Monday, September 15, 2008

Interactivity, The Video Game, and Chris Crawford

Historical Perspective Essay ~Matt Rolph

You float unsupported on the edge of darkness. Across the void, your mission objective: the flickering lights of the enemy. As you glide into your attack, their fire leaps out towards you, missing, missing, missing, and then – just as you near the goal – a direct hit. In that final fraction of a second, as an explosion renders around you, you wonder whether this is all there is or whether there can be something more. And then it’s over.

Of course, the space invader, the asteroid, and all the other creatures of their kind, are not made to wonder. They do not reflect on the nature of their existences. Their makers, on the other hand, have the luxury of philosophy. This has been the case since the beginning of computer driven games, an important part of the history of human-computer-interaction, but there have been precious few game makers who have questioned the repetitive aspects of game design, and none who have dared to do so more vocally than Chris Crawford, “dean of American game design.” To consider his complaints, it’s useful to look briefly at the history of computerized games, Crawford’s own career, and weigh some related concepts in HCI.

First, a definition of the computerized game: In the standard ‘video game’, the computer-managed, program-driven game field (sometimes all of it, sometimes a portion of it at any given time, or, in a text based example, a description of it, though we will deal only minimally with text-based games) is represented on graphical display. The player interacts with the game by means of an input device such as a paddle, joystick, mouse, keyboard, or another specialized device.

In 1958, physicist William “Willy” Higinbotham created a tennis-like game, “Tennis for Two”, displayed on an oscilloscope. He was head of the instrumentation division at Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York, and he meant his creation, which he initially put together from spare parts including an analog computer (not the digital computer his team was building for more serious work), to entertain visitors to the facility. It was the first video game, and somewhat resembled the later and more famous Pong. (Anderson, Hunter, “William Higinbotham”)

Willy … [used old part and an analog computer but] did make use of some recently invented transistors as flip-flop switches--a harbinger of things to come … The screen display was a side view of a tennis court … Each player held a prototypical paddle, a small box with a knob and button on it. The knob controlled the angle of the player's return, and the button chose the moment of the hit … Gravity, windspeed, and bounce were all portrayed … The game was simple, but fun to play, and its charm was infectious. [Higinbotham’s friend and colleague Dave] Potter remembers the popularity of the game: ‘The high schoolers liked it best. You couldn't pull them away from it.’ (Anderson)

The next known game was created by MIT student Steve Russell in 1961, who dubbed it “Spacewar”, and set it up on a Digital PDP-1 (Programmed Data Processor-1) minicomputer. It somewhat resembled the game we’ve come to know as “Asteroids” (Herman).

From the outset, interaction has meant a simulation of control over the motion of a game element around or into other elements. The computer-processed algorithms handled the relatively simple mathematics of collision or the lack thereof, tracking the coordinates of all elements on the field and triggering events when any given element overlapped or became directly adjacent to another. In other respects, games are different from other computer-aided tasks, as universal usability and the accessibility of task completion are not primary considerations (Lazzaro 680). Games typically offer levels or stages of increasing difficulty intended to result in the pre-conclusion termination of the experience for all but the most dedicated and adept players. This is particularly interesting when viewed through the lens of Lev Vygotsky’s social cognition theory, which suggests a ‘zone of proximal development’, a challenge slightly beyond the established capacities of the learner which, by virtue of that property, creates ideal conditions for independent problem solving, for engagement, and for learning, precisely as these games do. Vygotsky, it’s important to note, defined the ZPD as created by humans: “determined through problem solving under [human] adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (qtd in Berger). The implication is that in presenting a series of ever increasing challenges the video game serves in place of an adult teacher or more capable peer, another reason for adult concern about them, though most complaints focused on the amount of time the games consume and their simulations of violence. In terms of the math, it makes no difference whether the simulated collision involves a representation of a bullet or of a snowflake. The narrative metaphors associated with the games reflected standard themes and shooting was a very popular one. Even for a pacifist, it's hard to miss the appeal of the hyperbole of mythology, the polarization of us/them (or me/them) antagonism, and illusional immediacy of threat elements, all with very simple rules of engagement: fire at will. “Playing games in their discretionary time, gamers mainly play for the emotions the games create … player experience design crafts … cognitive and affective responses in conjunction with user behavior” (Lazzaro 681).

Crawford’s complaints about video game design are more substantive than anti-violence rhetoric. He is, in fact, an avid wargamer and began his programming hobby thinking about how to computerize games like the paper wargame, Blitzkrieg, which he and a friend played in 1966: “… I became an avid wargamer, and from there started thinking of my own designs. When computers became available, I built one and programmed it with a wargame.” (Krupa) Rather, he laments the limited nature of game interactivity and bemoans the repetitive nature of game design.

These days, Chris Crawford is less known for the games he has authored than for his presence in the industry as the pointed voice of reason. He is a reminder, to those who will listen, that maybe, just maybe, there is room for thoughtful and experimental game design in a world where million dollar budgets and months of technological hype, more often than not, result in peculiarly non-interactive titles … (Dadgum)

“In 1979, I got a job at Atari” (Krupa). Crawford was fresh from a job as a community college physics teacher when he started to write games. After initial successes at Atari, he was “promoted to supervise a group that trained programmers about the Atari computers” (Crawford, MobyGames). After Atari collapsed in 1984, Crawford continued his work as a freelance designer and developer, writing for the new Macintosh computer. He also authored 1982’s The Art of Computer Game Design and five other books on the subject (Krotoski) and founded the Journal of Computer Game Design and of the Game Developers Conference (Dadgum). Despite the longevity of his career and the commercial success of some of his titles (Atari 800 titles "SCRAM," "Energy Czar", Avalon Hill's "Legionnaire," "Eastern Front 1941; for the Macintosh, "Balance of Power," "Patton vs. Rommel," and "Patton Strikes Back,") Crawford is better known for controversial statements than for his designs.

In 2006, Chris Crawford was quoted as saying ‘the video game is dead.’ Asked for clarification, he offered “What I meant by that was that the creative life has gone out of the industry. And an industry that has no creative spark to it is just marking time to die” (Murdey).

Before he got to that point, he lamented what he perceived as a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of interactivity and evinced distaste for the central metaphors of the gaming community:

Unfortunately, the term "interactive" has been so overused that it has lost any meaning other than "get rich quick". We see the term applied to television, theater, cinema, drama, fiction, and multimedia, but the uses proposed belie a misunderstanding of the term. Yet, interactivity is the very essence of this "interactive" revolution. It therefore behooves me to launch the new Interactive Entertainment Design with a straightforward explanation of interactivity. … Part of the problem most people have in understanding interactivity lies in the paucity of examples. Interactivity is not like the movies (although some people who don't understand interactivity would like to think so). Interactivity is not like books. It's not like any product or defined medium that we've ever seen before. That's why it's revolutionary.

Take heart. There is one common experience we all share that is truly, fundamentally, interactive: a conversation. If you take some time to consider carefully the nature of conversations, I think that you'll come to a clearer understanding of interactivity. … This process goes back and forth until the participants terminate it. Thus, a conversation is an iterative process in which each participant in turn listens, thinks, and expresses. (Crawford , Fundamentals)

… I wouldn't be carping about the cinematic metaphor if I didn't have a better one to offer. I propose that we use the conversation as our metaphor for game design. I can imagine the howls of outrage at so prosaic a suggestion. How can I suggest replacing a glamorous, ego-stroking metaphor with a dull, drab one? We all know that people pay good money to see a movie; who would ever pay money to have a conversation? What possible entertainment value can a conversation offer? The answer, of course, is that a conversation has no entertainment value, but the reason why conversations have no entertainment value reveals a great deal. You see, a conversation is necessarily a two-person event. The world's greatest conversationalist could not carry on more than one conversation at a time. Thus, a person gifted with great powers of conversation could never parlay that gift into a marketable entertainment experience, because such conversations could not be shared by more than one person at a time. A singer can sing to thousands at once; an actor can play for millions via television or cinema; a storyteller can share her beautiful stories with countless numbers through print. But the hard reality is that a conversationalist entertainer must always have an audience of one, and it's pretty hard to make money with such a tiny audience. So conversation never developed as an entertainment form. But now we have a technology that eliminates the restriction on the audience. Think of a computer game as a "conversation in a can". Through the medium of the computer, the author interacts with the audience, and that interaction is a direct, one-on-one experience. Yet, we can duplicate the floppies on which the potential conversation is stored, thereby allowing the great conversationalist to reach many people. Suddenly, conversation has become an economically viable form of entertainment!

The true value of this metaphor is that it focuses our attention on the interactive nature of our work. A conversation is one of the few interactive experiences that we already know about. We all have a thorough understanding of the requirements of a good conversation. We can apply that understanding to our computer games to improve them. (Crawford, Conversational Metaphor)

Describing interactivity as conversation sets the bar high, requires incredible advances in artificial intelligence or a masterwork of design that effectively predicts the bulk of the possible player responses. An effective example, with or without commercial success, has yet to be realized.

Even of landmark games like The Sims, Crawford offers little praise:

Will Wright spoke with me just as he began working on The Sims, and I urged him to put interpersonal relationships in. He chose not to. … The Sims is a swig of water to a dying man in the desert. It really doesn't offer that much that's interpersonal, but the games industry has been so utterly devoid of it that even the slight whiffs of it you get in The Sims set people on fire. The Sims isn't about people, it's a housekeeping sim. It's consumerism plus housekeeping. It works, it's certainly better than shooting, and that's its success. But interpersonal interaction is not about going to the bathroom. It's much much more. The Sims is ultimately a cold game. The interactions people have, have a really mechanistic feel. (Krotoski)

Crawford also ascribes the lack of success with the female demographic to the lack of social reasoning in games:

[What is the essence of interactivity?] It's the choices, giving people lots of interesting choices. Actually, that's Sid Meier's definition of a good game too. It's just that you have to give choices that are intrinsically interesting, and that's why we have so intrinsically failed to address the female market. They are not interested in choices involving spatial reasoning and guns. Social reasoning is one of the primary entertainment impulses for women. You know, figuring out who likes whom, allies and enemies and that sort of thing. That's a major part of a woman's psychological or emotional life. That's what we should be doing. However it's a lot more complicated. It's easier to measure the trajectory of a bullet, but chasing people's feelings is a much more difficult job. (Krotoski)

Around the time Crawford was not quite exactly saying the video game is dead, there were a variety of innovations in the industry, including the advent of the Wii, hailed as a revolution in interactivity. To Crawford, though, a new controller didn’t represent a major change:

GS: Continuing with the Nintendo theme, do you feel that the Wii in is a step in the right direction as far as innovation? Or do you think it's going to be the same old stuff only with a fancy new controller?

CC: More likely, the latter. I'm not a fortune teller. I don't know what they'll do. But I think that it is reasonable to expect that an industry that hasn't produced any innovation in at least a decade is unlikely to change its spots. (Murdey)

Crawford’s own interactive storytelling project, the “Erazzmatron”, a decade or more in development, to be marketed as Storytron (, is in its infancy with an uncertain future ahead. Crawford chose the original project name and his domain name,, as a tribute to Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, a precursor to Martin Luther who pointed out the flaws of the Roman Catholic Church with intellectual rigor and acumen but did so while remaining a Catholic. If the game design establishment is like a great church, then perhaps Crawford is very like an Erasmus within it: calling for change, encouraging scrutiny of prevailing wisdom, but nevertheless remaining within rather than ‘lighting out for the territories’ (as Huck Finn might) and rejecting video games and their design entirely.

Whether Crawford is prophetic – foretelling the course games are to take, or, at least, one course they might take once the technology catches up with his vision – or whether he is simply a voice crying in the wilderness – an alternative theorist lamenting his once an insider, now an outsider status – he raises some interesting points regarding the nature of innovation in HCI.

GS: So you'd call yourself a pessimist on this front.

CC: Yeah, I think that’s valid. Hey, maybe they'll surprise us. But I've been preaching this sermon for 20 years now…more than that, in fact, and I haven't seen any serious attempt to move in that direction. Indeed, I hear all sorts of arguments as to why “we don't need to change our spots, we’re doing just fine the way we are.” And in fact, and this is a fundamental point, nobody changes unless they're in pain. And the industry is not in pain. So it's going to keep doing the same thing until it hurts. (Murdey)

There is a point at which the preservation of the status quo, the defense of the investment to date and the initial direction, outweighs anything promised by innovation. In theory, a variety of forces act on the developers of a technology to motivate them to innovate and improve upon existing technology; in practice, the industry moves in directions suggested by existing successes and investment in unproven alternatives is less likely. There is a risk that, to preserve the metaphors and prevailing thinking that has brought us this far, American HCI will follow the example of the American automobile industry and continue to sell sport-utility-class vehicles when an innovation – improved fuel efficiency, for example – could create new demand and address problems which, though currently of modest concern, will eventually become critical. When there is pain – a spike in gasoline prices, to continue the metaphor – the public demand for alternative solutions grows, but the pushing off the development of alternative solutions to that point when the cries become audible in the marketplace means that the end users of a technology will be disappointed, as an alternative solution will not be ready to deploy until years after the initial perception of crisis.

The game design industry can continue to improve upon the graphics, but so long as they rely on the same mechanisms of interactivity, whatever the input device, and cling to the same modalities and prevailing metaphors, they risk building essentially the same things over and over again, disappointing the existing gaming community and attracting less than the optimal number of new users. Attempting to standardize the appetites of the marketplace may work for a time, but can it work forever? Will there be something more? “What if game AI had been solved …” Forum discussion thread. 11 Sep 2008. 14 Sep 2008.

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Berger, Arthur Asa. Video Games: A Popular Culture Phenomena. Transaction Books, 1993. p. vii. 14 Sep 2008.

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Crawford, Chris. Art of Computer Game Design, The. 1982. Washington State University. 14 Sep 2008.

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Krotoski, Alex. “Chris Crawford: The Interview.” The Guardian Unlimited, GamesBlog. Manchester, UK. 2 Feb 2005. 14 Sep 2008.

Krupa, Frederique. “Chris Crawford: Dean of American Game Design.” The Swap Meet: Insider’s Look: Articles & Interviews About 3D Interactive Media. Undated. 13 Sep 2008.

Lazzaro, Nicole. “Why We Play: Affect and the Fun of Games.” The Human Computer Interaction Handbook, 2nd ed. Andrew Sears and Julie Jacko, eds. LEA: New York, 2008. pp. 679-700.

Murdey, Chase. “Video Games are Dead: A Chat with Storytronics Guru Chris Crawford.” Gamasutra. 12 Jun 2006. 14 Sep 2008.

“William Higinbotham.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 9 Aug 2008. 14 Sep 2008.

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