Winter 1998

The medium is messy

The creative process is often unstructured, without purpose or elegance. Like life itself, or playing games

The traditional ideal of the design process seems a long way from my experiences with interactive media. The word ‘design’ evokes the image of purposeful creative labour, solving a well defined problem in an efficient and elegant manner. We find it difficult to work in this way at the Antirom studio in London. Here the creative process is often unstructured and messy, with only the vaguest idea at the start as to where the whole thing might end up. It feels like playing with things rather than designing them. And in most cases there is no preconception of what form the end product of an experiment might turn out to be, simply the hope that we will recognise something good if we stumble across it.

Within a context like this, it is hard not to think like a Modernist about interactive media. It feels as if interactivity has an essence waiting to be revealed – some approaches seem intrinsically more suited to the nature of the medium than others. It is easy enough to reproduce a traditional linear form, slap buttons on to it, and call it ‘interactive story’, ‘interactive book’, ‘interactive cinema’ or what have you. But such hybrids rarely have anything to do with the real power of interactive media. What is the power of interactivity anyway? Borges suggests that it is an intrinsically dull mode of expression when he describes its characteristics as being ‘symmetry, arbitrary rules, tedium’ [Jorge Luis Borges: ‘An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain’].

I believe that the crucial formal aspects of interactive media – how they operate as a language, what forms and figures of rhetoric they make available, and (most crucially) what kind of spectatorship they offer – are barely understood. At Antirom we try to make interactive media that work on their own terms and succeed in holding the audience’s attention. We set out to play with a new medium, to find out what you can do with video, text or photography on a computer screen, or what happens when you connect an image with a sound via the movement of the cursor. Our experiments are wide-ranging and open-ended and we have come to terms with our ignorance about the way in which interactive media work. We try just about everything we can think of – and that our rudimentary programming skills allow us to construct. We have not discarded lines of enquiry merely because they appeared to be ridiculous or stupid, and we have made as many mistakes as we could, as quickly as we could. Most importantly, we have found that designing for a medium so new that it has not yet evolved a cultural form, or language of its own, is almost impossible. The only way to approach it is to play, to explore it creatively and without preconceptions. And in a curious and unexpected symmetry between method and content, we find that the pieces we like best (and which work best with audiences) are also playful. In fact it appears that a quality of playfulness is essential to all engaging interactive representations: play and interactivity are interconnected at a deep level.

Why should this be? One approach to thinking about this is to consider the different ways in which time can be represented, and in particular the relationship between what might be called the time of the representation itself, and the time of its reading. In traditional (i.e. non-interactive) media, information is presented in the form of enunciation, a ‘speech’ act which takes place before the audience receives the message. So the time of speaking comes before the time of listening, the time of writing before the time of reading. As spectators we are positioned outside of the time of the representation itself.

A linear text exercises a textual authority that is dispersed by interactivity. An interactive representation is information in waiting; it refers to a principle, a set of rules, an algorithm, a stasis outside time, that can simulate events and information in time. The referent, the thing other than itself to which the simulation refers, is the condition for communication, not the message itself. The creation of a message – the cutting out and sequencing of information from the mass of data – is effected by the spectator, albeit within a framework of conditions designed by the author.

The central illusion of interactive media is to persuade us that we are inside the time of the representation, that the representation only speaks when we are actively engaged with it. This means that rather than being passive receivers of a message uttered earlier, we are active participants within a situation, now. Within such a situation, information is communicated in real time, at the very moment and only at that moment when we explore, experiment and play with it. The information appears to be triggered by the audience in that situation, rather than being some external thing consumed by them.

So there is a displacement of the author’s (or designer’s) “voice” – a situation does not ‘speak’ to us in the way that a text does. When we discover information from within the situation, the voice appears to be our own. This would suggest that the object of the design process in interactive media might be considered more in terms of a model rather than a proposition. The design ‘product’ is a representation within which the audience explores and discovers information for themselves, rather than being given it directly in the form of a message. This does not imply that the information carried within an interactive piece need be any less definite or precise than that carried by a more traditional form – the message of a model can be as clear and as unambiguous as an imperative statement – but it should emerge from what appears to be an open-ended and playful engagement with the information on the part of the audience.

Of course, this approach is not appropriate for all information design. My CD-ROM of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is not playful in its design – it is what the computer games industry calls a ‘port’, a transformation of a work from one platform to another – in this case from a series of leather-bound volumes to a CD-ROM. The interface is designed to make the retrieval of information as simple and as fast as possible. Here, interactivity is being used as an indexing tool rather than as a fully developed language of its own.

A problem with the notion of playfulness is the cultural baggage it brings in tow. Enthusiasts argue that interactive media are superior to traditional media because of the apparent empowerment they offer the audience, and the concomitant lessening of the power and control of the authorial voice. But paradoxically an interactive message, by concealing its own voice, may be capable of a more powerful manipulation of its audience.

A model or a game can be set up to create whatever meaning the designers intend, but this may not be apparent to the audience. By hiding its own voice, an interactive representation can conceal its bias, and present itself as matter of fact. This problem is as much about the novelty of the medium as anything else. As audiences become acclimatised they may become better equipped to deconstruct such products.

I think it is too early to draw more than tentative and general conclusions about how this radical new form of representation will affect the ways in which we communicate and the ways in which we design for communication. But it seems clear that information will be structured more and more as a matrix of ‘what if’ scenarios, which outline the ways in which actions are linked together in multi-dimensional chains of cause and effect. Though ideas of ‘information space’ will be developed (3D spatial interactive metaphors are the first clichés of the new medium – think of Navigator, or Explorer, or ‘where do you want to go to today’ or ‘superhighway’; better still, think of another metaphor), a situation is so much more than just a space.

Some designers may find the idea of making playful design somewhat frivolous. Games, after all, are not considered to be part of serious culture, but are ephemeral and rather silly. Many college computer rooms have notices on the wall declaring that game-playing is prohibited. The game is not ‘work’ but a diversion from work, nor is it a proper object of serious study. The game is something which, although tolerated, the law must seek to repress, to keep in its proper place.

Yet in the class I teach in interactive media at the University of Westminster, I encourage the students to play computer games. This gives them a sense of the possibilities – and limitations – of the most highly developed form of interactive media any of us have experienced: the video games developed by Sony, Nintendo, Atari and smaller British developers such as Psygnosis, Eidos, Rare and Bullfrog.

This playing around did not initially meet with the approval of the department. Yet while few people accuse film students of ‘just wanting to watch films’ there is still a lingering suspicion that those students who take the module in interactivity just want to play video games. Playfulness has the same relation to interactive media that ‘scopophilia’ [the pleasure of looking] has to cinema. It is the basis upon which everything else is built. Designing playful engagement into interactive media will become an increasingly serious game in the future. It demands a fundamentally different engagement from the audience – and the designer – and the design community had better get used to the idea.

First published in Eye no. 30  vol. 8, Winter 1998.

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.


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