“Hope is an Active Verb”: Brenda Laurel Revisits Computers as Theater (Part Three)


In Utopian Entrepreneur, you offered a powerful call for designers and industry people to bring more of their own social values and political commitments into their work, making an argument for the ways that the design of media and culture can help change the world. Amazingly, you wrote this book after some of the set-backs you suffered with Purple Moon. Throughout this revision of Computer as Theater, we get a strong sense of your own commitments and values, especially as regard gender politics and environmentalism. Are you still optimistic about the potentials of Utopian Entrepreneurship? Can you point to some recent examples of people you admire who are working to achieve these kinds of meaningful change through entrepreneurial means?

These days I’m questioning both words. ‘Utopian’ has a statist tone historically, although the common meaning, I think, is to do things that are good for people and societies in sustainable ways. ‘Entrepreneurship’ leaves out the great work done in universities and non-profits, but it does provide an explicit measure of success.

That said, I must confess that Elon Musk is at the top of my list. People sometimes scoff at his excellent work with Tesla and SpaceX because they think Pay Pal was an egregious way to make money. Such folks need to remember that the big idea of Pay Pal was not to boost consumerism but to help people make monetary transactions of many types via the internet. I count that as good, if not utopian, work. SpaceX is filling a niche that is being vacated by NASA as it loses funding, and the working methods at SpaceX are speedier and yield a better product essentially because they are entrepreneurial.

Jane McGonigal is another great example. Her game “World Without Oil” won her the South by Southwest award for activism in 2008. Her goal is to create games that improve the quality of human life. She describes her latest work, “SuperBetter”, as “a game that has helped more than 250,000 players so far tackle real-life health challenges like depression, anxiety, chronic pain and traumatic brain injury.” Her work has also made her a best-selling author and a presenter in high demand.

In the world of serious games we have great examples of successful games like “Democracy” and “Democracy 2” from Positech. Another well-received example is “Peacemaker” from ImpactGames, originally developed by a team at Carnegie-Mellon. This particular game is one of many examples of work incubated within institutions of higher education. Although ImpactGames was later formed to publish the game commercially, it’s really important to remember its roots in the university. Your own work in the Games-to-Teach project at MIT provided a huge stimulus for the serious games movement, and much of the work is still done in universities. ‘Entrepreneurship’ may or may not be involved. Universities and non-profits can be great host organisms for pro-social work.

The ‘entrepreneurship’ qualification is only important if you measure the value of the game by its success in the commercial marketplace. Entrepreneurial approaches help us to demonstrate value by noting that a particular sort of ‘utopian’ product or service has found a sustainable niche in the ecology of commerce, but success in entrepreneurship is not an accurate measure of the Good.

Across the book, you shared some of your experiences as a Dead Head and as a participant in the Renaissance Fair culture. What models do these kinds of participatory culture offer us for thinking about the designed of shared social spaces and experiences within digital media?

I’m also a Trekker, as you recall.

I take away two important things from Deadhead culture. The first is a climate of trust. At Dead concerts, I never needed to worry about leaving a backpack on the lawn while I went to look at merchandise or buy a beer. I could be sitting next to a raving libertarian or a homeless hippie; it didn’t matter. Deadheads took care of each other as an ad hoc community. It would be lovely to establish a similar ethos in a social network or a multiplayer game.

Boundaries are definitional of communities. People who behaved outside of albeit unstated norms of Dead culture were eased out of the community (or the space) by Deadheads.

The other thing that really worked was the Dead’s attitude toward intellectual property. People taped the shows and special accommodations were made them. And anybody could hack the artwork to distribute their own home-grown merch. The Dead culture understands and accommodates appropriation as a need of fans. They made (and their successor make) their revenue from concerts, not intellectual property.

In the book, I used the Renaissance Faire as an example of how the clever selection and arrangement of materials (to quote Aristotle) could predispose individuals with differing traversals through the space to have dramatically satisfying experiences. This moves the notion of the dramatic from a line to a field. Interaction designers can also think about what sorts of predispositions are set up by the arrangement and potential ordering of experiences and encounters.

The embodied joy of walking around the Faire and speaking Faire-dialect English is not marred by the fear of attack or the need to fight. This demonstrates to me that it’s possible to create excellent multiplayer games without the need for explicit conflict as part of the play pattern.

I was surprisingly moved by your final line, “Hope is an active verb.” So, what are you hoping for in terms of digital culture in the next decade?

I hope we learn to use these capabilities that we continue to extrude to love our planet, ourselves, and one another better and more actively. Like the telescope and microscope, computer technologies hold the promise of allowing each of us to see deeply into nature, wild or urban. I believe that to see in this way can lead to both love and action. And I believe that we can develop digital tools that empower us to take action.

I hope that we can model good governance and civility in the digital world that will ripple through reality to change our institutions and behaviors.

I hope that we find highly engaging alternatives to violence and combat as the central element in the play pattern of most games. I remember when I came to Atari back in 1979, I played “Star Raiders” fanatically. But my first reaction was, “where is the negotiate button?” I hope we develop actionable negotiate buttons. I hope that the cultural ecology of connection and compassion can be strengthened. If we can do that in the digital domain, we can do it in our world.

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).