Frustration in Interactive Media

In a recent post on the Puma e-catalog I criticized the piece for being frustrating, then took a step back - what about interactive art whose point is to frustrate, or ‘disruptive’ art which tries to frustrate well?

What would it mean for a piece or a medium to be “better at frustration?” First let me make a distinction between two common definitions of frustration:

  1. The feeling that accompanies an experience of being thwarted in attaining your goals.
  2. A feeling of annoyance at being hindered or criticized.

Frustration, WordNet


The first form of frustration is an impression of being thwarted in goal-directed behavior.  We might call this a defeat, although here the failed interaction is often a small event in a larger attempt - a micro-defeat or setback.

Setbacks are crucial to the structure of both games (e.g. Chutes and Ladders) and narratives (e.g. Great Expectations).  Setbacks occur within a larger structure of learning and progress, either on the part of the player towards acquiring skills, or on the part of the character towards building personality or experience (as in bildungsroman).


The second form of frustration is negative emotion regarding a general lack of agency — an incapacity to act.

Incapacity is a good description of the state which leads to stress: a set of physiological symptoms that include elevated blood pressure, muscle tension, etc.  When I think of incapacity to act in art, I think of suspense in a horror film, particularly the moment when an overwhelmed member of the audience yells “don’t go in there!”  Horror films recreate the logic of nightmares, in which one’s knowledge of a situation and desire to avoid the outcome is coupled with an inexplicable incapacity to intervene.  In the film (unlike the nightmare) this visceral experience of stress can be pleasurable - and there are forms of incapacity which may be less visceral. In theatre for example, tragedy and the operations of dramatic irony are characterized by audience knowledge without the possibility of intervention.  What we know could save Othello, yet we can’t.

Frustrations as Limits

Unlike film, theatre, and the novel, which typically emphasize audience reception, interactive media emphasizes agency - what the participant can do.  Because intervention is conceivable, failed interventions can seem like a failure of the work or the medium itself.

Yet both forms of frustration are vital to defining the limits of interactive art.  Setbacks outline and reinforce goal structures, while incapacity delimits the scope of interaction itself.  Setback frustration is a kind of discipline-and-punish that teaches the participant about the interface - leading individuals to shape their interaction strategies into certain goal-directed behaviors.  Incapacity frustration, on the other hand, does not culminate in successful interaction at all, but rather sets up an expectation of possible interaction and then betrays it.  The result is a dramatic recreation of the experience of incapacity, which the participant is invited to reflect on: why was this experience so unsatisfying, and what situations or power dynamics lead to these undesirable conditions?

Frustration, understood in this way, is not a way of distinguishing good from bad art - frustration may simply be more or less present in a given work.

2 Responses to “Frustration in Interactive Media”

  1. 1 Dirk Scheuring

    Frustration, understood in this way, is not a way of distinguishing good from bad art - frustration may simply be more or less present in a given work.

    I agree. I translate this to bot writing as the “Make bugs into features”-rule. A bug becomes a feature if the bot can detect it (either directly or by inferring the bug’s present from the context) and can bring it up as a topic of discourse.

  2. 2 Jeremy Douglass


    So if the conversation fails, and the bot can switch the topic to “don’t you hate how our conversation fails like x” then the conversation continues?

    Given that the goal of the bot is to make conversation, teaching it to discuss conversational failures abstractly seems like good strategy.

    The ability of bots to make meta-conversation reminds me somewhat of recent advances in integrated Interactive Fiction help / tutorials - particularly the recent Emily Short’s City of Secrets and Dreamhold by Zarf (Andrew Plotkin).

    One of the things that most impressed me about COS was the way it traps the most common unhandled text typed by users and gives a general response. In some ways, I suppose that is a good portion of the entire bot development ethic, but until I saw it I hadn’t really thought about how little that had been done in IF….

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