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Frustration by Experience, Outcome, and Design at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Given the two different forms of frustration I suggested earlier - setbacks and incapacity - how can we decide whether one specific failed interaction from one particular work is either a setback or an incapacity?

That judgement will probably depend on the approach used to study frustration - whether the piece of interactive art is consider as an experience in the moment, as a continuous session or traversal, or as a design.

1. by Experience
If, at the moment of frustration, the participant believes that it is part of a progression that will culminate in a positive outcome, then the frustrating interaction is experienced as a setback - if not, it is incapacity.
2. by Outcome
If, in the course of a session of interaction, a method is eventually discovered whereby the action can be performed, then the frustrating interaction may be remembered as a setback rather than as an incapacity.
3. by Design
If, upon later examination of the codes of interaction, a method is structurally available whereby the action is shown to have been possible, then the frustrating interaction might be declared to have been a setback - if impossible, it was an incapacity.


A good example of this distinction is Madrid by Newsgaming.com. I began play by assuming that if I maxed out my “candlelight” bar through quick, accurate clicking and the intelligently optimized allocation of my click energy, I could “win” the game. Over the course of the next several minutes, I failed continually, but I experienced this failure as setback rather than incapacity. Thus, my expectations led me to Experience (1) the failure of the game to end or advance as setbacks.

After some 20 minutes of play, however, I began to become convinced that the game interface was an aesthetics of ‘incapacity’ frustration - Madrid invites to click candles forever, but you can’t click forever, and must accept that eventually they will go out. I quit. The Outcome (2) of my session was incapacity - my conclusion that I was incapable of winning.

Turning to forums and discussions, I discovered that others had experienced Madrid in similar ways and drawn similar conclusions, leading several Grand Text Auto stalwarts to meditate on the rhetoric of the unwinnable game. Yet the designers and others weighed in on the comment threads to assert that the Design (3) was, in fact, winnable, meaning the continual guttering of the candles was a process of setbacks which could be overcome.

The three perspectives outlined above are not only critical approaches, they are also different kinds of knowledge which are simultaneously available to the participant, revised (or not) by new knowledge and by memory. For my experience with Madrid, discovering that winning was possible (3) did not mean that I immediately I returned to the game and experienced with renewed expectations (1) and an eventual winning outcome (2).

Quite the contrary, my design knowledge and my original experiences have remained incommensurate - and the mere fact that this is possible emphasizes that these are different registers of experience. On the one hand, I gained a structural insight into what was possible from the point of view of design. Some people testified to having won - on the other hand, did that mean that winning was possible via my web browser, at my processor speed? Was it possible using my laptop trackpad interface to play, as opposed to a more nimble mouse?

Understanding there may be a gap between design, implementation, and the actual instance of interactivity is one of the insights of Media Specific Analysis (MSA), and it prescribes a holistic approach to the text. On the whole, studies of frustration also fit into a Ludology / Games Studies framework, although frustration should be thought through as more than a byproduct of agon. After all, many interactive art participants want other things than to achieve or overcome - they may want to be communicate, or simple be.



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