February 8, 2005

Logics People Play

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:00 am

Spacewar! on a PDP-1Not all playable computational media is graphical. In fact, some of the most popular early computer games were entirely textual. Games like Adventure and Zork were even at times played on teletypes, with the interaction recorded on scrolling reams of paper, rather than on terminals with screens. (Of course, an excellent tracing of the history of this textual interactive fiction can be found in Nick’s Twisty Little Passages.)

But when we think of playing with computers, we generally think of graphical experiences, those that follow in the tradition of Spacewar! rather than Adventure. Created on the PDP-1 at MIT in the first years of the 1960s, Spacewar! was the first modern video game. Two players each had a custom-made controller, which they used to control the flight of a virtual spacecraft on the PDP-1′s CRT. The spacecraft were pulled toward the star at the center of the screen by simulated gravity, and could fire projectiles at one another. A spacecraft hit by the central star or a projectile would be damaged. These are still among the central logics of graphical gaming today — the ability to move graphical objects that on some level represent the player, the ability to fire projectiles, a simulation of some form of physics, and “collision detection” when one thing runs into another. These logics aren’t only the basis for play in experiences such as Half-Life, but also (leaving aside projectiles) in pieces such as Text Rain.

We’re accustomed to seeing successful combinations of graphical logics and game rules repackaged repeatedly. Games such as Pac-Man and Tetris have had many authorized and unauthorized versions “skinned” with different surface graphics and different graphical arrangements, but with the essential logics of graphical movement and gameplay preserved. Such combinations, within a larger range of variation, are also the basis for our identifications of game genres such as “side-scrollers” and “first-person shooters.”

I bring all this up, in part, in order to make a point about the “instrumental texts” that I (pdf, html w/o images) and others have been talking about — about how they are played. While each of these pieces contains a textual component, they are all played along graphical logics. For John Cayley’s riverIsland play is primarily through the graphical/physical manipulation of the Quicktime movies; in Stuart Moulthrop’s Pax it is the collision detection as characters are caught and clicked; and in my Screen collaboration (with Andrew McClain, Shawn Greenlee, Robert Coover, Josh Carroll, and Sascha Becker) it is the movement of the interactor’s body and the collision detection of hitting words. What these projects do, in each case, is package together logics of graphical play and methods of response with textual and graphical material.

What a project like Jim Andrews’s Arteroids does differently is take a set of logics of graphical play and methods of response and then open them to many different sets of textual material. This might be seen as the same as taking the formula of Pac-Man or Tetris and opening it up to many variations in graphical representation. But, for me, it doesn’t feel the same. Somehow it feels more arbitrary, little different than if the graphics in Pong or Spacewar! were opened to replacement by arbitrary text.

I’ve been thinking about what would feel less arbitrary. As I discussed briefly when interviewed at Dichtung Digital, if the same graphical logic can be skinned with many different surface graphics successfully, perhaps those seeking to create “textual instruments” (which can be used to play many different textual compositions) will need to consider forms of play that proceed via linguistic or textual logics. Before the computer became part of everyday life, textual forms of play such as the crossword (or games of the Surrealists or Oulipo, or Madlibs, and so on) successfully accommodated many different texts by structuring play around the features specific to textuality. Perhaps the true challenge of creating textual instruments involves finding such structures that benefit from the computational environment.

If such structures can be found I also suspect that the result will feel, at least to me, in some ways like a deeper engagement with text than is possible with projects (like Screen) that proceed along graphical logics — projects that could still be played, though perhaps not as rewardingly, if their words were all converted into colorful boxes.

Of course, the next question is where one might begin to explore such textual or linguistic logics. Though perhaps this work has already begun, with those creating computer-based versions of crosswords, Surrealist games, Oulipian games, and so on. And Nick’s Fields of Dream collaboration with Rachel Stevens goes further — bringing the basic fill-in-the-blank logic of Madlibs into a project specific to the networked computer.

But there is also another related territory to explore. This is that of linguistic and textual logics previously employed in text processing and generation — in contexts ranging from the computer science subfield of natural language processing (NLP) to the artistic contexts of John Cage, William S. Burroughs, or Jackson Mac Low. Whether considered scientific or artistic, these methods have generally been operated in batch mode — either generating chunks of language or analyzing chunks of language. But there is nothing to prevent them from being run interactively, or to prevent the interaction with them from being structured as play. This is the kind of exploration that David Durand, Brion Moss, Elaine Froehlich, and I were trying to begin with our n-gram instruments Regime Change and News Reader.

And, beyond this, it’s obvious that graphical and textual logics are not the only ones that can be played. For example, while Façade includes both text and graphics, I would argue that the primary logics underlying play in Façade (that are encoded into the system’s structures for play) are neither textual nor graphical. In a recent conversation with Michael, he and I came to the conclusion that Façade might be described as interpreting both graphical actions and textual utterances as moves in play structured around discourse logics (and employing computational techniques for understanding discourse developed outside of play contexts). Similarly, one might understand Will Wright’s major contribution as making the logics of simulation enjoyably playable, beginning with the urban planning simulations of Jay Forrester which inspired SimCity.

In short, I’m starting to think that there are many untapped logics to be explored for play (and for games).

12 Responses to “Logics People Play”


  1. Dirk scheuring Says:

    Perhaps the true challenge of creating textual instruments involves finding such structures that benefit from the computational environment.

    For my purposes, developing structures that build on “objects”, “predicates”, and “subjects” as primitive elements works quite well, as those elements (their names, actually) are used in linguistics as well as computer programming, (yes, there actually is such a thing as subject-oriented programming; promoted by IBM, no less), and if you can implement their linguistic functions computationally, you can cover quite a lot of ground in terms of responsiveness to user input.

    One very interesting approach to describe a desirable behavior for textual structures is sugested in < href="http://users.ids.net/~yuri/Poverty%20of%20stimulus.pdf">“Pattern Theory and ‘Poverty of Stimulus’ argument in linguistics”, where the author, a chemist and poet called Yuri Tarnopolsky, asks the question: “What if words were atoms?” – simple primitives, combined into (often) complicated structures according to rules that can be deterministic or random. This is similar to the formation of molecules from atoms connected by various forms of bonds. Could those be the structures you are looking for?

  2. Dirk scheuring Says:

    Sorry; I got distracted and didn’t complete the link properly: “Pattern Theory and ‘Poverty of Stimulus’ argument in linguistics”

  3. noah Says:

    Thanks Dirk, the Tarnopolsky paper looks quite interesting. I’ve already forwarded it to a friend who has been toying with the idea of “molecular literature” in a different context.

    Subject-oriented programming also sounds intriguing.

    Do you have a sense of how one might make these logics a basis of play?

    To perhaps explain what I mean a little better — agitprop theatre also has a certain set of logics, and one of Augusto Boal’s contributions (in forum theatre) is explaining a way to use them as a basis for play. Less ambitiously, Regime Change and News Reader try to use n-gram logics (which have certainly been around for a while) as a basis for play. What interests me most, in this thread, is trying to imagine how we can take other as-yet-untapped logics and use them as a basis for play.

  4. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    Do you have a sense of how one might make these logics a basis of play?

    Yes. However, it seems like I can’t find a way to express this theoretically without sounding weird (and really, I’ve tried hard), so I think I better shut up and write the code. That should make it easier for me to explain it.

  5. Jason Dyer Says:

    Does IF involving wordplay as a primary mechanic count under your definition?

  6. noah Says:

    Sure. As far as I can tell, that part of the IF is definitely being played along a linguistic logic.

  7. andrew Says:

    Noah, my take on what you’re looking towards is meaning-centered play. Play not on the surface structure of words (syntax, grammar, matching words, rhyme, etc.) — not on the surface structure of physical action and gesture (physical collision, velocities, projectiles, etc) — but on the actual meanings of words, actions and gestures.

    If you think about it, meaning is actually the common driver of activity in play (well, in non-sports play, at least). When playing cards, such as poker, the meaning of our language and gesture is a key way we influence and manipulate our opponents (bluffing, teasing, provoking, etc.). When playing 20 Questions, the meaning of our words is what drives the play, both on the level of asking questions, and also the tone of our banter. When we play make-believe, meaning is everything: we’re literally creating the content of our little virtual world as we play.

    Relative to the multitude of types of play that rely on meaning, there are few types of language play limited to just syntax and grammar. In the physical realm, surface-level physical action of course is at the core of sports, less so the “meaning” of the actions (although sportswriters try to find some, and taunting between players is a factor). The equivalent to sports in the realm of language would be something like a spelling bee, I suppose.

    As we’ve seen, syntax/grammar play and physical action play are easier starting points for digital media, because they are computationally easier to represent than meaning. Even IF tends to limit its use of language to command of physical action (go north, put the key in the pudding, etc.) As you describe, in our interactive drama Facade we’re trying to make social games, that operate using the (crudely-interpreted) meanings of the words and gestures the player performs in interpersonal discourse with the NPC’s.

    To make real progress on meaning-centered play will require significantly more knowledge representation. And with knowledge representation, we can now work towards building generative systems. (Which btw is where I want to be. :-)

  8. noah Says:

    Andrew, I guess I’d say I like it all. I like playing with words along graphical logics (Screen), along textual logics (Scrabble), along basic linguistic structures (Ad Verbum), and along the more ambitious social/emotional meanings of words (Facade). I don’t like every example — there are better and worse examples of making words playable, just as there are better and worse examples of making images playable. Also, looking at my post above, I realize I should caution that I don’t think logics are “purely” of one sort or another. Facade uses some AI techniques in the service of discourse-oriented play that could be used other ways. The hope is that the logic they embody is a fruitful way of structuring work with language. Similarly, the n-gram logic of a piece like News Reader is certainly not a purely linguistic logic — n-grams and Markov models get used all over the place. But the hope, again, is that the logic they embody is a fruitful way of structuring play with words — that somehow paying attention to chains of words is a more linguistic logic than collision detection.

  9. michael Says:

    I agree with Andrew that AI methods can get you closer to human notions of meaning in interactive experiences. However, with AI methods there are always slipages between the machine’s notion of meaning and fully human notions of meaning. Authoring so as to not let the slipage bust you, and hopefully even to take advantage of the slipage, is part of the design challenge of authoring within such systems. In Facade, for instance, there’s alot of design effort into authoring dialog that makes sense for the player given Facade’s rather crude notions of meaning and discourse. And, more interestingly, Facade’s meaning representations and the AI code supporting them were influenced by the specific design approaches we developed. Even with more knowledge representation, there will always be this interplay between the design of the experience and the design of the AI technology.

    Speaking of knowledge representation and linguistic logics, came across this article on using the web plus google to learn meanings of words.

  10. Erik Says:

    Andrew–”When we play make-believe, meaning is everything: we’re literally creating the content of our little virtual world as we play.”
    Sorry I don’t follow and/or agree there. Surely we are testing and thus discovering the boundaries of meaning when we play-create? What makes the activity interesting is that meaning is put under the microscope–we are experimenting/expanding/testing what current and future meaning is generated. Perhaps I don’t follow this: “If you think about it, meaning is actually the common driver of activity in play”…what do you mean by common driver? Meaning is the motivation or the goal? Ie we are motivation to create meaning? I prefer to think play allows us to expand/experiment on conventional meaning, for only in play is conventional meaning an element that can be _played_ with.

  11. Dirk Scheuring Says:

    I prefer to think play allows us to expand/experiment on conventional meaning, for only in play is conventional meaning an element that can be _played_ with.

    “Meaning”, whether “conventional” or not, can always be “played with” – that’s a lesson easily derived from the results of fifty years of AI research.

  12. You are admirable. Says:

    Dear Dr. Noah Wardrip-Fruin,

    I’d really love to thank you for your very wonderful sites. I’d like to learn more about what you called “Playable or Instrumental Literary work” in your PhD thesis. I’d really appreciate it if you would mind introducing me some sources I can study for my PhD proposal. And I was wondering wether you would mind telling me what knowldge of computer I need to know to be a good researcher of this kind of Literature. Looking forward to your reply.

    Best regards,
    Mahbanoo Gholami

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