Conversations in Interaction

A recent blog post got me thinking about the essence of conversation, and how it manifests itself in games and other interactive media. The concept is that a book, or a movie, is a conversation between the writer and/or the director and the audience.


The big difference with interactive media is in the name: interactive. The ability to dynamically respond to the audience allows for a much greater, more in depth conversation to be had. The sad truth is that it rarely is: options are usually limited to the choose-your-own-adventure style of storytelling. To me this is like having a conversation with someone whose response, every single time, is to play a round of “would you rather”. “Would you rather be a sadistic, granny-hating killer or the world’s biggest mommy’s boy?” “Would you rather kill this character who wronged you in some way, or let him live despite the fact he’ll probably come back for you?” Although it’s been said many times before that most games lack a true greyness to their morality options, I can’t help but feel like this is a symptom of a larger problem rather than the problem itself: many games don’t create good conversation.


Conversation, in my experience, has a lot of different aspects to it. When meeting someone new, some of the most fun parts of a conversation are when you discover something in common (“Oh my god, I read that book too, when I was like 10!”). The interactive equivalent for that is finding things that both the player and designer thought of doing in the world, like typing “LHC” in Scribblenauts and spawning your very own Large Hadron Collider (and in fact, pretty much every other random thing you can spawn in that game). But usually we have to ask questions, in order to discover these commonalities. And one of the big differences between feeling involved in a conversation, and feeling like you’re watching someone else talk, is listening.


In my experience, people are willing to talk for longer than I expect when I don’t try to interrupt them. In fact, there’s like a shell: people start answering a question superficially; but when they’re given the time and interest to expand they truly talk about themselves, explaining links and concepts through their personal stories and ideals. Their eyes dart about in reflection of the awesome process of memory, creation and language that takes place in their mind as the conversation truly becomes about them. It truly is amazing to watch. Yet so many games fail to take the time to really let us put this kind of brain power into our interaction.


Game worlds are themselves massive and complex, as anyone who has – like myself – tried to build one knows far too well. The interactive equivalent of asking a player a question and then giving them time to answer is limited by just how creative they can be in the world around them. Every little piece of interactivity that could be possible needs to be manually designed, created, tweaked, tested etc. The way in which a player can be truly creative in their answers can often feel so limited by just how large or complex the team can possibly create the game world. But a game I’ve recently been playing – Minecraft – has me thinking another way. By limiting itself to ‘bad’ graphics and boxy, blocky elements (everything in the game world is a block, and blocks can be transformed into other blocks or special resources through crafting) Minecraft gives players the freedom to use their own imagination to fill in the gaps. It’s a technique which has fostered cult-status in games since the early days of text-based adventures – leaving space in the game world for the imagination to fill – but in Minecraft it’s really the essence of waiting for an in-depth answer to a question: what would you do in this situation?


In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, there’s a particular passage that comes to mind:

8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.

The same can be said of elements in interactive media: it’s not about how many there are, but how many ways they can be combined that truly creates the space for players to exercise the creativity they each have.

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