Archive: February, 2009

Scanned notes

[Games,General,Research,Talks] (02.16.09, 11:12 pm)

I’m in the habit of writing up pages of notes that are often difficult to transcribe into pure text form. Usually I keep these around with me as references until my thinking or work on whatever project has matured enough that the notes aren’t relevant anymore. I have a bunch of pages like this in my notebook. Right now with the simulating fictional worlds project, I am trying to come up with a preliminary system of classes and work out what their relationships to each other will be programmatically. Also I want to know what the major processes , interactions, and flowcharts are going to look like. Posted here is an early step.

How a situation is composed

How a situation is composed

Situation Cycle

Situation cycle. It looks like we might need more general classification of frame that encompasses both situations and other social codes.

Conversation cycle and context

Conversation cycle and context

David Bordwell: Narration in the Fiction Film

[Readings] (02.16.09, 3:22 pm)

David Bordwell’s book Narration in the Fiction Film explores the narratology of film. He argues in the introduction that, at the time of publishing (1985), few scholars have examined the narrative theory of film. Bordwell is interested in understanding the relationship between narrative and film. This goal seems straightforward at first, but it is complicated by the questions of what narrative is, exactly, and how the content of film might be translated into narrative segments. A natural application of this is to examine how games might convey narrative segments, much like the way that films do. I think another more interesting use is to use the narrative approaches to film to examine how fiction is adapted into film, and how narrative devices might be translated into games.

Bordwell’s introduction outlines three different ways of looking at narratives: as representations of a world, as a structure, and as a point of view. This latter approach seems to be Bordwell’s favored one, but the three approaches often intersect. The approach of looking at a narrative as a model of a world I think combines the three of these. The model represents a world, and its representative layer contains mimetic elements, the model also defines a structure, and the model is also constructed with a specific point of view.

Mimetic Theories of Narrative

The mimetic theory of narrative is most strongly derived from Aristotle’s poetics, and his application of them to drama. Bordwell’s goal is to outline the diegetic and mimetic theories of narrative, which roughly translate to telling versus showing. The mimetic element of narrative is wrapped up in spectacle and witnessing the events. In context of showing, there is an implied viewer who is the witness to the shown events. The existence of a witness implies a relationship between the witness and the spectacle, introducing right away the issue of perspective and point of view. The Greek theatre addresses the question of perspective by creating a clear and idealized relationship between the audience and the action in the performance.

Perspective takes on a special meaning when applied to painting in the middle ages, especially in the 1400s to the 1600s when linear perspective was being introduced as a technology for representation. The use of perspective in painting is similar to Athenian stagecraft because it implies an idealized relationship between the scene and the viewer. There is an interesting cultural moment over whose perspective is taken, which is frequently the point of view of the king. In medieval painting, the paintings generally were highly iconographic, representing narratives, usually about the lives and tribulations of saints. Bordwell argues that the idealized perspective found in painting is at odds with the perspective of narrative, that the narrative dimension of mimesis is mental, not optical. This seems like a relatively trivial thing to say, but it is important in context of the argument as applies to film: that showing is bound in the mental life of the viewer, not just in the literal events taking place on the screen.

With realist literature, the mimetic perspecitve is taken to an extreme. The logical comparisons are made between the dense narrative depictions of James and Dickens, and are fit toward the portrayal of realist fiction as pictoral.

Applied to film, mimetic theories rely on a careful understanding of the role of the camera. Mimetic theories of cinema treat the viewer and the camera as an “invisible observer”, who watches and becomes close to the action. The position and movement of the camera are seen as reflective of the viewer’s engagement with the content of the narrative, indicating closeness or distance. Cutting is explained as similar to how the observer might shift its gaze to get a different view of the scene, or examine a particular detail. While it does account for cutting and the engagement of the camera, this approach does not account for the arrangement of scenes, or for camera positions which do not make sense as coming from a human observer. Bordwell introduces the scenography of Eisenstein as a narrative form, because the scene itself is wrapped up in expression. The role of the camera becomes subordinate to the scene in terms of communicating a narrative moment. Scenography makes sense when applied to games as well, with its focus on spatial and environmental storytelling.

Diegetic theories of Narration

Diegetic narration is about telling, and ultimately, communicating the world of the fiction, without the elment of the spectacle. Diegetic theory originates with Plato, but the modern theorists are Bakhtin, Barthes, and various Russian formalists. Diegetic theory considers narration to be primarily about telling, and is primarily linguistic. Bordwell makes an interesting paraphrase of Bakhtin which seems particularly relevant, “The novel, according to Bakhtin, is not a spectacle organized around Jamesian straight lines; it is a polyphony, even a cacophany, of different registers of speech and written language: a montage of voices.” (p. 17) Diegetic narration as applied to film is predominantly explored by Colin MacCabe and Emile Benveniste. Benveniste treats the language of film as a special kind of enunciation. This is a flawed approach, much like the theory of the invisible observer, because it privleges certain techniques and representation systems.

The Viewer’s Activity

Both mimetic and diegetic theories downplay the role of the viewer (with the arguable exception of Bakhtin, who would probably argue that the viewer is a participant in the dialogue). The viewer is normally assumed in these theories to be passive and credulous, absorbing the material presented and treating it noncritically. Bordwell’s theory is that the spectator executes operations corresponding to filmic devices. The viewer constructs the narrative, actively making inferences and comparing the portrayed events to other knowledge.

There are three factors in the constructivist theory: 1) The viewer percieves the film in a special way, reading it visually, as made of light, color, and darkness, and reading the screen in both a top-down and bottom-up manner. 2) The viewer brings to the film a large set of schemata derived from experiences with the real world, other media, and other films. The viewer recognizes the events of the film in terms of fitting them in with known schemata. 3) The narrative cinema contains a structure based on narrative conventions and expected viewer activities. These are story-constructing activities that have a history in narrative practices.

The construction theory involves a composition of many schemata, which are recognized and understood in context. When a viewer applies a schema to a film, then events in the film become relevant in context of that schema. For instance, if the viewer is expecting a love story, events will be read and matched to the format of the schema of the love story. Bordwell gives a revies for the recognition of schemata, in a format that resembles an algorithm.

What is interesting about this, as applies to the theory of narrative models, is that a schema is only part of the process. The viewer may recognize that a film is a love story, and identify the schema (or schemata) to which the narrative subscribes, but that is not the end of it. The film continues to contain meaning, even if the viewer knows what the format is. So one interesting question is why the viewer stays captivated. One element of this is that the viewer is interested in seeing the enactment, and even knowing the resolution, the performance of it is still important. I would argue that there is more to it, that schemata are not realized as static accounts, but rather a schema describes a formula for turning narrative events into meaningful ones. The story is not defined by the schemata, but it is parameterized by it. Thus, the composition of schemata form a system, which is insufficient to fully specify an artifact, but defines a range of possible ones. One film could concievably veer off course from its expected conclusion and still belong to the same equivalence class as the film that stays on course. This approach to the schema or model concept is loose and general, not as tightly constrained as, for instance, Polti’s dramatic situations.

Principles of Narration

Bordwell examines narration as broken into three systems: fabula, syuzhet (also spelled sjuzet), and style. The fabula is the story. In film, the fabula is not given to the audience, it is constructed based on what they see. The syuzhet is the plot, how the narrative events are depicted and arranged. What Bordwell calls syuzhet is similar to what Chatman calls discourse. The style is the use of cinematic techniques and devices in order to affect the discourse.

Bordwell gives a very useful definition for narrative in film: “In the fiction film, narration is the process whereby the film’s syuzhet and style itneract in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator’s construction of the fabula.” (p. 53) It is important to note that the connotation of the narrative is not actually part of the narrative itself in this definition.

Subsequent chapters

The subsequent chapters examine several genres specifically in the context of narrative, and then the narrative dimensions of time and space. These are of less relevance, so I’ll leave them alone for now.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBordwell, David
TitleNarration in the Fiction Film
Tagsmedia traditions, film, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Alan Ayckbourn: The Norman Conquests

[General] (02.13.09, 10:36 pm)

Several of Alan Ayckbourn‘s plays are trilogies, designed to be performed in Scarborough, which is a popular vacation spot in Yorkshire. The goal behind his writing of the plays is to fill a theatre house for a full weekend, three nights, but under several constraints. One of the constraints is that they were only able to afford six actors, so the actors would need to be shared between the plays. The second is that the plays must not be arranged in such a way that to appreciate any one all must be seen, and the plays must not be arranged into ordered parts, as either of these would drive away the interest of potential theatregoers. The resulting project is a set of plays that would be able to stand on their own, but would be arranged so that viewing one would pique one’s curiosity to see the others. Much of my analysis comes from the recorded BBC television performance in 1978.

The most interesting element in the plays is the relationship between plot and story. The individual plays are logical wholes, but together they make something more complete. The plays take place in different parts of the same house during the same weekend, featuring the same drama with the same characters. The plays have different pacing and focus on different pieces of the same plot.

The experience of watching one performance is of a comedy, a drama centered around the personalities of the characters. Events that occur in the other plays are alluded to, but the references to the other plays are sufficient enough to complete their relevance to the current action, without making them overtly mysterious. When put against the other plays, enough information is revealed to turn the plot into something which becomes more like a puzzle. References that were previously only background elements become central, and elements that were central to the drama in the other plays take on a passive role when viewing a new one.

What remains constant between the plays is an overall story arc, and the characters. In terms of digital adaptation, it logically makes sense for the trilogy to be treated as an encyclopedic text, and allow navigation between the different parts of the action. This is the subject of Hot Norman, a digital project put together by Janet Murray and Freedom Baird. This project enables the viewer to observe what is happening at the logical diegetic moments occurring in the different timelines. When one character leaves one set and goes to another, the user would be able to follow them. Additionally, Hot Norman enables the user to follow the references between the different plays, so when one event is referred to in one timeline, it is possible to look back at the source of that event.

This approach seems appropriate, due to the multiple nature of the narrative, but seems like it would be ultimately somewhat unsatisfying. Because the events are referential, and used as props for the dramatic flows of the story, it does not seem like a great deal stands to be gained from switching between the individual plays. Having viewed each play, it does not seem like there is much to be gained from navigating between them. Each play in the trilogy has the same plot, but offers different narrative perceptions of the plot. Weaving between the perceptions offers little more beyond being able to access them in the first place. I think the center of the viewer’s attention is not on the plot of the character’s lives, but on the characters responses and means of handling the plot that is taking place around them. The plot itself is not primarily about action that takes place within the plays, but it is about action that has already taken place or has failed to take place. The entire body of the trilogy is derived from the characters reactions to these events, both past and unrealized.

Being the contrarian, I think that the ideal way to explore the content of the play would be to expand it. Instead of being able to switch between the different views, it would be interesting to be able to command the characters, or arrange scenes with several of them present, and then see what happens. The dimensions of the underlying plot would not change, but new scenes would result.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAyckbourn, Alan
TitleThe Norman Conquests
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Sigmund Freud: Civilization and its Discontents

[Readings] (02.13.09, 10:53 am)

Some time ago, I wrote a paper discussing this particular work of Freud’s, applying it to the simulation of fictional characters. The paper wasn’t very good, so I am not going to put it here, but it did have a few worthwhile ideas.

The crux of the matter is the treatment of the roles of pain and pleasure within a simulated world. Freud explains that these motivate human behavior according to the pleasure and reality principles, and these form a mechanic for accounting for human behavior. Freud is notable for borrowing terms from physics (forces and drives), and poses a somewhat kinematic model of how characters work. His approach to psychology is that of an engineer, studying and analyzing the pressures induced by these forces within the human psyche. Under this perspective, a careful reading of Freud would produce a fascinating model of behavior that could be simulated.

It is possible to imagine characters in a simulation game, such as The Sims, being controlled by the interplay of the pleasure and reality principles, and the conflicts between the ego, superego, and id. Instead of sliders that go down, representing the sims’ moods, the sliders would increase, indicating pent-up frustration. Such a simulation would involve the Sims struggling for happiness and pleasure, then suffering rebuke for their desires, then repressing them until the characters finally erupt in an orgy of sex and violence.

I do not think that this is the ideal approach to simulating characters, but it is a worthwhile perspective to examine. (more…)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFreud, Sigmund
TitleCivilization and Its Discontents
Tagspsychology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Victor Turner: The Ritual Process

[General] (02.12.09, 11:17 pm)

Victor Turner is a notable figure in anthropology alongside Clifford Geertz and Erving Goffman. Turner’s focus is on ritual, and the role that ritual plays in life and culture. I also examined Turner in On Narrative, where he compared the ritual process of the Ndembu in Zambia to the Watergate crisis in America. Turner had an interesting role within American academia. He helped connect education to the social and political movements in the 1960s. His exploration of the rituals of other cultures manifested in a subversive way of looking at American culture. This is specifically applicable in this book, where, toward the end, he develops the ideas of structure and anti-structure, comparing the hippy movement to a spontaneous community which is analogous to liminal communities in other cultures.

Turner is very strongly influenced by Arnold von Gennep, who sees ritual as being composed of three parts: “separation from the everyday flow of activities, involving a passage through a threshold state or limen into a ritual world removed from everyday notions of time and space; a mimetic enactment of some dimension of the crisis that brought about the separation, in the course of which enactment the structures of everyday life are both elaborated and challenged (he called the co-occurrence of these motives “structure” and “anti-structure”); and a reentry into the everyday world.” (p. ix)

The idea of ritual as taking place in a special sort of zone, where activity takes on new meanings outside the realm of everyday life, reverberates with the idea of performance as described by Schechner, and with play, as described by Huizinga. All of these approaches are anthropological, and all of them seem to be describing the same sort of material. (more…)

Reading Info:
Author/EditorTurner, Victor
TitleThe Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure
Tagsspecials, media theory, sociology, anthropology
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Pride and Prejudice: Literary Criticism

[General] (02.12.09, 6:06 pm)

This reviews some scholarly essays on Pride and Prejudice. Also included is a snippet from the Norton Critical Edition of Northanger Abbey. There is a wide range of Austen literary criticism, and this reflects just a small part. What is included here are essays that are particularly relevant for the process of adaptation, and looking into the mechanics of Austen’s world.

Susan Morgan: Perception in Pride and Prejudice

In a quick overview, this article is about Elizabeth’s development over the course of the novel. Like the character of Emma, Elizabeth’s understanding of the world and perception of others is frequently incorrect, for instance with Wickham, with Darcy’s intentions toward her in the second part of the book, and with her impression of Darcy’s thoughts when she reveals Lydia’s running off with Wickham. Morgan asks what is the moral lesson of all of this, and observes that there is a transition in the development of Elizabeth’s character.

Morgan argues that Austen’s works (her world, as it were) contain a sort of philosophical message, even if this message was not consciously put there by the author. The essence of this is about generalization and the relationship between the world of the mind and the physical world. Generalization is a means for characters to use social expectations and small observations to make broader predictions and expectations of behavior. The central generalization that is present is the one described by the opening line of the book.

Elizabeth’s greatest strength is that she strives to look at the world from many points of view, and respond to them accordingly. This is not perfect, in that she always has levels of partiality, but it distinguishes her, in that she always seems to be engaged in figuring out what others are thinking or doing. Her weakness in the earlier part of the novel is that she does not take life seriously, and does not significantly value social status or her family’s financial situation. This gives way to some of her early indirectness and lack of willingness to commit herself to things (as opposed to Jane, who is eager to commit herself on very short notice). This changes toward the end, as Elizabeth matures and acquires a directness that she did not possess early on.

The themes of perception and generalization lend credence to the perspective that characters understand the world in terms of models.

Claudia L. Johnson: Pride and Prejudice and the Pursuit of Happiness

This paper examines the the delicate interaction between pride and happiness. Happiness is clearly one of the central variables at stake for the characters in the novel. Happiness of course has many dimensions and flavors. The means of happiness also is accompanied by a moral dimension, where one’s tendency to be placable takes on moral dimensions. Darcy’s disdain and implacability (stemming from his pride) are negative traits, and they harm his moral reputation in the minds of other characters. Similarly, characters who are overeager to be agreeable are also considered to be morally flawed, for instance in the cases of Lydia and Sir William Lucas.

The different means by which characters find happiness indicates a system for modeling characters standards and preferences according to some set of parameters. Characters also feel that they have a right to happiness, which is a characteristic of their pride. Pride is a quality that has a mixed role within the novel, being both a subject of steadfastness as well as moral failure. Elizabeth uses her pride as a means for chiding Darcy’s. Even in Austen’s moral system which critiques the aristocratic moral system, pride has some important value. In contrast to pride is a dimension of magnanimity, which is the quality of someone’s attention to the happiness of others. This is a variable which highly valued in Austen’s moral system, and is something that Darcy lacks (or appears to lack) early on, and then seems to possess a great deal of later.

Sue Birtwhistle and Susie Conklin: A Conversation with Colin Firth

This is an interview with Colin Firth, who plays the part of Darcy in the BBC television miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The interview is important for several reasons. The first is that it gives a perspective into the process of an adaptation, and secondly it gives a perspective on Darcy’s inner thoughts as expressed by Colin Firth’s portrayal. One of the appeals of Darcy’s character is that he is inscrutable and it is very difficult to tell what he is thinking. Colin Firth thus came to this role and developed his own understanding of Darcy’s motivations which drove his restrained performance. From the perspective of simulation and adaptation, these insights are very useful because they indicate an internal state to reproduce, that would lead to the execution of the character’s behavior.

An example of Firth’s perspective on Darcy’s inner thoughts comes from his behavior at the Meryton assembly. Darcy’s distance and aloofness are explained as being driven from insecurity and shyness. This is amplified by Bingley’s ease in social situations, which puts Darcy in a more awkward state. Firth’s explanation here is important because it gives a valid sense of motivation, and it also does so by representing Darcy’s snobbishness as due to vulnerability, which is not a view that is ever conveyed in the novel. Firth describes Darcy’s attraction to Elizabeth as due, initially, to boredom, because he has never met a woman who has intrigued him before. It is this initial bit of being intrigued that leads him to follow her around, because he wishes to find out more about her.

The approach of Darcy’s first proposal is also very interesting, as Firth sought to find a way to look at how the proposal might be seen from Darcy’s point of view. In this view, his love for Elizabeth is strong enough to overcome the many reasons why such a marriage would be improper for him, and in this particular light it is very romantic.

Dr. John Gregory: A Father’s Letter to his Daughters (1774)

This particular essay comes from the Norton Critical Edition for Northanger Abbey. The excerpt is from a “conduct” book, which is aimed to educate young women on proper conduct in polite society. This particular section advises women against the use of wit, humor, good sense, and learning which are dangerous and unseemly. Wit is to be guarded because it can create enemies, and Dr. Gregory explains that wit can lead to intoxication with vanity. Humor is dangerous for the converse reasons, it will win friends, but if used liberally will threaten a lady’s respect. Good sense and learning are subjects which will embarrass others and make one’s company jealous. The intent of conversation is to make one’s company pleased with themselves. Dr. Gregory finally advises his daughters to act with great modesty and avoid indelicacy, even though the lady may be thought ridiculous, prudish, or reserved. The alternative is to be contemptible and disgusting.

This is especially interesting, as it gives a list of many of the rules broken by characters within Pride and Prejudice, but paints a landscape of the social expectations put upon women in society. Under this view, social conduct is a dangerous activity fraught with explosive hazards with lasting consequences.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorGray, Donald
TitlePride and Prejudice: Norton Critical Edition
Tagsspecials, fiction, settings, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Jane Austen: Emma

[Readings] (02.10.09, 11:36 pm)

This analysis will be brief, in comparison to the many others discussing Pride and Prejudice.

Quick summary: The plot of the book is about Emma, as young, wealthy, socially secure, and somewhat clueless character. She becomes very interested in managing other people’s happiness through match making. However, her impressions of what other characters are interested in, or what is best for them, are generally incorrect. This leads to an effectual comedy of errors, where Emma’s agendas are put to work against the agendas of the other characters. When Emma acts on her incorrect interpretations, she meddles in the affairs of other characters, which interferes with their happiness more than anything else. Unlike Austen’s other novels, in Emma, there is no financial issue threatening the protagonist, and she is thus doing what she is doing for the pure pleasure of it. Emma is secure in both her social status as well as her finances, so the intrigue and goals that she faces are self generated.

At this cursory level, there are some important differences between Emma and Pride and Prejudice. Both novels share a central element which is the interpretation of other characters. However, the world of Emma resembles more of a sandbox without overt goals and objectives, while Pride and Prejudice imposes a problem that must be faced at the outset. In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennett’s are in financial danger, because the house is entailed. Thus, the daughters of the family must marry otherwise suffer poverty. While this is a goal, it is not a rigid goal, and provides several routes to marriage, and suggests a balance of goals and motives. One can marry for happiness (love), wealth, or social status. Emma’s situation is different. The character of Emma sees her meddling as a way to improve the lives of others, and never has a pressing need to do what she does. Instead, like a player of The Sims, she encourages the other characters to be in certain situations, and then bears witness to the results. Unlike in The Sims, she herself is caught up in the events that she instigates. While it is Emma’s intention as a character to induce the happiness of others, a player in a game may not be so motivated, and would be able to cause some degree of mayhem.

That Emma has no financial or social incentive to meddle, she does stand to lose a great deal in terms of her social status or her happiness, and over the course of the novel does suffer in several cases as a result of her actions (being scorned by Knightley, and embarrassed by Frank Churchill). Emma’s meddling has effects which propagate through the underlying network of characters and turn back onto her, affecting her in ways that were not immediately evident by her actions alone. For instance, dissuading Harriet from marrying Mr. Martin leads her to be scolded by Knightley. Rejecting Elton leads him to marry Augusta, who becomes a significant source of irritation afterward. Like in Pride and Prejudice, each character has their own agenda. In Emma, these agendas are covert, and often include the protagonist in their machinations. In comparing Emma to The Sims, this is an interesting turn of involvement.

Some clear mechanics that leap out are elements of meddling and persuasion, which is manifested in matchmaking, and mentoring (in the case of Harriet). There is a dimension of predicting the actions, intentions, and desires of other characters, however this does not seem to be as much of a mechanic because the interesting results arise from Emma’s failures rather than her successes at prediction. The (1996 with Kate Beckinsale) film gives a few suggestions at how prediction might work, in that it uses flashes illustrating Emma’s imagination of her friends happy due to her matchmaking. There is a great deal of flirting, especially with Frank Churchill, though this is ultimately fruitless, the mechanics of flirting are intricate, in a similar way to the verbal repartee between Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Instead of status games involving lowering one another, Emma’s flirting seems to be much more about suggestions, deferences, and alluding to potential romantic states that may or may not be intended.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorAusten, Jane
Tagsspecials, media traditions, fiction, settings
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

Ted Friedman: The Semiotics of Sim City

[Readings] (02.10.09, 12:03 pm)

This is a summary of an article that Ted Friedman wrote for First Monday in 1999. The article is ostensibly about simulation and semiotics, but relates simulation to subjectivity and identification in an interesting way. His argument is that simulation becomes an extension of consciousness, and the player identifies with the simulation as a component of him or herself. This would have strong support in the space of cognitive science, especially in terms of cognitive extensions. It also provides a way of connecting a model-based view of the world to an embodied and experiential view of the world.

Friedman initially compares the experience of playing a game to the experience of reading a book. Books are non-reactive, though there is exchange between reader and book. Games are artifacts with reactive feedback loops, enabling a tighter sense of identification with the artifact’s contents. Reading gives a variety of interpretive freedoms, but simulation is not free from perspective of player. Any simulation is rooted in the assumptions of its model. Sim City has received criticism for its model and economic assumptions, but Friedman explains that these are not flaws but principles. “Computer programs, like all texts, will always be ideological constructions.”

It is frequently argued that simulation games have an aura of mystification, in that they appear to be realistic. Friedman argues to the contrary that the player succeeds by learning its model and understanding how the model works, which is a process of demystification. I would challenge this, though. The level of mystification is dependent on the self-consciousness of the player. Many players learn the system of a game but do not reflect on its values. Mastery and understanding are different things.

Simulation in Sim City is constant, it does not stop. It is easy to reach a trance-like state where the simulation is an organic extension of the player’s consciousness (referencing Haraway). The actual experience of playing puts the player in a variety of roles, according to what the player actually controls. The player is much more than just the mayor and urban designer (the ostensible roles given to the player). The player has control over details unavailable to those real life roles, and is able to manage and micromanage different parts of the game with relative fluidity. Thus, the player has shifting identifications. This seems like it ought to be jarring, but it is not. Friedman argues that experience is a form of identification, but with the simulation. Losing oneself in a game is identifying with its simulation.

From the perspective of a god-game (like Sim City, The Sims, etc), which gives the player significant controls over the entire system, or a major part of it, a simulation is engrossing. The entire simulation becomes an extension of the player’s cognitive processes, which are both visual and visceral. This suggests that the experience is in some sense embodied. I think it is possible to look back on this, though, and realize that most digital games have simulation elements, but restrict the freedom of the player within them, putting the player under constraint of not only the rules, but also giving the player a more limited part of the system. Civilization, for instance, places the player in control of only one civilization. It can be argued that the player still experiences extension and identification, but only with the substance that the player can control. So the player will identify with the entire city in Sim City, the household in The Sims, the civilization in Civilization, or the avatar in a platforming game.

Friedman concludes the essay suggesting that simulations are a kind of postmodern quasi-narrative: systems of interwoven strands of subjectivity.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorFriedman, Ted
TitleSemiotics of Sim City
Tagsgames, semiotics, simulation, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar

Austen, Austen, Everywhere

[General,Research] (02.10.09, 11:41 am)

It amazes me how Jane Austen has such a prevalent fan culture. I may even go so far as to say it’s cult-like. Not in any pejorative sense, but once indoctrinated into the Janeite world, nothing ever seems quite the same again. Whenever there are literary cults, there tend to be interesting extensions and perturbations. Sometimes these return and intersect with the world of popular culture, such as in the case of the Jane Austen Book Club, but occasionally the perturbations are stranger. Take for example “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” found via the Times.

I am actually really interested in the “zombie phenomenon,” in its relation to popular culture. Zombies are symbols that play on ideas of consumption, mindlessness, individualism, homogeneity, race, gender, and so on. Zombies are a fun and surprisingly productive metaphor for communicating cultural fears and anxieties. The language of zombie horror translates very well into games, and as such there tend to be a lot of games about them. These tend to work out well because the mechanics are appropriate for the genre, and they insecurities, anxieties, and ironies of zombiedom can carry over very well.

I suppose it was inevitable that there be a Jane Austen – zombie crossover.

Marie-Laure Ryan: Possible Worlds

[Readings] (02.08.09, 5:02 pm)

Possible Worlds is an intersection between narrative theory and AI. In this book, narrative is deeply tied to fiction, and it is in fiction that the idea of story worlds most clearly emerges. In order to understand the ways that fiction can work, Ryan turns to the theory of possible worlds. This is motivated by a need to turn to new ideas in the scope of formalist narrative theory, as other formalist approaches have begun to run dry, specifically the semiotic square and generative grammars.

The theory of possible worlds is introduced as a logical model. This depends on 1) the semantic domain of a text, and 2) the modal operators that define states. In narratology, the theory of text as a world is relatively familiar. Specifically mentioned are Alvin Plantinga and Robert Merrihew Adams. In this dimension, the theory of possible worlds is preoccupied with structure and also the matter of truth in fiction, namely what statements can be classified as true in a world. This sort of reasoning echoes the domain of formal logic, which connects the theory to AI.

The motive behind the actual use of the grammars is partly shared with AI, the other influence on this book. AI has several influences on the discussion of narratives. The use of AI as an approach treats the text and plot as something comparatively definable. Ryan rejects the idea that meaning is some sort of ethereal in inscrutable phenomenon, but instead argues that it resembles something more of a definable system. “The fundamental belief is that the creation of meaning is not a mysterious brainstorm caused by a random meeting of circumstances–a unique individual in an ephemeral state of mind, nurtured to some immesurable extent by a culture whose boundaries remain fuzzy, and bringing to the text a deeply private experience of the world–but the predictable output of definable processes operating on a variable input.” (p. 9-10)

This is somewhat disconcerting, as I agree with the basic premise of possible worlds, but I do not agree with this statement. Or, rather, the way that meaning is made can be procedural, but all AI projects that have sought to acommodate the sort of commonsense and everyday processes that go into interpretation or even comprehension of a text have met with severe handicaps. Most of them have failed to produce anything of value or substance, and it is thus hard to imagine that fruit can be gained by turning to the same assumptions that AI imposes on the world and applying those to narrative theory.

Part of the problem is that Ryan’s motivation to use AI comes from an interest in the generation of stories, an aim that I do not share within my research. My approach has sought to look at story worlds as having meaning within a particular context, and simulating that space of meaning, leaving the problem of interpretation on the side of the human participant, rather than attempting to include it in the system itself.

Fictional Recentering

One of the roots of possible worlds comes from Leibniz, who considered that there were an infinite number of possible worlds, but only one that was actual, the best of them all that was chosen and instantiated by God. Here, Ryan introduces the logical roots of possible worlds, considering them as systems of propositions, which may or may not be true. When these are arranged in large sets of all possible truth conditions, this creates a semantic universe, a term introduced by Kripke.

Fictional (possible) worlds are mental constructions. Ryan compares the theories of Rescher and David Lewis. Rescher considers that all possible worlds exist, because they can be imagined. In this theory, the possible worlds mut be considered as totally knowable and factual (in the sense that all the facts of the world are known). Lewis, whose outlook Ryan seems to favor, considers there to be an indexical theory of how we relate to possible worlds. The worlds in Lewis’s view are not fully known and determined by experience.

Ryan makes an interesting comparison between possible worlds and games. Make believe games are characterized by many rules of substitutions (where one object represents another). Fiction emphasizes only one substitution, that the narrated world is really the actual world. Both of these make use of the magic circle, where outside of the circle, the rules for understanding occurrences and experience are normal, but inside the reader or player employs rules to develop meaning and understand the world. Textual worlds make use of several axioms: (p. 24-25)

  1. There is only one AW.
  2. The sender (author) of a text is always located in AW.
  3. Every text projects a universe. At the center of this universe is TAW.
  4. TAW is offered as the accurate image of a world TRW, which is assumed (really or in make-believe) to exist independently of TAW.
  5. Every text has an implied speaker (defined as the individual who fulfills the felicity conditions of the textual speech acts.) The implied speaker of the text is always located in TRW.

These terms come from the glossary of terms before the introduction of the book: (p. vii)

  • System of reality: A set of distinct worlds. The system has a modal structure, and forms a modal system, if it comprises a central world surrounded by satellite worlds. The center of a modal system is its actual world, the satellites are alternative possible worlds.
  • Textual universe: The image of a system of reality projected by a text. The textual universe is a modal system if one of its worlds is designated as actual and opposed to the other worlds of the system.
  • Semantic domain: A concept slightly more general than textual universe. The set of concepts evoked by the text, whether or not those concepts form a system of reality (i.e., whether or not the text asserts facts and makes existential claims)
  • AW: The actual world, center of our system of reality. AW is the world where I am located. Absolutely speaking, there is only one AW.
  • APW: Alternative possible world in a modal system of reality.
  • TRW: Textual reference world. The world for which the text claims facts; the world in which the propositions asserted by thte text are to be valued. TRW is the center of a system of reality comprising APWs.
  • TAW: Textual actual world. The image of TRW is proposed by the text. The authority that determines the facts of TAW is the actual sender (author).
  • TAPW: Textual alternative possible world. An alternative possible world in a textual universe structured as a modal system TAPWs are textually presented as mental constructs formed by the inhabitants of TAW.
  • NAW: Narratorial actual world. What the narrator presents as fact of TRW.

Possible Worlds and Accessibility Relations

This section describes the logical relations of possible worlds. These worlds describe entire universes. They may abide by following some assortment of logical properties. These lay out the formal logic of the textual worlds. We could also consider these logical relations as rules for building possible worlds. The rules for considering the logical properties can vary depending on whether the world operates according to concrete logic, dream logic, nonsense logic, and so on. The different properties are given below: (p. 32-33)

  1. (A) Identity of properties. TAW is accessible from AW if the objects common to TAW and AW have the same properties.
  2. (B) Identity of inventory. TAW is accessible from AW if TAW and AW are furnished by the same objects.
  3. (C) Compatibility of inventory. TAW is accessible from AW if TAW’s inventory includes all the members of AW, as well as some native members.
  4. (D) Chrnological compatibility. TAW is accessible from AW if it takes no temporal relocation for a member of AW to contemplate the entire history of TAW. (This means TAW is not in the future of AW)
  5. (E) Physical compatibility. TAW is accessible from AW if they share natural laws.
  6. (F) Taxonomic compatibility. TAW is accessible from AW if both worlds contain the same species, and the species are characterized by the same properties. Within F, it may be useful to distinguish a narrower version F’ stipulating that TAW must contain not only the same inventory of natural species, but also the same types of manufactured objects as found in AW up to the present.
  7. (G) Logical compatibiltiy. TAW is accessible from AW if both worlds respect the principles of noncontradiction and of excluded middle.
  8. (H) Analytical compatibility. TAW is accessible from AW if they share analytical truths, i.e., if objects designated by the same words have the same essential properties.
  9. (I) Linguistic compatibility. TAW is accessible from AW if the language in which TAW is described can be understood in AW.

Reconstructing the Textual Universe

This section derives from David Lewis, coming from his investigation of counterfactuals. The notion of what is “true” in fiction is ambiguous. Complications arise in terms of what is known as fact, versus what is told as fact, or what is assumed or expected. The section introduces what is called the “principle of minimum departure”, which explains that a possible world is more likely if it has a sort of minimum distance from the actual world of the fiction. Ryan gives an algorithm for considering counterfactuals in TRW:

There is a set of modal universes A, which are constructed on the basis of a fictional text f, and in which whose actual world the nontextual statement p is true.

There is a set of modal universes B, which are constructed on the basis of a fictional text f, and in whose atual world the nontextual statement p is false.

Of all these universes, take the one which differs the least, on balance, from our own system of reality. If it belongs to set A, then p is true in TRW, and the statement “in TRW, p” is true in AW. Otherwise, p is false in TRW, and “in TRW, p” is false in AW. (p. 50)

An important part of minimum departure is interpretation, which often involves actual world construction. How does the reader build up the substance of the TRW based on limited knowledge? The textual world is necessarily an in complete picture of not only the world’s semantic universe, but also the world of the fiction itself. This is complicated by way in which facts may be interdependent in the TRW.

Considering TRWs as subjects for possible worlds (including counterfactuals) leasds to the development of a textual universe. This is what I am attempting to simulate in the Pride and Prejudice game.

The Modal Structure of Narrative

The actual content of a narrative is some system of events in a sequence, but the nature of these is much more than mere propositions. In addition to conveying actual events, narratives are concerned with events that are non-actual, not-yet actual, may-have-been actual, and so on. The way for communicating these is for them to be given in modes. This discussion is influenced heavily by Todorov and Doležel. Todorov gives four modal operators: (p. 110)

  1. Obligatory mode: events dictated by the laws of a society.
  2. Optative mode: states and actions desired by characters.
  3. Conditional mode: actions that characters will perfom if other events happen.
  4. Predictive mode: antipated events.

Doležel describes three systems of modes: (p. 111)

  1. The deontic system, formed by the concepts of permission, prohibition, and obligation.
  2. The axiological system, which is assumed to be constituted by the concepts of goodness, badness, and indifference.
  3. The epistemic system, represented by concepts of knowledge, ignorance, and belief.

Ryan also describes how the substance of propositions is held together in a world: “To form the image of a world, propositions must be held together by a modal operator acting as common denominator. In the literal sense of the term, a possible world is a set of propositions modalized by the operator of the so-called alethic system: possible, impossible, necessary.” (p. 111)

It is worthwhile to note that these modalities explain how the content of the world might be represented procedurally. For instance, constructing models of what is true, versus what is desired by characters, or what is prohibited, and so on. Ryan goes on to explain that each of these modes defines kinds of worlds that may be private to characters: for instance, knowledge worlds (K-worlds), wish worlds (W-worlds), obligation worlds (O-worlds).

The Dynamics of Plot

This section examines narrative as a sequence of states. Narrative sequence is how states and state changes are revealed to the reader. This is dependent on a depiction of narrative time. The first major issue in considering a narrative as composed of states is the determination of what information is pertinent to the state versus what is purely descriptive. This delineation is frequently less than clear, and so the separation requires some degree of interpretive creativity. Ryan explains that there is a criterion for determining relevance depending on the narrative, but does not explain how this criterion ought to be defined.

The logic of states is relevant to considering narrative as a single run through or trace of the simulation of a story world. However, the analysis of states does not comprise the entirety of the story world, but just its plot. The story itself includes more than plot, and narrative includes discourse in addition to story.

Also relevant is a consideration of the actual and potential states. These are negotiated by character decisions and moves. Many significant character moves are passive. States and evens are linked together by a graph structure of goals, prerequisites, side effects, and blocking relationships. (p. 140)

Given a state and action system, it is easy for plan structures to exist. This mode of planning fits the traditional AI models. The examples that Ryan gives are primarily from moral tales and fables. Maybe this is an indication that moral tales fit the planning model of behavior better than other narratives. The state system used encourages a global and objective sense of state, which is oppositional to the situated view, but exactly how is not yet clear.

The Formal Representation of Plot

The motive of this section is to formalize story plots as a system of nodes and connections. This is essentially a formal and structural plan. This approach presents the world as a top down analysis. Ryan gives several criteria for describing the properties that such a formal representation should have: It must be able to convey the same representation for multiple stories that have the same plot, it must convey information readily, and contain representations of important functional units. The story analyzed in this section is the story of “The Fox and the Crow”. It is important to remember that by looking closely at plot, this is a very different agenda than simulation.

An early diagram has a tree structure (p. 206), but this is revealed to be insufficient. A different model comes from Lehnert, with a system of +/- states, as well as goals, beliefs, and plans. This model is very similar to the traditional AI approach. Various actions and complications are described as nodes linked by arrows with + or – signs indicating their favorability for characters, and ‘G’ indicating that the state is a goal of a character. Ryan’s favored model builds from this, and gives a recursive graph structure (p. 223), indicating goals, plans, and beliefs on the part of both characters.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorRyan, Marie-Laure
TitlePossible Worlds: Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory
Tagsdigital media, ai, narrative, games, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon
« Previous PageNext Page »