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Crash, don’t chat: simple reflex tropes at WRT: Writer Response Theory




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Entertainment AnytimeThe web is swamped with advergames at the moment as they are the new holiday season card. One advergame that has come out recently is season agnostic but has topped my list of great gifts: Entertainment Anytime (I’m calling it Taxi). The advergame, created by Organic for US telco Sprint is in the ilk of Burger King’s Subservient Chicken in that it is a database of video sequences that are triggered by input from the user: a simple reflex engine, a bot. Subservient chicken was a hit and is enjoying the rewards of the long-tail, but I found Taxi infinately more satisfying an entertainment experience.

SC has a natural language interface and Taxi does not. With SC, however, the textual input scales almost immediately into an IF-scenario of keyword commands rather than bot-like conversation. The scope of the keywords has two levels: 1) the whole English language, and 2) commands that unfriendly users would want to enter. Users learn quickly, given the anonymous interaction, the bondage attire of the chicken and the light reprimand to indecent input, that it is OK to input anything naughty. On the one hand we have little constraint, the entire English language, and on the other a narrower one, mischievous commands. The ability to issue such commands was a pivotal factor in the work becoming viral, but how long did anyone spend with it? People don’t usually spend time with bots, because it becomes apparent pretty soon that there will be nonsensical responses and the user isn’t usually given enough constraints to figure them out. I enjoyed Taxi because it gave me the pleasures that a simple-reflex engine can give, and the means to fully explore it.

Taxi doesn’t have natural-language input, instead it uses arrow keys, spacebar and other keys. The interface begins by informing you of the ability to affect the person in the taxi with your arrow keys: right to do a sharp turn right and the passenger will smash into the window, up and the taxi will speed up thrusting him backwards. Then another interface appears with a tease to do more by hitting other keys, with eight empty boxes. As soon as you start taping the keyboard letters start appearing in the boxes: I have eight keys, eight moves that I can inflict on the passenger therefore. Once I’ve figured these out, and had fun matching the letter to the action (n for nose for instance), I can then play with combinations. I felt satisfied, empowered and in control. The gap between aporia and epiphany (see Espen Aarseth’s writing on these terms) was pretty short. I knew how to cause a response and could play therefore, the thinking about how to cause a response is taken away. I think forcing a user to think about how they need to communicate, like speaking another language, thwarts the gameplay joys.

So where does this leave us with bots? We’ve spoken about this many times, constraints are so important (see Brenda Laurel’s chapter on constraints in Computers as Theatre for an old but sensible explanation). Obviously with Taxi the constraints started before the keyboard cues: a taxi, a driver, an advergame, a computer are all constraints. As opposed to a deviant chicken, Taxi goes that step further in providing a known world to explore. I’m not saying that bots shouldn’t be natural language interfaces. I saying that the pleasures of the simple-reflex engine are sometimes at odds with natural language interfaces, if the botmaster doesn’t give the necessary constraints. It’s like having a conversation with someone you know nothing about and who doesn’t know you, what do you say? If the constraints are there then a conversation can be had, and epiphany can be reached. This is where a bot is a mix of a character, game, generator and ….? I honestly think that a quick simple-reflex cycle, a short aporia and epiphany cycle, an instant generator is one of the tropes of bots.



1 Response to “Crash, don't chat: simple reflex tropes”

  1. 1 Christy Dena

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    Here is another generator art: Eric’s Emotions. Check out the emotions people request this person to do. Is part of the joy of the simple-reflex response seeing video of real people do crazy things as opposed to animated characters? I wonder how bots with photos compare with animated bots in user trials?

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