Wednesday 15 February 2017

The Human in the Machine

ELIZA was the world’s first digital psychotherapist. Created from 1964 to 1966, long before Siri and Cortana, long even before the first commerical videogames, ELIZA was an AI that had conversations with its users.

A user, communicating with ELIZA through a terminal, would be asked a question about themselves, and ELIZA would listen, prompting the user with questions.

Except ELIZA had no idea what was going on. ELIZA only created the illusion of understanding, using pattern-matching and substitution to parrot the own user’s words in the the form of a question.

ELIZA’s conversational ability grew over time - not through machine learning, but through users adding new rules and behaviours to her script. She was an illusion, non-sentient and entirely artificial. Nevertheless, users were reported as having meaningful conversations with her. ELIZA talked them through their problems. They found the experience comforting, often revealing to themselves inner feelings they hadn’t acknowledged.

Joseph Weizenbaum, the creator of the program, was dismissive of this response. He had created ELIZA as a parody of artificial intelligence, to demonstrate the superficiality of communication between man and machine. He felt the popular response was merely a result of humanity’s tendency to anthropomorphise the world around them.

Regardless of what was really going on under the hood, users had a meaningful human experience with ELIZA. Whether or not the machine was actually intelligent is not important. Even whether or not users actually believed that the device was intelligent is, arguably, of little consequence.

For the end user, their emotional response was the entirety of the experience. The banality of the program only mattered if believing it to be artificial affected that response.

Maybe it was enough to simply play along with the artifice.

Although similar talking boards have been used to communicate with spirits as far back as 1100AD, the Ouija board was patented in 1890 and has been manufactured under this name since 1901. Hasbro is the current official owner of the Ouija trademark and, intriguingly list it in their “Toys for Girls” range, for ages 8+. It even came in pastel pink at one point, to the fascination of the Daily Mail, who kindly list a range of paranormal stories for your perusal.

Screenshot taken 15 Feb 2017
While numerous similar products exist without the Ouija branding, the official version remains a piece of cardboard and a piece of plastic.

Despite the Ouija board being a soulless material product and an intellectual property owned by a major corporate entity, it has claimed its place in the popular consciousness as a means of contacting the dead. It comes with urban legends and movies and a long dark history in divination.

Do people really believe that the Ouija board is an actual working means of performing a séance? Do people want to disbelieve, but the fear that the legends might be true is sufficient to create a spooky experience? Or do people play along because there’s no point in the experience if they don’t?

Even if you don’t get chilling results, is playing at divination sufficiently meaningful?

I use the Oujia board as a mental parallel for my own work in installation and performance games. I keep it in mind when I think about how to make a new game meaningful.

In particular, Go! Power Team! which makes up the middle segment of my playable stage show. It’s a game where four players become “Power Rangers” wearing tablets on their bellies. Rangers must perform the actions dictated to them by the computer. Another player must press these tablets in the correct order, but the rangers are neither on this player’s side, nor working against them. Their job is to simply perform the actions dictated to them by the computer.

So why do the rangers play along?

Originally I performed this game using staff from the venue, anonymised and dressed with morphsuits. As I took it around, however, I began asking volunteers from the audience to take on the mantle of the rangers. I’ve run it with enthusiastic actors at the Bristol Improv Theatre, with colleagues at the ed-tech company where I do contract work, with teens at GameCity and under-12s at the NVA Playable Christmas shows.

In the performance you want players to be active, silly and inventive - that’s what makes it funny to watch. You also don’t want them actively running towards the player, pressing their own buttons or helping the player out, as that removes the jeopardy. Much of the excitement comes from the tension of a game that would be easy were it not so silly. To get this to work each group has required subtly different approaches.

Kids, for example, don’t like to be told what to do and expect everyone to be paying attention to them. Not to tar all kids with the same brush, but it only takes one kid to rebel against the spirit of the game to break the experience. “The spirit of the game” is arguably a grown-up concept after all. I’m not a parent and have little experience with kids beyond the show, but they appear to decide on what they believe to be “how to win” and fixate on that.

I’ve had kids try to run out of the room and I’ve had kids stood staring at the screen pressing their own power belts. The one weird trick that fixes everything is to pick one adult to be a power ranger. Kids won’t do what I say when I’m hosting, but adults will. The kids will, however, see that adult as the “default” way to play, and so all their creative interpretation will be a variation on that.

The joy of the game is when players creatively interpret the commands given to them by the computer, so they do weird and inventive things on stage. I never like to tell players not to do something. Instead, I try to engineer a situation where following the spirit of the game becomes desirable.

Adults tend to be shyer and more reserved than kids, so my objective as host is often different. I need to get volunteers motivated and excited about being silly in public, to inspire them to perform and be creative. When Go! Power Team! is an act in The Incredible Playable Show, the preceding games involve shouting loudly and moving between seats. This warms players up to the idea that the room does not stay still and tidy. And every time I give a ranger a power belt it comes with a ceremonial “transfer of the power,” as I attach each belt while announcing, their special skills and spirit animals. I’m not just giving them a blank slate and telling them to be silly. I’m giving them cues on personality and attitude, and a pop-culture reference point, so that they have something to embody.

The Red Ranger receives her powers at the Bristol Improv Theatre
The Ouija board remains a reference point

It reminds me that the game, the graphics, the technology, the rules, the puzzles and the mechanics are just material. They are tools that help me create an experience. But they are not the entirety of that experience.

As far as the player is concerned, their experience is formed of motivations, emotions, belief, understanding and expectations. This is the difference between pressing buttons and being Power Rangers.

My role as a designer is to use my materials to serve those roles. That includes how I stage it, how I frame it, how I build up to it, who I suggest my players embody, who I choose for which tasks, my costume and persona, and how I explain it. It also includes choice of music, pacing and sound-effects, creating a sense of big jeopardy and big victories.

The magic of the Ouija board is not in the product itself. It is, after all, a piece of cardboard and a piece of plastic. The magic moment where you feel the marker move under your fingertips and spell out words is not created in a factory. It is created by you, the audience. You light the candles, you gather everyone in a circle, you switch off the lights, and you are acutely aware that you are doing something taboo.

People perform a séance because they believe it will be good if everyone in the circle plays along - whether or not they actually believe they are contacting the dead. And if they do believe they are contacting the dead, it’s the mythology around the Ouija board that makes that happen. You place your trust in the experience.

The box and the board try to make Oujia look authentic, but what makes it really feel authentic is the urban legends. It’s the half-heard stories of spooky goings-on, the Daily Mail scare stories and, perhaps, the desire to believe. It’s accursed not because the cardboard and plastic are magical but for the same reason Dungeons & Dragons, Black Sabbath and DOOM are accursed.

A game designer takes on many roles. The nuts and bolts of a game as a system are like the instructions. The environments, artwork and music are the box and the board. But the designer must also consider the life of the game outside what it physically is. All the surrounding ideas that would make a player desire to have the experience. The designer must create the mythology.

ELIZA offered users a safe space to open up. If they believed her to be a psychiatrist they placed trust in her. If they believed her to be a smart AI they felt the safety of anonymity. ELIZA was meaningful because users believed in it, not because it was a functional piece of technology.

If they believed she was neither psychiatrist nor a smart AI, perhaps it was sufficient for users to play along. Nevertheless, for those users belief was still there. They believed in the engineers who had created the experiment, and the vision that talking to a chat-bot would be beneficial.

It’s not the code that makes the game work. It’s not the physical object. It’s not the computer system. It is the players.

In all of these experiences the players are empowered to make what they want out of what they are given. The designer’s role is to create a situation where players desire to participate in the way that creates the most enjoyment.

Trusting players to interpret our work in their own way empowers us to come up with new experiences. It empowers us to create works that will be meaningful to them on an individual level. The challenge is to create that trust. We need players to trust us that taking part in the game will be meaningful to them.

Especially when we work with new and experimental modes of play, players need to be convinced that the emotional payoff will be worth the effort of trust.