An Iffy Theory [Version 2.25]

The Meta-Puzzle of Interactive Fiction: Why We Like What We Like
Interactivity is the Message

by Marnie Parker a.k.a. Doe ( )

Introduction - The Puzzle Box
Supporting Theories

Marshall McLuhan postulated that written language reordered humanity's senses. Before the invention of the phonetic alphabet, communication involved all the senses simultaneously, because speaking accompanied by gestures required both listening and looking.

I postulate that computer interactivity reorders the senses again, realigning them back to their original configuration. Linear reading -- word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph -- no longer automatically takes precedence. Users can not only skip around, but more senses than sight also come into play. This more total sensory involvement, dazzlingly obvious in a multimedia web page, is so fleetingly subtle in all-text Interaction Fiction, that its effect verges on the subliminal and can easily be overlooked.

The immediacy and rich complexity of this type of communication was reduced by the alphabet to an abstract visual code. Before writing became widespread, McLuhan claims, humankind lived in acoustic space, the space of the spoken word. This space is boundless, directionless, horizonless, and charged with emotion. Writing transformed space into something bounded, linear, ordered, structured, and rational. The written page with its edges, margins, and sharply defined letters in row after row brought about a new way of thinking about space.

W. Terrence Gordon, McLuhan for Beginners

The phonetic alphabet is a unique technology. There have been many kinds of writing, pictographic and syllabic, but there is only one phonetic alphabet in which semantically meaningless letters are used to correspond to semantically meaningless sounds (phonemes). This stark division and parallelism between a visual and an auditory world was both crude and ruthless, culturally speaking. The phonetically written word sacrifices worlds of meaning and perception that were secured by forms like the hieroglyph and the Chinese ideogram. ...

As an intensification and extension of the visual function, the phonetic alphabet diminishes the role of the other senses of sound and touch and taste in any literate culture. The fact that this does not happen in cultures such as the Chinese, which use nonphonetic scripts, enables them to retain a rich store of inclusive perception in depth of experience that tends to become eroded in civilized cultures of the phonetic alphabet. For the ideogram is an inclusive gestalt, not an analytic dissociation of senses and functions like phonetic writing.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

McLuhan also said some media are cool, some hot. A hot medium is low in participation, requiring little except passive acceptance of information. A cool medium is high in participation, requiring work, because information is acquired by filling in the blanks. So "hot" versus "cool" is the difference between what the medium brings to us and what we have to bring to the medium.

There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like the T.V. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in "high definition." High definition is the state of being well filled with data. A photograph is, visually, "high definition." A cartoon is "low definition," simply because very little visual information is provided. Telephone is a cool medium, or one of low definition, because the ear is given a meager amount of information. And speech is a cool medium by low definition, because so little is given and so much has to be filled in by the listener. On the other hand, hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.

Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man

Using this labeling system, computer interactivity is so cool, it borders on the cold. In computerese, to interact means to actively extract data from an information dispensing system. This is still a revolutionary idea and development. The Internet's full interactive potential has not yet been realized, but search engines still ask users to: enter strings, browse pages, click on "buttons" and links, etc. The desired data may be hard to find, requiring high participation. Also, more than in any other mainly text medium, users can select which information to digest, which to bypass. It is this interactive ability to choose, not the sensory stimulation provided by graphics and music, that actually frees users from the confined linear space McLuhan said print imposed.

Interactive Fiction (IF) carries this high level of participation, this electric elective, interactivity, one step higher. How? First, although preprogrammed, IF not only requires players search for information, but also seems to allow them to create information. The illusion that players themselves can be a source of information is currently only equaled by graphic games, although many of us would argue that most graphic games encourage destruction, not creation.

Solving puzzles reveals new information: information that would not have become available unless the player collaborated in untangling a game's knotty problems. Sometimes this information can almost seem to form out of thin air, giving the impression that it would not have sprung into existence at all, i.e., been created, unless the player "connected the dots" in an apparently new and inspired way. The player's resulting sense of discovery and mastery, emulating a real-life eureka!, combining both insight and achievement, is the hallmark of puzzles and games, especially computer games. It is no wonder they are so seductive.

Secondly, Interactive Fiction actually engages more senses than just the visual. The visual component obvious in graphic games is just as obvious in Interactive Fiction, since we play mainly by reading. But in both graphic and text games, we must also use our hands to click a mouse button and/or enter words at the keyboard. Like an infant reaching out to pull a piece of the world, the "not me," in closer to explore it -- we pull data into our mental reach to process it, making it part of our consciousness and memory, making it "me." Boundaries between information processor and information system start to become lost the moment we tangibly reach outward. This physical act of "bringing it closer" is unequaled by watching or reading alone.

The textural feedback we receive in response to commands entered at the keyboard also invokes our other senses. This simulated sensory stimulation naturally occurs mainly in our imaginations, but it may also actually occur in our brains, so we experience wispy, ghost-like physical sensations. Although currently there is no scientific evidence to support this idea, player comments seem to indicate it happens. Ultimately sensory feedback is relayed to and interpreted by our brains, and the brain can't tell "real" information from imagined.

Your nervous system cannot tell the difference between an imagined experience and a "real" experience. In either case, it reacts automatically to information you give it from your forebrain.

Your nervous system reacts appropriately to what "you" think or imagine is true.

Maxwell Maltz, M.D., F.I.C.S., Psycho-Cybernetics

For instance, the brain's lack of discrimination between real and imagined experiences is why hypnotism is disputed as a reliable way for eyewitnesses to recall crime details. It is also why it is a disputed method for post-traumatic stress victims, usually incest survivors, to recall suppressed memories. In such a suggestible state, people can be inadvertently cued by hypnotists to remember events that did not happen.

When the hypnotist has guided the subject to the point where he is convinced that the hypnotist's words are true statements, the subject then behaves differently because he thinks and believes differently.

The phenomena of hypnosis have always seemed mysterious because it has always been difficult to understand how belief can bring about such unusual behavior. It always seemed as if there must be something more, some unfathomable force or power, at work.

However, the plain truth is that when a subject believes he is deaf, he behaves as if he were deaf; when he is convinced he is insensitive to pain, he can undergo surgery without anesthesia. The mysterious force or power does not exist.

Dr. Theodore Xenophen Barber, Science Digest quoted by Psycho-Cybernetics

Memory is an important factor in experiences, real or created. Stored in our brains is a lifetime of memories associated with odors, noises and other sensory inputs. Unconsciously or consciously they are available for recall with the right stimulus.

Dr. Wilder Penfield, director of the Montreal Neurological Institute, recently reported at the National Academy of Sciences, that he had discovered a recording mechanism in a small area of the brain, which apparently faithfully records everything that a person has ever experienced, observed or learned. During a brain operation in which a patient was fully awake, Dr. Penfield happened to touch a small area of the cortex with a surgical instrument. At once the patient exclaimed she was reliving an "incident" from her childhood, which she had consciously forgotten. Further experiments along this line brought the same results. When certain areas of the cortex were touched, patients did not merely "remember" past experiences, they "relived them, experiencing as very real all the sights, sounds and sensations of the original experience. It was just as if experiences had been recorded on a tape recorder and played back.

Maxwell Maltz, M.D., F.I.C.S., Psycho-Cybernetics

Our ability to recall past experiences and creatively link them to present ones is why Interactive Fiction has an almost subliminal or hypnotic impact. During game play, actual tactile sensations, or at the very least, imagined ones, can be triggered when we seem to pick things up and drop them. Kinesthetic sensations can be triggered when we seem to move around the game map. When people later discuss a game, they often speak as if they had been physically present in the boundless, unmargined space of the author's fictional world. Of course, the degree to which this occurs partly depends on how well the prose was written and/or the real world was simulated.

Subject: [Hunter] Puzzle survey (SPOILER)
Date: 11/19/1999

I'd also like to indicate that the [spoiler] solution was absolutely terrifying. [Spoiler.] But I didn't give up -- not because I thought that [spoiler] would work, but because I was trapped in a cold, pitch-black, water-filled crawl hole, and I was shit-freaking scared . Typing in [spoiler] was totally irrational, sort of like typing in "FUCKOFF" when the game gives you an annoying error message -- the relief I felt when I discovered it actually worked was palpable. I know, because I palped it myself.

I also liked the response to "SCORE".

Kudos, Andrew. This was by far the best game in the competition. It gets a "10" from me.

- M (Michael Gentry)

However, good-to-superior crafting is not the sole reason players can be so drawn into a game's world that they almost feel present in its imaginative terrain. We all use our senses differently. Each player's sensory preferences, their preferred ways of processing information, also help determine what games they will enjoy. We like the Interactive Fiction that we, individually, find truly interactive. A correspondence can be found between players' sensory preferences / information processing modes and what type of games they will respond to most. This is my iffy theory. Now I need to backtrack and tell how it evolved, because explaining that should help explain and illuminate the theory itself.

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