Designing story (1): The intimacy of the written word

Source: www.la-screenwriter.com

It’s telling me what I’ve already done, accurately, and with a better vocabulary. – Harold Crick, Stranger than Fiction (2006)

E M Forster said that he wrote the last two chapters of a Passage to India whilst under the spell of T S Lawrence’s The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which shows that whilst writing is a solitary process, and reading can be too, both are acts of intimacy, in the true sense of the word.

Intimacy is a lovely word. It means comfort and familiarity which is found in a shared space of connection.  It is much bigger than just a euphemism for sex. Intimacy (or connection) gives our lives meaning. We want to be seen and understood. Well told stories, fictitious or otherwise, can do this. They tell us we are not alone, that someone else understands the very experience that has bruised or filled up our hearts, and that someone know how we feel. Stories explore our hopes and fears. They teach and inspire us. And, they describes us, as Harold says above: accurately, and with a better vocabulary.

Sharing is caring

Imagined and real experiences are managed in the same way by the brain which means that stories create genuine emotions and a sense of being in a certain place or space, and we respond accordingly. Consequently, we fall in love with characters (even scary Heathcliff regularly makes it into the top 10 romantic heroes lists), or we feel bereft when a book ends. It has all felt so special, so intimate, we want to continue being there, in that space.

Fan fiction is one way of spending time in a shared space, though it receives a mixed press. Neil Gaiman is a fan fiction writer as is E L James.

For those who are readers rather than writers, then there is literary and film tourism. We have the studio versions like Harry Potter, or travel agents who take fans to the exact film locations for Lord of the Rings, the Sound of Music, or various places where Jane Austen lived in order to gain more understanding of her life and times, so we can feel closer.

The above examples are well known and extremely popular, but there are many books we put down because that connection hasn’t been made, and we don’t feel that we have anything in common with the writer or the space offered. What is it that entices readers into spending time in a fictional world that a writer has created?  What are the key ingredients?

Time for new stories?

Joseph Campbell said that archetypal story patterns are hard wired in our psyche, and I used to believe this. Nowadays, I am wondering if is it just that we have just heard the same stories (or patterns) over and over, that they are familiar and so we connect because we like the familiarity and comfort. But is this enough? For, as resonating as the hero’s quest is, it wasn’t designed for women even they make up 50% of the population. That said, James Patterson says that he writes for women because 70% of his readers are female and our favourite hero’s quest story Star Wars now has Rey.

Last week, I attended an agile management for women seminar where one of the presenters said that there are no archetypes for strong women in business which made me wonder if that is because there are not many in stories. The first question to ask is there should be? Should there be strong female archetypes specifically design to fit into a patriarchal norm? Or, is it time to write new stories and rewrite our business structures so we don’t have to adopt any persona/archetype – armour up – in order to fit in? Thankfully, we have lots of talented women working on the heroine’s quest, author of historical fiction Phillipa Gregory is rewriting history from a feminine perspective, and script writer Shonda Rimes is putting dazzlingly authentic dialogue into women’s mouths, on prime time TV, expressing exactly how society views and validates them only in relation to men. I literally cheer and clap all the way through Scandal.

Reflecting us

If a story is to have meaning for us, if a writer wants to connect to a reader, then it has to reflect the problems that the reader has, perhaps reflecting our day to day lives, or pondering the human condition and  the philosophical question: Why we are here, which is why I chose Stranger than Fiction (2006), at the top of this blog. It got mixed reviews but it is funny, clever and moving.

Harold Crick lives a lonely life until the day he starts hearing a female narrating his life and foreshadowing his imminent death. He enlists a professor of literature theory who gives Crick a quiz to figure out what his story is:

Has anyone recently left any gifts outside your home? Anything? Gum? Money? A large wooden horse?
Do you find yourself inclined to solve murder mysteries in large, luxurious homes to which you may or may not have been invited? …
Are you the king of anything? King of the lanes at the local bowling alley. King of the trolls?… A clandestine land found underneath your floorboards?
Now, was any part of you, at one time, part of something else? …

This (abridged here) quiz is hilarious, clever and recognisable, because we all do it, even though it can seem naive and silly to refer to literature as a guide, and that message is even enforced in literature: John the so called savage from Brave New World tragically struggles because he uses The Complete Works of Shakespeare as his guide to life. 

Affirming life

However, we do it subconsciously or otherwise because like Harold, we sometimes fret about whether we are living in a tragedy or in a comedy, which might cause us to ask how life should be lived and we might feel like we are living the wrong story.  In the end, Harold embraces his fate and the business of living, connecting and falling in love – all the lovely things we want in a story, and in life too.

It is the polarities of life and death which create action and tension, and, any story which explores death but embraces life, according to Christopher Vogler author of The Writer’s Journey, makes it one which is emotionally universal and intelligent.

But, that doesn’t answer the question of what makes a great story. Are polarities enough? Do we need a gestalt whole of time and place, plot and character? What about archetypes and blueprints for resonance? And shared emotions for that intimacy we crave? How do we go about designing story?

Let us tell some stories and see.

Web design (5): Structure

A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

[Part 5 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Many designers have adopted a grid structure to design web pages because a) it lends itself well to responsive design and b) it allows a design which is easy for users to understand. Designers literally have about five seconds before a user will click away to find a different service/page/content provider if the page is laid out in a way which is difficult to understand.

In a great talk for An Event Apart, Designer and Developer Advocate at Mozilla, Jen Simmons looks offline at magazines for inspiration and remembers how there was much experimentation and creativity online until everyone adopted grids and fell into a rut of grids.

But, it is easy to understand why everyone adopted grids, because users create their own understanding of a webpage from its structure. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains. This is a fundamental principle of semiotics, the study of meaning.

Managing expectations

When a webpage is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting, particularly if it is not very attractive.

Designers either need to manage a user’s expectations by giving them what they are expecting in terms of the service they are looking for, or they need to make it super attractive.  Attractive things don’t necessarily work better but we humans perceive them as doing so  because they light up the brain’s reward centre and make us feel better when we are around them. We are attracted to attractive things which is given by certain Gestalt principles such as unity, symmetry, and the golden ratio.

Gestalt: similarity, promixity

Good design is one thing, but we also have specific expectations about  any given webpage. We scan for headings and white space and interpret a page in those terms.  This is because according to Gestalt theory we will interpret items according to their proximity: items which are close together, we will group together; or similarity, items which are similar we interpret as together.

And also, because we have been to others sites and we transfer our experiences from one site to another and anticipate where certain functions should be.

Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

Main menus are usually at the top of the page, grouped together and are used for navigation through the site.  Secondary navigation may take place in drop down menus, or in  left or right hand columns. Specific house keeping information can be found in the footer, or the common links bar if there is one.

If users are completely lost they will use the breadcrumbs, which Google now uses instead of the URL of sites as part of the results their search engine serves up. Therefore, it is in a designer’s interest to put breadcrumbs on the top of page.

Users will stay longer and feel better if they can answer the three questions of navigation as articulated by usability consultant Steve Krug:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where have I been?
  3. Where am I going?

Often this answered by changing links to visited, not visited and enforcing the consistency of the design by adopting a sensible approach to colour. There is a theory of colour in terms of adding and subtracting colour to create colour either digitally, or on a palette, but there is alas, no theory about how to use colour to influence branding and marketing, as personal preferences are impossible to standardise.

HTML 5 & CSS 3

As discussed earlier in part 1 of this series, we separate out our content from our presentation which is styled using CSS 3. Then, once we know what we want to say we use HTML 5 to structure our text to give it meaning to the reader. This may be a screen reader or it may be a human being.

HTML 5 breaks a page into its header and body, and then the body is broken down further into specific instructions. Headings from <h1> to <h6>, paragraphs, lists, sections and paragraphs, etc., so that we can structure a nice layout.  There are thousands of tutorials online which teach HTML 5.

The nice thing about sections is that we can use them to source linked data from elsewhere and fill our pages that way, but still keep a consistent appearance.

Theoretically one page is great, or a couple of pages fine, but once we get into hundreds of pages, we need to think about how we present everything consistently and evenly across a site and still provide users the information for which they came.

Information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is the way to organise the structure of a whole website. It asks: How you categorise and structure information? How do you label it so that users can navigate or search through it in order to find what they need?

The first step is to perform some knowledge elicitation of the  business or context and what everyone (owners, customers) known as stakeholders expect from the proposed system. This may include reading all the official documentation a business has (yawn!).

If there is a lot of existing information the best way to organise it is to perform a card sort. A card sort is when a consultant calls in some users, gives them a stack of index cards with content subjects written on them, along with a list of headings from the client’s site—“Business and News,” “Lifestyle,” “Society and Culture”— then users decide where to put “How to floss your teeth”.

This can take a few days each time and a few goes, until a pattern is found, us humans love to impose order on chaos, we love to find a pattern to shape and understand our world.

Once we have a structure from the card sort, it becomes easier to start designing the structure across the site and we begin with the site map.

The site map reflects the hierarchy of a system (even though Tim Berners-Lee was quite emphatic that the web should not have a hierarchical structure).

Then, once a site map is in place, each page layout can be addressed and the way users will navigate. Thus, we get main menus (global navigation), local navigation, content types to put in sections and paragraphs, etc., along with the functional elements needs to interact with users.

Other tools created at this time to facilitate the structure are wireframes, or annotated page layouts, because if is is a big site lots of people may be working on it and clear tools for communication are needed so that the site structure remains consistent.

Mock up screen shots and paper prototypes may be created and sometimes in the case of talented visual designers, storyboards are created. Storyboards are sketches showing how a user could interact with a system, sometimes they take a task-base approach, so that users could complete a common task.

Depending on the size of a project, information architects will work with content strategists who will have asked all the questions in the last section (part 4) on content and/or usability consultants who will have spoken to lots of users (part 3) to get an understanding of their experiences, above and beyond their understanding of the labelling of information in order to answer questions such as:

  • Does the website have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

Sometimes, it may just be one person who does all of these roles and is responsible for answering all of these questions.

It takes time to create great structure, often it takes several iterations of these these steps, until it is time to go on to the next stage (part 6) to start sharing this beautiful content on social media.

[Part 6]

Game theory & social media (3): What are you playing at?

Source: buzzfeed.com

[Part 3 of 4: Game theory & social media: Part 1Part 2, Part 4]

Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin with being personal – Kathleen Kelly, You’ve got mail (1998)

Kermit drinking his tea and throwing shade makes me laugh. However, I think we all understand his frustration. It seems that in business and personal relationships, people play games. We may not know why, and we may not know the rules. But as we saw in part 2, before we react, we might want to find out more: if a game is being played, which one, and if we want to play or not.

Games, payoffs, and winning

A game is normally defined as having two or more players, who have a choice of possible strategies to play which determine the outcome of a game. Each outcome has a payoff which is calculated numerically to represent its value. Usually, a player will want to get the biggest payoff possible in order to be certain of winning.

Dominance, saddles, and mixed strategies

Playing the strategy with the biggest payoff is known as the Dominance Strategy, and a rational player would never do otherwise, but it’s not always easy to identify which strategy is best.

So, players sometimes take a cautious approach which will guarantee a favourable result (also known as the Saddle Point Principle). Other times, there is no saddle point so players have to choose at random what strategy to play and hope for the best. They can calculate the probability of mixing up strategies and their chances of winning. If their probability skills are not great they can play experimentally and record their results 30 times (for statistical significance) to see which strategies work.

How does this work on social media? Well, no one knows how social media works so a trial and error approach whilst recording results can be useful. Luckily, Twitter and Facebook both provide services and stats to help.

Free will, utility, and Pareto’s principle

A major question is whether players have free will or not and whether their choices are predetermined based on who they are playing with and the circumstances in which the game takes place. This can depend on the amount of information players have available to them,  and as new information becomes available, they play a specific strategy, thus seeming as if they didn’t have free will at all.

Players assign numbers to describe the value of the outcomes (known in economics as utility theory) which they can use to guide themselves to the most valued outcome.

This is useful if we have a game where the winner doesn’t necessarily take all. If the players have interests which are not opposed and by cooperating the players can end up potentially with a win-win situation or at least a situation where everyone gains some benefits and the solution is not the worst outcome for everyone involved. This is known as the Pareto Principle.

On social media? Retweeting and sharing other’s businesses news is a nice way of ensuring everyone gains some benefits because with a potential market of 307 millions and there is enough of a market to go around for everyone to win-win and of course, reciprocate.

The Nash equilibrium

Taking this further is the Nash equilibrium which was named after John Nash, who proved that every two player game has one equalizing strategy (either pure or mixed) in each game. By looking at the equilibrium strategies of the other players, everyone plays to equalize. This is because, no player has anything to gain by changing only his or her own strategy, so it is win-win.

Are you chicken?

Ducks have been known share out the bread thrown to them so they all get some rather than one duck eating everything. This is known as the Hawk-Dove approach in game theory. When there is competition for a shared resource, players can choose either conciliation or conflict.

Research has shown that when a player is naturally a hawk (winner takes all) and plays amongst doves, then the player will adapt and cooperate. Conversely a dove amongst hawks will adapt too and turn into a fighter.

If there are two hawks playing each other the game is likely to go chicken, which is when both players will risk everything (known as mutually assured destruction in warfare) not to yield first.

We adapt very easily to what is going on around us, and on social media this is totally the same. In a 2014 study Pew Research Center found that people are less likely to share their honest opinions on social media, and will often only post opinions on Facebook with which they know their followers will agree – we like to conform.

The volunteer’s dilemma

In contrast, the volunteer’s dilemma is an altruistic approach where one person does the right thing for the benefit of everyone. For example, one meerkat will look out for predators, at the risk of getting eaten, whilst the rest of the meerkats look for food. And, we admire this too. We love a hero, a maverick, someone who is ready to stand up and be different.

The prisoner’s dilemma

But we hated to feel duped which is why the prisoner’s dilemma is one of the most popular game theories of all. Created by Albert W. Tucker in 1950, it is as follows:

Two prisoners are arrested for a joint crime and put in separate interrogation rooms. The district attorney sets out these rules:

  1. If one of them confesses and the other doesn’t, the confessor will be rewarded, the other receive a heavy sentence.
  2. If both confess each will get a light sentence. Which leads to the belief that:
  3. If neither confesses both will go free.

It is in each prisoner’s interest to confess (dominant strategy = 1) and if they both do that satisfies the Pareto principle (2).  However, if they both confess, they are worse off than if neither do (3).

The prisoner’s dilemma embodies the struggle between individual rationality and group rationality which Nigel Howard described as a metagame of a prisoner cooperating if and only if, they believe that the other prisoner will cooperate, if and only if, they believe that the first prisoner will cooperate. A mind boggling tit-for-tat. But, this is common on Twitter with those: Follow me, I will follow you back and constant following and unfollowing.

And, in any transaction we hate feeling like we have been had, that we were a chump, that we trusted when we shouldn’t have, which is why some people are so angry and like to retaliate. Anger feels better than feeling vulnerable does. But, great daring starts with vulnerability, the fear of failure,and even the failure to start,  the hero’s quest shows us that.

Promises, threats, and coalitions

As we add more players, all rationality may go out of the window as players decide whether to form coalitions or to perform strategic style voting. If we introduce the idea of the players communicating then we add the issues of trust in promises, or fear of threats and it all starts to sound rather Hunger Games.

On social media aggression and threats are common, because of prejudice, or group think, especially on Twitter where there is no moderation. And, online and off, we have all been promised things and relationships which have ultimately left us disappointed, and told us that we have been misinformed, like the fake news, we’ve been hearing about a lot lately.  Fake news is not new, in other contexts it is known as propaganda.  And,  if it is not completely fake, just exaggerated, well that’s new either, New Labour loved spin which led to a sexed up dossier, war and death.

Kermit’s next move

Philip D. Straffin says in his book Game theory and strategy, that game theory only works up to a point, after which a player must ask for some clarification about what is going on because mathematics applied to human behaviour will only explain so much.

And so we turn back to Kermit. What is he to do?  He has passive-aggressively asked for clarification and had a cup of tea. What’s his next move? Well, he could wait and see if he gets a reply (tit for tat). Who will crack first (chicken). But with the texts he has sent her, it is likely that her response is somewhat predetermined, or perhaps not, perhaps she will repond with Nash’s equilibria, or at the very least the Pareto principle of everyone not getting the worst outcome.

Alternatively, he could take a breath and remember that he is talking to someone he likes and with whom he wants to spend some time, someone human with the same vulnerabilities as him. He could adopt the volunteer’s dilemma approach and send her an honest text to explain that his feelings are hurt, he thought they had something special, and that she liked communicating with him as much as other people. By seeking clarification in this way, Kermit may just end up having a very nice evening after all –  or not. Whoever said: All’s fair in love and war, didn’t have instant access to social media and all the complications it can cause.

[Part 4]

Moments in modern technology

Final cover from film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

If I like a moment, I mean me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera, I just wanna stay in it.

– Sean O’Connell, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

In The power of now, Eckart Tolle says that in any given moment we have three options: remove ourselves from it, change it, or accept it totally.

Sometimes though the present moment is just too much for us, so we do what we can to overcome it. Tolle says that this is an insane way to live, because the present moment is all we have, which is all good and well for Tolle. He gained enlightenment on a park bench in Russell Square and has been euphoric ever since. Whereas the rest of us, for better or for worse, have to rely on modern technology to get a semblance of that same euphoria, which is where things become tricky. Often, technology owns us, instead of the other way round.

Capturing a moment

With our phones, we can capture and share any moment we ever experience. And, if we feel unable to live fully in a given moment, then we can always postpone it and then experience it later. Sometimes, we don’t always want to though. When my daughter was born with kidney failure, I kept a blog for the first two years of her life, because I couldn’t bear talking about it on the telephone to anyone. I read it the other day for the first time in ages and really didn’t enjoy remembering all the moments my memory has tidied away.

But, even when a moment is brilliant and we recognise its importance, we can risk not experiencing it at all, because we are trying to so hard to capture it. This is when we step back, hold up our phone, and miss it. A while ago, I wondered about how different my round-the-world-year would be if I were to experience now. I would be travelling with my phone, recording everything and uploading it. Would I really be experiencing it? And afterwards, could I relive what I didn’t experience? Or, would I retroactively experience something else altogether depending on how I curated all those captured moments online?

In À la recherche du temps perdu, Marcel Proust revisits his life to find meaning, and explores what he calls involuntary memory. Eating his infamous madeleine, the taste of which evokes his childhood, Proust slips out of the present and into the past. And, then of course the act of writing and musing on his past in order to find meaning in it, creates a new moment: the combination of the present moment of writing and the past moment which exists in memoir only – a simulacrum of the two moments which created it.

Imagine if he had had a whole Internet full of his memories to write his memoir from. And, what happens to us now when we can record every single thing we ever do, and what gets said and done to us?

Feeding the need

There are at least a dozen times a day when we are needled, when our needs are not met, and our bodies immediately react with the flight or fight response. Imagine being able to record and remember every single needle, every single moment when we felt a lack? Joe Dispenza says in Breaking the habit of being yourself that we will try to run from any emotion which is painful, because to look at it is too uncomfortable. Amazingly, we can run away very easily with modern technology. We can alter our internal chemistry by laughing at a YouTube video, becoming fearful with the latest news on our social media feeds, or get into an angry or exciting Twitter conversation. The possibilities are endless and so our unwanted feelings seem to go away by these distractions. But, then we rely on these distractions – outside of us – so that we can feel better over and over again. And, often we are distracted by the angriest people who shout the loudest on social media, and who don’t make us feel better about ourselves or what is going on in the world.

Occasionally, though we have a breakthrough and experience catharsis, an emotional release, by living someone else’s story. Ultimately, this is why we love a good movie, a book, a meme. We find relief in someone else’s experience because it connects us to them, and also back to ourselves. We mirror each other.

Immersion

When we get immersed in a book, or online in a game, we get a new point of reference, and we use the world in the book or game as starting point, which frees us from ourselves. Normally, we are embodied, that is, we experience the world through our bodies and limited senses and then our brain interprets the experience in light of our past experiences. We pattern match any new experience to a similarly bad or good one that we have had before, and behave in a way that makes this new experience fit its predecessors. We never have a raw experience. But, in virtual reality therapy and in gaming, we can escape our embodiment and adapt to a new world, which potentially opens us up to raw experiences.

Research shows that computer games light up the part of the brain responsible for motivation and learning, and so games are being developed to help people with depression or who have suffered trauma, to train their brains to leave behind their thought patterns and develop new ones. Gamers can literally learn to lose themselves.

In the Gap

In his TED talk, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies that those people who are the most satisfied with their lives regularly engage in activities in which they lose themselves to bring about a state of flow.

In the language of meditation this flow is known as the gap, which is where our unbounded consciousness – the space between our thoughts and ego – lie. It is there where we find our pure potential and infinite possibility. Meditation guru davidji says we have all experienced the gap during those times we have dazzled someone in conversation, that moment when the roller coaster drops us into free fall, or when we lose ourselves in the one we love.

I find meditation incredibly difficult, but gaming less so, and it is with excitement I view the possibilities of technology to teach us how to truly connect to a moment in the right way. And this is why I used The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) at the beginning of the blog. It got mixed reviews on its release but I love this film. For me, it is a gentle celebration of living in the present moment and connecting with who you are.

Walter Mitty lives a grey life as a negatives manager at photo magazine whilst in his head he lives out the most colourful fantasies, until the day his job is threatened and he is forced to engage with life instead. The film’s colour palette saturates, causing Mitty’s grey life to become as colourful as his fantasies because he has opened himself up to the present moment and all it has to offer.

And, this cinematic devices captures perfectly what happens when you tune into your own life in the gap or follow your bliss as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it. Mitty also gets the girl, because instead of just imagining, sometimes hilariously, himself in relationship with her, he learns to stays present in his own life long enough to discover the magic of being all of himself, which is what life coach Martha Beck identifies as the key: Being loved is all about loving yourself. And, being fully present in a moment, paradoxically, is about letting go and losing yourself in it, whether you are holding your phone or not.

I have always believed that technology augments us, and social media reflects us, so it makes perfect sense that the digital landscape has the potential to teach us how to be more ourselves, more human, in every moment of our lives. Perhaps technology doesn’t own us after all.

Gaming: Storytelling and ludology

Minecraft from playstation
Source: Playstation

Playing video games is, I am sorry to say, not my favourite pastime. My first attempt at playing was The Hobbit back in the 1980s on my brother’s Spectrum 48k and it frustrated me no end. Though, I did like playing PacMan a couple of years later, on a handheld device which only had Pacman on it. In the late 1990s I was introduced to MOOM – one of the first mass multiplayer online games – which I felt very excited to take part in it (I was asked by one of the creators) but alas, I didn’t really persevere because I didn’t have the patience.

Now when I play video games (and I get asked everyday) I last about 10 minutes because I hate learning all the rules to find out what to do. However, I love watching others, especially my girls, playing video games, because the games are fantastic entertainment. So, I understand completely how the likes of Stampy became so popular, and I love thinking about what gaming means. Apparently, this means that I like thinking about fun rather than having fun, sort of a theory of fun.

Storytelling

You know what kind of gamer I am? When we come to a cinematic, I jump it. I go ‘I’m not watching a movie’ – Guillermo Del Toro

Video games can be viewed in a context of storytelling, or narratology – the way we construct meaning from creating stories about the world around us. Games have cinematic effects, great plots, soundtracks and super cool music, as well as cut scenes which explain backstory, or give rewards to players, or move the story along.

I love cut scenes and enjoy watching whole movies of cut scenes like LEGO Lord of the Rings. But, film directors, Guillermo Del Toro and Steven Spielberg have criticised cutscenes saying that they interrupt the flow of the game, as they are non-interactive.

With or without cut scenes, video games have structure and tell a story to engage players emotionally which then motivates them to perform certain actions. Consequently, they have been analysed in the humanities as interactive storytelling or electronic literature which began before the WWW and focuses on readers interacting with stories to change the outcome of the narrative. Games can be played many times, and each time it is different. Narratives generally, unless they are our favourites, are read once, and don’t change each time we read them. We change though and our interpretations change too (which is a different though equally interesting phenomena to blog about).

Each experience in a game is different and we can be surprised and delighted with what happens next, like the time my girls went swimming in the Los Angeles River in Grand Theft Auto and were eaten by a shark.

Once dead, they could start that level again and follow another outcome not necessarily following the prescribed narrative, because they love unstructured play and often choose open world settings. This desire to play without structure is another area of gaming study, and has led to many video games set in real world simulations like Sims and Second Life.

Simulation and simulacra

In these virtual worlds, we can explore and make, we can all be designers, and we can have different experiences in order to fulfil our basic needs but we do it in an immersive environment. That is to say, we feel like we have left our world and are present in a simulated world. When we are so immersed, there are fewer blanks we need to fill in in order to make sense of that world. It feels normal to walk about The Shire, drive a car round LA, or ride a horse in Red Dead Redemption.

The stronger the narrative is and the more the environment demands of us, along with giving our senses all the information they need – sight, sound, touch (haptic feedback) the more complete it feels.  And our minds, don’t really know, or care if it is real or not. So, we feel like we are stealing cars in Los Angeles or being a super hero in New York. And, often we interact with simulated humans in video games which are non-player behavioural algorithms that look like humans.

It was The Matrix which first got us all talking about algorithms which aren’t human as well as simulation and simulacra.  Simulation is a copy or version of something, say the real world, and simulacra is a version which does not have an original copy. For example, a digital file is not real until it is printed out, and music which is recorded in a studio one instrument at a time is not a performance and never has been. It is a simulacra of a performance.

Ludology

However, Professor of Humanistic Informatics, Espen Aarseth has contested the idea of describing video games as storytelling narratives simulated or not and proposed the term ludology because, after all in video games we, via our avatars, are normally action driven and want to win.

Ludology is the study of games. When playing a game, we need to: 1) learn the rules, 2) play the game, 3) win or lose. In terms of ludology, we play to win.

However, Aarseth proposed this back before the World of Warcraft (WOW) which was released back in 2004 and became one of the most popular most popular massively multiplayer online games with more than 10 million active subscribers worldwide. Apparently numbers have dropped. WOW allows gamers to play however they want by choosing which class you want to be in in the land of Azeroth and then the quests comes from that choice.

Minecraft too carries this idea further, released in 2009, it has been in development ever since and allows players to be and do whatever they want. Players can build extraordinary works of architecture, or live in villages and interact with villagers (non-player behavioural algorithms) who grunt instead of talking. It is an amazing construct, which is really popular.

In 2015, Minecraft released Minecraft: Story mode which is very much like an interactive novel, you can choose to be a girl or a boy, who with a small group of friends tries to win a building competition. Unlike the original Minecraft, it is a game of levels, cut scenes and branching conversations, and little in the way of exploration or creativity. The theory behind it seems to be that people who have an emotional attachment to Minecraft might enjoy experiencing a story in it. Rather like fan-fiction backwards, I guess.

Video games defy categorisation, just when we find a way of thinking about them, a new game comes along to challenge that. And video games remain the fastest growing form of entertainment sector, so it is hard to label constant change. One constant remains though, most gamers when asked tell you that they play for fun. There exists a theory of fun and its purpose is to allow game designers to change the face of game design even further by creating more fun. The theory of fun at its best.