Pulling together Nardi, Oatley: Communication and emotions in games

[General,Research] (09.23.08, 12:20 pm)

This was written as a problem formulation for one of my courses with Nancy Nersessian. I thought it was handy and relevant, so decided to put it up.

To open, let us consider an argument made by Keith Oatley (in “The Science of Fiction,” New Scientist, 2008): “Fiction is a simulation that runs on the software of our minds.” Oatley’s argument is based on studies of readers of fiction who demonstrate better emotional interpretation skills after reading fiction. The interpretation that he gives is that readers mentally predict the emotions of the fictional characters, and can compare the prediction with the result that actually plays out. This can be seen as either modeling and conceptual change, or a sort of psychological activation of emotional parts of the brain. It is hard to tell for certain, but let this contextualize what follows:

My personal research is in the adaptation of fiction though simulation of the fictional characters and worlds. When the characters themselves are embedded in an electronic simulation, the problem immediately rises of how to develop emotional responses of the characters. Previous work in simulating characters (Perlin, Crawford, and many others) have given varying approaches to modeling characters and communicating states. Game studies (from which my work is emerging) has borrowed significantly from the theories of cinema and theatre for how to represent appealing and believable characters. Much of what has emerged from this is centered on the issue of providing more visible, clearer characters. A great deal of attention is paid to faces (and the movement from text, to image, to animation), which are, admittedly important. Everything boils down to dramatic presentation, which comes from drama, which may be embodied and visceral, but is not an interactive medium.

A simulated fictional world, in which the player is a participant, must look beyond interaction, though. The player must be able to communicate with other agents, for the fictional experience to be enacted. Many times in games, players are in opposition to the game world and its designers, a situation that does not satisfy the potential for emotional relevance. Despite the significant advances in character depiction in many contemporary games, this issue remains a problem. Bonnie Nardi does not give a solution, but provides a way to understand the failure of graphical technology in developing emotional experiences.

In Bonnie Nardi’s ethnography, she studies the methods of communications of business employees, investigating specifically how they use mediated communication. She finds that there are three dimensions to communication: affinity, commitment, and attention. These are explained to make sense within the business model, but are all grounded in sociology and anthropology. Expressions of each of these elements can be seen in every form of communication, and they seem almost tribal. Clearly, there is some deep importance to these channels. Individuals make use of the affordances of mediated communication to work with these elements, but the elements are still deeply embodied. The reliance on information bandwidth is insufficient to operate on these channels.

With Nardi’s Beyond Bandwidth in mind, developments in technology in games are clearly matters of attempting to increase bandwidth. For an interactive experience with fictional characters to succeed, communication must be necessary, and this depends on the relationship of the player to other characters. This does explain why emotional experiences in games work independently of technology. Nardi’s dimensions are a starting point, and open a suite of complex issues: Mediated communication has affordances for the elements of communication, but what are those affordances in games and simulation? How can affinity, commitment, and attention be represented in an artificial world?

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