Archive: January 23rd, 2009

Scott Turner: The Creative Process

[Readings] (01.23.09, 3:16 pm)

Scott Turner is most notable for his work on the Minstrel storytelling system. Minstrel is notable in terms of storytelling systems because it is one of the first, long with Liebowitz’s Universe, to employ a model of authorship and an author’s plans. Minstrel is also notable for its elaborate system for implementing creativity. The work is very tightly bound up in the rhetoric of traditional AI. The model of creativity works in terms of problem solving, and uses analogical reasoning to cast problem solving strategies from one domain into another.

While my work is not aimed at story generation, and my approach is very different, Turner is a useful perspective to keep in mind in terms of drama management, authorial goals, and creativity within story worlds.

Storytelling and Creativity

The problem as initially framed is an issue of story telling. Turner is interested in developing a computer program that can tell stories. Originally, this research began with finding a copy of Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, and then experimenting with the recombination of stories using Propp’s formal structure. Turner quickly found that Propp’s morphology, while it may be useful for understanding stories, is insufficient to instruct a computer to tell them. To tell or understand a story, it is necessary to have more than form, but a large network of information: author goals, reader expectations, and cultural knowledge. Turner turns his attention not to the makeup and content of stories themselves, but the process by which an author creates a story.

Developing stories involves thinking about the purpose and the message of the story, in addition to its form and content. This is one of the more innocuous claims that Turner makes, but it is arguably somewhat controversial. His goal is to rule out the idea of nonsense stories which do not employ causality or simply do not reach any kind of satisfying conclusion. However, many stories have messages, but those messages may not be clear or straightforward at all. They may be messages that require a great deal of interpretation, leading to diverse ranges of valid interpretations. Turner’s examples are simple, tending to employ very simple moral messages. In his defense, we have to start somewhere. It’s not possible to leap straight into a storytelling system that can write something along the lines of À la recherche du temps perdu without being able to write something simple first.

Storytelling requires a strong knowledge of not only the story, but the world in which the story takes place, the meanings of the terms and elements that occur within it. Minstrel uses an Arthurian world, where it is necessary for the storytelling system to understand what dragons and knights and princesses are, what it means for a knight to charge or be wounded, and what characters might be liable to do after some event. This does not mean understand in the sense of exact definition, but rather have a functional understanding of how these work within the story world.

Storytelling also requires creativity. This is the constraint that Turner issues which is the most remarkable. Creativity requires both the judgement of creativity, as well as an ability to be creative in the first place.

Minstrel’s architecture employs a problem solver, and treats the process of developing a story as a problem to be solved. Turner does not see this as a specialized process, used for scientific endeavors, but rather an everyday one. He claims that problem solving is invariant across problem domains, so the same problem solving method may be used in any domain, from astrophysics, to navigation, to grocery shopping. This argument is contestible, but through using it, he is able to make an interesting observation about how to use creativity. Creativity is the process of using knowledge or a method from one domain and applying it to another. In planning terminology, this involves an integrated process of search and adaptation. Experiencing a problem in one domain, the planner searches through other domains to find structurally similar problems, and then adapt them into the original domain. The interesting thing about this, for all the critiques of AI planning, is it is a method of thought that exists outside of conventional situational thinking, and is a reasonably effective means of producing creative solutions to problems.

The architecture that Turner uses involves extensively making use of author goals. There are four kinds of goals: thematic goals, consistency goals, drama goals, and presentation goals. In addition to employing creativity, the story must be able to satisfy these goals according to the author’s needs. Consistency goals are about producing consistent and causally sound stories, drama goals involve satisfying constraints to make the story dramatically interesting, such as having foreshadowing, suspense, and so on. Presentation goals aim to make the story clear and legible to the reader. Thematic goals are interesting to me, and I will address those in the next section.

A Model of Storytelling

Turner argues that storytelling is a matter of satisfying author goals. People write stories intentionally, for deliberate reasons. As such, the stories themselves have goals within them. To illustrate the importance of author goals, Turner looks at Meehan’s Talespin. Talespin does not make use of authorial intentions, and instead has only character plans and intentions. The Talespin stories are generally not too good, meandering and lacking purpose, and occasionally getting into infinite loops. Turner argues that storytelling requires more than mere simulation, and that authors are not merely simulators.

My goal in the adaptation project is not to tell stories, but make games. The challenge to simulation puts me on the defensive, but it is necessary to acknowledge that in order for there to be stories, there must be more than simulation alone. I would argue that what is missing from Talespin is some sense of values or meaning within the world. The example of the bear going to get berries is boring not because there is no authorial meaning, but because the actions and events are not meaningful to the reader.

One way of dealing with the matter of author goals I suppose is to challenge them in favor of reader goals. Authors may write bad stories that meander or go nowhere. The author may have goals which are uninteresting or nonsensical. The author may value these goals, but the readers may find them bewildering. This is not unusual, people write bad stories all the time. Merely having author goals is not enough to make a story interesting. The life of a story is not dependent on the author who writes it, but the community of readers who value it. This is a very important observation that should be made with literature of author goals in story planning.

The actual method of story generation in Minstrel is developed by planning and problem solving. The planner manages the author-level goals, and the problem solver works to find means of solving those goals. At the top level, Minstrel’s goal is to “tell a story”. As this proceeds, Minstrel will choose a moral, a theme, and then begins applying drama goals, performing consistency checks, and making the story presentable. It does this cycle for each scene in the story. This approach to story development is extremely top-down. The work is pioneering, but it is distant from the actual method by which a writer may actually compose a story. Writing involves iteration and revision of the entire work in cycles. I would argue that when the goals are established and some of the basic elements are introduced, the writer does perform simulation, to see what happens next. Minstrel achieves causality by looking backwards from an event and seeing what could have caused it. A real author will employ some of this approach, but will aslo use simulation to simply get causality by advancing time and playing it out.

The model presented is that stories have themes, where a theme is some sort of moral “lesson”. This is a contestible account of the reason behind storytelling, both within stories and of the reasons for writers to create stories. By employing diverse lessons to other storytelling domains, this suggests that the theme of a story and the world of a story can be separated unproblematically, which is false. Stories are culturally anchored, and themes may be conventionally bound to one set of story worlds. An example in the realm of Aesop’s Fables, which contain the kinds of lessons Turner is interested in, is the story of the And and the Grasshopper, which has a remarkably different ending as told in the West versus in Japan. Western culture is much more individually oriented, and focused on independence, whereas Japanese culture relies on interdependence and mutual support. Lifting themes from one domain to another may be creative, but it may also run the risk of cultural imperialism when done unawares.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurner, Scott
TitleThe Creative Process
Tagsspecials, digital media, narrative, simulation
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Johan Huizinga: Homo Ludens

[Readings] (01.23.09, 1:20 pm)

Huizinga is one of the original voices in the study of play and games. Homo Ludens is his study of play in culture. The work is taken primarily as an anthropology of play, and Huizing is strikingly broad in his examination of play in different cultures. Much study of culture and philosophy in the West has limited itself to looking at history in Greece, Rome, and then Western Europe. Huizinga does explore these, but also reaches out to India, China, Japan, and the Blackfoot Tribe. For someone writing in 1938, this indicates some appreciable cultural diversity. Huizinga is perhaps notable for his coinage of the term “magic circle”, but his work is deeper than normally credited. His understanding of play is also wrapped up in conflict, which is a point of contention between him and other scholars. The ultimate manifestation and function of play to Huizinga is the resolution of conflict, which in turn creates social order.

Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon

This chapter opens looking to understand the role of play within culture. Huizinga notes that play is older than culture, it is spread beyond merely the human species, as animals play. Play is clearly important, but it is unclear as to why we do it. Play must serve a function so that we can play at all. Play is elusive when attempting to ascribe some form of biological function to it, as it rejects and expands beyond any attribution posed onto it. The idea or concept of fun is equally elusive. Both the ideas of play and fun are linguistically problematic, because they mean very different things across languages and cultures. However, play itself exists independent of any name assigned to it, and independent of our understanding. Play is supra-logical and irrational.

The goal is to approach play as the player might percieve it. Huizinga’s goal is to look at play as a special activity within a culture, to see it within its context, not try to understand how it is conditioned from the outside. Our culture is permeated with play, from language, to myth to ritual. Each of these involves negotiating between that which is imaginary to that which is real. Language is a system of reference, and linguistic signs are different from their referents. The signs are, in a sense, not real (not concrete, anyway), and they relate to concrete things in the world. Myth interprets the physical world by explaining it in terms of the divine. Ritual connects meaning and concrete practices with symbolic practices. All of these are systems of play.

Play is difficult to classify in relation to other concepts. Huizinga makes the claim that play is the opposite of seriousness, but this proves problematic. Play can be serious, but his explicit assertion is that “Play is non-seriousness.” (p.5). This is different from claiming that play is not serious. Other things that are non serious are also not play, such as laughter, the comic, jest, and folly. Play cannot be classified morally (as good or bad), not can it be classified aesthetically. Play eludes classification and determination by other terms.

Play is voluntary. It may be deferred or suspended at any time. It involves stepping out of the “real,”  and as such it is in a position of inferiority to the “serious”. Play and seriousness exist in a cycle, where the ordinary world is suspended when the play begins, and resumes when it terminates. Play exists inside everyday life, but apart from it, existing in a special time and space. In time, it begins, goes on for some duration, and then finishes. Afterward, it is over, but exists as a memory, and may be re-enacted. In space, play occurs in special consecrated grounds that are set aside for the play to take place. This enclosure is what defines the magic circle. Examples of these sacred spaces are the playground, the arena, the card-table, the temple, the stage, the court of justice, and so on.

Within the circle, play imposes new rules, and creates order. This is counter-intuitive, as play is usually what breaks rules, but within its space, the rules of play are sacred. Deviation or breaking these rules spoils the game. Within the space, the course of play is enchanting and captivating. It is enthralling that it creates another world and, for lack of a better phrase, opens up a new form of consciousness. However, within this, there is an element of tension. Within the scope of the play, something is at risk, or the players want something to “go” or “go off” or simply happen. The player has some sort of motivation and objective. Due to this motivation and the possible outcome, an ethical dimension arises in the play. Even though play itself transcends morality, within the scope of play, there is a moral structure, determined by the rules of play.

The moral structure connects the performance of the player to the player’s adherence to the rules. It is morally important to abide by these rules and still meet the goals. A player who is a cheat still operates within the space of the rules. Even though the cheat breaks the rules, it is in order to win. The person who ignores the rules brazenly and does not act to win is something worse (like the parent who dismantles the pillow-fort, or the dog who runs onto the soccer field), because they have violated the sacred order of the magic circle. Breaking the rules reveals the fragility of the play itself. Huizinga explains that play is robbed of its illusion, which literally means “in-play”. This is notable for several reasons. The first is that illusion is an interesting word for capturing the believability of the world of play, as compared to, say immersion. A player who experiences immersion may still be aware of the fact that the world is imaginary, whereas the player experiencing illusion is seeing the world of play as of foremost importance.

The Play-Concept as Expressed in Language

In this chapter, Huizinga looks at the terms for play as expressed in different languages and cultures. The uses of the terms for play are quite diverse. One of the earlier distinctions is between the Greek terms paidia and agon. The term paidia represents the childish sense of play, as in things that are non serious and lighthearted. The other term, agon, is about contest and conflict. This is the term Huizinga is primarily interested in, as it denotes contests and competitions which were of great importance in Greek life. Agon is, incidentally, the root that gives us “agony,” so its connection to games is of a much more serious nature.

Huizinga investigates several other languages, and finds that there is a large diversity in terms, but different terms separate the agon/paidia difference with some frequency. These terms are discussed on the Wikipedia page for Homo Ludens. At the end of the chapter, he examines the words for seriousness or earnestness in these languages as well, although this proves to be problematic as finding the opposite of play is difficult linguistically. Huizinga concludes with a point that helps clarify the relationship between seriousness and play.

Leaving aside the linguistic question and observing the play-earnest antithesis somewhat more closely, we find that the two terms are not of equal value: play is positive, earnest negative. The significance of “earnest” is defined by and exhausted in the negation of “play”–earnest is simply “not playing” and nothing more. The significance of “play”, on the other hand, is by no means defined or exhausted by calling it “not-earnest”, or “not serious”. Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness. (p. 45)

Play and Contest as Civilizing Functions

Culture arises from play, but in doing so, it takes on the form of conflicted play. “The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning. Even those activities which aim at the immediate satisfaction of vital needs–hunting, for instance–tend, in archaic society, to take on the play-form.” (p. 46) The use of play is used in negotiating conduct within a group, or between two opposing groups. The agon form of play is epitomized in the contest, and it is frequently through these sorts of contests, that order is established within the culture. Winning and losing within a play contest is usually merely symbolic, but the meaning of the win or loss is interpreted concretely within the culture.

Play contests establish a social order. The stability of the society comes from a defined order, which is determined by contests demonstrating some kind of strength. The leader of a group would be the one who is superior in some form or another. Social heirarchy may be demonstrated through playful displays. I find this claim very odd, though. Within interactions, I would agree that these take on playful forms and the interactions may be seen as contests of some kind, but to argue that entire cultures are ordered according to this play seems far fetched. The rules for defining victory and the resulting order must be consented upon or at least accepted, especially for the victory to be connected to any kind of ethical or moral superiority in the culture itself. This would indicate the need for protocols to determine social order by these playful forms, but it is ambiguous as to what forms these might take.

Play and Law, Play and War

These are two chapters which explore both the practice of law and the practice of war as playful social constructions. They exist outside of the scope of everyday life, they operate in special environments where there are special rules, yet both are still serious with real consequences. Regarding war, Huizinga qualifies his claim by indicating that it is a cultural function only when the members regard each other as antagonists with equal rights.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorHuizinga, Johan
TitleHomo Ludens: a Study of the Play-Element in Culture
Tagsspecials, media traditions, games
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon