January 20, 2004

Trying To Break It

by Andrew Stern · , 8:45 am

In a recent discussion about interactive works that try to fuse fiction and reality, the lead writer for Online Caroline mentioned how it can be disturbing if players step over the line when interacting with a virtual character who is supposed to be real and have real feelings.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to somewhat fully fleshed-out and reactive virtual characters, the first thing players (or at least males) usually try to do is push it to its limits, to try to break it, to see how far things can go — e.g., behave badly or cruelly, swear, act lewdly or inappropriately, flirt excessively, etc. So, for an experience in which a virtual character is supposed to be real, when players act inappropriately, I could see how it would seem more disturbing.

Or not. My theory is that even if players willingly suspend their disbelief that the character is real (which can be tough to do, since today’s virtual characters are pretty crude!), players intellectually know the character is fake, and so can get an emotional thrill by acting provocatively to a character who is posing as real. There is no true guilt you should have in torturing your virtual cat with a water spray bottle for hours on end, or allowing your Sims to wet their pants, or running over pedestrians in GTA3 (although none of those characters are posing as actually real). In fact one of greatest pleasures of virtual reality and interactive drama is getting to do things you’re not allowed to do in real life.

Or not? If it’s that easy for you to torture or kill virtual characters, especially ones posing as real, what does that say about you as a person? It’s a slippery slope, right?

In any event, when designing virtual characters, we should expect inappropriate behavior to be the first thing most people do. My question is, since we know players are going to behave badly, as designers, should we reward that behavior, or discourage it?

21 Responses to “Trying To Break It”


  1. JJ86 Says:

    I think games that allow you to travel the path of cruelty or the path of saint are more interesting than one path alone. Maybe multiple paths allowing you to find the gray path as we are normally faced with in real life would be even more useful. Moral dilemmas are interesting to solve and give us a better idea of who we are or we we could be.

  2. andrew Says:

    JJ, I agree with you that experiences with the kind of breadth and depth you’re talking about are more interesting than ones without, but how much inappropriate behavior on the part of the player should be supported or even rewarded? At what point should the system recognize that the player is trying to “break” the experience, and should somehow react against it? This is especially revelant to virtual characters, who are meant to be sentient and aware, and really can’t believably have infinite amounts of patience for a crazy-acting player.

  3. Brian Says:

    From a general design standpoint, I usually take the view that “the user is never wrong.” If this is a common behavior for users of interactive characters to exhibit, then figure out how to deal with it, either by spending a lot of time researching the problems within your approach, coming up with some elegant workaround that will at least be entertaining (Nethack 3.4+ comes to mind as a great example of this), or simply accepting it.

    You can find this kind of behavior in real life too, of course. People are entertained by failure. Just gGo to London and watch tourists line up to try and distract the Royal Guard outside.

  4. andrew Says:

    Yes, the user is never wrong per se, and failure-states can be funny up to a point, but to stay believable, characters do need to react in some plausible way to inappropriate behavior. For example, in Facade, if you continuously harass the characters way beyond what is realistic for an invited guest to do, after exhausting the limited number of humorous reactions they have for that, they’ll throw you out of the apartment, even before the drama is over. I think players will actually appreciate that there is a limit to “out of bounds” behavior; it also gives some consequences to your actions.

    Generally speaking, I wonder if players tend to act differently if the character is posing as truly real, e.g. Online Caroline, Majestic? Do they tend to behave any less badly — or perhaps the reverse, they might act even worse? (Most games and experiences don’t try to get you to think their characters are truly real, so there may not be much data on this.)

  5. B. Rickman Says:

    The user is never wrong? What kind of design rule is that? As an approach to interface design, I can see it as a kind of distant cousin to the old “form follows function” maxim, whereby, for example, there is no “wrong” way to save a document. But this rule falls apart when the task is as simple as filling out a form, when the user wrongly writes his name last name first.

    Further, in a system where the user is never wrong I would argue that there is no place for meaningful interaction. When every action by the user is considered correct, there is no way to return feedback to the system. There is no way to distinguish between “I understand what is going on” and “I want to perform some action”, because every message from the user is interpreted as a request for action.

    And, on the flip-side, there is no way for the system to give feedback to the user. If the user is never wrong, then the system likewise can never be wrong, for if the user cannot be wrong then the system can never indicate that the user has acted incorrectly. All exchanges between the user and the system much be actions, without any form of acknowledgement. (There is a lot of interactive art out there that follows this model.)

    Without feedback, from the user to the system and vice versa, there is no channel of communication. There is no way for the user-interacting-with-a-system to establish structures of meaning.

    In order to create meaningful communication, both the system and the user must appoach each other with a certain willingness to participate. For the people on the system side (Facade, &c), this is a difficult task, but a primary one. For the users, if a user is unwilling to build a meaningful relationship with the system, then they have invalidated their own experience. It is not the artist’s/designer’s problem.

  6. andrew Says:

    Good points… if you take “the user is never wrong” to its extreme, and the system is always agreeing with the user’s choices like a yes-man, like some sort of lackey, then the systems actions have little or no meaning. Also the player effectively has no agency. But I think what is meant by “the user is never wrong” is that users should never be “punished” for doing something interesting; by “punished” I mean a response from the system that completely rejects the user’s input as wrong or illegal or erroneous, e.g., “illegal command”, or “you just died” for no good reason.

    My preferred balance: offer a wide range of expression to the player and a wide range of responses from the system. Up to a point, “bad behavior” from the player (e.g., the player keeps hitting or saying “you bastard” to the characters) is reacted to in ways that make sense in context, e.g., the characters get annoyed or upset at the player, — “god, what’s wrong with you today”, “ah, he’s just kidding around” — enough to keep them believable. They may get very angry, which has secondary effects on the simulation / story. But after enough bad behavior, at which point user is pretty much “wrong” (e.g., acting completely socially unacceptable, insane, psychopathic) in the context of the situation, and the system has little choice but to boot the player out of the experience.

    Another approach, much more work, would be that if the player acts crazy, e.g. acts really mean, cruel or nasty, then the experience shifts into this really ugly name-calling violent farce like experience. That is, if the player begins acting absurd, the system should turn the experience absurdist.

  7. Brian Says:

    Right – if the user executes something unexepected, a good design choice is to find an adequate response to incoporate those actions into the narrative. Trip or Grace tossing you out for acting bizarre is a good example of a smooth, story-relevant adaptation to bizarre user error. I’m not even convinced the response has to be that incredibly smooth to be satisfying; I know that as a game player, when I try to do something obviously outside the intent of a system, and, rather than dumbly letting me do it, the system gives me any obviously thought out response, it’s fulfilling to see the care that got put into the system’s design.

    “Breaking the story” seems to have different areas within it though: it’s quite different to brush off a rude comment that someone makes versus them stealing the silverware off of the table while you were in the kitchen cooking dinner. Physical, tangible effects seem to be more permanent and troublesome than an odd social behavior and that a system needs to react to those with different tactics.

  8. JJ86 Says:

    In most RPG games that I have played like Arcanum or Fallout, you have the option of things you want to say in a conversation. You can be mean to someone and they will stop the conversation, never to talk to you again. Other conversation choices depend on the reputation variable. The reputation can be dependent on factions that you are allied with or whether you are good or evil. Therefore it evolves through the game depending on choices you make to limit or expand relationships with other characters.

    Obviously it is somewhat different with these games where all possible conversations are prewritten but there is a large combination of them that are taken into account. I actually prefer a system that presents a finite but immense choice of conversation possibilities. It is easier to develop a tree of consequences yet still allows for a variety of directions to go for the evolution of different relationships.

  9. DmGoober Says:

    The idea that the user is never wrong has the same problem as 100% open ended game play. In both cases the user can do anything which basically means that the designer can do nothing. Which means that every such game is identical. Buy one such game, do anything you want, never have to buy another game.

    The other problem with the idea that the user is never wrong is that users are usually not that skilled at being interesting. Would you pay money to go to a Shakespeare play where the lines were all made up by the audience members? No! You go to a Shakespeare play to hear Shakespeare’s ideas. While games are a little bit more flexible, the idea behind a game is for the designer to share some interesting ideas with you — which means that the designer can simply decide that the user is wrong, in order to share those ideas correctly.

    How many of you have played Call of Duty? How many of you have really gone out of your way to save your teammates (even though they basically keep respawning whether you save them or not?) In this case, players go out of their way to save their anonymous squadmates. This is yet another case of players becoming MORE emotionally involved in characters that are LESS developed. If the character can’t break your suspension of disbelief by saying something stupid to you, then your disbelief remains suspended, no?

  10. B. Rickman Says:

    I’m not sure why a designer would want to spend so much time creating fun experiences for players who are interested in breaking the story, unless you are in fact trying to create an open-ended experience, as DMGoober said. If the system responds to absurd actions by turning the scene into a farce, you’re only diverting resources away from the story you intended to tell.

  11. Jill Says:

    Actually, I have several friends who truly thought Online Caroline was real. They’d followed three or four episodes and were appalled when I broke the news that she was fictional. These are smart people, you know? Perhaps not fiction scientists, but regular, smart people.

  12. andrew Says:

    Brandon, the reason I’d imagine having the system turn the story into a farce if the player wanted to, is simply exactly that, because the player wanted to. I’d love to see a system that could adapt that well to what the player wanted to do. That’s not to say the system would never push back, never disagree with the player, never have a will of its own. It think it’s possible for a system to be both adaptable and willful — to often go where the player wants to go, yet also oppose and conflict with the player at times. Like a good parent, really.

    Do you think I’m too nice? ;-}

    Regarding your comment “the story you intended to tell”, please jump to my latest post “making, not telling“.

    DmGoober, I don’t mind if a game designer wants to share their ideas with me, but I want to feel that my voice matters a lot, and that the game should try to adapt to what I want to do to, within reason. Is it possible that what a player wants to do might not be interesting? Maybe not interesting to some, but it’s probably interesting to the player herself… it’s a balance. IMO, ideally an experience would work with and emphasize the more interesting things the player wants to do, and de-emphasize (but not completely reject) those possibly boring things the player wants to do.

    Jill, wow, well that’s a credit to the designers that people really believed Caroline was real. My favorite example of that happening is the oft-cited conversation between the bot Julia and the amorous Barry. However, I’d guess that most people suspect that such characters are virtual, while simultaneously pretending they’re not, allowing for that guiltless thrill when behaving badly to them.

  13. B. Rickman Says:

    Andrew, I guess I’m resolved to the idea that there must always be some form of authorship at some level. It is perfectly fine to place a story/game in some sort of interactive space, where the narrative can move through/across different permutations/procedures, but that still doesn’t exempt the author from making some kind of authorial decisions.

    I think there are a couple of different motives for what you are trying to do, but they’re a bit tangled. One possible motive is the attempt to escape authorship. I don’t accept this motive, as it is basically abdicating responsibility for the things you create.

    Another possible motive is to remove yourself from the relationship with the user and put some system in your place. If you can get a user to address the system, and not the author of the system, in their interactions, then you’ve, er, built the fourth wall (the opposite of breaking to fourth wall?).

    A third motive is the attempt to move yourself from being the author in the relationship to being the user of the system that you author. You want to build agents so that you can interact with them. A sort of fooling yourself with the fourth wall you built yourself.

    For me, the main motive is simply to make meaning. It doesn’t take digital technology or interactivity to do that, but having them allows you to create meaning with a little more immediacy.

  14. andrew Says:

    Brandon, what have I said that suggests I’m not interested in authorship as one of the meaning-making forces? As I talk about in our current parallel thread of discussion, I’m interested in systems where the player and system collaborate; the artist (e.g., me) has authored the system and its rules, and therefore wield much influence, even if the system is very adaptive. Like you, I too am interested in making meaning, but perhaps more interested in sharing the process with the user than you are? I agree there’s inherent tension in sharing, but I wouldn’t call it tangled.

    As far as motives go — no, I’m not trying to escape authorship. In fact, it’s quite difficult for me as an author to release my tight grip on the reins. But I think in doing so one gets closer to realizing the computer’s potential as a medium for powerfully meaningful experiences.

    The second motive you describe is perhaps closer to what I’m interested in. One of my motivations is in fact for the system to be my proxy for interacting with others (not all systems I’d like to build would be this, but I’m interested for some of them to be). In such a case, the system would be a version of my thinking and beliefs and thought processes, and by interacting with it, people get closer to knowing me — but isn’t that often how art functions?

    I also think there is some appeal (not the primary one though) in building a system for which I can be a user of the system. This would require building a system generative enough to surprise me, so that it would be interesting to interact with. It could be, if I wanted it to be, effectively interacting with a clone or variation or child of myself. Narcisstic for sure, but I won’t deny, conceptually interesting on some level. (Again the parenting theme comes in…)

    Can you be more specific about the exact nature of the experience of interactive meaning-making you envision?

  15. B. Rickman Says:

    I think it was your willingness to turn the story into a farce, when that seemed to be what the user wanted. Going from drama to farce involves such a major shuffling of structure that it removes structure from the author’s control. I see this willingness to go along with the user as equivalent to relinquishing one of the few forms of control the author has.

    Now perhaps your idea of “farce” is more of a stylistic idea, and/or the structure you are concerned with works on a much deeper level. It’s hard to tell these things with such short exchanges. :) And that’s the main reason why I wanted to see which motive you would be most willing to accept.

    I find all three of the motives I described hard to understand. The system-as-proxy motive confuses me because I don’t think my thought process is really that interesting. I do have ideas I’d like to share, and to show people things as I have seen them. But is that the same as wanting people to know me? That sounds a bit humbler-than-thou. Let me say that I’m more interested in creating artificial identities for myself, something of a dishonest motive.

    With interactive experience, I’m interested in creating forms which require reciprocity between the work and the audience. For me, one of the biggest failures of new media is that the forms it takes become so many dead artifacts. Even an interactive installation, once it is installed, because a static thing, always responding to the audience in the same way. Digital media can be iterative, but rarely is.

    I suppose that’s a very formal concern, more a critique of form than an honest impulse to build things. The Dr. K— Project is a very reactionary piece.

    I’m avoiding the parallel thread because it looks more like a terminology and taxonomy discussion than anything else.

  16. timwright Says:

    Being partially responsible for this thread I thought I’d better chip in.

    When I talked about people stepping over the line I was thinking of behaviour such as:

    a/A soldier in the British Army sending pictures of himself in full uniform, and then offering to kill Caroline’s boyfriend for her. Seriously.

    b/A woman flaming Caroline about how sad and lame the site is and how only pathetic lonely old men would ever interact with it. Meanwhile on the same email account the woman’s husband is telling Caroline how unhappy he is in his marriage and how he’d like to run away but is too scared of his wife – who hits him regularly.

    c/The man who tracks down *my* home address as a tech admin contact for one of the Caroline servers and comes peering through my letterbox at half-eight in the morning looking for Caroline.

    d/The schoolboy who writes to Caroline to say ‘stay away from my Dad he has my mum and does not need you’.

    e/The man who phones my office seriously worried that because he had complained to our (fictional) chief exec about our treatment of Caroline that we were about to send the boys round to turn over his place.

    I could go on. I have tens of thousands of mails. Thousands of pictures and phone messages. These people are not acting. Well, I guess some are.

    The key question is: how responsible should I feel as the author for these people and their responses. And how should I respond to these situations? Should I write back as Caroline and try and create a soft landing for everyone within the realms of the fiction. Or should I just come clean and say ‘this is a fiction, Caroline is not real, it’s time to stop playing now…’?

  17. andrew Says:

    Fascinating… let’s continue this discussion in a fresh thread.

  18. JP Says:

    “Another possible motive is to remove yourself from the relationship with the user and put some system in your place. If you can get a user to address the system, and not the author of the system, in their interactions, then you’ve, er, built the fourth wall (the opposite of breaking to fourth wall?).”

    Only the wall listens. And thinks. And speaks. And is not really a wall.

  19. DJ Says:

    Can you like send me a msg when grant text city comes back

  20. www antimodal com Says:
    Another Half-Baked Design Principle
    It started with a comment from “Brian” on Grand Text Auto. When dealing with players who intentionally misbehave — swearing, flirting excessively, attempting to torture — while interacting with virtual characters, Brian stated this design maxim: “The…

  21. Bot Abuse, Interactive Misuse at WRT: Writer Response Theory Says:

    [...] ern of GTxA has discussed both the emergence of trying-to-break-it behavior towards bots and, more generally, the (im)moral treatm [...]

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress