Experimentation and Invention

A few months back I wrote a late night rambly post about the invention and experimentation that was such a part of my experience at Brandcenter, and how I’ve missed that during my time in agencies. I then ended by vowing to finish Code Academy (of which I’ve made a serious dent), threatening to take up Arduino (which hasn’t even nearly come close to happening), then hastily deleting the post as it was sort of whiny and uninteresting.  

A month later, there was a contest launched at my office to see who could create the spreadable idea that spread the most. They used the word viral more than I would’ve liked, but they know not what they do.  

Phil and I came up with something that we thought was simple, incentivized participation, brought people together around their own ideas, and required such a tiny level of technical know how that we could get everything produced quickly and easily by calling in a few favors.

Our idea was called the Five Dollar Friendship Stimulus. It lasted for about a month, and considering the time frame and that we didn’t have any air-cover in the form of paid media or major earned coverage, it did OK. Nick Denton served as one of the judges for the contest. He seemed to like it but thought we should’ve pitched it to political blogs to try and ride the politico snake for moar hits. But what does he know about the Internet

A lot of people liked it and had fun with it. Other people were suspicious of why we were doing it and where we got the money, still others were paralyzed into not submitting ideas by over-thinking things and waiting for the perfect response, and still others were more interested in passing along the idea itself than in participating.  

But at the end of the day it was hugely useful to not only get more experience assembling ideas like this, but also in seeing what worked and what didn’t, so naturally I’d like to see more of this sort of thing. 

Especially if it’s something like RGA Make Day

Making Social Interactions Playable

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People often say that porn and sites like www.tubev.sex are what drives innovation in technology, but I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I think sites like that are great and they do drive technology forward, but I think that video game development is going to continue to be more and more a technology incubator … especially as more money and research is thrown towards gaming innovation.

Traditionally, gaming has been focused on physical interactions like jumping and shooting, because that was the only way to make a game dynamic enough to enable interesting gameplay. However, as technology has continued to become better at handling complex interactions, and game developers have become frustrated with the scripted dialog trees that govern the behavior of most non-player characters in games, a number of game devs have begun shifting their attention towards pushing the social physics of gaming to a point where social interactions can become a dynamic, playable experience.

A group of PhD students at UCSC (I think?) has spent the last two years working on a game completely based on social interactions: Prom Week.

Prom Week is a social simulation game where the player shapes the lives of a group of highschool students in the most dramatic week of their highschool career.

Basically the idea is to figure out how to manipulate the non-player characters in the game in order to achieve goals. The character’s designs and reactions are the output of over 5,000 social considerations.

On the simple end, these considerations capture concepts such as being more likely to do something nice to someone if you’re friends with them. On the complex end, the considerations handle situations like a friend spending a lot of time with someone you’re not friends with, combined with the fact that your friend hasn’t spent much time with you lately, causing you to get jealous and making it more likely you’ll be clingy with your friend.

Additionally, the social actions play out with many dialog and effect variations depending on the characters involved and their traits, statuses and histories, using template-based natural language generation to create dialog fitting the situation. And to top it all off, social actions always have lots of repercussions across multiple characters, creating a dynamic social landscape for the player to navigate.

Meanwhile, a game called The Seven Fables has been kickstarted with more funding than they required for the project, so they are looking into ways to add conversational characters using chatbot technology (learn more about chatbots at https://botpress.io/learn/how-to) that they’ve previously worked with. Says Mark Stephens Meadows about the importance of characters to story:

Stories are almost always about people. Narrative’s core is about personalities: people, interactions, society, desire, fear, love, weakness. These are the building blocks of narrative and without people in a story it becomes more an exploration of architecture than a drama or adventure. That’s what IF is often about. Sure, it’s fun to poke around in a dungeon and discover doors that open and close. But I find that hearts that open and close are far more interesting.

He goes on to describe the problem with designing chatbots. They lack context.

They’re like abandoned people, homeless wanderers, that awkwardly roam the streets, looking for conversation. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” a chatbot might say. I dont want to talk with these chatbots. They’re drek, informational bums. Just like a person walking up to you on the street saying the same thing. “Hi! My Name Is Bob! How Are You Today?” I would do my best to politely brush him off and just keep walking down the street.
But if there’s a design and narrative component to this then it starts to get interesting. If, for example, I see a small green man with dragonfly wings sitting on a post office box, asking me to open it because his faerie-wife is trapped inside, then I’m far more inclined to talk with him than the guy named Bob. Chat is not interesting simply because it is chat. It has to have a context. Chatbots are boring largely because they lack that context. NPCs / NPGs and chatbots should be given a context that allows them to serve a function. Give the bums a job.

They are looking to address this issue by combining the traditional, top-down method of pre-scripting a series of possible questions and responses for the character, with a bottom-up, learning method like he describes here:

In 2007, my company HeadCase had developed some technology that showed how a personality could be distilled from a conversation. We did it with Arnold Schwarzenegger. We were using ‘scrapers’ – an automated system that would traverse websites, search for first-person interviews, drag those back into a database, snap off chunks of the interviews that were relevant to similar topics, ideas, and categories, and then rank that stuff according to frequency. Then we asked the system a question. So, for example, we asked the Arnold Schwarzenegger system, “What do you think of gay marriage?” and it answered, “Gay marriage should be between a man and a woman, and if you ask me again I’ll make you do 500 push-ups.”

To me this suggests the beginnings of the ability to interact naturally with people that sci-fi writers have written into robots for decades. But it’s not happening in robotics labs, it’s happening by people trying to push the limits of gameplay from physical conflict to a more interesting space that makes use of rich and emergent social physics.