Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Scripting the Player

One of the best ideas in Janet Murray's Hamlet on the Holodeck is the idea of "scripting the player," that is, subtely (or, I suppose not) influencing the player (or any active participant of any interactive experience) to stay within a set of reasonable actions. It's an intruiging and provocative idea, and it's too bad she doesn't do more with it.

The idea (as she does point out) is intimately tied to the concepts of narrative and genre; expectations that we bring with us when we encounter new situations. A player/reader encountering a mystery novel would intuitively know, given our culture, that there are certain reasonable actions -- questioning witnesses, sending clues to the lab, shading the top sheet of a notebook to look for impressions, etc. -- that the player can take. And, conversely, no actions that don't make sense. This isn't a science fiction story, so no beaming up, no Vulcan nerve pinch, no super-duper gadgets. Even better, if handled correctly the player doesn't need to be informed directly that she's in a mystery story, she'll pick that up from the cues in the environment - the trench coats, the rain, the baffled police, and, of course, the mystery.

Literature breaks these unwritten rules of genre only at great peril. When it's successful -- Jonatham Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, for example -- it's sublime, and the dissonance between genre and non-genre creates useful narrative tension. When it's not -- the film adaptation of Smilla's Sense of Snow -- it's a disaster and leaves the (in this case) viewer confused and dissatisfied.

How broad is this idea? How powerful? Can we use it as a design element in non-literary situations, such as collaborative software? Can we do it without being obvious? How much is culturally encoded, and what happens when people from other cultures (or just unaware of the appropriate subculture) encounter the same situation?