Thursday, November 29, 2007

Talk Loudly and Parry a Big Stick

Before the month is out, I want to come back to the gallery show of e-lit bloggers Grand Text Auto at the Beall Center, particularly now that my students have had a chance to weigh in on the group's ideas about gaming presented at their symposia. I covered the performances some here, but their artists' statements and discussion were also interesting.

Andrew Stern of Procedural Arts talked about a new project tentatively called "The Party," which he described as "Desperate Housewives meets The Sims." Based on the number of AI-driven characters, this project is considerably more ambitious than the earlier Façade with an even more gothic plotline, which Stern summarizes as "wine, cheese, adultery, murder." Even the quotidian dramas have higher stakes since "getting lucky" and "being fired" are both possibilities among the evening's events, as Stern considers the function of the "drama manager" in these projects. When it came to linguistic processing, Stern aspired to create characters with "asshole physics," who could understand obscenity but not necessarily speak it back. Nick Montfort followed up on this point by suggesting an ESRB sticker for "understands language" to indicate the capability of the game's virtual characters.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin argued that ELIZA-creator Joseph Weizenbaum was the first digital media author, and recounted his own experiences trying to "break" Weizenbaum's therapist simulation that resulted in greater understanding about "the shape of the system." In contrast to the "ELIZA-effect," Wardrip-Fruin described the "Tale-Spin-effect" in which vapid story-telling could result from a relatively sophisticated system of inferences. Finally, Wardrip-Fruin raised the case of SimCity as an example of complex narratives expressing the complex computer programming that structures the game's simulation. Wardrip-Fruin's intuitions about what he calls "expressive processing" could also be seen as politically significant, given the rising number of prohibitions against reverse engineering.

Nick Montfort and Michael Mateas talked about the status of the player as user and the issues involved when systems don't work and thus are frustrating rather than challenging. Struggles with technologies from everyday life like cell phones were used for purposes of comparison. In contrast, Mary Flanagan argued that players test materials independent of the computer-mediated experience and gave the cutting of hair on Barbies as an example of this phenomenon in doll play.

Mark Marino took thorough notes on the sessions.

Last week, I spent some time trying out the actual exhibits in the gallery show, which was ironic timing, given that just today the mega-blog Boing Boing is celebrating a giant Atari joystick on its most recent syndicated webisode as a news item. Yet Mary Flanagan's giant joystick installation in the Beall exhibit (see below) indicates that this is hardly a new idea. Based on having used it, Flanagan's joystick seems to be considerably bigger than the work of male D.I.Y. practitioner Jason Torchinsky. Bigger may not necessarily be better, because playing Pong or Asteroids was a considerably more aerobic experience with this giant controller that required the athletic strength of a linebacker to produce adequately rapid responses, although aid from a gallery attendant made scoring points at least possible. The docent suggested that the scale of such a device encouraged social play.

I also used the 3D installation of Façade. Although I was impressed with the way that the physically situated version of the game replicated a heightened sense of claustrophobia that a disembodied interaction with a keyboard could not, I found that I preferred the keyboard input version and liked interacting better with the characters through text than I did through speech. I'm relatively good at getting voice-recognition systems to work, since I use the speech input capabilities of my cell phone every day and often practice my foreign language skills by enunciating into the microphone of my computer, but the truth may be that I'd much rather chat with Trip and Grace online and may be a member of the digital contingent that simply prefers to communicate with low bandwidth text.

There also were a few technical glitches I noticed. For example, at one point, one of my virtual hosts began going round and round in a circle next to the bar like a battery operated toy in a loop, which certainly made the interaction with him less natural. It was hard to engage in relatively obvious small talk suggested by the scenario, such as travel, art, or food.

If I was pining for text in one exhibit, I was fleeing from it in another. While there I also used Noah Wardrip-Fruin's Screen. I had seen a film of the demo, and it had seemed as though the visitor could use the glove to playfully pluck words off the wall and rearrange them in the 3D space, where they floated gently in front of the field of vision created by the 3D glasses. When I actually used the device, the words in Wardrip-Fruin's lyrical descriptions came at me like a hive of angry buzzing bees and I had to use the glove to deflect them.

I am grateful to Associate Director David Familian, who will be opening the gallery for a special tour this coming Monday for my digital rhetoric class.

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