Control Versus Interactivity

One of the things that really trips up creative people new to our industry is the problem of control. They come from a creative environment in which artistic control is absolute. A writer, for example, exercises total control over the work. She decides the plot, the characters, the interactions between the characters, how they respond to situations everything.

Oh, sure, she may have to share her control with somebody else an editor, perhaps, or some other collaborator. But even then, this little clique retains absolute control over the work.

This complete creative control applies in all of the traditional media: literature, movies, television, music, painting, theater...the artist always controls the experience.

Such control is both necessary and desirable in these media. If I buy a book, I don’t expect to open it up and find blank pages with an exhortation from the author to "fill them with whatever feels good." That’s HER job, dammit! When I pay good money for information, I expect to get some information, not a blank page.

Thus the expectation of control is deeply embedded in the thinking of all artists from conventional fields. They just assume that they’ll have control over the situation.

But this expectation is seriously out of touch with the strange new world of interactive entertainment. The fundamental, unavoidable truth is that the audience makes all the critical decisions. The audience is the protagonist, and the audience determines the protagonist’s actions, not the artist.

Most artists just can’t get this down their craws. They refuse to let go of their direct creative control. In the process, they deprive the audience of any meaningful choice. Their work frog-marches the audience down a primrose path; after all, the artist knows better than the ignorant audience. The artist has a clearer artistic vision; if the audience were allowed to intrude into this process, the clumsy oafs would only spoil the artist’s beautiful vision.

What overweening pride! What self-centered narrowness! Such people should stay in their expository fields and bestow their brilliance upon passive audiences in time-honored fashion. They should certainly stay out of the interactive fields.

If the artist surrenders direct control when moving into the interactive arena, what then motivates the artistic spirit within her breast? Why should she endure creative agony when it will not yield the satisfaction derived from creation?

The answer is that control is not lost; it merely becomes indirect.

Perhaps a theological analogy might clarify the issue. Assume that you believe in God. Assume further that this God controls the universe, that all things happen according to His will. Question: how closely does God control the universe? Does God attend to every falling raindrop, specifying its position from one instant to the next? Does God guide the fingers of the murderer, and put every syllable into the mouth of the saint?

Why would it be necessary for God to exercise such micromanagement over His universe? Why would He busy Himself with so many petty details? Would it not be more reasonable for Him to establish whatever laws of nature struck His fancy, and then allow those laws to act without divine intervention? He still controls the universe, but He does so with a greater degree of indirection.

In the same fashion, when we create a microscopic universe inside our computers, we become petty gods. We control our universes but must we do so as puppeteers? Can we not derive greater satisfaction from our creation by playing the role of architect rather than puppeteer, granting our audience the autonomy to exercise its "free will"? Is this not a wiser and better way to play god? More on this later...