I Had A Dream

Note written December 27th, 1997:

This essay is based on my famous "dragon speech", without doubt the finest and most intense lecture of my life. It is considerably toned down from the lecture; you just had to be there to appreciate the histrionics. A video of the lecture can be found on YouTube: I have a link to it here.

It was in 1975 that I first encountered the notion that a computer could be used to play games. I had used the computer for some years as a scientific tool, and so the idea that it could be used for play was quite novel. The concept fascinated me, and so I began to explore its possibilities. I wrote my first game on an IBM mainframe, in FORTRAN with punched cards. It was a strategy wargame on a hexgrid. At the same time, the microcomputer revolution was dawning, and in January of 1977 I acquired my first computer: a KIM-1 with a 6502 and 1K of RAM. Within one month I had taught myself 6502 machine language and written my first game. In 1978 I bought my first appliance computer, a Commodore PET with 8K of RAM. In that same year I sold my first commercial computer game. That was 15 years ago!

In 1979 I joined Atari. After writing a game for the Atari VCS, I went to work on the Atari 800. This was the graphics whizbang machine of the early 80s. It was far superior to anything else on the market. I plunged into the machine, learning everything I could, because I wanted to understand how to use graphics well. It may surprise some readers to learn that I became known as "the graphics wizard of Atari". Indeed, my game Eastern Front (1941) was a for a time the most graphically advanced game on the market. It was a phase I had to go through.

During this period from 1975 to 1981, I had no dream. I was learning the technology. I was an apprentice, absorbing as much as possible. I knew that this technology had enormous potential, but I had no specific notions of what that potential implied. All I knew was that someday I would explore that potential -- once I understood the computer better. I needed a full stock of knowledge before I could dream.

Then, in one of those remarkable coincidences that is so perfectly timed that I can only ascribe it to the workings of fate, Alan Kay came into my life. Alan had been hired by Atari to form a Corporate Research Division, and the first thing he did when he came to Atari was to ask around if there were any bright young turks in danger of leaving the company. All fingers pointed at me, so Alan offered me a position. Then he set about the more deliberate task of building a research division, a task so large that he didn’t hire anybody else for three months. Thus, for three months I had Alan Kay all to myself. This is the computer scientist’s analogue of being marooned on a desert island with Marylyn Monroe.

Alan and I talked about all sorts of things, and I learned a great deal from him. Alan is so smart that I feel stupid when I talk to him. Most people think in small steps, but Alan thinks in huge leaps. Thus, a conversation with Alan Kay requires one to run along behind him, filling in the intermediate steps -- an exhausting process. Of course, it was never possible to know whether the steps that one filled in were the ones that Alan intended, so I cannot say with certainty that the lessons I learned from Alan Kay were the lessons he meant to teach, or lessons from my own experience that he induced me to learn. Perhaps that is the mark of a truly brilliant teacher.

The best lessons I learned while working for Alan concerned how to dream well. Most people take a lazy approach to dreaming. They put their feet up on the desk and engage in idle mental forays for half an hour, and they call it dreaming. To me, dreaming is a much more deliberate and difficult process. Dreaming is hard work!

I see dreaming as occupying a middle ground between fantasy and planning. A fantasy is the free indulgence of human desire, unconstrained by the limitations of reality. A plan reduces human desire to a pedestrian statement of objective, and then posits a sequence of steps that will attain the objective. Fantasy springs from human desire, where planning hews to reality. Dreams live in the gray zone where fantasy merges with planning. Where a fantasy spreads its wings and soars off into space, and a plan plods along earthbound, step by bitter step, a dream takes a running start and leaps as high as it can to gain a handhold by which it can hoist itself up.

Fantasies and dreams both create alternate universes. A fantasy’s alternate universe is unconcerned with the real universe. It is a desirable universe, but not an attainable one. A dream creates an alternate universe that is both desirable and attainable. That requires the dreamer to sketch out all the ramifications of his dream, to create a complete and consistent universe. A fantasy universe can be fragmented or inconsistent, because human desire is often fragmented and inconsistent, but a dream universe cannot be so self-indulgent. A good dream universe is a complete image, not a partial sketch. Every detail of the ideal is clearly specified, every consequence worked out. Only when we know precisely where we’re going can we begin planning how to get there.

So, under Alan Kay’s prodding, I set to work on my dream. It took me a year and a half to give it form. I wrote a book, The Art of Computer Game Design, as part of my process of forging my dream. By 1983, I had my dream. Let me tell you about it.

I dreamed of the day when computer games would be a viable medium of artistic expression an art form. I dreamed of computer games expressing the full breadth of human experience and emotion. I dreamed of computer games that were tragedies, games about duty and honor, self-sacrifice and patriotism. I dreamed of satirical games and political games; games about the passionate love between a boy and girl, and the serene and mature love of a husband and wife of decades; games about a boy becoming a man, and a man realizing that he is no longer young. I dreamed of games about a man facing truth on a dusty main street at high noon, and a boy and his dog, and a prostitute with a heart of gold.

But this was not enough, for by itself this part of the dream was feckless. After all, these things had already been done with other artistic media. There was no point in it -- I would only be reinventing the wheel with poorer quality materials. There was a second part of my dream that gave it potency, and that was interactivity.

The human mind is not a passive receptacle. It’s not as if we have a button on the side of our heads, and somebody pushes that button and the top of our skull pops open and they pour knowledge into our skull and pronounce us educated. It doesn’t work that way! How does a little boy learn about butterflies? Does he pore over massive tomes on the anatomy and physiology of butterflies? No -- he catches one and tears its wings off. Our minds are active agents, not passive receptacles.

If you really want to understand this concept, just watch two kittens at play. One kitten wanders off, following a bug. The other crouches low and folds his ears back, and creeps up on the other kitten until he’s close enough, then he pounces on the kitten. The two kittens bite and claw and kick, and they roll around on the floor. We all laugh and say that kittens are so much fun, that they have nothing better to do all day than play -- but we would be wrong. These kittens are not wasting their time in idle entertainment. They are engaged in serious business. They are learning the skills of adult cathood. They are learning how to hunt. For what does an adult cat do when he sees prey? He crouches low, folds his ears back, and creeps up on the prey until he’s close enough, then he pounces on the prey and bites and claws and kicks. We don’t see kittens lined up in neat rows as an old geezer of a cat stands a chalkboard lecturing about mouse anatomy and approach angles and attack vectors. That’s not how they do it! They learn by doing, by playing.

All the higher mammals learn by playing, and the higher the mammal, the more time is spent in play before adulthood. It’s fundamental to our makeup; it’s wired into our brains.

But over the millennia we humans have learned ways to improve upon this. The first improvement is language. Language is a way to learn from many people. If I go into the forest and eat an orange mushroom,and it makes me so woozy that I actually enjoy Super Mario Brothers, I can come back and tell you, "Don’t eat those orange mushrooms, they’ll make you do crazy things!" That way, you’ve learned something about the world without actually having to eat the mushroom and get sick. Language extends your intellectual reach. With it, you can learn from people thousands of miles away, and thousands of years away.

But we have also learned to turn this around, to use language not only as a way for one person to learn from many people, but also as a way for one person to teach many people. This essay is an example of such a communication. I, Chris Crawford, am one person, but through this essay I can teach hundreds or thousands of people. Think how enormously efficient that is!

But this great efficiency does not come without a price. In order to command your attention, I must accept a certain amount of responsibility. I must work hard on this essay, rewriting it and polishing it until it’s good enough to be worthy of your time. If I just slap junk together, you won’t read it.

We have learned that this responsibility has an upside as well. Suppose the lecture on which this essay is based had been a truly spectacular performance. Suppose that I had organized dancing girls and orange explosions and spaceships roaring through the lecture hall and all sorts of other fantastic things. Suppose my logic was so powerful, my eloquence so compelling, that people ran out of the lecture hall after it was over shouting, "Halleluiah, Brother Crawford has shown me the light!!!" And everybody was buying Chris Crawford Lecture Videotapes! Chris Crawford Lecture Audiotapes! T-shirts! Coffee Mugs!! Key Chains!!! ... Unfortunately, my lecture wasn’t that good, but the principle remains sound: if you do a good job preparing a communication, people will flock to it. And therein lies the genesis of art. Art is, after all, a communication about the human experience. Consider, for example, Michaelangelo’s sculpture, the Pieta. It shows Mother Mary holding the crucified body of her son. This sculpture is about the nature of a mother’s love for her child. Michaelangelo invested a great deal of time and talent into this sculpture, and because he did, it presents its message clearly and well. Its message is so powerful, so compelling, that we call it "beautiful". So millions of people all over the world have seen Michaelangelo’s sculpture.

But there’s another side to this concept. Not only does the artist have a responsibility to present his ideas clearly and compellingly; the audience has a responsibility not to interfere with the presentation. After all, if I spend so much time preparing my lecture, I didn’t want anybody to disrupt it. I expect them to refrain from moving around, talking, snapping bubble gum, rustling their papers, cracking their knuckles, or doing anything that might disturb my lecture. I expected them to just sit quietly, passively, and listen to my beautiful lecture.

But wait! Didn’t I say that human mind is an active agent, not a passive receptacle? Here we have the march of civilization, advancing human communication through the ages, and the grand culmination of this glorious march of progress is art, which puts the audience in a fundamentally passive role, which I have previously shown to be at odds with the basic construction of the human mind! What gives?!?!

One way to understand this contradiction is to consider an imaginary alternative. Suppose that, instead of giving a lecture to 170 people as I did at the conference, I were to meet with each of them individually. Suppose I took one person off into a little room and there we had an interactive conversation instead of an expository lecture. I would talk about my dream, and that person might ask a question, and I would answer it, and then the other person might argue with me, and I’d argue back, and we would interact. That would be different, because then my partner would be involved. The juices would be flowing faster, his mind would be going a mile a minute, and he’d learn a lot more, wouldn’t he? From my point of view, I’d be getting my point across a lot more effectively, wouldn’t I? But the problem was, there were 170 people in that lecture room, and only one of me, and if I used the interactive method, I’d still be conversing with individuals. The expository method is so much more efficient.

And that is the nature of the problem. The interactive conversation is effective, but the expository lecture is efficient. That is the trade-off we make in our communications. Over the centuries, we humans have learned how to make the gains in efficiency outweigh the losses in effectiveness, so we are still ahead -- but the sacrifice of effectiveness remains. This sacrifice has been with us since the beginning of human communication. All through history, every artist, every teacher, every painter, every sculptor, every actor, every novelist, every musician, every playwright, every communicator has been forced to sacrifice effectiveness for efficiency -- until now. Because now we have a technology that changes all that. With the computer, I can take my ideas and express them in the form of algorithms, and then I can code those algorithms in a program, and put that program on a floppy disk, and then we can mass produce that disk. We can make millions of copies of that disk and spread it all over the world so that millions of people can play my game. They can interact with my ideas. Because they are interacting, I achieve effectiveness. Because we are mass producing the disks, I achieve efficiency. This is the revolutionary significance of the computer. It allows us to have both effectiveness and efficiency.

This then was my dream: of an art form given power through the effectiveness of interactivity. I had hammered it out by 1983. I set to work realizing it. Of course, no truly worthy dream can be attained in a few years, and I had no illusions as to the likelihood of quick success. But I had to start somewhere. The first hurdle I identified was the inclusion of characters in computer games.

Have you ever noticed that our games are always about things, not people? We shoot things, we chase things, things shoot us, things chase us. We maneuver things, manage things, allocate things, manipulate things, but it’s always things, things, things, never people. There are never any real characters in our games. Oh sure, I’ve seen the pitiful excuses for characters in our games, but they’re fakes, Potemkim village characters. The characters in our games are like cardboard boxes with a pretty face pasted on to the front, but nothing inside; they have no heart or soul. Instead, they have two buttons on front, and if you press one button they say, "I am your friend", and if you press the other button, they say, "I am your enemy." The characters in our games have as much to do with real characters as an inflatable doll has to do with sex. That may be good enough for some people. It’s not good enough for me.

There are three technological hurdles that we must overcome before we can have real characters in our games. First is the technology of human facial expression. There has been some progress in getting more faces into our games, but as yet these faces have a limited range of emotional expressions available to them. If we are going to convey any emotional substance, we need a library of a hundred different facial expressions, any of which can be put onto the face of any of our characters. As yet, there is nothing on the market that approaches this capability, but I solved this problem some time ago and currently have software that accomplishes this.

The second major technological problem is the creation of artificial personality. This is the software that allows our characters not merely to look like people, but also to behave like people. It is a collection of algorithms that model human behavior. This is complex stuff, as befits the complexity of human emotional behavior. The first step is the establishment of a decent personality model, no small task in itself, but the personality model is only the foundation on which the behavioral algorithms are based. Those algorithms will be extensive, addressing a wide range of human emotional responses. My own experience with building artificial personality systems is that thousands I do not exaggerate, I mean this literally thousands of equations must be composed to provide decent modeling of human emotional behavior. Again, nothing published so far approaches what I would call an artificial personality system but I have already built such a system.

The third hurdle is the creation of a language of emotional expression for the human player. Our player must be able to interact with our characters in an emotionally meaningful fashion. It’s not good enough for the player to be able to interact with other characters through such actions as stabbing, shooting, giving, taking, or "talk about where the gold is". Our players must be able to express themselves in an emotionally meaningful fashion. Again, I have yet to see any published product that presents an adequate system of emotional expression. However, I have built such systems.

I declare my creation of such systems not to boast but to goad you into action by making you aware of just how far behind me you have fallen. My very first interpersonal relationships game was Gossip, published in 1983. It had all three elements: facial displays, artificial personality, and a language of emotional expression. I must admit, all three were primitive, yet nothing this industry has produced is as advanced as Gossip was and that game is ten years old! That’s how much catchup work lies before you.

I continued to work on my dream over the next decade, experimenting, making mistakes and discoveries. I improved. But unbeknownst to me, there was a force at work that would torpedo my dream. It first showed up in 1987, but I was too obtuse to recognize it. It wasn’t until 1990 that it kicked me in the face. That kick was the reaction to my game Balance of the Planet. I was so proud of that design! I had set out to create a game about environmental problems, but I didn’t want to trivialize them. I didn’t want dolphins dancing across the screen, or
Zork dressed up in Greenpeace clothing. I wanted to create a game that honestly addressed environmental policy problems, something to show just how powerfully a computer could present a complex issue. I did just that. Balance of the Planet demonstrates the intertwinement of our environmental problems, and it presents those relationships with a clarity and a power that no static medium can match.

Yet when I released it to the world, the reaction of industry, press, and consumers was unenthusiastic. Perhaps their reaction is best summarized by a review of Balance of the Planet appearing in Computer Gaming World. The reviewer noted that "it is the closest thing to ’art’ to be sold as computer entertainment...but it is just not fun...if the game is not fun, it simply wouldn’t be right to endorse it..." A more explicit rejection of my dream cannot be imagined. Here we have an acknowledgement that Balance of the Planet is some kind of art, yet the review refuses to endorse it because it isn’t fun -- as if fun were the sine qua non of art! I can imagine our reviewer rejecting MacBeth: "Golly, Mr. Shakespeare, your play kept me awake for three nights after I saw it, but you know, it’s just not fun. You need some belly laughs in there; maybe you should have MacBeth tell some mother-in-law jokes." Or perhaps our reviewer would react to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony like this: "Gosh, Mr. Beethoven, your symphony made my heart soar in awe at the majesty of the universe, but you know, it’s just not fun. We need some tunes we can dance to, or catchy jingles we can snap our fingers to."

At first I was confused and furious at the reception of my game. How could people be so obtuse as to recognize its artistic merit and still reject it? After much reflection, I began to realize that the reception of the game was not attributable to the obtuseness of individuals, but instead was a reflection of a deeper force at work. To explain this force, I must digress for a moment.

Imagine a scale of difficulty, with easy games falling at the bottom of the scale and difficult games high on the scale. This scale also applies to individual gamers, with beginners falling low on the scale and experienced gamers high on the scale. Any game then lies somewhere on the scale, but it occupies a window on the scale, not a point, because it has a range of difficulties. Most games present a lesser challenge to the beginner and a greater challenge to the experienced player. This window divides the difficulty scale into three zones. Below the window is the frustration zone, where the game clobbers you. Inside the window is the fun zone, where the game challenges you. Above the window is the boredom zone, where the game offers no challenge.

What happens when you first sit down with a new game? In all probability, the game clobbers you. Your expertise level for the game falls below its minimum difficulty level. But you learn from the experience, you improve your technique, and you do better on your second attempt. After a few more tries you climb into the fun zone. Now you’re having fun. You continue to improve and climb the ladder. After a while, you move into the boredom zone; the game no longer challenges you, so you set it aside.

What do you do next? Why, you get another game, but this time you get a game that offers a greater challenge. You want a game that challenges you at your level of expertise, which is now greater. So you climb the ladder.

This process of climbing the ladder yields something I call game literacy, and it applies separately to a variety of game genres. For example, I am very games literate when it comes to flight simulators, because I’ve been playing them for years. So when I got
Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe, I plugged it in, fired it up, and within five minutes I was shooting down P-51s. On the other hand, I’m not so literate with adventure games. Every year or so I dutifully buy the latest adventure game, plug it in, fire it up, and within five minutes I’m banging my head against a wall. I just can’t figure these things out. I’m so illiterate with these games, I needed hints to finish Loom!

Thus, we have three populations of game players. The first group is the vast mass of game-illiterate players, people who play games rarely if at all. The second population consists of people climbing the ladder. The third group includes the games aficionados.

Now, if you are a retailer, or a distributor, or a publisher, or a developer, which of these three groups do you want to sell to? The answer has to be the third group, because they’re so easy to sell to. They’re connected. They all read the games magazines. They participate in all the electronic BBS’s about games. They have a close circle of friends who play the games and discuss them. They hang around the computer stores talking up the newest, hottest games. You don’t need to work hard or spend a lot of money to get them excited about your game. The best proof of the power of this group is the phenomenal success of Wolfenstein 3D. Here’s a game with no formal marketing whatsoever. No ads, no SPIFs, no distribution deals -- just a great game with plain old word of mouth. And they’re selling a zillion of ’em! What better proof could we require that the aficionados dominate the marketplace?

Contrast this with the first group, the beginners. How can you sell to them? They don’t read any of the magazines or subscribe to national BBSs. There’s no way to reach them. The typical member of this group walks into a computer store perhaps once a year, to buy a new ribbon for his dot matrix printer. He gets lost and bumbles into the games section. "Garsh", says he, "I haven’t played a game in years. I oughtta buy one. Here’s one with a pretty box: Harpoon. I think I’ll buy it. I’ll bet it’s about whales!" How do you sell to these people?

The aficionados have another big advantage over the beginners: they’re easy to please because they tell you what they want. Designing for the beginners is a hit-or-miss effort, but designing for the aficionados is a formulaic process. They tell you in great detail exactly what they want. They fill out the feedback cards, they write long letters, they send you e-mail. All you have to do is compile their feedback from the last game and implement it in the next game.

The aficionados have one other important advantage over the other buying groups: they spend more money. For them, gaming is not idle entertainment, it is a serious hobby, and they spend money accordingly. That gives them marketing punch, and the industry responds to their demands.

For all these reasons, the aficionados have played an increasingly powerful role in our industry. Ten years ago, the computer game consumer was a shadowy figure, hard to pin down, and so games covered a wide range of interests and tastes. But the marketplace has matured, the aficionado has come to the fore, and the industry has narrowed its offerings to cater to his tastes.

The most important element that the aficionado wants is greater depth in his games. After all, he has spent hundreds, even thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of his time developing his expertise in a game genre. He wants games that allow him to build on his existing skills. He doesn’t want to abandon his investment and start all over with a new genre. He wants to keep climbing the ladder, not start over with a new ladder. The aficionados have made this plain over the last few years. The games that they most appreciate (and buy) are extensions of previous designs, games that hew close to the genre while adding greater depth.

Herein lies the doom of my dream. I dreamed of a broad range of games encompassing the huge range of human emotional experience. To put it most succinctly: I dreamed of breadth, but aficionados crave depth. Breadth and depth are orthogonal. My dream lies at cross-purposes to the desires of the aficionados. It cannot be achieved in this marketplace. I no longer belong in the computer games industry. The time has come for me to move on.

Many years ago, I left the crowded cities of the Eastern seaboard and crossed the Appalachians, coming to the virgin forests of Kentucky. I built myself a log cabin in a glade by the river, and there I settled. Soon others came and built their cabins near mine. More came, and we had a little village. People continued to come, and one day we had a town, with streets and stores and property lines and lawyers. As I look around, I realize that this place has gotten too damn civilized for my tastes. It’s time for me to move on.

So I pack up my belongings, hoist my backpack, and head out. Along the way I wave goodbye to a few old friends, but most of the faces I see belong to strangers. They stare at me; one whispers to the other, "Who is that scruffy old fool? I’m glad he’s leaving; we don’t need his kind in our town." At the edge of town I turn and look back one last time. It’s a good town; I’m proud of the role I played in its creation. But my future lies out there, to the west, in the Rocky Mountains. There are no people there; just rocks and trees and clear blue sky. That’s where I belong.

This is not an ending; it is a repetition. Just as I pioneered computer games, now I am off to pioneer something new. This territory is so new, so untamed that it doesn’t have a proper name yet. I like that. Call it interactive entertainment, if you must. Out here, nobody knows what the hell they’re doing. I like that, too. Out here, a man lives by his wits alone; power, status, and money count for nothing. I especially like that.