Archive: September, 2008

Narrowing it down

[Research] (09.18.08, 11:04 pm)

Here are some further endeavors in making my research more legible, compact, and straightforward. Also, I have updated and cleaned up my bibliography some. Good stuff for all.

My topic is simulating fictional worlds. The underlying problem is how to perform adaptation of fictional works into games. I believe that intrinsic to a fictional work is the world described by the author, in which the characters live. But more importantly, the essence of the work is the model that underlies the world, imbuing it with values and significance. To adapt fiction is to adapt this underlying model.

Recent theories in cognition emphasize the importance of models in thought and learning. Adaptation is a process and dependent on interpretation and then construction of a formal representation of the work’s meaning. I believe that the development of a model is a creative act, but simulation is necessary for the model to be understood.

Digital media, and games particularly, are adept at representing models and illustrating them via simulation. Mainstream games do not yet have an established language for simulating conventional social situations found in fiction. To remedy this, I propose a model of simulating characters based on the social theory of Erving Goffman. This idea uses a situational model of behavior, differing from the reliance on planning in contemporary AI.

My approach is theoretical and intended to cover a broad methodology for adaptation of fiction to games, but I specifically want to look at the works of Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice. Austen is a good candidate for adaptation because the world found in her literature is an enormous departure from mainstream games, her works have a broad culture of adaptation already, and her world is highly structured and formalized according to explicit values.

Website changes

[General] (09.17.08, 8:56 pm)

Slowly, my once pristine web site sinks towards being a blog. Well… I suppose that’s basically been happening for a while. First the use of WordPress, then the regular posting, the Readings mod, etc. So it goes. Everything will turn into a blog after a sufficient amount of time. It’s a natural law.

Anyway. I’ve made some modifications to the underlying web code. There should be some widgets visible on the left, which will be fun. I’ve also changed the internal structure from being table based to div based. Normally I have stood in favor of tables as design tools, but got caught up in some trouble that caused me to switch. The trouble relates to a third bit of information, which is probably relevant to very few of you. In fact, I can think of only one individual to whom this matters, but the change mattering to this individual will be beneficial to me, if you catch my drift.

Or something. Anyway, the interesing thing is that the web site will print much more nicely. The sidebar disappears, and the font scales to a size that is much more reasonable for appearing as printed text. Well, it’s not much of a change… It may not seem like much to you, but it’s a nice accomplishment, and it makes me happy, so there.


Lakoff and Johnson: Philosophy in the Flesh

[Readings] (09.09.08, 3:04 pm)


The Embodied Mind

The authors open the section by immediately making the connection to neural networks. They support this connection with (besides the obvious fact that our brains are made of neurons) evidence derived from cognitive science relating to how the perception motor areas of the brain interconnect. The neural argument is used to show how concepts and reason are embodied in nature. One of the mechanisms by which this occurs is categorization. Categorization is a quality of interaction with the world and is inherently embodied.

Category, concept, and experience are woven together inseparably. “An embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains. Much of conceptual inference is, therefore, sensorimotor inference.” (p. 20) This claim is very philosophically charged, as it contradicts many of the accepted traditions of Western philosophy.

Note: An important thing to note about this, is that, if models are embodied, what does that mean for the capacity of games and software to communicate models? Arguments toward embodiment also support the importance of the emotional element in games and in fiction. Emotion is a visceral experience, which leads to a sort of world model feedback that is used in the mental processing of fiction (See Keith Oatley). Games and electronic media have a powerful capacity to represent models, but it is difficult to argue towards embodied cognition, but represent game worlds so abstractly. The irony in this is that simulated characters are represented as being embodied, but the actual human user lacks a thorough embodied experience with the simulation. There are ways of getting around that by arguing towards emotion and the success of similar works that are not heavily embodied, but it seems as though there should be something extra here.

Lakoff and Johnson give the label of “metaphysical realism” to the aspect of classical philosophy that asserts that the world is fully abstract and that it can be imagined and understood in a disembodied manner. Metaphysical realism asserts that our concepts reflect the world. The opposing argument is the idea of “embodied realism” which I would argue takes a more subtle approach: our concepts construct the world. The authors pose a model of perception developed by Berlin and Rosch, which consists of four conditions that define basic conceptual categories.

  • Condition 1: “The highest level at which a single mental image can represent the entire category.” Example is of a chair, table, car, etc. But, furniture does not fit into this category, as it is impossible to have a mental image of “furniture.”
  • Condition 2: “It is the highest level at which category members have similarly perceived overall shapes.” This has to do with recognition, and the ability to map a perceived object into the category.
  • Condition 3: “It is the highest level at which a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members.” This approach is an interactivity-based categorization. This idea is somewhat problematic, though, because it relates to the matter of affordances. I would argue that affordances work below a categorical level, but then, the goal of these conditions is to define the highest level that is intrinsically basic.
  • Condition 4: “It is the level at which most of our knowledge is organized. You have a lot of knowledge at the basic level. Think for a moment of all that you know about cars versus what you know about vehicles.” This is one of the more problematic aspects. The trend of AI pattern matching seems to operate at a level above the basic level, to higher level reasoning.

The essence of embodiment is that perception plays a central role in conception.

Primary Metaphor and Subjective Experience

This section resembles a great deal of the discussion in Metaphors We Live By. Here, the authors are establishing a type of metaphor that is used as a groundwork for explaining how metaphor is used as a fundamental building block for cognition. There are four parts to the integrated theory of primary metaphor:

  1. Johnson’s theory of conflation. Conflation is how somatic experience connects to foundational concepts during development. An example is the connection between warmth and affection experienced by infants. Conflation is paired with differentiation, wherein children separate domains, but the underlying association remains present.
  2. Grady’s theory of primary metaphor. These are like building blocks for larger metaphors: they are atomic metaphors, and primary units. Examples are simple associations such as “more is up”.
  3. Narayanan’s neural theory of metaphor. This theory uses the neural basis of cognition to explain how conflation is represented neurally via associations. This uses the neural groundwork of activation and association to explain how metaphors function.
  4. Fauconnier and Turner’s theory of conceptual blending. This idea suggests that when distinct conceptual domains are activated simultaneously, connections across the domains are formed, leading to new inferences.

There is a brief note in this section that is worthy of attention: “It is also important to stress that not all conceptual metaphors are manifested in the words of a language. Some are manifested in grammar, others in gesture, art, or ritual. These nonlinguistic metaphors may, however, be secondarily expressed through language and other symbolic means.” (p. 57) This idea conveys that metaphors operate beyond language, and extend into a much broader sense of meaning. If metaphor operates at the level of art or ritual, this seems to assert that metaphors are models at their essence, and perhaps all models are metaphorical systems. The claim is significant, but defensible, as models construct relationships between concepts within a domain, and metaphor is how relationships are constructed, ultimately mapping back to bodily experience.

The Anatomy of Complex Metaphor

On complex metaphors, the authors continue to stress that  models and metaphors are the same things: associative patterns.  Concepts are dependent on metaphors. Examples of complex metaphors are “A Purposeful Life is a Journey”, “Love is a Journey”, etc. These are explained as being tied together by various underlying sub-metaphors, woven together by associations which are experientially based.

Embodied Realism

The idea that has been at work in the past several sections is that realism is dependent on the body and on experience, and cannot be metaphysically known. In this section, the authors compare classical (or first generation) cognitive science with contemporary embodied cognitive science. First generation cognitive science is based on a priori philosophy, carrying into the study of mind all of the classical ideas from Cartesian philosophy. This approach prevented growth, by tying cognition down with philosophical commitments, and leaving it unable to answer experimental evidence. Second generation or contemporary cognitive science accepts the neural basis of cognition and as a result, its embodiment.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorLakoff, George; and Johnson, Mark
TitlePhilosophy in the Flesh
Tagsembodiment, metaphor, ai
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Bradd Shore: Culture in Mind

[Readings] (09.08.08, 12:31 am)


Bradd Shore sets his sight on correcting a problematic and false divide between anthropology and psychology. He claims that the two are intrinsically related, but were kept separate during the early growth of both fields due to the desire to preserve the abstract and disembodied view of cognition. To help unite the two fields, he proposes that this may be done via the theory of mental models, borrowing from Johnson-Laird. Mental models can be used to explain the process of cognition and meaning making and illustrate this on the levels of both cognition and culture.


The foreword describes the cultural narrative of the seprated disciplines of psychology and anthropology, trying to find ways of connecting them. Notably, referenced are Mead and Geertz as forces for good. The underlying issue at stake in this discussion is the establishment of meaning. The product of meaning making is reality. However, the process is not absolute or universal. This logic could be used to express the idea that individuals live in different, but mutually construted realities.

A biological argument for the diversity of cognition: The human brain develops 3/4 its mass after birth and keeps on learning. Knowing what we do about how neural networks recognize patterns, there is just too much material that is learned that is contextually dependent for general cognition to be universal. Shore discusses later his experience moving to Samoa, and the gradual period of learning the culture, which involves learning to think like the Samoans do. This process is a gradual incorporation of Samoan mental models into his own mind. This model of understanding treats the brain as an active participant in terms of meaning making and understanding experience.

The Psychic Unity Muddle

This section is intended to dismantle psychic unity, the previously dominant trend in anthropology. Psychic unity claims that, despite cultural differences, peoples minds are essentially the same. This idea rose as a politically “enlightened” perspective on anthropology, from the previous Victorian and colonialist idea that cultural differences reflected cognitive differences. The Victorian model ultimately concluded that because cultures were different from the obviously superior European culture, they were inferior. Psychic unity aimed to defeat that, but replaced it with an equally colonialist mentality, dismissing the evidence of variations in cognition, and still reaffirming the superiority of European rationalism.

Shore’s take on this is to assert that culture directly affects cognition, but through development. The brain has an intrinsic ability to make meaning, which is shared by all cultures, but the actual meaning made, the cultural psychology, varies significantly.

Shore describes a number of anthropologists who worked in the direction of distancing themselves from psychic unity. One of these is Levy-Bruhl, who asserted that some cultures have a stronger acceptance of sensual and nonrational understanding. The concept wherein individuals can be identified in trancendental ways is called participation.

Levi-Strauss attempts to promote a universal rationality by splitting rationality into two flavors: modern and primitive (or mythic). This distinction is really not one of rationality, but of consistency, specifically with respect to some thought/value system. Levi-Strauss promotes psychic unity, but vaguely, as he says that the mind has the same capacities.

Shore has an interesting take on Geertz. Geertz encourages the movement of culture into mind, but not vice versa. By examining culture as a web of meanings, Geertz steps away from the psychic unity muddle, but does not do so completely for Shore.

Shweder does the opposite, but in reaction against western rationalism, he rejects the processor element of mind, which is going too far for Shore. Shore wants there to be a universal hardware, which is exactly the processing element of the mind. In reaction against symbolic reasoning, Shweder’s reaction is understandable, but Shore argues that connectionist models of cognition can be used to explain a universal mechanism of meaning making.

Rethinking Cultural Models

Shore describes an experience introducing visitors to Samoa. One of them asks for a conrete example of culture, which Shore cannot provide. The point here is the futility of trying to find a concrete, tangible example of culture, something that one could simply point at. This idea is an objective view of culture, thinking of culture as a system of artifacts, which could be physical objects or conversations or ideas. This view only looks at the products of culture, not the thing itself, which can be thought of as a system of mental models.

Introducing mental models explicitly. Shore references Roy D’Andrade’s definition of cultural models “a cognitive schema that is intersubjectively shared by a cultural group,” which is flawed because of its failure to accomodate several important details. The idea here is to address culture as a model, or a composition of models. These models include explicit patterns as well as tacit ones. Shore claims that the mind is a model generator. Mental models are a meaning making strategy, they come in categories of personal and conventional ones. Conventional models are mediated and have a social feedback mechanism which involves phases of expression and participation.

Conventional models may conflict with personal ones, producing anxiety. Cultural models may also have a psychic cost. Dominant models occasionally come alongside alternative models.

Some important distinctions: certain structures, rituals, games, scripts, performances, fall under the category of instituted models. These are different from conventional models. Referenced here are Victor Turner, Goffman, Schank, and Abelson. Also distinguished is the idea of a “foundational schema” which is something of a meta-model, or a general class of models which can encompass a wide variety of specific models.

Shore provides a nice set of bullet points on the types of models. This perception of models is like a toolkit, as opposed to a single unified strategy. There is classification here, but not hierarchy. In developing implementation of models as artifacts, how would one handle this diversity?

  • Orientational
    • Spatial
    • Temporal
    • Social orientation
    • Diagnostic
  • Expressive/Conceptual
    • Classifacatory
    • Ludic
    • Ritual and dramatic
    • Theories
  • Task
    • Scripts
    • Recipies
    • Checklists
    • Mnemonics
    • Persuasion

Mind Games

In this section, Shore uses the system of models to analyze how spectators make sense out of a baseball game. The analysis here connects metaphors and symbolism. Models are means of structuring and interpreting events meaningfully. A model turns an arbitrary sequence of occurrences into a meaninful narrative.

Shore then connects the themes and mechanics of baseball to some unique qualities of American culture. Baseball’s asymmetry and style of walkabout connects to the American culture of individualism, privatism, and atomism. There is some vagueness here, though. Is this meant to say that baseball is itself a model of American culture? Is it an adaptation, or interpretation, or enactment of American culture? What are the structures that underlie these models?

There is a connection between the model and the culture, but it is not the rules themselves that exactly connect. The formal model generates an experience (a simulation), which, when executed, connects to the cultural themes and meanings. Some relationships are only emergent. This relates to the relationship between culture and games-as-played, versus the culture as it relates to the game’s model.

Playing with Rules

The three categories here define working with rules in games. There are constitutive rules, procedural rules, and strategies. Shore seems to be channeling Sutton-Smith here. Rules can never be complete, though. Any system of rules will lead to a boundary between the realm of the game space and the outside: Huizinga’s magic circle. Boundary violations lend to a “marginal play,” which lives in a liminal space between rules.

Interior Furnishings: Scenes from an American Foundational Schema

Shore introduces the idea of modularity as a foundational schema, that is closely related to the cultural and cognitive aspects of American culture. The examples of modularity provided by Shore are all things that have changed with modernization. It seems that Shore is attempting to explore the effect of technology on human life from an anthropological perspective. The examples he gives are well known to philosophers: particularly the idea that the use of machines likens humans to machines. The ideas of modularity and atomism do not seem so much as models, but units. What is a model in this case? An interpretive pattern that relates metaphorically to cultural values?

A term here is “Cultural pattern.” This connects to the existing dynamic cultural landscape, including political, economical, and technological factors. A cultural pattern is a snapshot of historically recorded consiousness.

Technological Trends: The Neuromantic Frame of Mind

The discussion of modularization seems to be rather pejorative in this section. Still, analysis of culture as a system of models is inherently modular.

In this chapter there are the inevitable references to Heidegger and Benjamin, both of whom were very critical of technology and its impact on human being. Modularity is closely tied to, and in this case, is essentially the same as technology in a general sense. So here surface many arguments regarding the inherent destructive/assimilative/simulative effects of technology on man.

Kwakiutl Animal Symbolism

Totemism as discussed here is a foundational schema, which relates cultural and life patterns to cognitive patterns. The rationality of totemism is associated with various natural characteristics, and cannot be easily explained by categorical logic. Furthermore, the symbols associated with meaning are participatory symbols, and the signifier is never totally separate from the signified. Shore’s argument here is that in order for semiosis (the process of deriving meaning through signs) to work, signifiers must have an establishing relationship with the signified. “The first life of any sign lies in the empirical nature of the relation a signifier bears to a referent. Signs have different sorts of affordances for producing psychological meaning. The sign’s second life is the establishment of a psychological relationship between signifier and referent in someone’s mind.” (p. 200)

Dreamtime Learning, Outside-In

The Wawilak narrative is a foundational schema which takes the form of many models within Murngin culture. The place of this narrative relates to Western “grand narratives” or cultural narratives (see Lyotard). This connection establishes the relationship between the sort of eternally-retold narratives and the cultural and cognitive models that frame them.

Tropic Landscapes: Alternative Spatial Models in Samoan Culture

The subject of this chapter is the relationship between two models of spatial navigation, which operate together in Samoan culture. The first model is a sort of inside/outside or seaward/landward model, which is binary, and is described as “digital”, in the sense that it is discrete. The second model is a more gradiated, analog model. Spatial orientation is closely related to moral orientation, where different spaces give way to different associated values and “appropriate” behaviors.

Spatial relationships are anchored in kinaesthetic experience and later tied with metaphor. The analog concentric models are learned, internalized, and embodied. “This is why Samoans are able to articulate for outsiders like myself the seaward-landward model but are less likely to convey to an outsider the concentric model, which is more directly linked to the subtle modulations of daily behavior.” These are more difficult to communicate because they are embodied, whereas the others are disembodied and can be more communicable.

There are two approaches to these models: digital and analog. In interpreting models, it is important to observe and distinguish perspective, model, and practice. Structuralist analysis imposes structuralist values, which assumes that perspective, model, and analysis are equatable, but they are not.

When Models Collide: Cultural Origins of Ambivalence

The discussion in this case is about conflicting models, when models operate against each other. An example is given with morality and ethics, which involves the play of values within morals. The discussion of model conflict is very reminiscent of Goffman. The conflict however, is not one of roles, but of models and systems and values.

Shore gives a few examples of models at conflict. The first of these is one wherin the chief of a villiage is murdered. The son of the murdered chief is visited by a Christian pastor who professed the moral course of action, to turn the other cheek and forgive. This was done using a sort of formal speech, and in an authoratative space. However, sometime later, the same pastor visits the son again, outside, speaking in a more informal speech, telling him that “if he does not avenge his father’s murder, he is not his father’s son.” The boy later on attacked the murderer with a machete while he was being escorted through the village. The values at contrast here are those of filial piety versus ostensible moral behavior. This example is extremely related to Geertz’s analysis of the failed funeral in Bali. Here, Shore uses the approach of models to explain the circumstances, though. When contrasted against Geertz, we are made aware that models do change over time, sometimes new ones are introduced and others become irrelevant, and frequently they operate in conflict with each other.

Shore gives three more examples, but in each of these cases, the culture has a formal ritual for handling the indiscression that arises from the conflict. Even in the case of the murder, Shore explains in the epilogue that there is a slow and difficult process by which the murderer’s family is exiled from the villiage. If models are the means by which we make meaning, rituals are how that meaning is turned into daily life.

An ethical struggle is about rationalizing and legitimizing a course of action. “Thus, ethical discourse is not just the enunciation of moral values but commonly involves a rhetorical struggle to legitimize one course of action and depreciate an alternative, even though both possibilities exist as ethical alternatives.” (p. 296)

Culture and the Problem of Meaning

This chapter is about formalizing the construction of meaning. There is a summary according to some bullet points:

  1. Logical vs psychological
  2. Meaning construction versus information processing
  3. Meaning and memory
  4. Realist vs nominalist
  5. Experiential realism (Lakoff and Johnson)
  6. Analytical/nonanalytical, concept formation

There are stages in meaning construction: Shore borrows the Piagetian ideas of assimilation and accomodation, wherein old models are applied to new phenomena, and models are modified or created to account for new information, respectively. Also relates to Churchland’s idea of exploratory understanding.

Shore makes an interesting claim: Language enables the articulation of mental models into propositional ones. “I am not suggesting that analytical models are irrelevant to human cognition. Far from it. Many cultural models are themselves in the form of complex programs that have an internal syntax characteristic of informational models. Moreover, these sorts of cultural models probably proliferate under conditions where language is written and practices are rationalized into sets of procedures and formalized recipies. One would also expect them to proliferate in highly industrialized settings where machines mediate human relations. More generally, whenever people are forced to ‘work out’ their models and communicate them in verbal terms, all cultural models are transformable into such propositional models. Indeed, a hallmark of human language is that it posesses the potential of a universal transducer of human experiences into informational terms.”

On Meno and the hermeuneutic circle. The Socratic dialogue answeres the question of knowing arguing for eternal, timeless knowledge. Shore makes the interesting connection where he agrees, by claiming that memory is the key, but it relates to experience, rather than inheritance.

There is a strong critique of Saussure, who neglects the difference between systematic and psychological arbitrariness. Signs may be arbitrary as relates to their meaning, systematically. However, psychologically, signs have a much deeper connection to their referents. Lakoff and Johnson provide a better approach to meaning, but mddule on whether “idealized conceptual models” exist in the mind or in the world (and other issues).

Analogical Transfer and the Work of Culture

Shore argues toward a neural and connectionist approach to examining meaning making. The work of neural pattern matching is meant to serve as a bridge between social/cultural models and individual mental models. This would play out as pattern recognition and encoding of choice. The argument is that experience and matching (classification) is what drives analogy, and cognition occurs as a result of this pattern matching.

Explaining the embodiment aspect of cognition, Shore mentions that language is anchored in synaesthesia (or what I might just call experience). Audio phonesthemes are a hard argument against the AI comprehension of language.

An interesting example that connects experience and symbolic reasoning is Werner and Kaplan’s work on “Symbol Formation”, which explains a heavily embodied process of learning symbols, that takes place in development.

Analogy here is a useful analytic tool to connect experience and cultural meaning, and connect models to experience.

In the epilogue, Shore gives a wonderful summary: “As the Murngin Wawilak story reminds us, the making of a meaningful world engages a set of preexisting forms, but only in relation to a set of personal dispositions of a particular knower. The emergent world is a coming-into-knowledge of another world that already exists. This is the Murngin version of culture’s twice-born character, the ceaseless flow of semiosis, inside-out and outside-in, linking culture in the world and culture in the mind.” (p. 379)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorShore, Bradd
TitleCulture in Mind
ContextShore connects anthropology and cognitive science
Tagsanthropology, mental models, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Models and Narrative

[General,Research] (09.06.08, 11:12 pm)

I wrote down some notes from a recent meeting for Janet Murray’s narrative project studio, SNAPS. I think there is a web link for this somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it. During the meeting, we discussed several cases of narratives that are especially interesting from the perspective of digital media. Much of the discussion led to some reassurance of the idea that narratives are really about underlying models. Additionally, there was discussion of the idea of the essence of narrative, or the quality of “storyness” that makes narrative satisfying.

The primary conclusions that I drew from the meeting where this: Narratives work to describe a story world, and underneath the story world is a model that drives the causal logic of events in the world. The model in these cases is generally not a simple reduction or maxim, but rather a system that allows everything to ultimately make sense. However, the reader or viewer is exposed to the model not by outright declaration, but by witnessing it unfold and comparing it against predictions or expectations. This is part of appeal when Keith Oatley says that narrative is really just a simulation that runs in our minds. It is not just a simulation, but a predictive effort.

I think that stories are most engaging when the reader/viewer is trying to put the pieces together and things to not add up until the end. This end is usually a catharsis or a dramatic revelation or a climax or some ultimate resolving moment. I think what is happening at these moments is that the underlying model finally snaps into place, and its implications become more fully known. There are many approaches to looking at how a climax works, from an aesthetic perspective. Aristotle is an obvious example. There is an emotional, embodied, or vicarious response that might occur. These perspectives are important, but looking at it from the perspective of models brings in a funny cognitive dimension to an emotional experience. I would say that no one of these elements is superior to the other, but they each address the matter of the reader/viewer experience in a different way.

In many cases, when narratives are adapted to digital media, there is an approach which aims to strongly preserve the form of the original work. Some approaches will express the work in a manner that is navigable either spatially or temporally, and from different perspectives. This exposes the story world much more, which can communicate the model, but it does not allow the user to reach down into the model and see what it is about. To do so may not be possible or even desirable in some cases, but I think it would be ideal in others.

I am going to give several examples which were discussed in the meeting and relate some of the above aspects about these particularly.

The Norman Conquests: The Norman Conquests is a play by the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn. This is sort of a triptych of three different plays, having the same cast of characters, and taking place in different parts of a house during the same weekend in diegetic time. The curious bit is that when one character goes off stage from one play, they will probably make an entrance onto another. Each play is meant to stand on its own, but the user experience is enhanced by seeing all three of them, because the elements of the “underlying story” are understood more fully when seen from a complete perspective. Essentially, each play is a view of the same scenario that is taking place. What is happening across all three plays could be described as a story, but might be better described as a story world. A story takes a world and describes a representation of that through narrative. If one were to construct a story out of the entire Norman Conquests, it would be a new construction, as opposed to something that was already there.

Two Towns of Jasper: Two Towns of Jasper is a documentary about the horrifying racially motivated murder of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998. The documentary is unique in that, to explore the depth of racial division within the town, the filmmakers (one black, one white) collaborated by separating into segregated teams and following the trials of the murderers and interviewing the white community and black community separately. The filming is unique in its use of methodology to illustrate very precisely the depth of racial division. The resulting documentary forms a consistent narrative, but has a disjointed feel. There was an IDT project to make an interactive version of the documentary, which would allow the viewer to follow different characters, and navigate the places in the town spatially. This approach also provides a way to navigate the world as the events around the trial unfold. The essence of the film is about division. Division is the foundation of the model that controls this world.

Bertolt Brecht: Brecht is most well known for the Threepenny Opera his only commercial success, but this was a play he considered his worst failure, as it failed to communicate his message. Brecht was a Marxist playwright who worked to spread the model of Marxism through his plays in Germany before the Nazis rose to power. His plays were in the tradition of modernist theatre, and often explicitly denied the audience a clear climax or resolution, but attempted to instead communicate the idea that the social world taking place in his plays was really the same as the world of Wiemar Germany. The world of Brecht is filled oppression and squalor, and the working people subjugated by the bourgeoise. What is interesting about these plays (I don’t have a specific one to refer to) is that they do not provide a climax in the context of the narrative itself. Instead, the climax is rather when the epiphany is made by the audience that the world of the play is no different from the world of the audience, and they are incited to rebel. What is also the case is that the plays are instantiations of the model of Marxism. Greg Costikyan has written a fascinating description of a role-playing game based on the ideology and aesthetics of Brecht, called Bestial Acts.

Speculations About Jacob: Another example of German literature comes from Uwe Johnson: a modernist and experimental novel called Speculations About Jacob (I can’t find a Wikipedia article, sadly). The book is about the character Jacob, who is suddenly killed in the beginning by a train. It is set in East Germany, and is filled with the sort of fractured portrayals that echo the divided nature of the country. The book paints a spotty and incomplete picture of Jacob, his life and surroundings. The eponymous speculations are what led to his death and why. The narrative approach of using incomplete information to convey a story world is not unique, but helps convey a model of a world that is made only partially visible or knowable. Interestingly, the book also transitions suddenly from one mode of narrative to another: a character’s thoughts may suddenly turn into a conversation. Not only is explicit information missing, but pieces of the connective logic or framework are absent as well, leading to ambiguity. The reading also denies a cohesive resolution. Instead, it is an essentially open work (in the Umberto Eco sense), leaving the readers to finish the construction of the world or model themselves.

Simulating Fictional Worlds

[General,Research] (09.02.08, 1:32 pm)

One of the problems of being a PhD student with an extremely broad and vaguely defined field is that it is hard to introduce yourself. Someone will ask me “what do you do? What are you studying?” and then have to wait through the pause and look of anguish on my face as I try to figure out the best way of explaining my work to the individual in question. No more! From now on, I will respond, boldly, immediately, with the following phrase “simulating fictional worlds”.

A long explanation is that I am interested in simulation, mental models, AI, games, and communication and expression through software. Computers can represent systems formally and simulate them, and this is a way to communicate ideas and models of how the world works: you build a model and simulate it. Some cognitive scientists might argue that meaning is inextricably bound to models, and what better way to share meaning than through demonstration? A lot of the work that I do from day to day is also tied in educational software, which operates to expose and communicate and teach very specific models for approaching a domain. However, I also think that games are a powerful tool for the demonstration and enactment of models. Games expose (or conceal) meaning through representing systems, and can do so intricately and playfully. The interest in fiction comes from a desire to expand the simulative capacity of games, and open up social worlds in addition to the worlds demonstrated by most games nowadays.

The expression “simulating fictional worlds” gets under that mess directly and quickly. The surface meaning is relatively easy to parse or explain, but if someone wants to know why I am interested in this stuff, then I can get into the background.

Gary Alan Fine: Shared Fantasy

[Readings] (09.01.08, 9:04 pm)


Fine’s book is one of the first seminal studies of the culture of roleplaying games. The work is conducted as an ethnography, and was probably the original study to examine roleplaying as a legitimate culture. The content of the investigation explores the social structure, the creation of meaning, the frames of interaction, and the types of people who enjoy these games. The study was conducted in the 1970s, and as a result, much of the culture seems very alien and peculiar, especially to one familiar with roleplaying only in relatively recent times (in my own experience, since the late 1990s). I find that much of the hidden potential that Fine hints at has come to some fruition, though not completely.


Fine is a sociologist and this work is an ethnography. Note the goals here: “First, to analyze and describe a contemporary urban leisure subculture. Second, to understand the the development and components of microcultural systems and explore their relationships to the structure of the groups in which they are embedded. Third, to understand the process by which people generate meanings and identities in social worlds.” (p. 1) This last point is the most remarkable about roleplaying, but to get at it, it is necessary to delve into the structure and form of the games and the culture that plays them.

From the preface, Fine describes an interesting conflict in the study: balancing work and play. One one hand, studying a leisure culture might be considered frivolous to those who consider themselves serious sociologists, and conversely, the culture itself may find that the formal study serves to sap the fun or lightness out of the play in question. The success of the study depends on the ability to navigate between these conflicting perspectives. The concern is also particularly relevant to those of us studying video games.

Fine also begins by looking at the history of roleplaying, specifically by investigating war games and the culture that surrounds them. War games connect to simulation games, which, in this context, are frequently used as educational or management tools. The role of simulation games is to encourage the players to see things in terms of positions, not persons. This distinction carries over to the abstract function of player versus character.

On exploring player culture and the role of violence and sublimated aggression within the games: Fine describes a number of situations where players partake and glorify violence in game, but these behaviors are also blanketed with excuses. Some excuse violence by arguing that the game allows the players to simulate and get their hostilities and aggression out within the context of the game. Gary Gygax argues (from an interview) that players, having played these games, know better what violence and war is about, and would thus consider real violence unacceptable. This thread is notable because it compares again to the arguments for and against violent video games.

There is a note on the common interests of the roleplaying community, and Fine describes these as the components of fantasy role-playing gaming. This resounds with Mackay’s findings as well. There is a list of bullet points of interests which are described as relevant: wargaming, fantasy literature, mythology, history, physical science, mysticism, Society for Creative Anachronism experience. A thing to note about these is that many of them are focused around the ideas of model-construction.

On reasons why people play games: there is a large category which is escapism. One of the special items in this category is the idea of escape from self. This idea connects to role-experimentation and identity play that is discussed by Turkle.

Fine also notes, with continuing discomfort, the notable absence of women from fantasy role-playing culture. One note is that women tend towards social settings in play, so, while role-playing would seem to be a natural passtime for female players, there is an emphasis that role-playing is a sublimation of aggressive physical play, which is a sterotypically male developmental pattern.

On the nature of the constructed fantasy in these worlds, Fine notes that there are several “folk ideas” or values that are present or embedded in game worlds:

  • Unlimited good. This goodness is in the sense of material or other rewards. There is always infinite possibility for reward in dungeons.
  • Oppositional nature of the world. The worlds are framed in the context of good versus evil in clear and stark terms.
  • Western morality and culture is identified as good, whereas anything else that is deviant or outside can be cast as evil.
  • Prevailing virtue of courage. Courageous behavior is met with increased rewards. Luck is seen as part of it, but success is rationalized with courage.

There is a paradox of reason and logic in fantasy worlds. Fine discusses several layers of logicality: there is realism, where the game is held to certain standards of realistic logic. The example given with this is in the portrayal of medieval worlds. Logic tends to relate to the coherence of the game according to its rules and logical flow. The primary issue at stake is consistency. As long as the realism and logic are consistent, then the game flows appropriately and is not frustrating to the players.

Description of the world setting: The Empire of the Petal Throne, by M. A. R. Barker. The appeal of this setting, as described by Fine seems to be the discovery of the exoticism of the alien world. The appeal of this seems like a social MMOG, where there is a whole culture to learn and be fascinated and surprised by.

Fine references Erving Goffman’s technique of Frame Analysis to examine the styles of interpersonal interaction within the roleplaying games. He also references Alfred Schutz. The essential aspect at stake in this analysis is the idea of engrossment. A frame is a level of interaction in which there is sufficient engrossment. However, the difference between Goffman’s frame analysis and what is conducted in role-playing games is that the engrossment is continually oscillating in the games.

Frames become relevant in managing knowledge. An example given is how game masters aim to keep things secret from the players, to enforce that their characters will remain ignorant, and the players will have the same knowledge as their characters according to a given scenario. Occasionally, GMs try to conceal the rules (specifically numeric probabilities and the statistics of monsters), so that players will not know what to expect. “Some referees extend their concern with the degree of players’ awareness and suggest that, as in ‘real life,’ characters should not know the probabilities in the game world (the rules of the game with their percentages of success). This secretiveness–keeping the player ignorant so that his character will be ignorant–adds to the verisimilitude of the simulation according to some referees.” (p. 191)

On playing characters, there is stress between role-playing and game-playing. This relates to immersion and motivation. When compared to later studies (especially Mackay), the position of pure game-playing seems much more accepted here. Game playing treats the experience as having concrete goals, so the play can be directed around achieving, sometimes even competitively, those goals. This ties back into the way that digital role-playing games, specifically MMORPGs function. In these contexts, the fantasy is a backdrop for the game itself.

Fantasy role-playing games involve a communal construction of culture. Symbolic interaction enables the construction of meaning. The worlds are socially constructed, which means that themes and values are shared by the culture. In personal fantasy, the themes may be idiosyncratic, but in a social construction, the values have been established and are enacted by the group, and the fantasy thus becomes a shared creation. Other social groups construct meaning, but in role-playing the value is fantastic, imaginary, and explicitly formed.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFine, Gary Alan
TitleShared Fantasy: Role Playing Games as Social Worlds
Tagsdigital media, games, roleplaying, specials, sociology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon
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