Monday, May 07, 2007

Crafting Constraints

Today I attended the Harvard Interactive Media Group's panel. It was excellent, and this is the first such meeting I have found better than "painful", so this is a ten from a guy who gives out a lot of ones and twos. I have a lot to think about: it was rich in ideas.

But one of the things I want to talk about that I don't have to do a lot of research on first is constraints.

This is going to be painfully ivory tower.

It's fairly well known that creativity flourishes under constraints. Tell someone they can write five pages on anything, they're likely to be stymied. Tell them to write five pages on cloning, or write five pages that use the first twenty words of the dictionary, and they have a ball. People that work well without constraints typically work well because they are very good at assigning themselves constraints. "Write five pages about anything? Well, I have strong feelings about cloning... and wouldn't it be cool to use the first twenty words of the dictionary?"

In a very real sense, expression is mostly about applying constraints. If you squint, you can see that the real purpose of a piece of art is to offer up a set of constraints to the viewer, such that they are impelled to think in a certain way - think, feel, and witness within specific constraints. Well-chosen constraints will allow the viewer to have a rich but directed experience.

This experience varies across culture because how constraints interact in our minds is guided by experience, which... um... varies across culture. So in one culture a specific set of constraints might produce a very rich experience, while in another it might not resonate at all. Even internally to a culture: romance movies don't resonate well with me because the constraints it applies do not present me with interesting challenges and opportunities to think about. "Choppertunities"... glaarrgh... I used the word...

Movies simply offer constraints that change over time. They not only offer a constraint space that makes people think in specific ways, but also change the constraints to make them think in different ways at different times. Also, the changing constraints form a constraint all their own, which might be thought of as the genre. The constraints governing the changing of constraints are, in fact, well-defined cultural structures - defined over decades of symbiosis with a given set of viewers.

Games (interactive media in general) offer constraints that not only change over time, but also interactively create new constraints. How your spaceship can move interacts with how you choose to move it, and this creates a new set of constraints on how your spaceship can move (IE, dodging into an open area gives you "looser" constraints). Similarly, in an RPG, how you advance your character determines your skill set. While the progression is constrained in specific ways, the way you move within those constraints changes the constraints of how you can interact with the game. Whether to learn a fireball or heavy armor: it literally forms the constraints of the game.

So, what do we get when we think of games as interactive constraint generators?

Moreover, what do we get when we think of how we can get more user interactivity/content by either creating constraints to cause it... or creating constraints as a result of it? Friends lists are the obvious example.

Thoughts? Lack of thoughts?


David said...

Spiderman moves in this way. : )

Patrick said...

Its late, hey, there's a constraint.

Designing a game is all about creating constraints, and what constraints you come up with is all about the constraints of budget, production cycle, market expectations, ect. So it all seems horribly nested doesn't it, an infinite regress?

Moving away from wankery, lets consider a (hypothetical) casual music MMO. You've got an interface that can compose MIDI fairly easy, but within that realm there's literally an infinite number of variations. So how do you constrain that so people can relate socially by genre?

That question is a lot more interesting when you look at the history of electronic music, where sub-genres are produced and promulgated incredibly rapidly. Trance, jungle trance, acid trance, whatever, there are hundreds of these sub-genres, and they're very much tied to different cultures, House defined the gay community's nightlife in the 90s, other genres resonated with club-going black people, others resonated with middle-class british kids from Cardiff. On the internet, one constraint you don't have is geography, so the self-organization of social spaces around new content patterns can be really powerful, powerful enough to drive a lot of adoption and create a premium for a content marketplace.

So Craig, how would you constrain MIDI creation so that people tend to relate socially by genre?

Craig Perko said...

How about like this?

Again, let the users create the constraints for you!