A Talk Given To The Bath Spa Empathy Research Group, 29th February 2016
I will try and include as much of what I covered as I can; but I will not try to write as I spoke, because I speak like a human being, and that’s dull. I’m also not going to abandon the opportunity to include some things that were flung off at the last minute because of timings, or to engorge other things in hindsight. I’ll skip the explanation of my project that the group required; if you want such introductions, you’ll need to make them in the archives.
Let’s begin instead at my research question, as it is still standing.
“How can digital interactive characters, such as those encountered in videogames, better come to embody the same ‘literary’ qualities enjoyed by those found in more traditional works of art, whilst maintaining their unique qualities as dynamic agents within a system?”
When dissected, the nubs of this question lie at the juncture of similarities and differences between characters in traditional media (such as films, books and other artforms that do not rely on digital computation) and new media (such as those that do). The terms traditional and new are to an extent arbitrary, debatable and troublesome, but I won’t be entombing them in brackets, obeli, quotation marks or any other apologetic punctuation. I have arbitrated them precisely for my inquiry; though the lines between them are anything but defined, and I am studiously avoiding the word ‘technology’ for a reason, I must ask you to accept, for the purposes of bearing each other over the next 7,000 words, that the use of the digital computer to make art does something fundamentally isolating to that art.
This very art, which includes many different permutations of code, software-driven simulation, art ‘generators’ and, most visibly and controversially, videogames, presents unique opportunities to experiment with the most basic factors of human expression; opportunities that lie in the qualities of the form. However, such opportunities also couch enormous, sometimes-hideous challenges to those who would make such art, particularly in a world that already often assumes that there exists a cool, stable and distant relationship between art and technology, and the definitions of those words. These challenges, along with the relative youth of the new forms, engender certain deficiencies in new media art today. Some of these are the fault of new media artists, and some of them are the fault of the world. One which remains the fault of both is the deficiency of character.
My project, knole, uses both traditional and new media to explore and ameliorate this deficiency. As a practice-based PhD, these explorations, salves and personal solutions to the problems of character take the form of an artistic work. I will develop two distinct versions of one character, a guardian nature-spirit of the English landscape; a semi-divine, semi-intelligent atavistic godlet represented both in linear, material, traditional form and as a computer simulation. The simulation has already been prototyped several times, and I present one of these prototypes below. It is still a primitive simulation; the only behaviours which the godlet can yet express are breathing and blinking.
Though it cannot yet tell that we are here, watching its every twitch, nor respond in any sense, it was very important for me to begin this prototyping process early on in my PhD, and show as much of my cack-handed code to as many people as possible. Despite its locked-in affability, this simulation is still a character, and in making it public I can ask some very basic questions of the people who encounter it, and garner some very interesting answers.
Perhaps you can help me in this regard, as well. Please spend some time with the simulation below, and then answer some, or all, of the questions underneath it. If you come to any particularly excellent conclusions, in your own opinion, you are very free to email them to me.
- What are you looking at?
- Is it alive?
- Is it healthy?
- What is its name?
- What does it eat?
- Is it happy?
- What does it think of you?
- Could it understand you, if you tried speaking to it?
- What is it waiting for?
- How could you please it?
Of course, I have already told you that it is a animist, animated worship object, and you are its heirophants; this cannot help but imbue your answers to those questions with a certain sibylline quality; a mysticism. The penultimate question in the list above is a leading one, as more than one person that I have shown it to have already told me that the creature is ‘expectant’, ‘hypnotic’, or ‘calm’. Despite knowing more than anybody about what this simple being might eventually be, at the end of my project, there are still things about it which surprise me, every time I sit with it. I imagine differently every time how the breath from its nostrils might sound. Its mood, beneath that mien, shifts slightly with each sitting. It is however always, unchangingly, serene; I sometimes even use it as an aid to mindfulness; to slow my breathing after a difficult day.
It is so willing, so permissive and trusting, that I feel dreadful about the things that must be inflicted upon it in the future, under pressures of narrative. The features that I am building for it, even now, will disturb this peaceful monad and change those encoded circadia forever.
It is at this consideration of my character, even in this nascent phase, that my work intersects with empathy, and with the remit of this research group; especially the complex and sometimes-contradictory empathy that we might feel towards fictional characters1 which is the bread of our work as writers. It is in this particular empathy that I believe lie the biggest challenges to creating digital characters that resonate with an audience. They are challenges which were either nonexistent in traditional media, or which have been subsumed into the ontology of the forms, and whose partial solutions become merely naturalised technique.
I must define my terms here, especially in such a subjective space. What might I, or any other, mean by a ‘resonant’ character? We might instead talk about ‘good’ characters, not in the sense of moral virtue but in the sense of skillful depiction. ‘Resonant’ is a placeholder for what we really mean, which is harder to access than we might at first think. Other adjectives we could use for such characters include, depending on medium, genre or speaker, ‘well-drawn’, ‘life-like’, ‘believable’, ‘relatable’, ‘tragic’, ‘rich’; these words do not point to one quality which all fictional characters share, but rather a cosmos of systemic qualities in unique combinations. In the pursuit of expediency I have been using one word to stand for this class of superior character, one which is not without its own politics, subjectivities and caveats; ‘literary’. Though I probably will replace it with a more appropriate term soon (if one exists) I have, for now, attempted to make quick mappings of some of the qualities that we might expect these ‘literary’ characters to possess2. One of these mappings is below, flanked by two exemplars of such characterisation from extremely different realms of artistry; on one hand, The Man With No Name from Sergio Leone’s peerless trilogy of Western films, and on the other Emma Bovary from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of almost the same name. Though these characters are bipolar in terms of context and persona, in their construction as narrative artefacts they share some (though not all) of the attributes listed between them, as well as many more that I have not delineated. My use of the word ‘artefact’ is a pointed one; alone, these are static vignettes of people, the petrification of the mind of their authors. Once they are encountered by their respective audiences, however, these literary qualities produce a transformation. This transformation, like the qualities themselves, goes by many different names. It may be said that we come to ‘care about’ these characters, that we are ‘invested’ in their fate or merely ‘interested’ in what comes to happen for them, even if we do not necessarily, openly, like them. Perhaps the most conventionally-accepted way that it could be put in English is that we ‘feel for’ them. This feeling, this transformation and enlivening of a codified, partial person in the imaginations of an audience is the kernel of empathy in fiction.3
Other languages than English, as so often and so usefully, provide fresh perspective on the concept of ’empathy; In German, empathy as we might mean it in English is represented by the word ‘Einfühlung’, which directly translates as ‘feeling into’, and the dimensionality of this term is important to note. In empathising with a character we are not merely ‘feeling for’ them; this sensation, a recognition of their lives from outside without further engagement, is more accurately covered by the word ‘sympathy’. Empathy requires a degree of interaction, construction, aid; the scant material of the text, the immobile, suggestive glimpses of a person, provides a template out of which our minds build an entire being. We are not merely understanding the character on the page; we are helping to create them.
Much scholarship already exists around these ideas, most commonly formalised in literary criticism as reader-response theory or reception theory. This school arose out of the postmodern movements in literary criticism of the 1960s, following the examples of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in their departure from traditional thought on such concepts as ‘the reader’ and ‘the text’. Reception theory was opposed almost diametrically to the much older traditions of Formalism and New Criticism, which (if I may, in honour of their philosophies, be very reductive) held as tenet that the ‘text’ of an artwork, the author-originated, objective fact of an artistic thing, was all that was required to understand it. As an artefact, so it had for many years been said and is still being said, a work could stand alone and be judged; the reader, along with their enlivening perspective, was irrelevant, if not damaging to analysis.
As I think can be guessed, reception theory is much closer to my own heart; if it is not less close-minded than its antecedents, it is at least close-minded in a way which I find comfortable. The theory states that reading a text, or more accurately consuming any art, is a collaborative, performative enactment. It is not passive; it is a willed gorging, and in that gorging a theatre takes place between author and reader in the stage of the back-brain, or perhaps more accurately between text and reader. In interacting with the work, the audience imparts meaning and significance, rather than merely deriving it from something already complete. In doing so, they alter the objective significance of the work, and that alteration cannot, as the Formalists and New Critics hoped, be rinsed off in order to leave behind an integral remainder – an artwork derives its full existence from being viewed and understood. The ‘skillful depiction’ of a character in such a work is not skillful in its completeness, but rather in its suggestive emptiness. Perhaps the word ‘resonant’, after all, is the best adjective to describe such characters; like drums, their power comes from the spaces left in their middles.
My gateway into this school of criticism has been the work of Howard Sklar, a Norwegian academic of English literature who in his paper Believable Fictions outlines his position; if not pithily, at least comprehensively:
“This essay centers on the question of readers’ beliefs in the reality of characters in fictional narratives, and the ways in which they might respond as a result of that belief. I will attempt to show that, although there are significant differences between real-life emotions and the emotions that readers experience while reading fiction, the two types of emotions share important similarities. This is especially true, I contend, in terms of the processes that we undergo when responding emotionally to fictional characters, whom we intuitively regard as real people.”
Sklar posits in this essay his own translation of reception theory; that human beings, in arriving at a text, boil up their own personal experience, their empathetic faculties, their literary affordances and many other traits in order to render a character entire from the recipe of hints and quasi-instructions that a text represents. Sklar’s work certainly preserves the
sense of depth of the German ‘Einfühlung’; in his descriptions of the process of reading, we can almost imagine characters as cunningly-constructed yet empty vessels, worked in such a way as to invite the reader to choose them for filling. The vessel has worth in and of itself, as a beautiful, inviting and self-extending object; but it is most certainly an object of potential, an tool of use and personal interpretation of that use.4
Later in Believable Fictions, Sklar makes what I believe is his most important point; delineating the work of Keith Oatley and Mitra Gholamain, he states that in reading or imagining a character, in empathising with them, we are undertaking a simulation of them. The enormous capabilities of our imaginative brains can take the worked material of a text and extrapolate to a dizzying extent; creating, in essence, that character as a micro-world, an hypothetical ecosystem full of redundant, invented parts perhaps not useful to the text directly, but important to the reader in recognising that initial jumble of fictive clues as a eventual formed being. This concept of ’empathy as simulation’ is key to my research into digital characters.
At this juncture we may return to new media, in particular videogames (if only because of their extensive and publicised canon) and their debatably-unique property of interactivity. It may be said that in games we do not merely simulate and experiment with the clay of the artwork in our minds; such artefacts may be manipulated and altered materially by their players. While I am of the opinion that these manipulations and alterations are often encoded and permitted (if not predicted) by the designer themselves, it is certainly true that each player will, in their very interaction and experimentation, experience a different artefact from many others. While far fewer games make full use of this property than might be at first thought, their designers terrified of straying from the lovely corset of ‘story’ (whatever that really means) and narrative structure, the Platonic ideal of a game is, certainly, less a story and more a world in which a subset of stories might be told by the audience to themselves.
I am choosing not to address the arguments surrounding the question of whether such artefacts as videogames can be considered art, as the root of that word attests; the debates are beneath all of us, and often conducted through ignorance and snobbery rather than actual formalist inquiry. This negation frees us up to now recognise, in the unique qualities of the media, the challenges posed. Allowing one’s audience choice to alter an artwork outside of their own imaginations introduces a degree of uncertainty for the artist. No longer is the objective experience of one’s artwork fixed; if that experience is some sort of ‘key’ to unlocking a truer, personal experience in the mind of the audience, then in games that key becomes protean and indefinable.
Characters in digital media are part of this chaos themselves, and inherit its qualities; characters in such worlds, in order to realise the potential of the medium, to allow players to explore their own stories, must be to an extent dynamic, amenable to change, reactive to the player’s challenges; to be, in essence, far more complete and well-rounded than we ever ask any of the fragile characters of fiction to be, in their delicate, immobile webs of tenth-drafted artifice. In such instances, how can characters ever hope to be ‘resonant’? How can a designer ever build such characters, allowing for as much player discrepancy as possible while making sure that the characters remain true to themselves and their own construction? To be reductive yet relevant once more; who would Emma Bovary be, if Flaubert was required to turn her over to his audience?
Videogames do, of course, already make use of simulation (divorced from empathy) as a process; indeed, they are nothing simulations of processes. The computers on which they run are logical systems, governed by binary determinism and fast cycles of calculation, and so these computers became, very early in their development, extremely adept at modelling or emulating other logical systems in the form of programs; such a computer is called a Turing Machine, and almost all modern computers are Turing Machines. A videogame is an artistic program, a point which I will staunchly defend; but it is, at its very heart, based on the same predefined logic of the machine that runs it in a way that a book or film is only partially. A book or a film can exist without adherence to grammar or composition; a game which deviates from the grammar of the code in which it is written will almost certainly not run. As of yet, a non-deterministic grammar for coding computers, akin to natural language, has not been developed.
As a result of this, many traditional videogames are based on understanding, exploring and undermining these logical systems, themselves created to a scheme of arbitrary rules, restrictions and allowances which constitute the gameplay. A Mario level is an system that we have elected to participate in, and as such must recognise the impositions made by the designer upon us; we can only jump so high, we lose if we touch an enemy, and we can only progress if we reach the flagpole at the end of a level. The human brain, presented with this environment, must find ways to exploit its rules in order to ‘beat’ it; the language of competition, and challenge, is intrinsic to such designed experiences. In some ways, the process undertaken by a player interacting with a game is similar to that of a reader interacting with a book; the player extrapolates from the information that they are given, simulating the environment in their minds, examining it from all angles, testing hypotheses and attempting imaginary solutions before applying such solutions to the game itself; not unlike the bookworm testing and constructing character, situation and plot in their minds. Unfortunately, these processes are, at the ganglial level, completely insular; while our cerebral engagement with games like this takes place in our cortex, empathetic appreciation of art takes place in the shadowy back garden of the brain, in the amygdala. The problem of creating resonant characters might involve uniting these two disparate flarings of our brains, though it is not yet clear how we might go about that. I will not write here that no games have succeeded in devising such characters; many have5. But the problem is a fundamental one peculiar to the medium, and must be considered at that same fundamental level as we go forward.
Games have approached this problem of empathy in many different ways, almost all of which attempt to sidestep the problem entirely. Two of these approaches might be reified as environmental empathy and non-human empathy.
Environmental empathy is present in all those examples of games that creates a connection between the player and the setting of a videogame. The worlds in which these games take place, especially in latter years of improved graphical fidelity and parallel processing, are dynamic, reactive, unpredictable, rich and integral. Huge investments of artistry and engineering are made to ensure that the environment itself has resonant, complex qualities; that it invites the player to invest and engage, to simulate and imbue the environment with those elements which are not there, materially, in the game. Crucially, these environments fulfill their unique promise not just of being picturesque, but of being interactive; they change through the agency of the player, and yet in that interaction rarely lose their artistic integrity.
Below is a video showing some of the environments from The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, a fantasy roleplaying game in which participants may choose any life they wish for their character, couched within a vast Nordic landscape rich with nature, history and that most vital of elements; the continual suggestion of something more.
Even in experiencing this landscape sub-optimally in a non-interactive video, as opposed to picking through it yourself, there will be (I predict) an effect that it has upon you. In its hue, movement, complexity, hinting at ecosystems, winking depth and granular texture, in providing just enough, it is inviting you to complete it. It is very difficult not to connect with these scenes; to simulate them completely in one’s mind, to seek to understand them, to flesh and stone and wood them out to the horizons. You are, quite inescapably while watching the video, imagining how cold the water is, how the sun might feel on your face; where those paths lead, what predators hunker under those branches. In one of the vignettes, you might have seen a salmon arcing from the spray of a river running down off a mountain. I was once quite involved in the fan modification culture for this game, in which amateurs would create new content using the same editing programs developed by the game’s designers. In poking through the game itself, using those programs to peer at the backside of the computation, I have seen that salmon for what it truly is; a looping, randomly-triggered animation, a flash of engineered glintingly placed in those places where a salmon would leap, if this were real at all. Even in knowing this, I cannot help but imagine, in the split second of seeing it, the creature’s anatomy, its flesh cooked by its blood, its roe, its death and life upriver even though I know that it will never get to its spawning grounds; indeed, its spawning grounds have never existed in the game. Skyrim‘s empathetic strengths lie in these small, serendipitous details. Somebody I knew made a modification which created shooting stars; simple animations tracing across the game’s night sky. The player installing the mod could decide on their frequency, and in my game I decided to set them to be as rare as possible. Though I played the game for hundreds of hours I still remember the only time that I saw one, as I crept through an alpine forest at a designer-defined midnight.
I think that very little difference can be drawn, other than subjectively, between these evocations of landscape and D.H. Lawrence’s constructions of the Peak District, or the sharp, autumnal quasi-Venice of Don’t Look Now. Perhaps we could argue about the purpose of each of these works, their complexity, their reliance on commercial success; the relationship between humanity and its technology. What I cannot see otherwise is the unity between them in their relationship to the audience; they are all deliberate performances of truths, powerless without their witnesses.
Unfortunately, for all its geographic sublime, Skyrim has a problem which many games of its sort share; the game’s environment, in becoming akin to a character, is unfortunately the best character in the game. There are many videos of the sort above on Youtube and elsewhere, tracking like gazes across Skyrim’s biomes, and there is a reason why very few of them show any intelligent life. The game garnered a sadly-deserved reputation for unsympathetic, dull and unringing characters; so badly observed as to be laughable. Their animations are stiff, pre-programmed and bear little relation to the world around them; they repeat pre-recorded lines which serve only to devolve plot; they fall through holes in the code with tragic regularity. It is little surprise to me to realise that, of the probably-hundreds of characters that I have played in this game, almost all of them were hermits, recluses and mendicants. As soon as the mandatory opening scenes have played out, I stride out into the taiga, living beneath the trees, picking berries, arching deer. There is a desperation to avoid contact with others, so sure am I that they will damage the pact that I have made with this game; that is, to believe in it.
As a counterpoint, non-human empathy comes closer to handling these problems of empathetic characters in games, if only because games which use non-human characters are actually attempting to simulate living beings. In the video below, we see a game called Shelter, in which the player shift-skins into the life of a wild badger protecting her young brood as they grow into adolescence. As with Skyrim, its merit is aided by the resonance of its environments; here, however, far more effort is made to ally the interactivity of the medium to the representation of character.
The game, of course, relies on anthropomorphism for its character’s resonance, and the utility, suitability and even morality of humano-centric portrayals of non-human characters is an old debate, exercised in this research group many times before. While such debates in nature writing are rather long in the tooth, in games there is an acceptance at a deep, mechanistic level that anthropomorphism is a good thing. Little questioning has taken place, that I can find, which challenges it as an approach.
It is not hard to understand why it is so popular as a technique; anthropomorphism provides a steep luge between the characters as beings and their role as components in a logical system.
If we consider a game, classically, as a system of interrelated parts operating according to the logic of the system that hosts it, then character is only one of these parts; each is subject to the ontology of that system. Shelter, if I may (a touch unfairly) abstract it, could be said to be the story of one large object, controlled by the player, moving across an environment seeded with obstacles, traps and other paths to failure, while escorting other smaller, slower objects which, while not directly controlled, can be influenced by the larger object. The aim is to reach the goal-point with as many smaller objects intact as possible. At a fundamental level, then, Shelter is little different from many other abstract systems; in most modern videogames such a mechanic has become eponymous as the ‘escort mission’, and is a popular mechanic.
When written in such a formulaic manner, the characters are harder to empathise with6, less able to carry moral or narrative messages for the player to imbibe. Many games do not attempt to animate their mechanics further; puzzle games don’t (often) rely on narrative dressing for their quality, but instead on the effectiveness of those mechanics in creating ‘fun’ and ‘challenge’. Many more games, however, embody and distort these formal elements; Shelter‘s use of animals, and suggesting their mechanical interrelationship as familial, is all the player needs to soften those systemic edges, to find the story in the functionality, and to generate a world in which to give their actions context. In playing from the point of view of a mother badger, every possible action that might be taken within that logical system is suddenly given organic, enveloping weight. Not only do we simulate her internal state, in our empathy, but we perpetuate that state through our control of her actions, which in turn reinforces her role. Of course, this internal state is monotonal, revolving primarily around fear (of fire, of large birds, of anything, really, that is not a food source or her child) and the opposing sensation of safety; the game betrays the centrality of this dyad in its name. However, this simple opposition is skilfully allied to the central engagement of the game, which lies in the player’s exploitation of logical systems.
There are things about this approach which make me uncomfortable, however. In relying on animals as character, and placing them within the formal frameworks that constitute so many commercial games, designers are often making an admission that it is easier to simulate an animal within these systems than it is a human being. This is true only if we accept a rather dim, Cartesian view of non-human animals; that they are simpler creatures, with easily-systematised personalities, so close to machines that their reverse-engineering is a facile thing. I, as you might have guessed, try to think differently about them, even if it is sometimes difficult. There is increasing evidence that a behaviourist conception of animal intelligence is disingenuous, and that many animals are far more advanced than we could have previously imagined. It becomes, in this, a question of granularity. The games that employ animals as characters, it might be said, are employing them in a shallow manner; as leitmotifs rather than as individuals, and with little cognitive depth beyond that which suits that imperative of the limited design.
A third and final game that I wish to show you takes a different approach, one which is extremely interesting in its superficiality. The game is called Thomas Was Alone, and was made by one man called Mike Bithell. It involves the control of two-dimensional blocks, of differing colours, sizes and abilities, in order to traverse a stark environment of platforms, pits, traps and pools. It is, in that description, perhaps the archetype of the game as simplistic logical system; indeed, the plot even explicitly describes these blocks as simulations within the programming of an unidentified supercomputer.
Please watch the video, and make sure the sound is on.
Though Thomas Was Alone is deterministic, goal-oriented and most certainly game-like, that calm, avuncular voiceover entirely reframes the experience of playing it. It gives an authorial interpretation to the world, its characters and your actions, contextualising them with a device so divorced from the proceedings that the simple act of switching off your computer’s sound reconfigures the experience entirely7. Though the technique is deliberately shallow and extremely pointed (I do not think a game could use this specific technique again without bearing unfavourable comparison to Thomas, though that has of course never stopped people), once you are playing the game any disjunction between the narrative artifice and the game itself is invisible. Once again, one’s actions in the game are constantly interpreted, parcelled and recognised within the suggestion that the voice provides. When I was told that two blocks disliked each other, I found myself re-ordering my solutions to the puzzles, almost unconsciously, so that those two blocks did not have to touch. Claire, the floating blue cube, felt heavier and more unwieldy than the two-by-one red rectangle Thomas, and perhaps would have even without the art and mechanics reinforcing that fact. Here, all is illusion and suggestion; a conspiracy between Bithell and his audience to use the desperation of the human mind to bond, to interpret, to build, in order to make something far more complex than exists there in the code.8
Perhaps what Thomas reminds me most of, in its methodical abracadbra, its spoken definition of a set of narrative rules that exude as much formal power as the mechanical rules of the game itself, is a wonderful, misleading ramble in Joseph Weizenbaum’s excellent book Computer Power and Human Reason in which he veers from his discussion of computers to talk about a much older technology, which provokes reliable empathetic and imaginative responses through a user’s interaction with it; he reveals, at the end of the paragraph, that he was writing about the teddy bear.
I have unsuccessfully avoided that word ‘technology’; we must be cautious with it, as we often forget that analogue toys are technologies in their own right; worked artefacts designed for uses. More often, in popular discourse the terms ‘technology’ and ‘toy’ extend only to the electronic products of the 1990s and later, physical objects embedded with micro-circuits and the ability to compute, even if that ability is often overstated. Sometimes, these terms are united in discussions of videogames themselves, though in these instances it is more often meant as an insult. I refuse to take it as such. Toys are, demonstrably, narrative objects, and rely as much on empathy as any other form of art. Indeed, historically their empathetic power has exceeded all else; they are often designed to be utter lightning rods for the imaginations and hallucinations of the children (and adults) who play with them. They are constructed to be appealing curiosities, relatable, experimental, kind, winkingly permissive and interactive to the whims of their owners. I have spent some happy, nostalgic afternoons recently re-reading the manuals that came with many of my childhood toys, preserved by enthusiasts in online archives. In review, they are masterpieces of suggestive, empathetic writing; invitations to participate in a completion of a loop, a consensual storytelling between child, artefact and designer. Unlike a videogame, the boundaries of the narrative play that they encourage are rarely set; indeed, it seems that as toys have become more and more computationally dependent on consumer electronics, the prescription by the designer has increased. The simpler the toy, the more expansive, imaginative and rich its use in play. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is irrelevant; it provides lessons for designers designing now.
Of course we must ask, in comparison, what the design of these toys is for, if we wish to unpick the significance of the empathies and self-narratives that they generate. Increasingly, almost indistinguishably in the last two hundred years, toys have fulfilled a commercial function. They are designed to be bought, to be played with and to be talked about. They are designed for children, whose tastes and whims are easy to prescribe from stereotype. Their goal (with few exceptions) lies not in the service of art, or introspection, or difficult emotion; and as such they provoke empathies, simulations and narratives centred around two primary emotions over any others; namely, love and guilt.
This unintentional horror is a Wuv-Luv; a defunct gestation simulator, derivative of the more popular Furby, by toy company Trendmasters9. My mother has owned one since 2001, and currently hers is sitting in my bedroom, gutless, waiting for my experiments. I have memories of its midnight den on the stairs of my childhood, and its time-activated whine keening out into the darkness as I snuck down for a slice of cheese. It still works, and in nostalgic review it is an interesting example of this commercial narrative design that such toys follow. Considering that it was a direct response to the Furby buoyancy of the late 1990s, it has always seemed the more desperate and strained of the two products; its eyes just a little too bulbous and liquid, its mouth so small that it passes through the territory of the non-threatening and into that of deformity. Like other toys it is covered from head to lotus feet in an impossibly soft, synthetic fur10. Touch, of course, is an underutilised yet incredibly deep antennae for empathetic and suggestive feeling; for adults, perhaps the closest corollary lies in in the fringe cultures of dakimakura, Dutch wives and other aids to loneliness. Part of me gets very sad that we often only think about the dynamics of touch and texture in our adult objects when sex or isolation are involved.
Everything about the Wuv-Luv, from its name to its coat’s brindle, from its (albeit simplistic) movements to the logic of its behaviour (its apparent love of play, its apparent care for its children, its programming for constant attention) seeks to furnish the child which owns it with a toolkit for constructing its interior life. One’s interaction with these behaviours (or lack of it) gives rise to other behaviours; the toy becomes ‘tired’ and ‘ill’ if it is not ‘fed’, and appears to sulk if you ignore it; calling out into the darkness of an unlit house for succour. Love and guilt, in sometimes unbearable quantities, all deriving from the simple, apparent processes of a tiny microchip encased in insoluble epoxy to protect its secrets.
The Furby, the more popular of the two toys, contains perhaps the most interesting example of this narrative lure common amongst electronic pets; a combination of textual suggestion and mechanical illusion. The manual that comes with the toy states that, when first activated, the Furby will speak to its owner in ‘Furbish’; a simple grammar of sounds corresponding to the few wants and desires that Furby might have; ‘feed me’, ‘hug me’, ‘let’s play a game’, and so on. However, the manual goes on to state that after a period of time spent playing with and talking to the Furby, the toy will start to ‘learn’ human words, and repeat those words that it has ‘heard’. The apostrophes are, obviously, warranted; a simple dissection of a Furby will reveal that it has no capacity for voice recognition, vocabulary storage or much onboard memory whatsoever. The English words that it speaks are pre-programmed, and are intermingled with the Furbish to a greater and greater degree as the microchip’s simple clock function ticks up. The combination of the suggestion of intelligent learning in the ancillary literature, however, and our predisposition for imbuing life-like objects with a simulated life, meant that the toy was banned from the premises of several US government agencies on the grounds of the security threat posed by its supposed abilities. Sometimes our narrative gullibility is so strong that it can influence policy11.
The two diagrams above, mocked up by myself in my spare time (because this is apparently how I like to spend my time), each depict the abstracted functionality of a Furby and a Tamagotchi, the two most popular of these turn-of-the-century products. As far as can be gleaned from manuals and other online resources, these represent everything that the toys can possibly do. In computing, we might call these finite state diagrams, and while they may look complex, it is impossible to imagine what a similar diagram might look like for even a simple living creature such as a housefly or a phytoplankton; indeed, the term ‘simple’ there is a humano-centric one in extremis. This is the true internal state, the interior life, of these toys; in comparison to our fecund imaginations, they seem rather measly. A few reactive behaviours, some appealing costume, a dab narrative sense of pacing and plot, and a canny designer has a chance to cause an explosion of association, extrapolation and invention in the mind of their audience; to leave the invention, in the main, to those who do it best.
I think that it is somewhere in these examples, amongst these ideas and links and thousands and thousands of words, that digital characters might find a route to success. Somewhere between the toy, the traditional artwork, the environment, the animal and the biological algorithm lies a major question, a question of computation. It is a popular assumption that the division between new media and old sits at the boundary of computation; that newer forms of art have at their disposal machines that can make real-time calculations to create an ever-shifting complexity and resonance in these forms. This is, in fact, only partly true. Art has always involved computation; what changes between old and new art is the location of that computation. As I think I have shown, engagement with any art is a form of simulation, of non-binary construction, by the most powerful interconnective computer yet known in the universe; our brains. It is only recently in our history that we have been able to create devices that can compute at all, and their computation is far removed from that of our minds; digital computers’ reliance on logic, data and concrete processing, passed on to the programs that they run, has influenced what sort of art that might be made with them. I am an amateurish programmer, and my godlet is not an attempt to transcend the problems of character by changing the nature of the computational paradigm in the computer. Rather, I see toys, and games such as Thomas Was Alone, as a way to coexist with the limitations of everyday computing; a naive and regressive alternative. Instead of lamenting the restrictions that the computer imposes, perhaps we can start to turn back and back to the device that art has relied upon for so long; the soupy, indistinct and fantastical capabilities of our heads.
Perhaps, in the end, my godlet will be something separate from what I have planned here; the problem with doing creative practice as research is that, sometimes, the creation will not cleave to the criticism, and one will end up with something very different indeed. Nevertheless, I thank the research group for providing me with an opportunity to think about these questions at considerable length.
2. Please assume that I am using ‘literary’ in my own sense for the rest of the essay. <
3. An interesting aside which I did not have time for on the day of my talk: is the empathetic collaboration between reader and artist, then, necessary for all good characterisation in art? Might there be characters with which we cannot empathise, but which nonetheless are worthy fictional beings? An immediate and familiar example might be Sauron from The Lord of the Rings. It would take a bloody-minded feat of psychopathy to empathise with Sauron, to imagine his internal state and personal worldview; nevertheless, he is a major character in one of the great works of popular fantasy, with a history and cultural presence all of his own. However, I think it could easily be argued that Sauron is not a character at all; at best he is a narrative elemental, a plot device whose motives, if there are any, are less important than the fact of his adversity; it is against his single-minded, shallow evil that the characters of the Fellowship find their mettle, sorrow and kindness. <
4. A monition may be required to the above quote; elsewhere in the essay Sklar reassures the reader that most people do not truly believe that fictional characters, once read, become real; however, he does affirm that the ways in which we empathise with real and imagined people are not so different at all. These points are borne out biologically, if we can take a brief, final step down that route; interesting studies exist in which participants are shown fictionalised images of people in pain, anxiety or happiness whilst they are placed in an fMRI machine; though the participants knew that they were part of a neuro-scientific study into the emotive centres of the brain, the activity in their brain bore out a strong empathetic response to such images. While it is not stated explicitly in the studies, it seems reasonable to predict (as somebody without access to an fMRI machine) that these responses were negligibly different from ‘real’ responses at the level of brain matter. <
5. As a result of this talk it was suggested that I create a list of games which explore the idea of empathy or succeed in producing it. I’m looking forward to this task, and I will be sharing the list both publicly and with the research group. If you have a game which you think ripe for inclusion, email me. <
6. Though by no means impossible; I direct you to studies undertaken as early as 1944 in which a short film of silhouetted shapes, moving on a plain field, were spontaneously described as emotive agents with personalities, prejudices and desires by viewers. The amount of suggestion required to provoke empathy in a human being is remarkably small; though debates continue as to what particular element is the trigger, psychologists such as Nathalia Gjersoe believe that it is self-initiated motion, uninfluenced by the environment, which causes us to imbue something with an interior life. <
7. In fact, it would be interesting to test this; to have two sets of participants playing Thomas, one with sound and the other without, and to compare their experiences. <
8. Though I have never heard Mike Bithell speak about Heider and Simmel’s experiments (see above) I would be astounded if he was not aware of them. <
9. An interesting and apropos name in and of itself. <
10. Of course, we cannot help but be fascinated by what lies underneath that fur. Such ‘denudings’ and repurposings of commercial toys for uncanny horror exist throughout our popular culture; perhaps a direct response to the almost-manic, sometimes-cynical empathetic reinforcement of their marketing. Perhaps this is something to exploit, or explore, in my own project. <
9. Similar reports answered the subsequent, begging question as to what children’s toys were doing on the premises of a government agency in the first place. The answer, that employees were frequently bringing them into work ‘to relieve stress’, begs further, interesting queries about which empathetic or narrative needs were not, and are still not, being met in the lives of adults. <