Evolution - Sorting & Finding the Pieces
My Personal Experience

My iffy interactivity theory coalesced after the 1998 Annual IF Competition. After almost everyone else in the IF community was running "hot" over Photopia while I was left standing out in the cold. Pushed to the sidelines, a small minority of us rec.games.int-fiction newsgroup (rgif) reviewers expressed surprise at the enthusiastic storm that raged. To us Photopia simply wasn't interactive enough. When the raves continued for weeks afterwards, I seriously started wondering if its author, Adam Cadre, had slipped subliminal messages into his piece. Nothing else seemed to explain the almost mesmerized and, occasionally, even excessive, reactions it received. Later I realized that in a way he had, but not deliberately or consciously.

Subject: Photopia a tragedy?
Date: 11/27/1998
Newsgroup: rec.games.int-fiction

Brandon Van Every wrote:

>Well, let's write a plot summary for Photomania, the anti-climactic saga of
>a little girl whose [spoiler].
>Alley had been slumming it at the frat party. She enjoyed having these two
>older dudes fondle her tender young breasts [spoiler].

My initial reaction to this is rather interesting:

I thought "Brandon, you utter bastard, how can you even think of defaming in this way a poor innocent girl who's [spoiler]?"

Only then did I remember that Alley was a fictional character.

I think this says a lot about "Photopia" - it happens that fictional characters get so "real" for me that I care for their reputation, but this is the first time it happens for a character in a game...

Magnus Olsson

Reexamining other games in the 1998 Competition, I was forced to conclude all IF has a subliminal component. Again, nothing else seemed to explain why some games generated opposite strong reactions, being both liked and disliked. These polarized, "balkanized" (coined by Lucian P. Smith) reactions became even stronger after the 1999 Annual IF Competition with its even more diverse entries. Their increasingly differing styles, with their varying levels of interactivity, generated responses that deviated even more from any universal standard. This was so striking, it couldn't be missed. Some games which scored 10's and received lavish praise, also scored low and received dismissive shrugs. Feeling this clear polarization thoroughly validated my theory, I also decided it provided me with enough evidence to finally publish it.

Place Name Author Avg. Score No. Votes Min. Max. Std.
2 For A Change Dan Schmidt 7.25 103 2 10 1.91
5 Exhibition Ian Finley 6.80 93 1 10 2.15
6 Halothane Quentin D. Thompson 6.69 99 1 10 2.35
8 Hunter, In Darkness Andrew Plotkin 6.43 100 1 10 2.42

However, long before the 1998 competition, baffling things in r*if (rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction) and email letters nagged at me. Tantalizing pieces, seemingly disparate, of what appeared to be a larger Interactive Fiction puzzle, a meta-puzzle. These intriguing data chunks were about IF players themselves, not games. But their surface themes and vague, curlicue outlines seemed potentially interlocking, hinting at a solution. After being confounded by reactions to Photopia, I started playing with these chunks, moving them around like jigsaw pieces, trying to line up a patch of blue sky here with a patch there. What was going on? Why do we like what we like? Why do some of us like some IF, others not? Obviously, author skill could not be the only answer. Then suddenly all the pieces fit together, forming a whole, a circle -- closure.

What else had I noticed?

When I wrote "The Family Legacy," I put sounds in quotes: "Crash!", "Tinkle, tinkle." Nine months after I withdrew it from the 1997 contest, I started a rewrite. Before changing a subplot, I asked someone I knew casually to play it, so he could tell me what he thought. He did, but his main reaction surprised me because I had not asked for or expected it. He had been so distracted by the quoted sounds that they had actually interfered with his playing. Every time he had seen one he had yearned to hear a real sound. So motivated, all on his own he volunteered to record real sounds and insert them into the game ala Lurking Horror. (He started recording, but this project fell apart when my hard disk crashed and trashed Legacy's source code). He also said since he listened to music frequently it would be no trouble for him to cart a tape recorder around.

Two other Family Legacy players' responses (about ten people played it before I withdrew it), were also telling. One player was annoyed by a humorous bit, feeling the joking tone of voice was inappropriate in a "scary" piece. Another felt he had determined that the genderless protagonist was really female, because the player had to fold a sheet before it would fit in a duffle.

Harry Hardjono, author of Cask, collaborated with me for a while on one of my other WIPS (works in progress). Luc French made a rect.arts.int-fiction newsgroup (raif) appeal on my behalf asking for help with puzzles. Harry responded. But when we tried collaborating, he became annoyed at my flights of fantasy, trying to make puzzles fun, he wanted them to be totally believable, workable like they would be in real-life. I certainly wanted logicalness, but I also sought a touch of comic book whimsey. We gave up collaborating, parting on friendly terms. In hindsight I felt regretful, because Harry's strict mechanical approach had helped me find some flawed logic.

As a result of another thread, a female iffer and I disagreed. We continued our argument by email. She felt a word I used in one of my letters was loaded with negative connotations. To clarify what it meant to her she quoted a relevant song. I had also noticed that she usually joined threads about pronunciation and those contrasting British v.s. American dialect. And, in a thread about conversation menus, she complained that they interfered visually with her conversation with NPCs (non-player characters). In another thread on quite a different theme, one room games, we agreed we didn't like them because we couldn't "move around."

Other things I noticed in raif threads (newsgroup conversational topics):

threads about pronunciation, including threads about various slang or dialect and
    how we personally pronounce something
threads about the root meaning of words
threads about good writing
threads that veer off topic into discussions of food
threads about copyrights
threads about strictly technical topics, how to program in this language or that
threads about contrasting editors, browsers, and operating systems
the visualization thread, some people visualize, some less heavily, some not very much at all,
    some almost never

...and groups of people (although groups overlapped) who...

disliked one-room games
disliked mainly mechanical puzzles
disliked all puzzles
disliked puzzles without plots,
    and vice versa -- some disliked puzzleless IF
disliked mazes, except for that particular maze in that particular game,
    some maze haters have exceptions
disliked conversational menus, while some liked conversational menus
    or weren't bothered by them
disliked reading long screens of text

Over the years, in threads and email, I also watched distinct personal styles emerge. These styles have amazingly consistent sensory themes. Some people frequently mention music. Some regularly write using heavy visual imagery. Some invariably discuss emotions. Some do both. Some admire prose from specific books and games, quoting favorite passages. Others read these excerpts and can't see what the quoters are praising. While others stick to dry, technical topics. And one infamous poster can usually be counted on to go off topic (OT) about food.

An iffy friend of mine says to write Interactive Fiction is uniquely satisfying because it requires both sides of the brain. Creative writing calls on the right brain, programming the left. This dual hemispheric involvement is why writing IF is so difficult, and why not everyone tries it, or is good at it. It is also why raif is a conglomeration of writers, wanna-be-writers, programmers and writer / programmers. Some programmers, who contribute to compiler, interpreter, and library development, claim they are not creative enough to ever write a game. New writers who drop into the group are in search of an easy-to-use Interactive Fiction language with a GUI (graphical user interface), so they can click on icons and not have to learn how to program. Many non-writing programmers hang around. The non-programming writers learn to program, or move on.

So it is no surprise that some left brain programming types, who consistently join technical threads, may not join good writing threads. But left / right brain dominance doesn't explain why some people are always willing to discuss pronunciation and others aren't. Or why some will argue about copyright and others won't. The same discussions tend to bring out the same crowd, because people consistently join the same type of threads. There is overlap, of course, but some who rarely post to certain threads, will usually post to others. So? We are all different and we like different things. But these sensory forms of self-expression and thread joining tendencies are too persistent. Observing their constancy over the years, I felt they formed a pattern, pointing to connection between them and what type of IF games we like to play.

I was one of those who couldn't always see what someone admired when they quoted prose. I have always viewed words as unreliable and overworked transporters of information. Like a little ant bent under the weight of a big piece of food as it carries it back to the hill -- a word is bowed down with multiple meanings; as it tries to convey just a few of those in the current context to the reader. For words, context is all. Pictures are more complete. Through layers of imagery, they portray multiple symbols that viewers can then interpret. By itself, a picture is all.

Last year, before I remembered McLuhan, I exchanged email letters with my iffy friend, Adam Thornton (Bruce). We discussed my theory and what an impossible task I felt it was for each little word to transmit so much data. Adam loves words. He considers them more complete than pictures because they are more compressed. He also thinks they are less dependent on context than I do. In our discussion, he likened them to small zip files efficiently packed with data, instead of cumbersomely large like spread out, often diffuse, graphics. His analogy confirmed my suspicion that we see words differently. Later, I had a strong mental image of him reading a sentence. Each word in the sentence is packed like a computer byte (or word). As his eye rapidly travels left to right, he instantaneously unpacks each word bit by bit, definition by definition, and absorbs the information directly into his brain. Words hit him on a deeper level than they do me. My eye skims across and down the surface of a page, not absorbing the meaning of each word, but the gist of each paragraph. Along the way, a lot of little bits, and even some bytes, get lost. This is an exaggerated image, of course, but he definitely responds to individual words more than I.

Which brings me to my personal perceptions, because my perceptions are what my theory grew out of. To discuss them I have to write on a more personal note. About five months after the 1998 competition a visualization thread started. Initially asking if we visualized ourselves "in" a game, it soon veered off into just a discussion of visualization itself. Reading over 100 posts, I realized I am not processing information the way most of these people do. Aha! -- eureka.

As a result, I started the IF Art Show, to bring a visual and/or tactile artistic approach to creating IF, deliberately focusing on the multi-dimensionality of interactivity instead of the linearity of writing. The visualization thread, and later argument over the IF Art Show rules, also reminded me that I am dyslexic. Seems a hard thing for me to have forgotten, doesn't it? Well, not really. They tested me when I was very young, and at the time they had just started testing for dyslexia and didn't know much about it. Also, as an adult, I had gotten so much into the typing habit of quickly backspacing to unscramble letters I had transposed that I no longer consciously thought about it. As a child, the testers told us that my dyslexia was "mild" and/or was something I would grow out of. The last was untrue, of course, one never does.

Later I joined a dyslexic mailing list and discovered I think like 80% of dyslexics. We are "iconic thinkers." We conceptualize in pictures, not words. Before I remembered my dyslexia, because of my visual artistic (painting) background, I had always seen this as being a gestaltic or right brain thinker instead of left brain or linear one. Gestaltic thinking, which is often iconic, sees the "big picture." Not tied to sequence or time, it takes in the whole at a glance, sees the forest first and only notices individual trees second.

Language is related to brain hemisphere specialization. Sequentializing and most written and spoken language abilities reside in the left brain. To write about concepts, I have to deliberately mentally subvocalize what I want to say. To respond to letters or posts in newsgroups, I must turn writing into an imaginary conversation before I can transcribe my responses. Search and search for words as I try to turn my nebulous circular thoughts into neat linear strings. Words do not instantly spring to mind. Those I have read recently are easier to use, because they are still in my short term memory. Real-life or online chat is also easier, because it 10-100X faster than ordinary writing. The speed combined with the ability to "see" others' reactions allows me to immediately spot any misunderstandings and quickly correct them. A newsgroup post is more permanent, unfortunately chiseling unclear writing roughly into "stone". It is unfortunate because some posts may evoke strong negative emotional responses from others. Emotions which can fester for days until the author can reply to make any corrections and remedy the situation.

I shared this practice of mental rehearsing before writing with the dyslexia mailing list. I found, yes, many other dyslexics do it too. Non-dyslexics may do it as well, but dyslexics do it to a degree that non-dyslexics probably cannot imagine. In other words, we dyslexics process information differently. Also, although the reason for it remains unknown -- cause or effect, the results are not in -- we are predominately right-brained. While the Western world is determinedly and unapologetically left-brained. Put in that context it is questionable if dyslexia is a disability or an ability. Dyslexia is also not a problem for the illiterate -- widespread literacy is a recent historical development, so dyslexia is a relatively new diagnosis. Nor is it a problem for those using an iconic alphabet -- Marshall McLuhan thought the phonetic alphabet, by being so visually sequential, unnaturally separated everything but literal definitions from words; elevating linear thinking above gestaltic as more intuitive and emotive auditory complexities were lost.

So, did rediscovering my dyslexia overturn the original iffy theory I had evolved? For a while I thought so. Then I realized, no, it reinforced it. Because interactivity is, simply, based on the way each of us processes information.

Over the years in r*if, before remembering my dyslexia, when I just saw myself as an inarticulate visual artist stranded in a group of fluent writers, I still felt I was trying to speak, actually write, across a "linguistic divide." Push my hastily and poorly constructed little words across a chasm of both distance and perception, as I tried to span my meaning to others in different locales with a different perspective of words. But my communicative bridges tended to be catwalks, swaying too much in the breeze, and prone to breakage at the first wrongly placed foot. Never have I felt so consistently misunderstood. Never have I hung around such a literate group of people either. In contrast, artists tend to be either inarticulate or poetic. Impassioned activists tend to strongly worded emotional pleas. Group social discourse tends to the humorously fragmentary. But, more important, I also never had to communicate with a group solely through the written word. Although I have been a newsletter editor three times, to me this totally written conversation, without helpful facial and auditory cues, was almost a new medium.

Whether a written medium can even be considered conversation depends on how one defines conversation and how one defines the written word or "published." When I discovered the Internet, I spent more than two years on CompuServe, frequenting almost nightly their CB (Citizens' Band - radio) chat area. I intermittently visited other "channels" (chat rooms), but my favorite was Village Elders, for those forty and over. Its regulars included CB "oldies" who had been on CompuServe from the beginning and helped evolve its chat etiquette. To speed up typing, they had also helped transform the written word to correlate more with the spoken. As a result of their transformation it assumed an informality that a written, "published" paper never could.

Because using the shift key took not only time but some concentration, capitalizing became SHOUTING. As a result, almost no one capitalized the first word in a sentence. Some even stopped capitalizing I (i like that). They also often dropped punctuation, such as the period at the end of a sentence. Since chat took place so quickly, with the screen rolling by rapidly as everyone "talked," sentences also became fragmentary. Subsequent thoughts were expressed on subsequent lines, rather than in complete paragraphs on one line.

Other things used to indicate vocal inflection and facial expression (and body language) were:

smileys :-) & frownys %-<
% = glasses, < = sometimes meant a beard, in which case a smile ) or frown ( might be inserted before it
<g> grin
<eg> evil grin
<veg> very evil grin
{{{person's name}}} a hug, although CB "oldies" would yell that they were AOL hugs; those CompuServe purists insisted on using huggggggs person's name, instead
*word* a physical action or a word "uttered" in a deeper tone of voice
>action< always a physical action, usually >thwap<, "hitting" someone playfully in mock anger at a failed joke, bad pun or sexual innuendo
acronyms summarizing things chatters were actually doing in real-life or supposedly would do

Acronyms covered a wide range and constantly evolved. The most common were:

gmta great minds think alike -- acknowledging that two people said the essentially same thing at the same time
high 5 or ^5 agreement, "right on" -- if you could, you would slap their hand in real-life
lol laughing out loud -- you were laughing out loud in real-life at something someone just said
rofl rolling on the floor laughing
roflmao rolling on the floor laughing my ass off
roflmaopimp rolling on the floor laughing my ass off peeing in my pants
roflmaopimk rolling on the floor laughing my ass off peeing in my kilt -- the Scottish influence on international CompuServe

While I was still on CompuServe, articles started appearing in newspapers about the degradation of the written word. Lamenting the development of email, with its now fragmentary sentences, emoticons and poor punctuation, columnists claimed language was de-evolving. Chatters had obviously carried over their new mannerisms to email. Later when I switched to AOL (America On Line), I found many of these same oral / auditory changes to the written word. AOL also now offers colored and different fonts to their chatters, helping to personalize written conversations even more. (The IF Mud includes those who use fragmentary sentences and those who insist on using complete ones every time they "talk." It has also evolved its own conversational short cuts, for instance: timing, the same as gmta; and yah!, essentially the same as high five.)

When I first arrived at raif I brought this reconstructed chatter's view of the written word with me. Filtered through it, I saw papers, such as this, letters, and games as "published." Everything else, including news groups, I saw as just written conversation. So I didn't concentrate as much (as I do now) on complete sentences and punctuation. I also used general words like: general, probably, maybe, seems, appears, of course, in fact; as I "dyslexically" fumbled around trying to zero in on what I really wanted to "say." Some of those words were also "loaded" as my pictorial, emotive right brain intuitively tried to convey my meaning while avoiding the painstaking labor of straining to be more linguistically precise. This often made people angry. The resulting arguments not only revealed a lot about me, but also my debaters.

I was actually surprised to discover that some people, especially some among my readers :-), were extremely literal, i.e. linear. They were looking for "writing," not conversational rambling with writing errors. Too many comma splices, split infinitives, pronouns without clear antecedents, etc. could actually make them lose some or all of my meaning. Their eyes "hung up" so much on errors, they couldn't always proceed. More used to artistic interpretation than literal translation, I was repeatedly frustrated. Subconsciously I had been expecting them to "read between the lines", because I saw words the same as pictures, open to interpretation.

Maybe because I am predominately right-brained, or maybe because I am dyslexic, I can actually read upside down text. I certainly have no problem reading the jumbled writing of other dyslexics on the dyslexic mailing list. I can unscramble words rapidly, fill in blanks (missing words), and usually figure out what the writer is saying, or figure it out well enough that any individually confusing words really don't matter. I see hte, the, and eth as all being the. My eye moves along quickly and doesn't hang up often. Extremely visual, this also may mean that when I read I miss subtle, or not so subtle, distinctions in meaning or intent.

However, losing meaning by not reading between the lines is not a fault in those that are extremely linguistic. Losing meaning by not completely reading lines themselves, is not, I think, a fault in myself, either. Linguistic, visual, or balancing somewhere in between, we just process information differently. We all follow the same basic human blueprint, but we are also all different. So we all probably process information differently, even if only slightly. But maybe only those of us whose thinking and perceptions differ from our peers, makes this fact clear. Maybe only those of us with acknowledged "disabilities" (learning or otherwise), makes our differing ways of processing information glaringly obvious. Maybe only to us, is it also so blindingly self evident.

Table of Contents      Compendium - More Pieces