Why Is Interactivity So Hard?

I recently passed my 16th anniversary as a professional computer game designer. That’s a long time; our industry is maturing. But something struck me while reflecting on 16 years in the business:why is that, after all this time, so few people understand interactivity?My hunch is that a tiny fraction of the professionals in this industry truly understand the subject matter. A larger minority of people have a working familiarity with interactivity: they can recognize it when they see it, they can competently copy good ideas, but they just don’t understand interactivity well enough to create anything new. And the majority of people in the business especially the money people, it seems don’t have an inkling of what interactivity is all about.

One would expect a certain amount of confusion in the formative years of an industry, but we’ve been at this for a couple of decades now. Surely we should have figured out the nature of interactivity by now. So the obvious question becomes:why have we failed?Why is interactivity so hard to understand?

My answer to this question is short, sweet, and incomprehensible: nounificationism. I shall spend the rest of this essay explaining what I mean by that ghastly neologism. To do so, I shall bring together a number of disparate threads. Settle back in your seat; this will take a while.

The Evolution of the Mind
My starting point is the evolution of the human mind. In the last million years, the hominid brain has roughly tripled in size. Now, that’s a remarkable development in the annals of evolution. After all, evolution is a conservative process, taking a large number of tiny steps but seldom committing itself to any major leaps.

The ambitiousness of this rapid growth in the hominid brain is particularly striking when you consider how expensive brain matter can be. Most body parts, such as skin, bones, ligaments, and so forth, are pretty cheap to build and maintain, but brains are inordinately greedy organs. I read somewhere (and my number may be off the mark here) that 25% of all the calories we consume go to feeding our brains. If correct, that’s an extraordinary number!Put another way, when hominids "decided"to build such big brains, they committed to eating about 30% more calories per day. That’s 30% more woolly mammoths you gotta kill every single day. That’s a major commitment.

Now, such dramatic developments are not unheard-of in evolutionary history, but they are certainly remarkable. Evolution would only have taken such a flyer on brain tissue if brains were terribly useful bits of biomachinery. This leads us to ask the question, "What is it about brains that makes them so terribly useful?"

Now, the obvious answer here is "intelligence". We like intelligence, we respect it; intelligence is always a Good Thing. But before we get too far down the path of Intelligence and Apple Pie, let me ask an ugly question:exactly what is the adaptive benefit of intelligence?

Before you bridle at my crassness, let me point out that evolution is as crass and short-sighted as a publicly-traded corporation. Evolution does not make long-term investments. When a child is born into a family with slightly greater intelligence than her siblings, that intelligence must translate into immediate benefits for that individual child. If that person does not have a better chance of surviving and procreating, then the trait won’t spread through the gene pool. It’s that simple, direct, and crass. Bottom-line mutation management. Strategic planning quarter by quarter.

So, what’s the bottom line with intelligence? Exactly what benefit does it offer to the hard-nosed mutation accountants of the evolutionary fiscal books?

At this point, we get flustered. Well, it’s obvious that intelligence is better. Intelligence allows you to do things better. Right?But I’m looking for more specific answers, and the specific answers that come to mind don’t take me far. Tool-making?Well, yes, that’s good, but the simple stone tools of hominid times don’t strike me as earth-shattering advantages. Improved social structures?Well, yes, that’s good, too, but it’s still too hand-wavy to satisfy me.

I’ll stop beating around the bush and get straight to the answer that does satisfy me:language. Language is not some airy-fairy notion like intelligence; it’s a behavior, not a bragging-point. Language is something you do, not something you speculate about.

The adaptive value of language is obvious:hominids with better language skills can build more complex social structures, coordinate their activities more tightly, and resolve conflicts less destructively, among other things.

Moreover, language is a smoothly rampable trait. The opposite case is provided by flying, which has some steep steps in the sequence from walking to flying, steep steps that have been difficult to figure out. But language can smoothly develop from grunts to Shakespeare. Language was like a trail of breadcrumbs laid out in front of evolution’s donkey:each step upward was obvious and quickly taken, even for a dumb ass like evolution.

By the way, none of what I’m writing here is original to me I’m only presenting my oversimplified and distorted digestion of the writings of a number of experts.

OK, so let’s grant that language was the big driving force in the development of the hominid brain. So what? Well, nowI’m going to shift from phylogeny to ontogeny. Consider the development of the human brain from birth to adolescence. During this time the brain grows quite a bit, and thought processes take form. Note also that this is the primary time for language learning. We learn our native language even as our brains are developing.

The point I’m driving at is that the language acquisition and brain development seem to be closely associated, both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.

This brings us to a very old question:what is the relationship between language and thinking? This question has been argued for millennia; both Plato and Aristotle had something to say about it. There are two extreme positions. The first is that language is identical to thinking. We think in our language. The process of framing our thoughts in language is the same thing as the act of thinking. "If you can’t say it, you don’t know it!" The second extreme is that language is completely independent of thinking; our thought processes proceed according to some mysterious inner process and, when completed, are shipped off to stdio for translation into language.

Now, these are the extreme positions and few people hew strictly to one or the other; the truth, it would seem, lies somewhere in between these extremes. But where?I don’t know; what I can say from the previous analysis is that language and thought are inextricably intertwined. Many of the same neurons that process language are also used for conscious thought. It therefore stands to reason that the logic of the language that we learn in childhood will affect the logic of our thoughts. So let’s chalk that up as our first conclusion. I’ll come back to it later.

The Logical Structure of the Universe
Now, there’s a modest little section header, no? We tackle some pretty serious issues in game design, don’t we? Unfortunately, I am not about to reveal the entire logical structure of the universe not until I get copyright on it. After all, Bill Gates is lurking out there somewhere. For the time being, I will address only a single aspect of the logical structure of the universe:the division between object and action.

This is one of the fundamental dualities of the universe. Everything in the universe can be perceived as either an object or an action. It’s rather like the wave-particle duality in quantum physics:everything can be described as either a wave or a particle. Of course, some phenomena are easier to deal with as waves, and others are easier to deal with as particles, but there’s no fundamental reason why we must treat any given phenomenon as one or the other.

For example, consider a star. A star is just about the biggest single object in our universe; there can be nothing "objectier"than a star. Yet, if I choose, I can describe a star as a process. We have the four equations of stellar structure, connecting the gravitational pressure inward, the radiative pressure outward, the energy generation in the core of the star, and the energy radiation at the surface of the star. Those four equations determine the state of the star; should they go out of balance, the star ceases to exist indeed, in special cases where they go seriously out of balance, the star blows itself to smithereens. So, is a star an object or a process?

Let’s go to the opposite end of the size scale and look at a hydrogen atom. That’s an object, composed of an electron and a proton, right?Well, not necessarily. There’s a complete equation for a hydrogen atom that defines the relationship between an electron and a proton as a "hydrogen atom". So again, is a hydrogen atom an object or an action?

Now let’s get personal:let’s talk about you. What are you, object or action?Are you nothing more than bone and muscle, blood and sinew?Or are you homeostatic equilibrium, blood pressure, acetylcholine jumping across synaptic clefts, hormones from the pituitary gland entering the bloodstream, and so forth? Let’s get even deeper: are you mind or body?Are you your physical body, or are you integrity, love, vulnerability, desire, and so forth?What are you?

This fundamental duality between object and action reflects itself in almost every human endeavor. In software we talk about data (object) and process (action). The hardware manifestations of these are RAM(for data/object)and the CPU(for process/action). A CPU with no RAM cannot function. RAM without a CPU does nothing. Moreover, the duality reaches right into the structure of the program; any programmer can adjust any program to be more data-intensive (taking more RAM but generally running faster) or more process-intensive (taking less RAM but generally running slower).

The grand universality of object/action duality extends even further. In physics we talk about boundary conditions (objects) and equations (actions). In language, we have nouns (objects)and verbs (actions). Now we’re starting to get closer to our quarry.

Consider the following question: to what extent might a language emphasize nouns over verbs or vice versa?The answer is that this is a purely subjective matter; theoretically, a language might put an arbitrary amount of emphasis on one or the other, and it should still work just fine, because after all, the universe can be approached in either object-intensive style or action-intensive style and either way works just as well. Obviously, there are certain situations where an object-heavy style might be clumsy, just as there are certain situations where an action-heavy style wouldn’t work well, but in principle you can do it.

And in fact we see that languages do embrace a variety of styles. There’s an Australian language that is quite verb-heavy; the function of nouns is taken by gerunds. For example, in this language, there is no word for "person" or "man"; instead, there is a term roughly equivalent to "human being".

Another example is provided by Latin. I’ve been studying Latin lately as part of my work on Erasmus, and the verb plays a much larger role in the Latin sentence than in English. It’s not just that verbs are conjugated in all sorts of complicated ways; they’re scattered around the sentence in all sorts of supporting ways. Consider this elegant pair of sentences:

"Verum si fieri non potest ut omnibus probemur, hoc interim me consolator ferbe probamur a probatissimus. Et spero futuram, ut quod nunc placet optimus mox placeat plurimus."

which translates to:

"If it is not my destiny to find favor with everyone, I am consoled for the present by the reflection that almost universally I am well regarded by those who themselves are best regarded. And I hope that at some not distant time that which now pleases the best of men will come to please the majority of men."

Now, let’s go back to those two versions and pick out the noun parts and the verb parts. I shall underline the verbs and place the nouns in boldface:

"Verum si fieri nonpotest ut
omnibus probemurconsolator, hoc interim me ferbeprobamur a probatissimus. Et spero futuram, ut quod nunc placet optimus mox placeat plurimus."

"If it is not my
destiny to find favor with everyone, I am consoled for the present by the reflection that almost universally I am well regarded by those who themselves are best regarded. And I hope that at some not distant time that which now pleases the best of men will come to please the majority of men."

The point of this exercise is that English is a more noun-heavy language than Latin. I will go even further and say that, as languages go, English is fairly noun-heavy. I can’t substantiate this claim from direct experience with many languages; perhaps some linguist in the readership may wish to comment on my claim. But I certainly have the impression that English puts more horsepower into its nouns than into its verbs.

Here’s another demonstration of my claim: I went through the previous paragraph, counting all the words in the noun phrases and all the words in the verb phrases. I came up with 42 noun-words and 13 verb-words. Moreover, most of the verbs are pathetic weaklings such as "is","have", and "puts" whereas the nouns boast such colorful words as "horsepower", "exercise", "linguist", and "impression".

Time to Put it all together
The time has come at last to draw together the threads of this argument. We have three main points to consider:

1. The language that you learn in childhood exerts a powerful influence on your thought processes.
2. Every language establishes a balance between its object-terms(nouns) and its action-terms (verbs).
3. English emphasizes its nouns.

The conclusion, then, is that all you English-speakers out there have thought processes that are biased towards objects and away from actions.

What’s this have to do with interactivity?
Simple: we’re not designing interobjective entertainment, we’re designing interactive entertainment. Interactivity is not about objects, it’s about actions. Yet our thought processes push us towards objects, not actions. This explains why everybody is wasting so much time talking about "content". Content is a noun! We don’t need content we need process, relationship, action, verb.

What can you do?
So, how do you overcome the handicaps of your upbringing?Should you go live among the Australian aborigines to learn their language so as to change your thinking styles?I don’t think so; it’s too late. Your brain has already hardened and you’re not going to make fundamental changes in its organization. However, there are a few simple rules of thumb you can adopt that will help.

First, always think in terms of the verbs. For any interactive design you consider, ask yourself, "What are the verbs in this design?What can the player do?" If you approach it this way, you’ll more quickly put your finger on the weaknesses of the design.

Second, embrace the "operational definition of reality". Reality is as reality does. Don’t ask yourself what things are, ask what they do. A chair is not a device with four legs, a seat, and a back; a chair is something you sit in. A battleship is not a big armored ship with lots of guns; it’s a ship for destroying other ships. By this definition, a chair that you never sit in has never realized its reality, and therefore should be dismissed as an "unchair", or at least a failure. A battleship that sits in port and never destroys other ships might as well have never been built.

Galileo once observed that the entire universe could be seen inside a single glass of wine. An object-heavy thinker would not understand Galileo’s statement; after all, how can you fit the whole universe inside one tiny wine glass?But an action-oriented thinker would understand Galileo instantly, for inside the wine glass take place the processes of refraction, convection, turbulence, evaporation, and many of the other processes that take place in the larger universe.

When you can look at a glass of wine and see the entire universe, then you are ready to truly understand interactivity.