Transcript of June 14 ifMUD Discussion on Interactive Nonfiction

Emily says, “The topic for this evening is interactive nonfiction — any interactive work that depicts reality rather than the imaginary, including educational simulations, persuasive games, and personal memoirs”
baf says, “To some extent, I feel like interactive nonfiction is an impossibility. Once you’re interacting with a simulation, you’re doing something fictional.”
baf says, “But that’s probably splitting hairs.”
Gunther says, “I disagree, virtual museum visits, for example”
Emily says, “if it’s presenting what you would see/experience if you were actually there, then I think it might have some claim to resemble a documentary”
Gunther says, “also, you could have educational games with some fiction, not sure if that is “allowed” in the definition”
Emily says, “but that gets a lot fuzzier as soon as you’re able to take plot-like actions rather than purely exploratory ones”
baf says, “I recall 1893 was suggested as a borderline example, despite having a lot of outright fiction in it, because of the meticulous representation of the fairground”
Emily says (to Gunther), “I think it’s fair game to talk about, sure”
Gunther says, “e.g. Un Tranquillo Week-End A Capri, which teaches you a lot about Capri but has a fictional story on top”
baf says, “And if that’s a borderline example, then surely Colossal Cave is as well”
Roger says, “The other borderline case I noticed was the fictional documentary, like 1893 set in Mordor. It seems somehow less fictional to my sensibilities than something invented wholecloth.”
Emily says (to baf), “certainly in its earliest pre-Woods incarnations”
Emily says, “but arguably even afterward”
Gunther says, “or Yoomurjack’s Ring, which teaches you about Hungarian culture and history but also has a murder mystery”
Roger says, “Maybe the intent to be educational is sufficient.”
Gunther says, “or the most recent example I can think of, Bubsy3d: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective”
baf asks, “Are there existing works that you’d call nonfictional about anything other than setting?”
Gunther says, “which contains many things that are not the Turrell retrospective”
Emily says, “what about the German-teaching game where you have to buy a train ticket? it’s not claiming to be about any actual instance of ticket-purchasing”
Emily says (to baf), “well, I suggested Depression Quest as a possibility in the reading suggestions”
baf says, “I’m thinking about some (non-text-based) edutainment titles I’ve seen that attempt to teach physics via interactive simulation in a game context.”
Roger says, “I also learned a lot about the human circulatory system from that heart simulation game”
Gunther says (to baf), “what about Robot Odyssey? Fictional setting, actual logic gates”
baf says, “Seems like this is an area with more potential for exploration than existing examples, though”
Emily asks (of Gunther), “what about Chinese Room, which is surreal but contains lots of classic philosophy conundrums?”
Gunther says, “Ottos Mops was a game that presented poetry through various silly minigames”
baf asks, “Hey, remember that medical diagnosis thing?”
Emily says, “Cheiron
baf says, “Right”
Emily says, “I would accept the proposition that that was nonfiction in some sense”
Emily says, “in the same sense as a textbook presenting example cases”
Gunther says, “my father used to receive medical “games” from various companies in which you’d have to successfully perform anaesthesia on a patient using the correct medication doses”
Gunther says, “so, very nonfiction”
Emily says, “yikes”
Gunther says, “Arguably SimAnt is similarly educational (I would also count Chinese Room)”
Emily says, “Voices of Spoon River is kind of an interesting edge case as it’s presenting an intended-to-be-educational implementation of a fictional piece of literature”
Gunther says, “sorry, all over the place here as I try to think of examples”
Gunther says (to Emily), “in that case we should also count the exhibition game by Ian whatshisname oh god this is embarrassing”
Emily says, “Finley”
Gunther says, “Finley”
baf says, “I have a vague recollection of a work that used an IF context to present a series of essays about the short stories of Paul Auster,”
Emily says, “or, hey, Breaking the Code. totally a work of nonfiction.”
Gunther says, “heh”
Emily says, “so I’m interested in what interactive nonfiction can do that is hard to present in a non-interactive form on the same topic”
Emily says, “and it seems like “here’s this setting in loads of detail” is the really obvious case, because while I might enjoy virtually walking around the 1893 World’s Fair I might not have the patience to just read all of those descriptions end to end”
Gunther says, “yeah, or bringing stuff to you that would be hard to impossible to get to otherwise”
Gunther says, “like, say, Google’s moon map, or underwater trench excursion”
baf says, “Hm. I feel like that’s a hard question to answer because the whole idea of noninteractive fiction is pretty unexplored.\”
baf says, “er, of interactive nonfiction”
Gunther says, “all manners of simulation games could also be considered interactive nonfiction depending on leniency”
Gunther says, “e.g. DCS A-10 is a realistic simulation down to the last switch of an A-10″
Emily says, “I’d accept the argument that Democracy 3 is sort of nonfiction even though I might disagree with particular ideas represented therein about what would happen if certain policies were implemented”
Gunther says, “while World of Diving is an arcade-y diving simulator using (eventually) real environments”
Deesix says, “Presi’s B1 simulates a driving licence exam.”
baf says, “In the example of those physics edutainment games, you get to see the consequences of those equations much more directly than a graph or a fixed set of examples.”
Emily says (to baf), “yeah, that definitely seems like it qualifies”
baf says, “To generalize, interactive non-fiction has the potential to let the player try stuff out.”
Gunther says, “or experience situations from the comfort of one’s home”
baf says, “That’s a very different matter.”
Emily says, “that’s certainly true in Depression Quest, too, in that it’s trying to convey a particular kind of mental state experience”
Emily asks (of baf), “you were saying you thought it was an underexplored area, though — do you feel like there are obvious areas for further exploration?”
baf says, “Hm. Depression Quest does a particular thing that I think interactive formats do better than noninteractive formats: it conveys difficulties.”
Emily asks, “because you encounter the challenges yourself?”
baf says, “Yeah”
Gunther says, “interesting; I would call Depression Quest fictional”
Emily says, “arguably that’s also what makes some of the sim-type games educational (or at least potentially educational), because you can see systems interacting in ways that make life harder”
baf says, “In particular, it explicitly constrains your options. It’s one thing to say ‘I couldn’t do this’, another to tell the player ‘You can’t do this’.”
Deesix says, “Burbuja (Bubble), of mine, is a multiplayer simulation of an asset market with some historical background (not very explicit), where the players can learn something about the way market bubbles arises. It’s inspired on an experiment in some school of economics.”
baf says, “The former is something the audience can reject.”
K-Y says, “interesting point”
katherine says, “I’d call depression quest didactic (not in the pejorative sense) rather than fiction/nonfiction”
K-Y says, “because in my experience there is no greater obstacle to getting a person to play a game than the game not letting you do something”
Gunther says (to baf), “I also rejected it in the game (by quitting)”
boucher says, “As I mentioned, growing up in Oregon City, we played a ridiculous amount of Oregon Trail…and it even got to the point where one year, we LARPed being pioneer settlers, complete with having to hunt ‘buffalo’ (cans with paper buffalo cut-outs attached) with our ‘rifles’ (Nerf ping-pong ball guns).”
katherine says, “as in, whether and how much it is fictionalized is not really the point”
Gunther says, “(to prove K-Y’s point here)”
Gunther says, “and would nominate I Get This Call Every Day instead”
Emily asks (of katherine), “would you apply the same argument to other pieces we’ve been talking about?”
Emily asks, “or is there something that sets Depression Quest apart?”
katherine says, “hm”
katherine says, “if it were straight nonfiction I’d venture that the distinction is there’s more of a service-journalism aspect”
Gunther says, “well, I am not depressive and can (will?) not make myself simulate that mindset”
Emily says (to Gunther), “sure, that’s fair enough”
Gunther says, “as in it literally makes no sense to me and seems arbitrary and cf. K-Y”
Emily says (to katherine), “that’s interesting, because I think there’s considerably more of that kind of thing than there used to be a few years back”
katherine says, “seems plausible”
Emily says, “like the piece in Fear of Twine that was about illegal Mexican border crossings”
Emily says, “which was a fictional story but made explicit claims to non-fictionality also by linking outside the piece to maps of places that were being discussed and so on”
Emily says, “(including IIRC having a massive paper as a feelie, and I confess that I did not read the whole thing)”
Roger says, “To turn the question on its head a bit: I’m not sure of anything I’d like to learn about that I wish I could through the medium of IF by preference”
Emily says, “I really liked Chinese Room”
Emily says, “and I remember some of the bits better than I think I would remember them if I’d just read a book of the same thought experiments”
Emily says, “which suggests to me that at least some of the time, for some concepts, IF provides a framework that will help me take more interest and remember better”
katherine says, “learning-by-doing when doing is not really viable in the real world”
Emily says, “this might conceivably be mostly limited to a) settings and b) things that lend themselves especially well to formulation as puzzles”
Emily says, “baf’s physics simulation example is excellent educational game fodder but also probably so quantitative that a textual representation would be unhelpful”
Emily says, “a lot of the uses of interactive nonfiction I know of in a classroom setting, though, are about getting the students to write them — the idea being that fleshing out a historical setting or something along those lines requires the synthesis of many different kinds of research”
Emily says, “and is therefore a different and maybe complementary exercise to a traditional paper”
Emily says, “but I don’t know; perhaps the consensus is “there’s just not enough extant work in this area to outline points of interest””
Roger says, “hmmm I might get behind second-language-training via IF, but the only one I can think of is Gostak
Gunther says, “ABNO!”
Emily says (to Roger), “there’s
baf asks, “OK. So as far as interactive non-fiction techniques, we’ve got IF as a way of presenting lots of detail, we’ve got trying stuff out and seeing the consequences in a simulation, and we’ve got using the player character to create empathy. Is there anything else?”
baf says, “(That we know of or can imagine)”
Emily says (to baf), “some of the more recent work, especially in Twine, also links out in some way to supporting texts or images or maps on the web”
Emily says, “so that it’s kind of presenting itself as continuous with a larger reality, and is kind of curating your access to that information”
Roger says (to baf), “And the earlier-mentioned geography lesson”
baf says, “I was thinking of the geography lesson as part of ‘presenting lots of detail'”
Roger says, “hmmm I /guess/ I can imagine IF-ARG”
baf says, “But maybe it’s distinct”
Roger says, “I feel like it is but that might just be me”
baf says, “Please explain.”
Roger says, “Well I mean that there’s not necessarily a lot of detail, per se, in Colossal Cave, but it provides a good sense of the geography of the place”
Emily says, “oh, so communicating the relationships of the rooms vs. having lots of things to examine within the rooms”
Emily says, “(if I’m understanding right)”
Emily says, “something I have been asked several times about Versu is whether it could be used to teach appropriate vs inappropriate social behavior for people who need more practice/cues (to which my answer would probably be “well maybe but only for fairly constrained systems”)”
Emily says, “(at least at this stage)”
Roger says, “let’s play That Would Be Unseemly”
Emily says, “heehee”
Emily says, “well, it seems like one of the challenges of teaching people what is appropriate behavior is that you would need to understand/accept loads and loads of inappropriate behavior in order to be able to tell the player why they can’t/shouldn’t do that”
Roger says, “I could imagine something that would actually help you complete, not only train for, a particular task — an IF that lead your through filing your income taxes, maybe.”
katherine asks, “so basically an IF turbotax?”
Emily | Line 43a is a room. Your Expenditure on Long-Term Charitable Venture Deductions is here.
Emily says, “maybe it’s worth enumerating actual use of language as a thing that can be taught or used didactically, but there you’re limited by the limts of the parser”
pollux asks, “What would the meaningful difference even be between IF turbotax and regular turbotax? A frame story?”
inky says, “ha ha”
katherine says, “lately? not charging you”
Emily says (to katherine), “ha”
Roger says, “I may be abusing the term ‘IF’ here a bit, but, yeah; an alternative interface, I guess.”
Gunther says, “Lists And Lists is such a tutor”
pollux says, “It seems like filling out forms already is interactive nonfiction.”
Emily says, “ooh, hm, this wasn’t really a teaching application, but someone in one of the Art Shows a long while back did an interactive tarot reading where the cards were represented as rooms with things in them, IIRC”
Emily says, “which is at least a case where the game is functioning as something other than a normal IF game”
baf says, “Hm. Interesting. Sort of using the rooms and objects of IF metaphorically.”
Emily | “When you are ready select any direction, any direction at all, and begin.”
Emily says, “(I don’t know how it’s actually using your initial instruction)”
baf says, “I guess that’s not a new idea — I’ve seen games where the objects represent abstractions.”
Emily says, “Chinese Room gives you an object that represents the Categorical Imperative”
baf says, “Right.”
Emily says, “(so opening this up again to remind myself how it works, the Tarot game has given me “The Lovers” as my first room; they’re NPCs who keep staring at me and wishing I would leave them to get on with things)”
Gunther says, “ha ha”
Roger says, “So it overlaps with social awkwardness sim then”
Gunther says, “>SETTLE IN”
Emily says (to Roger), “apparently so!”
Emily says, “so the reason I opened it up was that I couldn’t remember whether there was any aspect in which the player was allowed to assign their own meaning to some of the symbols or prioritize certain ways of reading or like that”
Emily says, “but it seems to be more “explore these dioramas representing the different cards””
Emily says, “which raises another point, I guess — a lot of the interactive nonfiction I can think of is basically goalless”
baf says, “Hm.”
baf says, “That’s something that on the face of it seems inevitable — reality itself is goalless! — but it’s really not taking advantage of the medium.”
Emily says, “heh — I feel like reality has way too many goals and it’s impossible to keep up with them”
baf says, “One of the things IF can do that static fiction cannot is make sure that the audience understands stuff, via ‘puzzles'”
Emily says, “ideally puzzles that are more than gating mechanisms, though, and actually respond to erroneous attempts as well”
Emily says, “one of my earliest IF, uh, works was this randomized dungeon crawl I made for my brother where you had to solve arithmetic problems in order to kill off the monsters”
Emily says, “which weirdly enough he really enjoyed, but I wouldn’t hold this up as a terrific example of IF design”
Gunther says, “this is where The Typing Of The Dead comes in”
baf says, “Suppose you have an IF-format cooking tutorial. This seems like a good thing for interactive non-IF. You can let the player do whatever they like and explore consequences, but you also have the goal of baking a cake or whatever.”
Gunther says, “in which you kill zombies by typing words at them rapidly”
Emily says, “yeah”
Emily says (to baf), “that sounds awesome, though I would be severely daunted by trying to account for all the possibilities, let alone describe them all”
Emily says, “someone else can write it. zarf.”
baf says, “Sure, he’s got all this mixing-stuff and chemical reactions code.”
baf says, “(Spoiler: Hadean Lands is actually about a chef)”
Emily says, “aw yeah”
Emily says, “I suppose what we’re really circling around here is basically that interactive nonfiction is probably best at teaching the kinds of things that IF is good at simulating — particularly qualitative concepts, things that involve the uses of words, arrangements of objects in rooms and rooms in relation to one another, and medium-sized dry goods”
Roger says, “In contrast, I personally would find that a terrible way to learn how to cook anything, I think.”
Roger says (to Emily), “Yeah that sounds accurate enough.”
Emily says (to Roger), “I’m not sure that I want it for the purpose of learning to cook so much as because I would enjoy making cakes explode and then not having to clean them up”
Emily says, “but in any case I am sorry Jacq isn’t here, because I know she has various thoughts and related projects to this”
Roger says, “An accurate sim of Mendelian genetics and breeding might be fun and potentially informative. hmmm.”
Emily asks, “where you’re deciding which specimens to pair off?”
Roger says, “Yeah. I guess when it comes to learning, IF is good for learning processes, perhaps not especially any better suited than static methods for learning simple facts. Maybe.”
katherine says, “but then you get into learning styles”
Deesix asks, “Hmm, maybe I missed them but… no examples of “personal memoirs” works?”
Roger says, “Indeed it cannot be avoided. Autobiographical IF? Hmmm.”
Emily says (to Deesix), “I had Conversations with My Mother in mind there”
Roger says, “Maybe someone can talk Adam into implementing his experiences with meditation. That’d be… something.”
Emily says (to Roger), “something fairly distressing, it sounds like”
Emily says, “something I think is potentially problematic for interactive non-fiction is that, if it’s presenting a range of possible outcomes that could happen, it may or may not do a good job of representing the relative likelihood of those outcomes”
Emily says, “so for instance in Autumn’s Daughter, the recent IF-comp piece about arranged marriages, there were a lot of ways things could wind up, all of which represented some actual possible outcome of such a situation”
katherine says, “hm”
Emily says, “but it wasn’t clear to me playing how those outcomes were weighted relative to one another”
katherine says, “you could fudge it by setting random chance of success, but then you run into the problem of how to put a number to that”
Emily says (to katherine), “yeah, and that also would require the player to replay a bunch of times to actually get a feel for those probabilities”
Emily says, “maybe something like StoryNexus would be an interesting platform for that kind of thing, now I think about it, because it explicitly shows you your chances of success in advance”
Emily says, “so you’re always making those choices with an overt awareness of risk”
Emily says, “(that still leaves the challenge of deciding what numbers to attach, obviously)”
Roger says, “Dang, I forgot all about the truly classic I-nonF”
Roger says, “Journey to Alpha Centuri in Real Time
baf says, “Now I’m remembering a review of an old Call of Duty game, in which the invasion of Normandy in WWII was represented”
Emily asks, “oh?”
baf says, “The reviewer pointed out that he was getting killed a lot. It was like, exit the boat, get machine-gunned down. Try again, exit the boat, run a few yards, get machine-gunned down. Repeat over and over until you actually get somewhere”
Emily says, “ah”
katherine says, “hmm”
katherine says, “I can also see how this might not be helpful for certain applications”
baf says, “And the reviewer had the realization: This is what it was like. Apart from the fact that I get to try again.”
katherine says, “‘if you say X, it has a 90% chance of going absolutely horribly for everyone involved, but a 10% chance of YOUW IN'”
Emily says, “hm! interactive poker where it is actually exposing the odds to you when you decide to draw more cards”
Emily says, “I don’t know, it seems like there are cases where what you wanted to train was precisely people’s intuitions about the relative likelihood of success”
Emily says, “which I suppose is another angle on baf’s point, though a less emotional one”
Emily asks, “did anyone have anything else they wanted to make sure to bring up?”
Emily says, “right, okay. I’ll call it here, then”
baf says, “Praxis club exercise: Pick a random non-fiction topic, make a game about it.”

Roger says (on the same channel, a bit later), “(belatedly — oh yeah, all the Biblical games. Oh well.)”
Emily says, “yeah, and interaction as compliance-testing”
Emily says, “”do you choose to a) strike back or b) turn the other cheek?””

7 thoughts on “Transcript of June 14 ifMUD Discussion on Interactive Nonfiction”

  1. There was a McDream minicompetition ( back in 2006 that challenged writers to “write an interactive fiction game based on a vivid and memorable dream that you have had and try to convey the emotions within the dream as accurately as possible.” There only ended up being three entries, but perhaps they could count as nonfiction. I can’t speak for the other three, but my entry (“No Famous”) was pretty meticulously non-fictional (to the extent that this is possible in an interactive setting). Every event that happens is something that occurred in a dream I had, although they weren’t always in the same dream or in the same order as the player experiences them. Since many of the situations and events were from recurring dreams, and I didn’t respond the same way in each recurrence of the dream, it was possible for me to account for different player actions in a relatively “non-fictional” manner.

    This leads me to think of a way in which one could get around the “interactive non-fiction is technically impossible” problem. If an event happens repeatedly, each time with a different actor (or I guess with the same actor responding differently), then as long as you don’t specify the parts that are different each time (don’t describe the PC in detail, don’t mention that the PC has done this before), you can allow the player to choose from a variety of options, as long as *someone* had tried that option in reality. If you’re interested in being theoretically and technically perfectly non-fictional, this provides a way to do that.

    Obviously, however, even static non-fiction is seldom perfectly non-fictional, and it’s probably not super interesting to hold to the above standard (of only allowing options that were actually chosen in the past somewhere), but it gives a good starting off point. You can still strive for accuracy of a sort by trying to be as accurate as possible about “what would have happened” if someone had tried what the player just tried. This can get speculative to the point of straining the label “non-fiction” in many instances, but when there’s a simulation of a highly predictable system, there’s no reason you couldn’t make something truly deserving of being called “non-fiction”.

  2. Great discussion! I found lots of ideas to think about here. I’m a practicing archaeologist for my day job but I, and a small but growing number of my colleagues, are particularly interested in using games to create virtual museums and interactive exhibits, so that thoughts Call of Duty’s Omaha Beach and really appealed to me. LA Noire’s recreation of 1940s Los Angeles comes to mind as a game that did a great job of recreating an environment, so much so that one reviewer had a great conversation with his father (who grew up in LA in the 40s) about where the game succeeded and where the recreation was off (

    Shawn Graham, a Canadian archaeologist, has allowed his Roman Archaeology students to create essays on the topic using Twine: One of the Twine games, “A Vow to Mithras,” does a great job of communicating the political environment of a Mithras worshipper having to carefully seek out a local temple without getting noticed by the mostly pagan Romans. While the storyline is fictional, it is based on archaeological evidence and, because the game is text-based, little footnotes with historical notes and citations pop up throughout the narrative.

  3. This topic is very near and dear to my heart, as it is the foundation of what I have/had been trying to do with Textfyre.

    My intent was always to setup historically accurate (as accurate as possible given real archaeological and anthropological evidence) environments and characters and then allow a student of varying ages to play through the simulation. The one fictional aspect was that I also wanted these simulations to have an authorial feel, so there would be motivations, goals, humor, drama, and of course puzzles.

    Given a resulting story or set of stories as such, we could (theoretically) do formative testing…that is, instead of testing a student on the subject matter after they did their lessons, the student would be tested as they do their lessons, which is in effect, playing each game/story/simulation.

    I do still believe this an achievable, highly desirable goal. But I also realize now that it’s not a trivial one, even for a single topic, like “Mesoamerica”. There is so much material, it would be challenging to outline the highest required layers, but then also add in the many layers we would want to deliver a higher quality product (than today’s textbooks). Then weave in the CCSS goals along with some way to allow the student to write about what they’ve learned…it’s a very daunting task.

    It sounds like Mr. Graham of Canada is on the same track using Twine.

  4. There’s a spectrum, running the gamut from Carmen Sandiego (fictitious people in real locations) to, Life & Death, to Objection!, to, uh, Ford Simulator (drive real models of cars on real courses?) to… well, Mindscape’s safe-cracking simulator. Much of the simulator market (hm, and much of the strategic wargame industry, computer and otherwise) is concerned with modelling non-fiction circumstances in a game context. Mirrorsoft’s Austerlitz even allowed the player to direct troops in an historical Napoleonic battle using a text parser!

    And then there are the Tutortext CYOA instruction guides:

  5. If realistic simulation suffices for being non-fiction, then a certain class of AIF would apply. But plane crash simulations for pilots do sound non-fictional. What makes the difference?
    And on the Biblical games – wanting to know how a Biblical story could ever become an interesting game at all I decided to check one out – and in my innocense selected ‘Lost Sheep’ ! :-)

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