The following is a review paper I wrote last night for my Net.Art Class. A boring read for most, I’m sure, but I wrote it so I might as well get as much milage out of it as possible.
As humanity exited the darkness and despair of the middle ages and entered the renaissance, literature and theatre established themselves as mankind’s primary tools for stimulating critical thinking. A new book or play would tackle subjects with the intent of educating while it entertained. In an effort to increase the influence of these mediums, authors and dramatists alike have been striving to create interactive constructs. Randomized non-linear books however have not been plentiful nor are they generally considered anything more than a gimmick. Choose Your Own Adventure books fall short due to the fact that once a path is read the interactivity remains but the ambiguity, the intriguing nature of the book, is lost. Theatre has more potential to be interactive but it has only been in the last century that society has seen numerous attempts to alter the traditional linear productions. While they are more successful than literature they still fall short of true interactivity due to the fact that for the most part the essential plot structure is unaffected by audience member participation; there is little ambiguity from show to show. Giving the audience full control over a full-length commercial production would be too expensive and too taxing on the actors.
Enter New Media — the medium that possesses a unique capacity for interactivity. It is cheap and accurate. It is the new catalyst to inspire creative thinking all the while entertaining through humankind’s natural desire to discover. Jim Gasperini’s article “Structural Ambiguity: An Emerging Interactive Aesthetic” articulates that computer technology realizes both the ability to convey a dynamic story while at the same time has the potential to maintain replayability through structural ambiguity. He believes that if computer technology does not develop a true interactive aesthetic then it fails to take advantage of the essential power of the medium.
Gasperini explains that there are three levels of ambiguity — two familiar levels and one that is quite new. They are textural, interpretive, and structural. Textural ambiguities are the double meanings we find in prose and text through similes and metaphors. Interpretive ambiguities are those that appear when words emerge as part of a theatrical performance. The same words may be used, but two different renderings of the play may choose to make very different interpretations of the script. The final level is structural ambiguity, which arises from the role the audience or user plays in creating the plot. The two subclasses of structural ambiguity are closed-ended and open-ended. Closed-ended structural ambiguity is found in what Gasperini refers to as “twich” games. Games that depend primarily on learning to perform hand to eye coordination task fall into this category. He also includes the action / adventure genre. By his definition some examples of closed-ended ambiguity style games are Tetris, Castlevania, Super Mario Bros., and The Adventure of Zelda series. Gasperini claims that interactivity is only feigned in these closed-ended structural games and that replayability leaves something to be desired. I have to point out the fact of the matter is these games are classics and are fun to replay — if not so much for ambiguity and mystery than for nostalgia. Open-ended structural ambiguity, on the other hand, comprises works that become more ambiguous the more they are played. The style of game where this is most evident, explains Gasperini, is within the simulations genre. He highlights Sim City and Hidden Agenda as prime examples of games that use open-ended structural ambiguity. It should be noted that Gasperini has a bias because he helped write both Sim City and Hidden Agenda. Personally I wonder if you can find more people still playing the tried and true arcade classics like those I mentioned above over simulation type games like these. I hadn’t even heard of Hidden Agenda before reading this article.
It is Gasperini’s intention to try and define a new genre for these simulation games. He would prefer that because they are different than games with closed-ended structural ambiguity that they not be called games at all. He doesn’t seem to realize that it’s okay to call something he cares about deeply a game. But as he points out himself, even America’s favorite pastime, baseball, is just a game — and many people take it seriously.
Gasperini goes on to extol the strength of the medium. He articulates how the media enables the audience to become the protagonist and how it allows them to gain a greater sense of empathy toward points of view other than their own.
In the end, Gasperini asks a lot of seemingly rhetorical questions and then answers them with very “ambiguous” answers. I’m not sure, but is he striving for a theme? One would expect that in his conclusion we should find something substantial to back up his thesis; instead he ponders deep philosophical questions about the relation between games and quantum physics. He does however get back on track when he admits that the medium is still new and that it will take time for authors to develop stories that make the best use of the tools available.
The article sets out to convince us that if computer technology does not develop a true interactive aesthetic then it fails to take advantage of the essential power of the medium. He isn’t right because given the capitalist nature of our society, rather than choosing the type of game that best takes advantage of the medium it is judicious to let the people designing games to give users what they want; design a game that is fun to play that keeps them coming back for more. Examples of these games mix aspects from both the closed-ended structure and open-ended structure. They sometimes include a compelling single player campaign mode and enthralling multiplayer action. These games range from real-time strategies like Warcraft and Starcraft to first person shooters like Doom and Half-life. On the one hand their single player missions give a narrative that forces the direction the game takes, but on the other hand the multiplayer mode places the user in a situation where anything can happen. Not only do the users choices affect the outcome but also there are a lot more random events that can affect the game-play. This type of interactivity with other players makes the games addictive. So much so that it might just kill you.
Gasperini seems motivated to sell the types of games that he likes and that he has helped produce. While he made some good points about the dynamics of games that use an open-ended structure, he was so focused on that one aspect of the game design that he ignored the fact that there is more to making a good game than having an open structure. Most users want to have their cake and eat it too; they want the comfort of familiar closed-ended structure of campaign mode as well as the more ambiguous nature that the open-ended structure of multiplayer melee bestows.