, in digital form, of much older forms of art and communication, e.g. oral storytelling/making.

What this commentor perhaps hasn’t considered, is that even in an interactive story where you are the star, there are NPCs (and human author(s) behind them) with minds of their own, speaking and imposing on you their perspective of the events. Sort of like life.

Also, with games, there is the option of making it with “hybrid” perspectives in which you influence the actions of a player character who has thoughts and perspective of their own (pretty much the status quo for IF, no? Personally, I prefer an player character that I have complete control of, without being told what they’re / I’m thinking.)

Actually, I suppose this does remind me a bit of Gonzalo Frasca’s point about the need to step outside immersion and maintain a critical stance while playing (1 2), an idea that I agree with.

12 Responses to “Interactivity a.k.a. Narcissism”

  1. Emily Short Says:

    Curious. I’m biased, but I think this is totally wrong, and that interactive media are often better than uninteractive ones at conveying alternative perspectives. The rules of the game/fiction impose restrictions on interaction, and those restrictions often reflect the attitudes and abilities of the player character. This is more or less the line Nick Montfort’s essay in Second Person takes, if I’m not misreading him. John Tynes’ article on engagist games makes similar points. Being immersed in another person’s view of reality, and being forced to act within their limitations (or the limitations they think they possess), can be more compelling than a static-fiction (or static-nonfiction) encounter with the same character.

  2. andrew Says:

    Well to be fair to the commentor, the original article doesn’t talk about the concept of player characters with restrictions on interaction per se, e.g. PC’s with thoughts of their own; in fact, our approach for the player character in Façade is to impose as little “restriction” on them as possible — you’re not required to play any role (in Façade you’re told you know the NPCs, but that’s about it), there’s no internal narration given by the PC, etc.

    Hence my remark that a player can get other perspectives on the story events via the NPC’s own dialog, just as you would when conversing with other people IRL.

    Frankly I find the hybrid-perspective for a PC conceptually odd, even though it’s extremely common in games and IF. I see it originating as a device used to necessarily reign in or restrict interactivity, as you say. It’s evolved into an effective aesthetic/artistic device (e.g. a way to walk in someone else’s shoes), but it’s a device I prefer to shy away from.

  3. scott Says:

    The flip side could also be framed — works in which the author allows no voice but his or her own to be heard are also acts of narcissism (and sometimes sadism). And first person shooters? Thinly veiled onanism.

  4. Victor Gijsbers Says:

    I’ve seen this point come up in discussions about the potential for social critique of (tabletop) roleplaying games. The argument was that any group of players will reinforce their common point of view, rather than exploring alternate points of view – which is basically the same argument as Andy Voda uses with respect to Façade.

    These arguments are right in so far as they point out that giving the player more freedom to make his own point will not always lead to more careful thought on the part of the player, and may even have an opposite effect. We always develop our moral/social ideas in discussions with other points of view, and therefore a piece that offers no resistance to our current ideas cannot help us develop them.

    There are many ways to offer resistance to the player without taking away her ability to express her own final point of view. It would be interesting to discuss them, and the ways in which we’ve already seen them in action.

  5. michael Says:

    In the Truffaut version of Fahrenheit 451, the scene that Voda references actually critiques a faux interactivity in which there’s a pretense of giving the player a voice which is completely ignored.

    TV (two arguing heads): We can put the two children in Helen’s room.
    (both heads turn to stare intently out of the screen) What do you think, Linda?

    Montag: Go ahead. They’re waiting for you.
    Linda: I think that… (stammering)

    TV: You see? Linda agrees with me.

    TV: Lottie’s children must go in with Helen’s children.
    Linda’s absolutely right. (this last said in a creepy unison as both heads turn to stair out of the screen at Linda)

    So she’s mesmerized all right, but not by the spell of true agency, but by the spell of a safe, faux interaction, in which, no matter what you do, the experience continues safely and cleanly – no risks, no real decisions.

    Interestingly, this scene has been the basis of a standing joke in my household for years, in which I might, for example, ask Anne “What do you think, Anne?” and, without waiting for an answer, jump in with “You’re right. You’re absolutely right” (sometimes we do this last part in creepy unison).

    Ironically, the comments we generally hear about Façade are more along the line of it’s intense, uncomfortable, not “fun”. Not comments you’d associate with a medium that’s putting you under its evil spell.

  6. nick Says:

    Andy Voda, what do you think?

  7. nick Says:

    You see? Andy agrees with me.

  8. michael Says:

    Andy’s right. He’s absolutely right.

  9. andrew Says:

    Ha. I’m sure we all have our little family in-jokes inspired by dystopian novels. I’d tell you one of mine, but I’d get in trouble with the Ministry of Marital Information.

  10. david Says:

    I believe Mr. Voda’s critique is that no matter how many constraints you put on a player character, that character will always (at some level) be a reflection of the player. In a book, the main character can be 100% different from the reader–I can read a book where every choice the main character makes is one I don’t like or would never have thought of. In an interactive work that’s impossible, because even if I’m experimenting with having the character make choices I consider wrong, crazy, etc., they’re still my choices, and thus the experience has an inherently narcissistic quality to it.

    Maybe what it boils down to is that if you’re really interested in going somewhere you’ve never been, you’re better off letting someone else drive.

  11. Aric Maddux Says:

    Not to focus too much on your simile David, but it’s quite possible to go places you’ve never been even when you’re driving.

    Interactive media still places the interactor in a situation which she may not have chosen, or even if she did choose the work based on it’s premise the nature of the beast is that she cannot control to any great extent the effect of her interactions. The designer of the work chooses in what context decisions will play out either by scripting responses, as in IF, or by programming emergent behaviors which play out consistently according to the authors vision (which is usually informed by genre or NPC personality).

    I think one could distort Novels into seeming a narcissistic occupation by pointing out that the reader enters into it alone, with no interaction even with the author, always relating the experience of the characters to themselves. I’d point out that art in general is an internal exploration, and that the driving motive in exploring it is curiosity.

  12. Peter Bayliss Says:

    Another thing Andy Voda has overlooked is that while ‘non-interactive’ forms such as books can introduce the reader to another perxpective, the reader still comes to that alternative perspective from their own. Which is why some people can label a certain series of children’s novels as promoting witchcraft and satanism.

    As emily notes, the potential actions in an interactive work are always constrained in someway. These constraints don’t just come about by themselves but are part of the Unfortunately many people still have a very naive view of interactivity, and they forget about the wizard behind the curtain.

    Facade can be quite fun if you try to work out its limits. I had the door slammed in my face once without even entering the apartment. I wish i could remember what i’d said.

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