February 25, 2008

EP 5.6: Re-Reading Tale-Spin

The Tale-Spin effect has had a huge impact on previous interpretations of Tale-Spin, even when the interpreters have come from very different positions as scholars. Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck (1997) and Espen Aarseth’s Cybertext (1997) provide helpful illustrations of this. In these cases, the Tale-Spin effect not only causes the authors to misinterpret Tale-Spin, but also to miss opportunities for making fruitful connections to their own areas of interest. (more...)

February 22, 2008

EP 5.5: Tale-Spin as Simulation

Of course, the Tale-Spin effect, as described above, mainly considers Tale-Spin as a piece of media. But, in its context at Yale, it was positioned as something else — or something more. As Meehan emphasizes repeatedly in his dissertation, the structures of Tale-Spin were not chosen because they were the most efficient way to have a computer output a story. If this were the goal, some method like that of Klein’s “automatic novel writer” would have been appropriate. Instead, Tale-Spin was meant to operate as a simulation of human behavior, based on the then-current cognitive science ideas of Schank and Abelson. (more...)

February 21, 2008

EP 5.4: The Tale-Spin Effect

In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974) two characters named Kublai Khan and Marco Polo sit in a garden. Polo tells the Khan — sometimes in words, sometimes through symbols, sometimes through the relation of pieces on a chessboard — of cities he has visited within the vast empire. Here are a few. In the middle of Fedora is a metal building with a crystal globe in every room, each containing a model of the city as it might have been in a possible future, constructed at a different stage of its history. At every solstice and equinox, around the fires of the marketplace of Euphemia, there is trade not in goods but in memories. In Ersilia, the inhabitants stretch strings between all the houses — marking relationships of blood, of trade, authority, agency — until one can no longer pass, all but the strings are taken down, and Ersilia is built again elsewhere. Thekla is continually under construction, following the blueprint of the stars, while Andria already reflects the heavens precisely — in every street, building, job, and ceremony — but those who live there must carefully weigh each change to the city, given the changes it will produce in the heavens. Polo and the Khan each propose a model city, from which all others can be deduced. They look through atlas pages that contain not only all the cities of the Khan’s empire, but all those that will one day come to exist (Paris, Mexico City), and all imaginary lands (Utopia, New Atlantis).

It is not hard to picture Tale-Spin as an addition to this list of imaginary lands. (more...)

February 20, 2008

EP 5.3: Tale-Spin’s Fiction

That was a significant amount of detail about Tale-Spin, more than I will offer about any other system described in this book. I hope it gave some sense of the type of undertaking involved in creating even a first-generation story system. There’s much more going on — at the levels of character and story — than in something like Eliza/Doctor or a standard computer RPG. Further, it illustrates how a computer system that seeks to generate representations of human behavior can be built as an operationalization of theories about human behavior.

But it’s also worth noting that the story produced in our Tale-Spin example wasn’t a particularly strong example of fiction. While Tale-Spin creates character behavior, this behavior doesn’t necessarily take the shape of a traditional story. This is something to which I’ll return later. For now, I want to consider what it means to say that Tale-Spin produces fiction at all. (more...)

February 19, 2008

EP 5.2: A Tale-Spin Story

Tale-Spin, as described in Meehan’s dissertation, has three storytelling modes. Two modes are interactive, asking the audience to make decisions about features of the story world, while one mode “fixes” the world to assure the production of particular stories.4 Chapter 11 of Meehan’s dissertation gives a detailed account of an interactive story, about a hungry bear named Arthur, that I will use to illustrate Tale-Spin’s operations and their backgrounds. (more...)

February 18, 2008

EP 5.1: The “Metanovel”

In the fall of 1974, James Meehan was a graduate student at Yale University. He had an idea in mind for his dissertation topic, but didn’t know how to pursue it. The topic had been suggested to him by Alan Perlis — one of the most famous figures in U.S. computer science, who had become chair of Yale’s department a few years before — on the first day they met. But Perlis didn’t know how to move forward with the idea, either. In the preface to his dissertation, Meehan describes the idea this way:

February 16, 2008

EP Meta: Chapter Four

This week, when I was talking with Jessica Bell about her story for the Daily Pennsylvanian, I realized one of the most important things, for me, about the blog-based peer review form. In most cases, when I get back the traditional, blind peer review comments on my papers and book proposals and conference submissions, I don’t know who to believe. Most issues are only raised by one reviewer. I find myself wondering, “Is this a general issue that I need to fix, or just something that rubbed one particular person the wrong way?” I try to look back at the piece with fresh eyes, using myself as a check on the review, or sometimes seek the advice of someone else involved in the process (e.g., the papers chair of the conference).

But with this blog-based review it’s been a quite different experience. (more...)

February 15, 2008

EP 4.5: Learning from Models

How do we learn from making models? Phil Agre (1997) offers part of an answer for the field of artificial intelligence when he writes:

AI’s distinctive activity is building things, specifically computers and computer programs. Building things, like fieldwork and meditation and design, is a way of knowing that cannot be reduced to the reading and writing of books. To the contrary, it is an enterprise grounded in a routine daily practice. Sitting in the lab and working on gadgets or circuits or programs, it is an inescapable fact that some things can be built and other things cannot. (10)


February 14, 2008

EP 4.4: AI, Neat and Scruffy

A name that does appear in Weizenbaum’s book, however, is that of Roger Schank, Abelson’s most famous collaborator. When Schank arrived from Stanford to join Abelson at Yale, together they represented the most identifiable center for a particular approach to artificial intelligence: what would later (in the early 1980s) come to be known as the “scruffy” approach.7 Meanwhile, perhaps the most identifiable proponent of what would later be called the “neat” approach, John McCarthy, remained at Stanford. (more...)

February 13, 2008

EP 4.3: Abelson’s Ideology Machine

Abelson and Carroll’s paper — “Computer Simulation of Individual Belief Systems” (1965) — describes work that Abelson and his students had pursued since the late 1950s, and would continue to pursue into the 1970s. At the point of their 1965 paper the “ideology machine” consisted of an approach to belief structures and a number of operations that could be performed on such structures. Sample belief structures from the paper range from common cold war views (“Russia controls Cuba’s subversion of Latin America”) to absurd statements (“Barry Goldwater believes in socialism”) and also include simple facts (“Stevenson ran for President”). (more...)

February 12, 2008

EP 4.2: Eliza and the Turing Test

While Eliza is the first well-known digital character, its roots trace back to a highly influential proposal for computer-driven conversation (less than two decades earlier) from the father of general-purpose computing: Alan Turing, mentioned earlier in this book’s introduction. Writing for the philosophy journal Mind, Turing initially proposed to consider the question, “Can machines think?” (1950). However, finding this question hopelessly ambiguous, Turing instead replaced it with a set of questions involving an “imitation game.” (more...)

February 11, 2008

EP 4.1: Implementable Models

Games are systems — and these systems have varying relationships with the everyday world. Hopscotch, for example, is made up of a small number of rules that structure full-body actions in the everyday world. Most of the challenge of play comes from the way the game’s space is demarcated on the ground, the properties of balance of the human body, and the physics of planet Earth. Scrabble, on the other hand, is challenging because of the rules for what happens on the board (rather than being a physical challenge, as we can see by the fact that it would be permissible for another player arrange my tiles on the board for me, under my direction) but the nature of this challenge is shaped by our knowledge of the English language. And Monopoly relates to our everyday world not, primarily, through the motion of our bodies or our knowledge of facts outside the game, but by being a representation — a model — of the economic system under which it was produced: capitalism. (more...)

EP Meta: Chapter Three

Last week, chapter three looked at the specific case of “Computer Game Fictions.” This week, chapter four — “Making Models” — broadens the frame again, wrapping up Expressive Processing‘s section on the Eliza effect and setting up issues that will thread through the rest of the book.

As before, particular aspects of the conversation stand out in my memory. (more...)

February 8, 2008

EP 3.5: The Game Fiction Dilemma

Authors of game fictions have worked hard — through conventions such as the quest-tracking journal and tree-driven conversations presented as menus — to avoid the Eliza effect. Rather than conceal the operations of their processes, game fiction authors seek to expose them to the audience. But, despite this, game fictions still face a dilemma remarkably similar to that outlined at the end of the previous chapter.

Both Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time take advantage of what games do well — in particular, simulated movement through space and combat. The relatively free-form actions allowed to players in these areas might be seen in parallel with the free-form text composition allowed both to those interacting with Eliza/Doctor and to the students involved in Harold Garfinkel’s yes/no therapy experiment. The difference, again, is in what changes to the state of the system, and influence on future operations, can be produced by this interaction. (more...)

February 7, 2008

EP 3.4: An alternative: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

At the 2004 Game Developers Choice Awards, Knights of the Old Republic had some competition. Another nominee for Game of the Year, a game which won the awards for Excellence in Game Design and Excellence in Programming, was Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PoP).

PoP is a strong example of game fiction in its own right — which is no surprise, given that its main writer and designer was Jordan Mechner, a legend in the game design field for his pioneering games Karateka (1984), the original Prince of Persia (1989), and The Last Express (1997). (more...)

February 6, 2008

EP 3.3: An example: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

The Game Developers Choice Awards are the Oscars of the game industry — the award with which members of a creative industry recognize achievements of their own. In 2004, game studio BioWare walked away with three awards that are of particular note for this discussion: Game of the Year, Original Game Character of the Year, and Excellence in Writing. All of these were awarded for BioWare’s RPG Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR) which also won game of the year awards from a slew of industry publications. While certainly not the most recent major RPG, it provides a good example of the strengths and weaknesses of the quest flag and dialogue tree logics. (more...)

February 5, 2008

EP 3.2: Role-playing games

Games employ fiction in many ways.1 The most story-ambitious genre of computer games is probably the computer role-playing game (RPG) — a form that traces its roots back to a non-computer form of gaming: the tabletop RPG.

February 4, 2008

EP 3.1: Digital Fictions and the Eliza Effect

Imagine you’ve checked out your books and walked, through the damp twilight, to the bus shelter across the street. Its fluorescent tubes have flickered on — you can read the schedules and advertisements behind the plexiglass, as well as the stickers scattered over them.

One rectangular sticker catches your eye. It has the name of no band, the number of no locksmith, the logo of no corporation, and no image of Andre the Giant. It’s just a block of text. The first words read, “Why bomb libraries?” (more...)

EP Meta: Chapter Two

Last week the sections of Expressive Processing‘s second chapter — “The Eliza Effect” — were posted. This week will see all the sections of chapter three: “Computer Game Fictions.”

So far I’m quite happy with the feedback I’m getting. As discussed in my previous “meta” post, as well as in some of the comments, I’m pleased to be hearing everything from reflections on the wider field movements in which Expressive Processing participates to very detailed comments about word choices (and, in one case, an ungrammatical sentence). It’s all going to help me make the book better, and some comments will certainly influence my work beyond this book. (more...)

February 1, 2008

EP 2.3: Revisiting the Eliza effect

Being a teenager, after my initial interaction with Eliza/Doctor, I did the natural thing: I started to play with it. (Software, of course, doesn’t need to be a game to inspire play.) I don’t remember the exact exchange, but I know that I soon discovered the reason Murray doesn’t go far into talking about ongoing interaction with Eliza/Doctor, just as Suchman and Weizenbaum don’t.5 If they did, it would complicate their discussions. This is because — while the initial experience of Eliza/Doctor can create the surface impression of an incredibly complex internal system — sustained interaction with the system, the verbal back-and-forth, invites play . . . and linguistic play with Eliza/Doctor quickly begins to destroy the illusion. (more...)

January 31, 2008

EP 2.2: The Eliza Effect

I don’t remember the specifics of my first conversation with Eliza, but here is Eliza’s most famous exchange (with the computer’s responses in all capital letters):

Men are all alike.
They’re always bugging us about something or other.
Well, my boyfriend made me come here.
He says I’m depressed much of the time.
It’s true. I am unhappy. (more...)

January 30, 2008

EP 2.1: Meeting Eliza

When I was a teenager — in the 1980s — my mother bought a personal computer. It was an impressive machine for the day, decked out with two floppy drives, a dot matrix printer, a Hayes modem, and a monochrome amber display. At first I only used the machine for some minor programming experiments (in Basic and later Pascal), writing for school (in WordStar), and a few games. But that mysterious modem sat there. Probably intended to let my mother exchange data with the big Digital Equipment Corporation machines she had in her lab at the university, I knew modems could also be used for other things. (more...)

January 29, 2008

EP Meta: Chapter One

With today’s post of section 1.6, we’ve reached the first major milestone of the Expressive Processing review. The entire first chapter has now been posted. Given this, I’d like to ask for further thoughts about issues that have been raised — and also invite wider discussion.

Here are some of the comments that stand out most for me, thus far: (more...)

EP 1.6: The Next Steps

Earlier I mentioned that this book will discuss three “effects” that arise in the relationship between system operations, surface presentation, and audience experience. These will serve as the major waypoints for the remainder of this volume. The first — “the Eliza effect” — is the well-known phenomenon in which audience expectations allow a digital media system to appear much more complex on its surface than is supported by its underlying structure. However, I will consider what most authors have ignored: during playful interaction with the simulated therapist for which the Eliza effect is named, the illusion breaks down rapidly. One alternative to breakdown, with a system of this sort, is to severely restrict interaction. Another is that pursued by many modern games: never building up the Eliza illusion, and instead clearly representing the operations of a simple system on the work’s surface. But these simple systems prove too limited for the fictional experiences games seek to make available to their players, resulting in breakdowns of a different type. This leaves only one option for those seeking to create ambitious playable fictions: more developed system models of story and character. (more...)

January 28, 2008

EP 1.5: Audiences and Processes

In this chapter I have talked about the perspectives from which I look at processes — perspectives that are authorial, critical, and political.

So far, however, there’s been little mention of something quite important about digital media processes: the fact that they don’t operate on their own. From web-based knowledge repositories to console-based video games, the operations of digital media are, in important ways, only truly realized in contact with audiences. A wiki’s processes mean little if the audience doesn’t use them to add data, edit it, and follow the connections embedded in it. Similarly, many of a game’s processes never come into operation if the game has no player. (more...)

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