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Interacting With Immersive Worlds 2009

Interacting with Immersive Worlds:

An International Conference presented by the Interactive Arts and Science Program, Brock University

June 15-16, 2009 at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

Note: these notes were written during the conference. They are neither complete nor fair to the presentations.

The Prisonhouse of Play

Espen Aarseth gave a talk that started with a picture of a polar bear in a zoo playing with plastic barrel, but not free. This enigmatic image stuck with us through the conference. He began with a number of questions like, how are games captivating? Can games be an art and can they make people cry? He answered the crying question by showing a quote from the Tamagotchi Cemetery where a player bemoaned the death of her pet.

What is immersion? Is it playing in a prison like the polar bear? Aarseth quoted Gadamer to the effect that the game controls us - that is the prison immersion of play.

What are games made of? His answer is semiotics and mechanics. He gave Monopoly as an example of a game that began with a particular message and the mechanics transformed it to the point that people don't see the game as a critique of landlords.

The heart of his presentation was a narrative theory of games. Aarseth feels the narratologists are really doing "metanarrative" theory - talking about where narrativity would fit instead of actually theorizing the narrative of games. He wants to reconcile narratology and ludology and he started by saying that descriptive ludology make the point that not all games are stories (like Tetris), but that doesn't mean that stories are important to some games. He proceeded to show how you can look at games on three levels: the Ontic, the Narrative and the Ludic. At each level one can look at World, Objects, Agents and Events.

Real World Needs and Their Fulfillment in Virtual Worlds

Andrea Winter gave a paper that looked at Maslov's hierarchy of needs and how they are met in Second Life. Her research was based on interviews with SL characters. She ended with an interesting idea that we might develop a hierarchy of SL values. We talked later about whether her interviewees were straight in their answers.

Exploring the Satiric in Immersive Worlds

Stephen Svenson and Mikael Andersson started with the Serenity Now attack on a WoW in-game funeral as an example of satire.

They defined satire as "the process of attacking by ridicule in any medium." Most of the examples of satire they showed where machinima video that celebrate exploits or mock behaviour. They showed the Leroy Jenkins

Artifact or Experience: Presenting Network Mediated Objects

Geoffrey Shea at the OCAD Mobile Lab started with "The Hertzian Cooperative: A Proposal". Participation is being exploited deliberately by artists. He distinguished between designing for effect and for reaction, but I didn't get the difference. He showed some of the playful interactives in the Portage project that use messaging and smart phones to interact with street toys. The idea is that our smart phones are our input/output devices for art that augments the street.

Espen Aarseth asked whether games could be art. I want to ask if art could be toys. Geoffrey asked if participation usurped the goals of the artist.

We had an interesting discussion about whether Geoffrey Shea's work is similar to Rokeby's. I argued they are both instruments.

The Leisure of Serious Games

Kevin Kee and I delivered a dialogue about serious games.

Holodecks without Holograms

Janet Murray talked about the Digital Media unit which is based in the humanities.

She talked about play and how B. Sutton-Smith in Ambiguity of Play describes play as something we do to keep alive a wider range of capabilities. Murray has written a work, "Toward a Cultural Theory of Gaming".

She then answered the question of "What is a story?" Stories arise at the same time of games. Stories and games seem to both grow out of a uniquely human ability to look at someone else and know they are intentional. According to Tomasello it is the ability to infer consciousness in the other that makes humans different and games are built on it as are stories. Stories (perhaps myths) start with anthropomorphic inferences about nature. "The wind is someone blowing."

Then she looked at "What is a medium?" She is writing a book "Inventing the Medium" that she has been using in a course at Georgia Tech where they have what must be one of the most important grad programs. She defines "medium" thus, "A medium is a socially established system of inscription and transmission, that extends our powers of joint attentional focus on symbolic representations." A medium and a genre extend the ability for people to pay attention together. Murray is building on the idea of information technology as a prosthesis, but in this case as a shared prosthesis.

She argued that the project we have together is to design a new medium. This is a privilege as new media don't come along that often. In Hamlet on the Holodeck she discussed what the affordances of digital media were: Procedural, Participatory, Spatial, and Encyclopedic. Now we need to develop the social. Dramatic agency is important. Good designers like Frasca can build up an expectation and then reward it with ideas. Interactivity reinforces immersion.

Immersion is an "experience of enclosure in a bounded, consistent, detailed structure that is separate from the larger reality of everyday life, and completely absorbs our attention". Narrative can provide immersion as any good story. Immersion is not just sensory as any good novel shows, but the question for digital media is how can we use interactivity for immersion.

Visual depth can be useful to immersion and stories. We want multiple perspectives and the ability to explore depth in a story. After reading LOTR we want to return and immerse ourselves over and over. TV is responding to the digital by adding more narrative (Sopranos, Lost, The Wire) to give more immersion. Murray was very interesting on The Wire and how it is a Brechtian work where Baltimore is also a character. The idea of depth and detail reminded me of Barthes on photography and the discovery of the detail. One way you immerse yourself in a photo is to become captivated with some detail - a detail that may not have been noticed by the photographer. The photo creates the time to reflect on a detail that you don't have when there. One form of depth is something that rewards careful attention with details for reflection.

For Murray we are missing the conventions that make it easy to approach immersive media. We know conventions of novels and film, but the conventions of digital media are still being developed. In mature media we have techniques like narrative encapsulation by place. Place is one of the ways a good work gets depth. Place is emotional and meaningful. Lots of space is not. Place has the details that hint or remind one of meanings and feelings.

Murry then launched into thoughts that I didn't quite get. She said that in digital media we need encapsulation of alternate scenarios. We need ways to mark time in interactive fiction. To get narrative immersion we should not borrow elements from other media or use hyperreality. I think she was arguing that we need to develop conventions for the handling of time in digital media such that there could be development of plot. A game has levels and cut scenes, but there is rarely development of character.

There was an interesting discussion after her talk about what would be anti-immersion. Janet seemed to say that the ironic seem detached and anti-immersive, but infact it is still immersive.

Janet called for the invention of the vocabulary for immersive spaces. Those developing digital media are building toys with affordances that players can use to also develop vocabulary.

Play for Your Life: Mobile Gaming, Physical Health and Environmental Immersion

Marcel O'Gorman talked about his Critical Media lab and started with a quote from Heidegger.

“We can affirm the unavoidable use of these devices and at the same time deny them the right to dominate us and lay waste our very own Being.” -Martin Heidegger

It is important that the critical humanities be involved in the technological race. Humanists are typically publishing in the wrong media for their criticism to be heard. O'Gorman is developing critical projects,in particular using geocaching and other location technologies.

Marcel is working with Applied Media Theory. He is developing his own "Evocative Objects", an idea from Sherry Turkle. He sees himself as an artist who works with technology provisionally - uses technology at hand and learns what he has to, but is not an expert.

He gave Murmur as an example. As you walk around you might see an ear that indicates there is mobile media about this site. He showed a number of interesting projects out of his lab including Paranoiac Critical Method - a student project that adapted the idea.

Temporal Storytelling in Computer Games

Tamer Thabet explored time-based agency through literary theories. Genette talks about narration as duration, order and frequency. Mieke Ball talks about ellipsis, acceleration, scene, deceleration and pause. Ellipsis is when an event in the story isn't told in narration. Acceleration is when something is told quickly. Pause is when narrative time is infinitely longer than the story time as the story is paused. Scene is when the time of story and the narrative are the same. This is very hard to do in narrative, but games are naturally scenic.

We can use this contrast of times (time of the narrative vs the playing time) in game studies. In some games like SimCity you can speed up time in other the time is slowed down for a replay or paused while you get chicken.

Cloaking Devices

Isabel Pedersen talked about future immersive interfaces. She used to see the phenomenon of invisibility as driven by desire and very future. Now it seems like it is a race to make it happen. Scientists have technologies will bend light around an object. (See | Science close to unveiling invisible man ]].) For Pedersen the discourse around invisibility should be a conversation - we should think of it as the future of immersive interfaces.

We are driven to invisibility because it seems inevitable. To some extent we have been hiding things in interface design for a long time. Invisibility is the end goal - the magic ring. Pedersen looked at the discourse around invisibility technologies. She gathered 340 stories about the technology and looked at the quotes from the inventors. Pedersen saw a rhetoric of immanence - that a technology is coming and will be here soon. Of course we want it, now everyone just needs to work at it.

Then Pedersen talked about augmented or reality shifting media where the invisible is layered over the visible. She mentioned how we discuss technologies long before they are "real". The language affects their emergence.

We had a discussion after about invisibility vs hypervisibility. These opposing desires. Invisibility is the desire to hide what is there. Hypervisibility is the desire to show what is not there (especially the self.) Marcel wants to use the surveillance technologies to critique them.

From the audience we got the Joni Mitchell theory (You don't know what you've got till its gone) about privacy. The idea is that we didn't really have privacy until we began to lose it to surveillance.

Surveillance and the Avatar

Jennifer Whitson talked about the tension between discourses that argue that new media are more democratic and concerns with different types of surveillance. Surveillance is valuable to developers as it it gives them metrics and data to sell. Digital enclosures are gardens where people have to pay for access in different ways like privacy. Second Life lets others harvest data as does FaceBook. Collection in SL can be done by creating a zombie that enters a space and records conversations. Users are responsible for their acts but corporations running digital spaces are not. In virtual spaces it is the corporations that are the cops as the government doesn't intervene. There really is no democracy. What can we do?

Encoding Code: Digital Games and Ideology

Jason Hawreliak talked about how games can be seen as ideological. He drew on Don Ihde's idea of an Epistemology Engine. How does the design of games structure our knowledge through them. How does the model begin to influence ideas about what the model models? If we don't know the model is there how can be critical of it? Jason also talked about what is excluded by mechanisms of censorship (like the ESRB) and how important that is. He talked about mainstream games like Call of Duty 4 and counter games that present another perspective like Under Siege which focuses on the lives of Palestinians during 2nd Intifada.

Outbreak: Lessons Learned

Kevin Kee talked about his development of a historical learning game, Outbreak. He started by talking about the approach of using an existing game engine and how the problem with that is that game engines can be difficult to adapt. Kevin's team decided to extend work by Michael Bliss in Plague and a forthcoming documentary. Outbreak is about a smallpox outbreak in Montreal in 1885. Some of the lessons he learned were:

  • Let the book be the book, film be the film and game be the game.
  • The academy works as a think tank; but not as a manufactory.
  • As game conventions are hard to break you need to know your audience.

The World According to Video Games

Deborah Todd, a game designer and author, gave the final keynote. She started by talking about the evolution of the videogame. She then talked about Hollywood and cross-platform franchises. While the cultures are different there are opportunities. She then talked about the questions she asks when starting to design a game.

  • What is your audience? She starts by identifying her audience.
  • What's the genre?
  • What's the platform?
  • What's the deadline?
  • What's the budget?
  • Who's the team? Who has the final say?

Deborah talked about ways that playing games have made a difference to people. She then talked about the potential for games and education. She calls sociotechnoplay the way people learn social interactions through play.

She had a nice quote from Sid Meir, "people love to learn, no one likes to be educated" that made a point about school vs games. The idea is that kids love to learn through playing and hate to be taught. To my mind she overplayed the business of how much kids hate school and love games. There is a category confusion here as if one can compare the two. Kids will hate games too when they forced to play them as education (something I've observed, alas). The challenge of education is teaching that which is difficult, not the easy stuff kids want to learn. That's why schools don't bother with driving lessons - kids learn that anyway. When Deborah contrasted stereotypes about school (a bunch of stock pictures of kids in class looking bored) with anecdotes of kids that learned something from a game she wasn't fair to either.

She concluded talking about a neat project, "Pocket School", that she is involved in at Stanford which is experimenting with bringing education to mobile devices to communities that don't have schools. They are starting with Rwanda. Mobile content is an interesting alternative to the One Laptop Per Child project.



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