“Hope Is an Active Verb”: Brenda Laurel Revisits Computers as Theatre (Part Two)

Writing about a decade after Purple Moon’s demise, I argued that many of the core design principles your team developed were being deployed successfully to broaden the audience for The Sims to include many more female gamers. Now, another five years or so later, I wondered what you saw as the lasting legacy of the girls game movement?

Without question the movement showed that intentional change is possible. Most of the companies were solvent (until their investors saw easier pickin’s in the web world), and some still exist today (e.g., Her Interactive). The interest of female-identified players in backstory creation as constructive play was demonstrated clearly and has carried through as a design heurisitic for broadening audiences.

We still have big gender problems in the gaming world, as you know. Sexual harassment is pandemic in many to most online multiplayer games. Games, like theatre, turn the mirror to our natures, to paraphrase Shakespeare; in an ever more divisive culture, sexual harassment in game worlds should not surprise us. Female-identified players who would like to perform strong, aggressive characters often have only overly sexualized bad-ass female avatars or cross-dressing to choose from.

On the other hand, I hear so often from girls—now women—who played our games. Many have gone into media design. It seems that most of my female design students played the games at some point in their lives. So something changed, if not in terms of the content, then at least in terms of the authorship.


Re-reading your book brought home to me just how much the past decade — post-Web 2.0 — has resulted in a shift of emphasis between a focus on interactive design and the relations between humans and computers and a focus on participatory design and the social interactions between users. To what degree are the dramatic principles you discuss in the book relevant to considerations of the design of social media?

As I said in the book, social media tend to be more narrative than dramatic, and that’s fine. By ‘narrative’ I mean the telling of extensified, episodic tales with little causal connectivity or overarching dramatic shape except through the relative constancy of characters (participants) and their networks. That said, social networks do have distinguishing qualities. On Linkedin, there may be little dramas about finding work, for example; on Facebook, there is competition for attention through photography and other means, and on Twitter folks compete is the construction of the brisk critique or the juicy link. Each of these systems has a sort of prevailing ethos with its own flavors of social regulation that is often more emergent than pre-designed into the structure of affordances. In fact, one often sees emergent behavior on Facebook that is picked up and codified into the system after the fact.

You note that one of the biggest challenges is to get designers to develop for people other than themselves. You discuss at some length here how you were able to achieve this mental shift with your professional team at Purple Moon. I wondered, though, if you could share some of your experiences as an educator helping students to make this adjustment in their own work.

When I teach design research (and I have, for the last 12 years), my primary goal is to expose students to methods for understanding people who are different from themselves and to design for those folks by meeting them where they are. The main point is: they are always, always surprised at how much can be learned through human-centered design research. It becomes a cornerstone of the design methodology that these students learn to practice. You will see it in every one of their thesis projects, and I often hear from them after they have launched careers and must argue for the relevance of design research within a firm or with a client. These people change things in the world of working designers. In places where design research is not taught, I find students and faculty sometimes searching for the audience after the project is in beta because their project does not address the audience they thought they were aiming at. This is a habit of mind that can be changed through experience as well as critique and exposure to design research methods, even when the colt is out of the barn.

You had important things to say about transmedia design in Utopian Entrepreneur, coming out of your experiences with Purple Moon, and I often share some of those insights with my students. Among them, you were ahead of the crowd in thinking about how fans might be able to meaningfully participate in the development of a transmedia world and especially about the notion of foundational myths or charters that shape the relationship between participants. In part, I assumed that these ideas came out of your own experience as a fan as well as a designer. How important do you see audience engagement and participation — the social dimensions of consumption — to your ideas about transmedia design?

I see audience participation as an extremely powerful affordance. In part, this goes back to the insight that backstory creation is a form of constructive play: players of Purple Moon could write articles in the Whistling Pines newspaper and suggest other dramatic arcs on our website, and we paid attention. Drama typically establishes empathy in conditions where the audience is passive. As you taught me, we create passionate relationships with characters and properties through our ability to appropriate them in order to construct meanings that are personally relevant. Cosplay has this one really right; so does slash. The vibrant domain of interactive narrative (Emily Short’s work, for example) does a great job of affording and encouraging player participation.

It is time that we hear from more diverse voices in interactive narrative and game design. As you know, Queer communities are making great strides in Indie Games as well as in interactive narrative. In such games, players have a way to enter into an ethos and construction that differ greatly from those afforded by the traditional gender stereotypes that dominate mainstream gaming. Samantha Allen’s work is exemplary in this regard.

Brenda Laurel has worked in interactive media since 1976 as a designer, researcher, writer and teacher in the domains of human-computer interaction and games. She currently serves as an adjunct professor in Computer Science Department at U. C. Santa Cruz. She served as professor and founding chair of the Graduate Program in Design at California College of Arts from 2006 to 2012 and the Graduate Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena (2001-2006) and was a Distinguished Engineer at Sun Microsystems Labs (2005-2006). Based on her research in gender and technology at Interval Research (1992-1996), she co-founded Purple Moon in 1996 to create interactive media for girls. The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design (1990), Computers as Theatre (1991), Utopian Entrepreneur (2001), Design Research: Methods and Perspectives (2004), and Computers as Theatre: Second Edition (2013).

Comments

  1. MdAbdur Rahim says:

    I am writing out of curiosity and apologize if my thoughts hurt.

    Is hope an active verb? Though it sounded nice but I asked myself why the Aca-Fan is reflecting the interview with the headline.

    The initial response about the legacy of the game movement is rightly pointed out that intentional change is possible.

    It is of great worth of focusing on participatory design and social interactions between users on the light of structuring design on relations between humans and computers. Here Aca-Fan is correct, my opinion, hope is Active.

    The transition was in designers’ perspective and the educator’s challenge on getting the ‘designers develop for people other than themselves’.

    On the theatrical ground where the audience establish passionate relations with characters and appropriate them in personal level of relevance; here I am in doubt wondering how Brenda Laurel is coming out of the challenge box. As the designers are moving to experience from the human and investing them for designing for the people, in fact they are entering into the same theatrical perspective, making connections and relating them to their personal level.

    Am I just doubtful or the Hope is on board? I think I am missing something but not confident which I am missing here!

    Thanks for considering reading.