The Primacy of Interactivity

Note written December 27th, 1997:
This essay has historical significance. It was written just after I had hosted a discussion group at my home, and the importance of interactivity was bandied about by the group. To my intense frustration, this group of perhaps a dozen top-notch game designers unanimously rejected the notion that interactivity is central to game design. That’s hard to believe, nowadays, but in fact only in the 1990s has the central role of interactivity been recognized. Indeed, this same issue of the JCGD sported an essay from Brenda Laurel asserting that "Interactivity is highly overrated." (I’m too lazy to ask her permission to reprint her essay here.) I continued to argue this case vociferously for many years afterwards. These days, there’s not much need for my ranting anymore.

There exists within our community a school of thought that holds interactivity to be nothing more than a useful component in the design of entertainment software. According to this school, the computer is a wondrous tool offering a variety of capabilities, such as graphics, animation, and sound. Interactivity is seen as just another capability, to be used or neglected according to the tastes and intentions of the designer.

I reject this thinking, and I propose here to present the case for the primacy of interactivity.

Let us examine the various characteristics of the computer as an artistic medium. The computer is capable, for example, of displaying graphic images. Yet this capability is not its true strength. We possess many other technologies capable of displaying graphic images. These other technologies, moreover, can display superior graphic images at lower costs. For the cost of one computer game, I can buy a snazzy coffee-table book loaded with scores of high quality color images. I can buy posters or slides or postcards or reproductions of paintings, all offering higher quality at lower cost. To use the computer as a medium for displaying graphics is silly.

Now, some people argue that the use of graphics doesn’t hurt, and should be pursued because it is another avenue of artistic expression. "Why not make use of every avenue available to us?" they ask. This question directs our attention away from the real issue of the relative roles of the different avenues, instead focussing on their absolute roles. I do not question the desirability of using graphics; I instead challenge the notion that graphics should receive equal emphasis. Graphic displays are not the strength of the computer.

Suppose that I as an artist have something of artistic value that I wish to convey to an audience. If I choose the computer as my medium, I will have a variety of channels available to me. However, if I choose the graphics channel as the primary means for conveying my artistic goodies, then I have blundered in two ways: first, I have failed to use one of the many technologies that are superior at presenting graphic displays; and second, I have tried to use the computer to do something that it doesn’t do very well.

The same line of reasoning applies to many of the other commonly exalted features of the computer. Animation is nice, but movies do it better than computers, and a videotape can be rented or even purchased for less than a computer game. Sound is impressive, but a compact disk, LP, or cassette tape does the job better. And let’s not even talk about text.

The one thing that the computer can do better than anything else is interactivity. Indeed, the computer doesn’t just do it better; the computer is the only medium capable of providing interactivity. This is why interactivity should be the proper focus of effort of the entertainment software designer.

Perhaps all this talk about artistic values leaves you unimpressed. Very well, let me present the argument in the language of business. Interactivity is the basis of competitive advantage of the computer. Sure, the computer can do a lot of things, but the one thing that it does better than any of the competing media is interactivity. And the wise businessman always throws his resources behind his basis of competitive advantage. IBM’s strength has always lain in the area of marketing, so IBM emphasizes marketing in all its efforts. Of course IBM pays attention to R&D and manufacturing and accounting and all the other tasks that a big business must perform, but primacy goes to marketing, because that is IBM’s basis of competitive advantage.

You still aren’t convinced? OK, how about military reasoning: fight on the ground of your own choosing. The wise general offers battle only on the terrain best suited to the strengths of his forces, and takes maximum advantage of the weaknesses of his opponent. If his best troops are cavalry, then he will choose to fight on flat open ground where the cavalry can do its job best. Sure, he’ll fight with his infantry and artillery, too, but the tactical primacy will go to the cavalry.

So too it must be with interactivity. Yes, the computer can do graphics and animation and sound, but these capabilities are not the primary strength of the computer. Interactivity is the real strength of the computer, and it must be given primacy in our designs.

None of this suggests that graphics, animation, and sound should be eliminated from our designs. These are necessary supporting elements in the overall design. The better we are able to marshal them to heighten interactivity, the more successful our designs will be. But necessity does not convey equality. The ability to use a keyboard is absolutely necessary to a programmer, but typing skill is nowhere near as important to good programming as clear thinking.

Is More Interactivity Better?
Now I turn to an even more difficult question: if interactivity is accorded primacy in entertainment software design, then is not more interactivity better than less interactivity? Put more baldly, is a more interactive product better than a less interactive product?

My answer to this question is, for once, qualified. In general, I would say that, yes, a more interactive product is better than a less interactive one, but I will hedge my claim.

My first argument in favor of a preference for greater interactivity relies on the primacy of interactivity. Since interactivity is the basis of competitive advantage of the computer, it is only fit and proper that we should emphasize it. The more we emphasize interactivity in our designs, the more fully we utilize the true strength of the computer as an artistic medium.

Consider the cinema by way of example. Very roughly speaking, the more cinematic a movie is, the better the movie. We can argue long and hard over the precise definition of "cinematic", but surely we can agree that it involves the special capabilities of the camera to capture motion, to pan, zoom, and move, to cut between scenes, and so forth. Surely a movie that fails to use these techniques will be inferior to a movie that does, other things being equal. Thus, we can say that a more cinematic movie is superior to a less cinematic movie. Of course, there are many exceptions to the general rule: a poorly executed more cinematic movie is not superior, and a movie whose artistic intent requires a less cinematic style could still be a superior work. There are other exceptions as well, but I think that the general rule holds true.

An additional argument arises from the fact that the interactive arts are still in their infancy. We have just scratched the surface of this medium; we do not fully understand interactivity. Our ignorance is reflected in the body of work we have created. In the vast universe of potential computer games, the set of actual games that we have created lies crowded down in a small corner, huddled together in common low interactivity. Taking all of our computer games and entertainments as a group, the amount of interactivity that we offer is a faint and clumsy whisper of what should be possible.

Perhaps a mathematical approach might help. Imagine a scale of interactivity, running from 0 to 100 units of interactivity, with 100 representing interactivity so intense that it lies beyond human comprehension. Imagine all the games in the universe placed on this scale. Now, in an ideal world, these games would yield a bell curve, with a few high-interactivity games, a few low-interactivity games, and a great many games in the middle of the bell curve. But we have not attained this ideal bell curve. Our ignorance denies us the middle and upper portions of the bell curve, constraining us to the lower end of the curve. All of our work lies crowded down there.

This is my second reason why more interactivity is better than less interactivity. We need to move up that bell curve, to explore areas of interactivity that have previously been inaccessible. This is why I hold a more interactive game in higher esteem than a less interactive one. This is why I honor a designer who goes where no designer has gone before more than one who hews to more familiar territory.

Of course, when we have populated the bell curve more fully, the day will come when some genius creates a game that is too interactive. But that day is far distant.

There will always be a place for low-interactivity entertainments. These entertainments will not be pushed over the brink of extinction by the highly interactive products. I suspect that, as we move up the bell curve, their relative numbers will shrink.