Everyday Procedural Literacy vs. Computational Procedural Literacy

Everyday Procedural Literacy vs. Computational Procedural Literacy

2008-06-19

Through a mini-experiment Robert Lecusay explores the differences between gamers’ and non-gamers’ interactions with non-player characters in Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern’s Façade.

Mateas and Stern define procedural authorship as the ability to, “think about and work within computational frameworks…the ability to read and write processes, to engage in procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between the culturally embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically mediated processes” (183). I emphasize the latter portion of the definition because it highlights aspects of procedural authorship that I think are critical for assessing Mateas and Stern’s aims in designing Façade - questions of players’ experiences of Façade, and questions of procedural literacy.

Human meaning-making practices can be thought of in procedural terms. “Procedures,” writes Bogost, “found the logics that structure behavior in all cases…when we do things, we do them according to some logic, and that logic constitutes a process in the general sense of the word,” (2007, 7, emphasis in original). This procedural view of human behavior is not new. Developmental psychology gives us the concept of scripts, or generalized event schemas. Schemas refer to mental structures that provide individuals models for engaging in or interpreting action in similar or analogous circumstances. Scripts are a kind of schema that specifies a sequence of actions that are related temporally and causally (Nelson, 1981). Individuals acquire scripts as a result of their repeated participation in routine, culturally organized events.

This juxtaposition of the computational procedural literacy discussed in Mateas and Stern’s chapter with the everyday “folk” procedural literacy (like scripts) that humans develop and deploy, raises a number of questions:

- First, what connections can we draw between this everyday procedural literacy and the computational procedural literacy required to create interactive media like Façade?

- Considering the centrality of embeddedness and engagement in social interaction for developing this everyday procedural literacy, can we also talk about a folk computational procedural literacy that is tied to the degree of engagement with interactive digital media (e.g. literacy gained primarily from both actively programming and using interactive media vs. one gained from only using interactive media)? I first wondered about this distinction while enrolled in a seminar on computer game studies. As one of the few students in the class with relatively little experience playing video games, I failed at times to understand what my more computer game literate peers were talking about in class. (What’s a “bot”?) They had a more sophisticated understanding of the underlying architecture and mechanics of computer games which, for example, allowed them to find technical solutions to problems embedded as dilemmas in the plots of the games we sampled in the seminar. I, on the other hand, was initially confined to interacting with the non-player characters (NPCs) in these games in the ways that the designers had intended - as a human being assuming the role of the character assigned to me in the game.

- If we assume a distinction between a programmer/gamer’s vs. a gamer’s vs. a non-gamer’s computational procedural literacy (a distinction that to me is reflected in Mateas’ notions of authorial and interpretive affordances (Mateas, 2001), can we then ask if there are differences in the way players play Façade that relate to the degree and kind of computational procedural literacy they posses?

- If we assume a form procedural literacy that develops from playing computer games, then we must also ask if this literacy may differ qualitatively depending on the kind of video games played. Façade engages players in ways that are significantly different than say first-person shooters or MMORPGs. William Huber points to this difference, arguing that Façade, unlike more traditional computer games, taps into social cognitive aspects of human experience which are “more interested in partial contingency: this means agents that are never completely predictable, but are probabilistically predictable.” He continues: “When the player can reduce his/her interaction with the agent to a predictable input/ output system - a game of perfect contingency, with or without complete information - players will not bother to engage in social cognition and instead settle into mechanistic, operational play” (Huber, 2004).

- Turning to Mateas and Stern’s aims in creating Façade, how then might differences in folk computational procedural literacy relate to a player’s experience of high agency in the game? For example, would the sense of high agency decrease for players who have a more sophisticated understanding of the computational constraints that control NPC action in Façade, presumably allowing them to effect changes in the game based on engagement with Trip and Grace as, for example, parsers rather than as people? Can one assume that differences in game strategies like these necessarily translate into differences in player experiences of high agency?

In order to address some of these questions I attempted a quasi-experimental assessment of player experiences of Façade. Conducted as part of my final project for the seminar in computer game studies, this informal study involved video taping participants as they played Façade (see Figure 1) and post-game interviews in which we watched and analyzed a recording of the Façade session the player had just completed. Reasoning that differences in the amount and quality of experience with computer games in general would lead to differences in game playing strategy, and, relatedly, differences in player experiences of high agency, I selected two participants with little experience playing videogames (“non-gamers”) and two participants from the computer games studies seminar who were both avid gamers and computer game scholars (“gamers”).

Figure 1: The “non-gamers” reactions to their unfolding visit at Trip and Grace’s apartment.

My hypothesis didn’t quite bare out. I did in fact find that two players (one gamer, one non-gamer) drew on their understanding of computational constraints on NPC behavior in order to effect changes in these behaviors (e.g. experimenting with different words to see what tag words triggered particular parser responses). Both these players at times interacted with Trip and Grace as if they were real people (e.g. using natural language to try to correct Trip and/or Grace’s “misinterpretations” of the player’s actions). Unlike these two players, the remaining players adopted this latter mode of interaction throughout their whole visit with Trip and Grace. As the different player strategies show, whether the player was a gamer or not did not seem to relate to whether s/he drew on computational procedural knowledge to take actions in the game.

One factor that I initially failed to account for, but which plays an important role in a player’s sense of agency, is previous experience with Façade. The gamers that I had recruited had already played Façade several times before (thanks to their participation in the computer game studies seminar), while this was the first time that the non-gamers had played the game. Of the four players in this mini-study, only one of the gamers was successful at achieving one of the more elusive outcomes in the game: getting Trip and Grace to agree to stick together and try and resolve their problems. This particular gamer attributed his success to the fact that in the past Trip had made statements suggesting that he had committed an indiscretion. When Trip made similar statements during the gamer’s Façade study session, the gamer encouraged Trip to elaborate which ultimately resulted in the more or less happy ending. The gamer’s prior experience highlights the fact that Façade is an interactive drama. Our tendency with dramas, whether realized in cinema, theater, or fiction, is to expect that they will have their full effect the first time we experience them (Noah Wardrip-Fruin, personal communication); however, Façade is designed to generate a variety of interactional configurations, which in turn requires that the player play the game a number of times in order to develop a meaningful sense of Trip and Grace’s personalities. Personality it is not only critical to sustaining believability, but is a key factor in mediating the player’s sense of global and local agency.

References

Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT press.

Huber, W. (2004). Guiltier Pleasures: Social Cognition in Gaming. Retrieved March 5, 2008.

Mateas, M. (2001). “Expressive AI: A Hybrid Art and Science Practice.” Leonardo 34.2. 147-153.

Nelson, K. (1981). “Social Cognition in a Script Framework.” In J. H. Flavell & L. Ross (Eds.) Social Cognitive Development: Frontiers and Possible Futures. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 97-118