Wednesday, January 30, 2008


We seem to have recently developed quite a vocabulary with regard to 4D virtual architectures (interactive, active, reflexive, reactive, responsive, reflective, 4D, flexspace, etc.) While there may be a variety of reasons for creating these works, they usually tend to fulfill some level of practical purpose: collaboration, entertainment, challenging perceptual norms, a focus for socialization, or a tool for simulating and testing real world interactions. While these virtual builds contain particular reactive qualities such as response to movement, presence, voice or other behaviors, I feel that they also allow for a more robust form of interaction rarely taken advantage of in SL builds (with certain recent exceptions).

There have been a handful of spectacular builds I have had the absolute pleasure to visit lately. After experiencing Parsec, the reactive sculpture garden, and other recent interactive works posted on The Arch, New World Notes, and Dusan Writer's Metaverse, I think we are starting to see the emergence of a particular quality of architectural space so easily engendered by the nature of the virtual construct in which we work. This quality might be known as Gamespace.

While most responsive builds I visit tend to induce the initial 'wow' factor, the post wow hangover usually leaves me with little more than a few new friend contacts and some interesting topics to discuss (all in all, not a bad result). As the usual scenario plays out: I walk through the build, toy around with the responsive elements a few times, and then find myself thinking - that was fun, now what? While the initial visit may be spectacular, there is rarely any reason to return unless there is a new addition to the build or I am introducing it to another avatar. This has been the case for much of my own limited collection of responsive builds which prompted me to write this piece.

The answer? I think the most successful interactive architectural builds (physical or virtual) allow the users to engage the system and each other in some form of game. Virtual interactive space is perfectly suited to adopt game-like features that can easily be programmed into the overall interactive experience. The point of a game is to play within a set of rules to accomplish a goal of some sort. Sometimes this goal is winning; sometimes the goal is to get the most points for a given task; sometimes it is simply to compete, socialize, or even to create music, art or architectural form. The combination of rules and goals creates the game dynamic, and this provides a purpose to the activity that drives it.

Gamespaces generally allow for open, playable environments which contain both defined games (defined rule sets with required actions and definitive goals within the game) and the ability to free-form games which develop through the course of play and experimentation (emergent games). Emergent games are not specifically engineered into the original purpose of the game, but the unique way the environment is constructed allows the players to devise their own corresponding rule sets which then develop through interaction with the system and each other. The nature of the gamespace requires a delicate balance between these defined rule sets and the freedom which can lead to emergent gaming behavior. As interactive architects I believe it is our duty to explore and establish this relationship as it relates to architectures and those who inhabit them.

Let's take
Parsec as a recent example. Parsec contains an interesting feature that unlocks a spectacular visualization when the right combination of voices or vocal gestures is enacted. There are no explicit rules to define interaction with the system (besides the brief introductory sequence); one simply shows up and begins speaking. Through the course of interacting with the system and the individuals present, the game is determined by the players - as they play it. The individuals talk and are able to control the spheres which jump and respond to the inflection in their voices. They become entranced by the surrounding visuals and their vocal response to them. They respond to the spectacular ‘supernova’ with delight when the combination of their voices unlocks that particular visualization. Individuals that contribute to the game environment become the players and, in the case of Parsec, the game (and goal) becomes both socialization and the creation of music.

Through this dynamic the players are encouraged to explore the effect their voices have on the system (and each other) and are rewarded through those activities. In other words, there is a driver (a goal) behind the vocalization in addition to the generated conversation between participants. The system rewards the speaking voice with a playful visual response. The system rewards conversation by releasing spectacular visuals when the individuals interact vocally. This carefully balanced combination of rule sets, goals, and open playability creates spontaneity to the game as well as a conscious, defined structure that drives the players toward a particular purpose. This is crucial to gamespace because the resultant experience is unique every time the game is played.

Another good example is the Architectural Jazz build by avatar Keystone Brouchoud that I discuss in an earlier
post. The rule set of the game here is simple - movement toward particular prims which then results in musical notes when each prim is approached. The goal – the creation of music. While this format reflects an uncomplicated (and brilliant) interaction, it may be considered a form of game nonetheless. Maybe a bit more of an instrument or tool, but that is for an upcoming post.

If we examine this music analogy for a moment, we have a composition on one hand and jazz on the other. A musical composition has a set of rules when, carefully followed, produces a scripted and balanced structure of sound. Jazz, on the other hand, relies upon improvisation, intuition, a good sense of timing, and sociability. Both methods produce music, but one allows for a free-form and whimsical style much more condusive to sociability, unpredictability, and just plain fun. Keystone has successfully adopted this feature and in doing so has created a consistently unique and inviting interactive virtual experience. I think this is a quality more interactive builds would do well to adopt.

While this free form (open) interactive quality is crucial to the game, even jazz has rules. While I think this build might benefit from a bit more of a defined or choreographed rule set, the potential for emergent gaming is clearly present here. Say, for example, that the players were able to 'carve' visual paths through the build which represented that particular sequence of notes. Other players could then run through the same paths making detours to create variations on each other's 'musical paths'. This might provide some structure to the experience to balance the already present open playability.

While rules can provide a framework for interaction they must not be allowed to fully encompass a build. I believe the more rigid the ruleset, the less opportunity for spontaneous emergent gameplay that may become realized through interaction with the build. The player should be given the choice as to whether they desire to engage the system. The game need not necessarily be the dominant feature of the interaction, but must be exhibited through a subtle and real quality of the architectural space.

As virtual interactive architectures move adopt this quality, we may begin to realize spaces and structures that form through the game: a space where the interaction among avatars actually creates form. As architects we have recently become obsessed with patterns and forms generated through software algorithms adopted from the natural environment or developed through human observation and analysis (known as generative forms). What if these generative properties become tied to behavior or actions? Maybe movement, conversation, or the power of voice alone is enough to generate form. What if form becomes the by-product of socialization?

I believe it is inevitable that responsive spaces will begin to adopt the quality of gamespace. We can only spend so much time with virtual architectures exploring the movement of prims that change color, distance, or fragment with human/avatar input. While these explorations help us to begin to define certain interactions and interactive elements, I think the true purpose of such explorations is to develop a platform for the game by defining the parameters and introducing the players to it.

After all, SL and other virtual spaces were born from gaming engines. This was their original function. Maybe it's time to take the next step and begin utilizing active, reflexive, interactive, reactive, responsive, reflective, 4D, flexspaces toward their full realized potential: gamespace.

Up next... virtual interactive architectures as a tool for creation.

No comments: