|the international journal of computer game research||
volume 2, issue 1
Celia Pearce is a game designer, artist, teacher and writer. She is the designer of the award-winning virtual reality attraction Virtual Adventures: The Loch Ness Expedition, and the author of The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive Revolution (Macmillan, 1997) as well as numerous essays on game design and interactivity.
She currently holds a position as Lecturer in Studio Art at the University of California Irvine's Claire Trevor School of the Arts. www.cpandfriends.com
Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go
A Conversation with Will Wright by Celia Pearce
Conducted in Will Wright's office at Maxis, September 5, 2001
CP: What is your philosophy of interactive design?
WW: Ooh, a heavy question, a philosophy question.
CP: Its a big question, but I wanted to start you talking about why you design games. What is it about the format of an interactive experience that is so compelling to you? And what do you want to create in that space?
WW: Well, one thing Ive always really enjoyed is making things. Out of whatever. It started with modeling as a kid, building models. When computers came along, I started learning programming and realizing the computer was this great tool for making things, making models, dynamic models, and behaviors, not just static models. I think when I started doing games I really wanted to carry that to the next step, to the player, so that you give the player a tool so that they can create things. And then you give them some context for that creation. You know, what is it, what kind of kind of world does it live in, whats its purpose? What are you trying to do with this thing that youre creating? To really put the player in the design role. And the actual world is reactive to their design. So they design something that the little world inside the computer reacts to. And then they have to revisit the design and redesign it, or tear it down and build another one, whatever it is. So I guess what really draws me to interactive entertainment and the thing that I try to keep focused on is enabling the creativity of the player. Giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game. So the game represents this problem landscape. Most games have small solution landscapes, so theres one possible solution and one way to solve it. Other games, the games that tend to be more creative, have a much larger solution space, so you can potentially solve this problem in a way that nobody else has. If youre building a solution, how large that solution space is gives the player a much stronger feeling of empathy. If they know that what theyve done is unique to them, they tend to care for it a lot more. I think thats the direction I tend to come from.
CP: When you were first working on SimCity, what was going on in the game world at that time? Were you responding to games that were out there, were you wanting something different? Were there things that influenced you at all in the game world or were you just totally in a different mindset?
WW: There were things that influenced menot many though. There was a very old game called Pinball Construction Set by Bill Budge which was great. He was kind of playing around with the first pre-Mac Lisa interface, which was icon-based. He actually put this in the game, even though it was an Apple 2 game. He kind of emulated what would later become the Mac interface. But it was very easy to use, and you would create pinball sets with it which you could then play with. I thought that was very cool.
Also early modeling things, like the very first flight simulator by Bruce Artwick which had this little micro-world in the computer with its own rules, kind of near reality to some degree, but at a very low resolution. But yet it was this little self-consistent world that you could go fly around in and interact with, in sort of limited ways.
CP: What kinds of responses did it give you when you did stuff?
WW: It was very open-ended and I could do whatever I wanted to in it. The first thing I did was I went in and started exploring the behavior space. Trying all the different things with the airplane. What happens if I go straight up? How far can I go? What happens if I crash? What happens if I do this that and the other? So I could carry out experiments in this world. And in running those experiments I could get a more accurate view of what the internal model was. So its kind of a scientific process. Its kind of a "hypothesize, experiment, change your hypothesis" type cycle that was going on.
CP: Did you experience that as a play style or as research for your work?
WW: I was playing with it. This was really before I started designing games. This was pretty early on. Right when the Apple II first came out, I got one. Because I was into robotics at the time, and I was coming into computers as a way to help me control my robots.
So those are some of the influences. But then mostly, stuff I read. I started getting interested in the idea of simulation. I started reading the early work of people like Jay Forrester, starting with that, going forward. When I did SimCity, the games at the time really were much more about arcade style action, graphics, very intense kinds of experiences. There were very few games that were laid back, more complex.
CP: They were more twitch-type games at that time?
WW: Yeah, the games that were more complex were these detailed war games. I had played those as a kid, these board games. With 40-page rule sets.
CP: Like what?
WW: Oh, like Panzer Blitz was a big one, Global War, Sniper.
CP: Were those ones with the hex-grid boards?
WW: Yeah, they had a 40-page rule book, and youd play with your friend. And it ended up being I mean, I think it would be excellent training for a lawyer. Because youre sitting there, most of the time, arguing over interpretations of these very elaborate rules. And you could actually combine the rules and say, "well, this was in panic mode so he couldnt go that far." "Well, my indirect fire has a three-hex radius of destruction." So youd sit there and argue over this little minutia of the rules. And that was kind of half the fun of itboth of you trying to find the legal loopholes for why your guy didnt get killed. So I was familiar with that stuff, but I knew at the same time that most people couldnt relate to that at all. But yet the strategy of those games was actually quite interesting. It was interesting to have a game where youd sit back and youd think about it, and the model was far more elaborate than you could really run in your head. So you had to approach it kind of in a different way.
CP: I wanted to ask you about this idea of experimentation as a play mechanic. That seems like a big aspect of your games, that play and experimentation are working together.
WW: The types of games we do are simulation based and so there is this really elaborate simulation of some aspect of reality. As a player, a lot of what youre trying to do is reverse engineer the simulation. Youre trying to solve problems within the system, youre trying to solve traffic in SimCity, or get somebody in The Sims to get married or whatever. The more accurately you can model that simulation in your head, the better your strategies are going to be going forward. So what were trying to as designers is build up these mental models in the player. The computer is just an incremental step, an intermediate model to the model in the players head. The player has to be able to bootstrap themselves into understanding that model. Youve got this elaborate system with thousands of variables, and you cant just dump it on the user or else theyre totally lost. So we usually try to think in terms of, whats a simpler metaphor that somebody can approach this with? Whats the simplest mental model that you can walk up to one of these games and start playing it, and at least understand the basics? Now it might be the wrong model, but it still has to bootstrap into your learning process. So for most of our games, theres some overt metaphor that allows you approach the simulation.
WW: Like for SimCity, most people see it as kind of a train set. You look at the box and you say "Oh, yeah, its like a train set come to life." Or The Sims, "its like a doll house come to life." But at the same, when you start playing the game, and the dynamics become more apparent to you, a lot of time theres an underlying metaphor thats not so apparent. Like in SimCity, if you really think about playing the game, its more like gardening. So youre kind of tilling the soil, and fertilizing it, and then things pop up and they surprise you, and occasionally you have to go in and weed the garden, and then you maybe think about expanding it, and so on. So the actual process of playing SimCity is really closer to gardening. In either case, your mental model of the simulation is constantly evolving. And in fact you can look at somebodys city that they designed at any point and see that its kind of a snapshot of their current understanding of the model. You can tell by what theyve done in the game"Oh, I see they think this freeway is going to help them because they put it over here." So it gives you some insight into their mental model of the game.
CP: Whats the underlying metaphor of The Sims? The less obvious one, the garden-level one?
WW: That depends on how you play the game. For a lot of people, the mainstream game is more like juggling, or balancing plates. You start realizing that you basically dont have enough time in the day to do everything that you want to do. And youre rushing from this to that to this, and then youre able to make these time decisions. So it feels very much like juggling and if you drop a ball, then all of a sudden, the whole pile comes crashing down. But other people play it differently. So its kind of hard with The Sims Ive thought about that, and its not as clear to me what The Sims is. I think that SimCity has a more monolithic play style, once people get into it, than The Sims does. In The Sims people tend to veer off in a different direction. Some people go off into the storytelling thing. So eventually the metaphor becomes that of a director on a set. Youre trying to coerce these actors into doing what you want them to do, but theyre busy leading their own lives. And so you get this weird conflict going on between you and The Sims where youre trying to tell a story with the game but they want to go off and eat, and watch TV, and do whatever.
CP: Like real actors.
WW: Yes, exactly. Kind of like little actors who just wont do what you want them to do.
CP: So this brings me to the next question. What have you learned from players and how does that change your games? I mean, youre saying that you have a metaphor in your mind, but then the players introduce new metaphors to it. And what really interests me is the way that the next generations of the game have started being responsive to what players are doing. Could you talk a little bit about that?
WW: Thats something thats evolved over the last ten years primarily because of things like the Internet. The bandwidth of communication from our players back to us has increased tremendously from where it was about ten years ago. When we did SimCity 2000, which was the next version of SimCity, we collected all the letters and suggestions players sent in and I read through all of them. There were about a thousand of them. It was a really good resource, and we got a good sense of what people wanted out of the next version of SimCity. Right now for The Sims, I could access that much feedback on a weekly basis by going on the Net and looking in the right places. For us theres an issue of, how do we go through all this feedback? But at the same time, we also started leaning more on our own web sites, where we give people the ability to post stuff up. We have The Sims Exchange. People can tell stories, upload their families. Right now Im doing some pretty serious data mining of all those families that have been uploaded to our Exchangelooking at the average family composition, what they tend to do in the game on a daily basis. Im actually graphing kind of a gameplay landscape.
CP: So youre making a model of the model.
WW: (Laughs.) Yes. Im trying to basically chronicle the average model that the players have made in their heads. Its like cultural anthropology. Already it's having a huge impact on what we do with our expansion packs and the next version of The Sims. Were getting a sense of when people like to play the house building game vs. the relationship game, and what types of families they like to create, what objects they like the most. Eventually, in the not too distant future, were working towards having this be dynamic on a daily basis so the game in some sense can be self-tuning to each individual player based on what theyve done in the game. Thats what I think is going to be really interesting slash kind of scary[sic]. Because I can see a really clear path to getting there. You look at what a million people have done the day before in a game, have all that information sent up to your server, do some heavy data analysis, and then every day send back to all these games each with its own new tuning set.
CP: So this would be The Sims Online where everything is going on at the server level as opposed to individual machines.
WW: No, this could be for just the next version of The Sims.
CP: As long as you have a way of collecting the data from the people.
WW: Right, and they could easily opt out if they want to turn it off. But for the most part they could still be playing a single player game, its just that every time they boot it up it goes to our server and asks for the new tuning set. And when they finish playing every day it sends back the results of what they did. So theyre still playing a single-player game, but its individually tuning itself to each player. You know based on your preferences, but also based on the parallel learning of a million other people. So you might discover things. Or somebody might actually initiate a sequence of actions on their computer in a very creative way and the computer might recognize that, send it up to the server, and say: "Wow, that was an interesting sequence, and that person likes doing comedy romances. Lets try that on ten other people tomorrow. If those ten people respond well, lets try it on a hundred the next day." So it could be that the things arent just randomly discovered, but theyre also observed from what the players did specifically.
CP: At the Entertainment in the Interactive Age conference in January 2001, you talked about your model for player-generated content-creation. You talked about high-level people who do skinning and level-building. Then you have people that are good at storytelling, storyboarding and family creation. So now youre inserting another level of kind of allowing the players to unconsciously affect the game design. Its like a procedural game design system, like the game is almost designing itself, or evolving itself? Is that what youre talking about?
WW: Roughly, yes. And Im thinking that some of that will be just standardized hill climbing behavior where were trying to optimize variables for a particular player type. But another component could be that players do some very specific scenario or sequence of action that the computer recognizes, and says, "Hey, thats kind of an interesting little sub-plot. Lets try that out on some other people." At that point, the computer is just sharing interesting things from one player and trying them out on other players. So in fact you have the players kind of cross-pollinating their creativity with each other, but its transparently mediated by the computer. They dont even know whether the computer came up with this, or some other player in Oklahoma, or what. They just know that the game is doing something different today than it did yesterday.
You know whats kind of interesting is right now with the storyboarding function, weve got players trying to reverse engineer a static model onto the computer for the most part. And in that case youre going to have a model on the computer thats always changing, so its adapting as the players adapting. Because basically there is this adaptive system, which is the player, slowly approaching this model on the computer, getting closer and closer in their mind to understanding the way that model works. But now youre going to have these two models, the player model and the computer model, kind of chasing each other around. So as the player gets closer and closer to understanding the computer model, the computer will be changing into something else in response to the players actions. So, its kind of like the dog chasing its tail in a way.
CP: Did you see Dark City?
CP: The way they redesign the city every night while the people are sleeping? In the same way, it was responding to what the people were doing and then reconstructing itself around that.
WW: Yeah, they were experimenting on the people, right? They were trying to find out, what would this person do in this situation? What would they do if they thought they were a murderer?
Thats why its kind of scary. Because when you think about it, youve got this behavioral laboratory really, that you could probably get a lot of interesting insights out of. And this is way down the road, but Im curious how deep that analysis could go.
Let me show you something: Remember Randy Pausch (from Carnegie Mellon, who spoke at Entertainment in the Interactive Age? I had two of his interns, Russ Schaaff and Kevin AuYoung, over the summer and I had them doing this work. They were the ones that were analyzing all these files that I talked about earlier. This is from our Intranet site. (Fig. 1) This is actually a view of 3,000 players and how they played the game. The vertical axis shows how much they spent on their house, roughly. We were just trying to get rough ideas. The horizonal plane on the bottom is how much money they had in the game. And at the top we see how much social success they had, how many friends and lovers and whatnot. The color indicates how many days theyve been playing. So blue when they first start. Red is theyve been playing a long time. Etc.
Fig. 1: Diagram showing play patterns for The Sims over time.
So everybodys starting right about here in the blue area. Now here its sort of peeling back the layers and youre getting a sense of what the more mainstream play pattern is. But basically you can see that theres kind of this trajectory thats fairly close, theres not a lot of variance in it. You can see the area that represents the house. So typically people build up their house, build up the house, and then at some point they just kind of level out. And theres definitely some point they reach where they dont really care about the house anymore. But thats when theyre really fanning out on the social. So you can see theres tremendous variety in the social approach here. People tend to be much closer in terms of they want to build a big house, they want to build a big house. But on the social side, some people just end up with no friends, and thats all they do is just build up a big house. Other people are way way over on the friends side.
So this is just one view into this, and then weve got total days played, etc. This is the type of stuff that were analyzing. Like the most common Zodiac signs chosen. (Fig. 2)
Fig. 2: Zodiac signs selected for Sims characters.
CP: Oh, wow, thats amazing.
Fig. 3: Family size ratio for Sims characters.
Fig. 4: Gender ratio of Sims characters.
Fig 5: Employment status of Sims characters.
WW: So this is the type of thing we are tracking. The adult-to-child ratio. Male-to-female. Oddly, more males, which surprised me. Average number of family members selected. So two is the clear winner. And then we did that by personality types. Careers chosen. Employment status. Stuff like that.
CP: Thats great. Why do you think so many people chose Cancer?
WW: Oh, actually, in The Sims the Zodiac types were representative of what position you had on the personality sliders.
CP: Right, because you could either make your own or you can click on a sign and it would automatically generate one.
WW: Yes. So you can think of it as this five dimensional space, because you have five personality sliders. And then we divided that five dimensional space into 12 equal size regions within that space. If you set all the sliders the personality to five, that region is Cancer.
CP: Thats interesting. Have you looked at any other personality models, like Myers-Briggs or anything like that?
WW: Oh, yes.
CP: Have you used that, or have you just studied them for research?
WW: Actually, I have this great book. Ill show you. Out of print, but you can just flip through it.
CP: Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner (1981). Very cool.
WW: Just thumb through it. Its got like a hundred theories of mind, and each one has a one-page picture and a one-page description. So you can just thumb through it and get a sense of how many different ways people have tried to slice up the human mind.
CP: This is a gold mine for people doing AI and artificial character work.
WW: Its useful because it shows you how theres not just one approach. Thats what this really emphasizes. Each one of these captures some aspect of the reality. The key is not to take any one approach to literally. Or as the gospel.
CP: But they could be useful in modeling different aspects.
Lets shift gears a little here and talk about your favorite games. And not just limiting it to computer games, but any games you like. Whats your favorite game?
WW: My favorite game by far probably is Go. The board game.
CP: Thats no surprise to me.
WW: (Laughs.) That game is just so elegant in that its got two rules really, one of which is almost never used. But yet from those two rules flow this incredible complexity. Its kind of the board game version of John Conways Game of Life, the cellular automata game. Its not dissimilar.
CP: That brings up another question. Im interested in how you work with abstraction. Because in order to model things of course you have to simplify and abstract them in certain ways. In the response you wrote to Ken Perlins chapter in 's First Person: New Media as Story, Performance and Game (MIT Press 2002, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, eds.), you talked about Scott McCloud's theory of character from Understanding Comics. In games, as in comics, you were saying you want to simplify the characters and abstract them a little bit so that the players can then project themselves onto them and have more a sense of their creative impact. In terms of abstracting models, how do you deal with that?
WW: Especially right now with current technology, there are a lot of limitations in terms of what we can do with character simulation. So, to me that seemed like a really good use of the abstraction because there are certain things we just cannot simulate on a computer, but on the other hand that people are very good at simulating in their heads. So we just take that part of the simulation and offload it from the computer into the players head.
WW: So you know, its parallel processing of a sort. Then you know there are these tricks about, "Okay, so how do you do that?" One thing that we found in playing with The Sims is that its pretty important that you have a consistent level of abstraction. It doesnt make sense to have everything highly detailed except one aspect and then have it abstracted. So in fact you want the entire world and the entire representation to be abstracted at almost the same level. At which point it holds together very nicely. Its kind of hard for you to go into a system and then be filling in the blanks of this one component, while everything else is highly detailed. So in The Sims, even the building is fairly abstracted. You can only put a wall within about a meter. The objects are somewhat abstracted in terms of selection: you dont have the full selection that you would really have in a furniture store. The granules of interaction in the game are kind of abstracted. So having that consistency, in your head, you fill in the blanks really well. And this is something that kids do quite well of course. You watch kids playing with toys. Theyre doing it all the time, very naturally. And even adults are doing that much of the time, with reading books, for example, where there are a lot of blanks to be filled in.
CP: When you brought up Go, I thought this was a good jumping off point for this question because it is so highly abstract, and yet its so deep at the same time.
WW: I never even really thought of Go as an abstraction. Its funny that I havent because its more abstract than Chess certainly. But what really impresses me about Go isnt so much the abstraction as the emergence. The fact that its one of the most amazing examples of emergent behavior Ive ever seen. And its so clear and simple and you can just see before your very eyes that these simple little rules give rise to this incredible strategy. I mean its just so apparent. They pulled away everything that has nothing to do with emergence, and all thats left is the emergence of the game.
CP: And how does that map to your idea of mental modeling? The model you build in your mind. When you play Go, how do you see the relationship between those two things?
WW: In Go, both players have a model of whats happening on the board, and over time those models get closer and closer and closer together until the final score. At that point you have a total shared model of, you know, "you beat me." (Laughter.) Up until that point, though, theres quite a large divergence in the mental models that players have. Especially if you ask them what the score is, or "How are you doing?" Theyll frequently say, "Im doing pretty well, here," or "Hes whipping me." Or that backwards thing, "Oh, hes whipping me," when really youre the one winning. And it really comes down to how each person is mentally overlaying their territories onto this board. In each players mind, theres this idea that "Oh, I control this and they control that, and were fighting over this." They each have a map in their head of whats going on, and those maps are in disagreement. And its those areas of maximum disagreement where the battles are all fought. You play a piece there, and I think "Oh, thats in my territory, Im going to attack it cause youre in my territory." Whereas youre thinking, "Oh, thats my territory, youre invading me." And finally, the battle resolves that in our heads, and then its pretty clear that, "Okay, thats your territory and thats mine." So the game is in fact this process of us bringing our different mental models into agreement. Through battle.
CP: Through disagreement. (Laughter.)
I was just flashing on, when you said that, the UN World Racism conference and their inability to bring their models of the world into agreement. (Laughter.)
WW: Yeah, I guess thats the basis of so much conflict, where these people have these totally different mental models of what the world is or should be, whats appropriate, what isnt, who the bad guys are.
So youve got these people out there with all these different models. Sometimes thats good, I mean, you know, diversity of thought. A lot of people have talked to me over the years about community modeling. But not so much as a modeling tool, but more as a communication tool, using something like SimCity where people get involved in a planning process and get a sense of their community or the environment or whatever. Where the purpose of the model in those cases would be to come to a shared agreement about what the model is.
We did a project actually several years ago called Sim Health for the Markle Foundation in New York. It was a simulation of the national healthcare system, but underneath the whole thing, the assumptions of the model were exposed. And you could change your assumptions, for example, as to how many nurses it takes to staff a hospital, or how many emergency room visits you would have given certain parameters, etc., etc. The idea was that people could kind of argue over policy but eventually that argument would come down to the assumptions of the model. And this was a tool for them to actually get into the assumptions of the model. When people disagree over what policy we should be following, the disagreement flows out of a disagreement about their model of the world. The idea was that if people could come to a shared understanding or at least agree toward the model of the world, then they would be much more in agreement about the policy we should take.
CP: So in a way, a system like that could be used to externalize mental models and create a collective model.
WW: Yes, exactly. Which I think could have value, but at the same time I like this idea that theres this diversity of models out there.
CP: Well, I think if you have a shared model, its not so much like you all have the same mental model, but that you have an externalized model that everyone agrees to abide by.
WW: Yeah, which is exactly the way science works.
CP: When you were talking about Go, I was thinking that when you create a mental model of the environment as it is now, youre also creating a model of how you want it to be. So in Go the mental models have to do with imagining where the players want the game to go, right?
CP: And then as the game fills itself out, as the emergent properties come forth
WW: and of course part of that model is modeling what the other player is likely to do. "Oh, I think theyre going to play very aggressively, therefore, my model of them says that this would be the optimum strategy."
CP: So thats interesting, because theres also this aspect of imagination, which you alluded to earlier.
And that sort of brings me back to a question about SimCity and The Sims. Each of those games has a different level of abstraction from the other. You can really see the different choices that are made in terms of design. But in terms of this modeling idea, you briefly alluded to the use of The Sims from a directorial standpoint as a storytelling tool, and that in a way, theres a little bit of a dynamic that goes on because the game doesnt want to be, the characters dont want to be used that way necessarily.
So Im just curious how you grapple with that. I mean youre obviously taking that into account. Are you making a way to use the game as a storyboarding tool, or continuing to play around with the tension that the characters are kind of resisting that kind of control?
WW: Its actually very interesting in The Sims how the pronouns change all the time. Im sitting there playing the game and Im talking about, "Oh, first Im going to get a job, then Im going to do this, then Im going to do that." And then you know when the character starts disobeying me, all of a sudden I shift and say "Oh, Why wont he do that?" or "Whats he doing now?" And so at some point its me kind of inhabiting this little person, and Im thinking, "Its me, Im going to get a job and Im going to do x, y, and z." But then when he starts rebelling, its he. And so then I kind of jump out of him, and now its me vs. him. You know what Im saying?
CP: Yes, I do. But one of things that interests me about the game is that you have these semi-autonomous characters. Theyre not totally autonomous, and theyre not totally avatars either. Theyre somewhere in between. Do think thats disorienting to the player, or do you think its what makes the game fun?
WW: I dont think so. I mean its interesting. Im just surprised that people can do that fluidly, they can so fluidly say "Oh, Im this guy, and then Im going to do x, y, and z." And then they can pop out and "Now Im that person. Im doing this that and the other. Whats he doing?" And so now hes a third person to me, even though he was me a moment ago. I think thats something we use a lot in our imaginations when were modeling things. Well put ourselves in somebody elses point of view very specifically for a very short period of time. "Well, lets see, if I were that person, I would probably do x, y, and z." And then I kind of jump out of their head and then Im me, talking to them, relating to them.
CP: I notice that when I play, I usually dont necessarily start out with a main character. But I find that invariably one of the characters in the family becomes the main character in my mind, and they become the person that Im concentrating the narrative around.
Im sure that people have different ways of doing it. I move between the characters and the houses and stuff, but I always find theres one house, and one person that ends up being the main person that Im wrapping things around.
WW: Well, I think thats the more theatrical approach, because thats the protagonist of your story. The other characters are important, but really thats the one that youre empathizing with the most. Youre really getting into their head. Im kind of surprised that that works out so well, because when we were originally doing the game, there was a lot of debate about whether there should be one significant person in the game, or whether it should be the whole family. But we started playing the game and watching people playing, and people seemed to have no problem with jumping from character to character, and then having the ones they werent playing just become autonomous.
CP: Ill jump from house to house. Ill play one family for a while, then Ill reboot the game and go to another house and do stuff with that family relating to the first family. But Im always doing it to facilitate the main character. Like, Im trying to get this couple together. And I know in order to do that, I need to get her to come over to his house, or him to come over to her house. So I have to go to her house, to play her for a while, in order to make that happen. Its just this spontaneous thing that happened. But what happens for me is that I start setting goals for the characters. Part of it is what they say, what they want. Like if a character wants a boyfriend or a girlfriend, for example, then you go "Oh, well, I better do that." And then that sort of sucks up all the focus.
WW: Whats interesting is that people will pursue different goals. Like a goal for me might be to have this guy (demonstrating with toys on the table) be really happy, and Im doing this stuff to make him really happy. And then Im going to have another person come into the house, and Im going to have this person clean up and do all the dirty work, so that that first person can be happy. Or, Im doing them both kind of together as a team, to make the family succeed. And so then its kind of a specialist model. You do what youre good at. And its for the greater good. Its for the whole ensemble, for the family itself. And so there are different kind of goal structures you can overlay on this.
Have you seen this toy? Theres this toy that I have at home thats really cool. Its this German toy called Rockenbok (Fig. 7). And its these little radio-controlled trucks. Ill try to find a picture of it. (Goes on the web.) Theres this little deck that looks kind of like a PlayStation. So youve got these little truck-like things. Some of them have like little scoopers and stuff. You drive them around. Theyre all radio-controlled. But you have this deck that actually takes little control pads, like a PlayStation. So you can have up to four controllers plugged into this deck, and each little truck has a number on it. And so on your control pad, you just punch in number 2, and now youre driving number 2. At any time, you can switch to a different truck.
Fig. 7: Rockenbok toy system (www.rockenbok.com)
CP: But you can only drive one at a time?
WW: Only one at a time, and only one that nobody else is driving. And so you might have three of these little trucks sitting there, from one to three. And you and I might be playing it. I might go to number 1, you go to number 2. Were doing something. All of a sudden, I switch to number 3. Now you can go to number 1. So theyre like little avatars. And its really interesting to watch kids play with this because their identity is so fluid from truck to truck. And its really interesting the situations they get in. They always end up pushing and fighting with these things. So, youre about to push me off the table, so I go to number 3 really quick and come up behind you, and all of a sudden, you see that Im attacking so you turn and face me. Youre very cognizant of which avatar I inhabit, even when I change. Its like The Sims in a way.
CP: But do they switch goals? Like when they move to another vehicle?
WW: Well, you very fluidly can go from kind of competitive to cooperative and back again, which is also what interests me about it.
One of the things were doing for The Sims PlayStation version that were working on now, which is kind of cool, is that theres going to be a two-player mode. So its going to be the same kind of control system as the Rockenbok where you can go take over any uninhabited character. So there might be four Sims in this household, and only two of us playing. But I can pick which character Im controlling right now and you can pick yours. And so I might get this person doing a bunch of stuff, and then switch over to that one. Or I might go up to your character and might actually do face-to-face, person-to-person interaction. Or we might work cooperatively, both controlling our Sims towards a goal, or competitively, for example, where were both trying to make the neighbor fall in love with us. Or whatever. The same type of thing.
CP: Thats interesting. When is that coming out?
WW: The Sims PlayStation? Not for a long time.
CP: Its good to be vague about these things.
I saw The Sims Online demo at E3 (Fig. 8), and thats going to be coming out in 2002. Im curious about making the transition from a single player to a multi-player networked experience and what kind of new ideas are coming out through that shift.
WW: Thats going to be a very different game, because theres no autonomy behind the characters at all. Theyre total avatars. Were trying to design the game with a very social focus, obviously.
CP: How do they communicate?
WW: You actually can do text back and forth, you know just regular chat.
CP: Do they still talk Simish?
WW: I havent decided yet. Probably, something like that.
CP: So when you type in, they might speak Simish, but itll be like having subtitles.
WW: Youll actually see a little text balloon up above their head.
With that were trying to design a lot of the interactions and the goal structures within the game to be based on the social landscape. Many of the objects cannot be used by just one person. They have to be used in a group. Which gives a lot of reason for people to bring new members into or form a group.
Fig. 8: Screenshoot from The Sims Online (release date: 2002)
CP: Like the little factory machines I saw in the E3 demo?
WW: Right, so we have these kind of different levels of group structure, starting with a few people on this one object, to a five or six people living together in a house, building a shared environment, to thirty of forty people doing a neighborhood with some theme, to hundreds of people running a larger club. Each one of these relates to the levels below it. So theres this social hierarchy of sorts, but at the same time each level wants to be fairly fluid in terms of the way its making new links and changing its configurations.
CP: And in The Sims Online each person has one character that they control all the time?
CP: So you dont do that identify swapping thing as much?
WW: Not as much. You can actually create more than one character, but when youre really into the game playing, you dont switch.
CP: Theres a chapter in my book (The Interactive Book: A Guide to the Interactive RevolutionMacmillan, 1997). called "God Plays Dice with the Universe," and I talk about the idea that writers want to be one kind of god, and game designers want to be a really different kind of God.
CP: And so the question is this: If you were a God what kind of a God would you be? What would your philosophy of creation be?
WW: What kind of God would I want to be? Ooh.
CP: Like a screenwriter is like a deterministic God. They control the outcome of events.
WW: Oh, I see, yes
I would try to be a God that surprised himself.
I think being the all-knowing God would be, you know, hell.
CP: Because I mean what youre doing here in a way is really kind of that. Its creating a mental model of the whole universe.
WW: At some level I want people to have a deep appreciation for how connected things are at all these different scales, not just through space, but through time. And in doing so I had to build kind of a simple little toy universe and say, here, play with this toy for a while. My expectations when I hand somebody that toy are that they are going to make their own mental model, which isnt exactly what Im presenting them with. But whatever it is, their mental model of the world around them, and above them and below them, will expand. Hopefully, probably in some unpredictable way, and for me thats fine. And I dont want to stamp the same mental model on every player. Id rather think of this as a catalyst. You know, its a catalytic tool for growing your mental model, and I have no idea which direction its going to grow it, but I think just kind of sparking that change is worthwhile unto itself.
CP: But youre more interested in setting up the rule space and letting the outcome evolve with the players experimentation.
WW: Right, I mean what I really want to do is I want to create just the largest possibility space I can. I dont want to create a specific possibility that everybodys going to experience the same way. Id much rather have a huge possibility space where every player has as unique an experience as possible.
CP: One of the things that I think is interesting about what you do as a role model for interactive designers it that you enjoy the unpredictable outcome. When people do things that you didnt plan on, that seems to be something that you embrace.
WW: To me, that feels like success.
CP: One of the big arguments around narrative in games is the issue of control. It was something that came up at Entertainment in the Interactive Age. People that come from the "narrativist," or the "narrative fundamentalist" school, think that the storytellers job is to control the story. Whereas youre taking the approach that you want to have very little impact on the outcome of the story. You want the players to find their own story through their own experimentation.
WW: I would much rather build a system where the players are in more in control of the story and the story possibilities are much wider. For me the size of the space is paramount. Even if it was between the player controlling it or it being random, I still would want larger space in either case.
CP: Theres this whole discussion about "the code," the rule set as its own work. As an "artist" or a creator, what you do is you create these rules sets. But the final outcome of the thing that gets made is a collaboration between you and the player. When you think about making that possibility space, how do you negotiate between freedom and constraints? In other words, do you have any kind of criteria for how you break that down?
WW: Thats a good question. Because I think you could always make the possibility space larger at the expense of the plausibility or the dramatic potential, or the quality of the experience. Theres probably some relationship between the quality of the experience and the size of the possibility space. So we can make the possibility space huge, just by giving the player a thousand numbers. And "Here, you can make any one of these thousand numbers whatever you want it to be." Thats a big space. Its just not a very high quality experience. So we start wrapping graphics, sounds scenarios and events around those numbers, and were increasing the quality of the experience you have. It has more meaning to you. In some sense it becomes more evocative. You can start wrapping a mental model around that, as opposed to this pile of numbers.
CP: So its the craft of trying to figure out how tight to pull in the constraints, and then how much space
WW: Well, actually, the way to put it is that Im trying to build the maximum possibility space in your head, not on the computer. (Laughter.) Okay. Because the possibility space on the computer is just a huge pile of numbers, but as far as youre concerned that pile of numbers is the same as another pile of numbers. Whereas when you get sounds and people and events hooked up to it, all of a sudden, youre mental model starts to take form. And one set of numbers can be vastly different from another. So it has an entirely different meaning in your head. I think what were trying to do is build the maximum possibility space in your imagination when youre playing the game.
CP: The interesting thing though is that there are constraints and that the rules are consistent. So within the possibility space, I cant turn The Sims into EverQuest. It doesnt have that much possibility space. It has its own consistent worldview.
WW: Well, theres the possibility space and then theres the topography of that space. And the topography is what can plausibly happen from one moment to the next. If the screen is just randomly changing from second to second, it has no meaning for you. So that space is entirely connected to the topography.
CP: So, to use a film cliché, its this whole idea of suspension of disbelief, that if youre making a world, you need to make sure that the world has efficacy within itself, at whatever scale or level of detail youre crafting it.
WW: Yeah. And then later, youre going in and also saying that we want it to have challenges in the space that are visible, attainable. But at the same time, ever increasing. Its a fairly interesting landscape in that there are a lot of peaks in the landscape, some are very high, some are very small. You can have small successes. You can plan ahead and say, "I think I can get to the top of that." Other times youll say "I think I can get to the top of that peak," and halfway up, youll discover a cliff face, and youll have to go around. And so therell be unexpected terrain features that you encounter in the space.
CP: But the trick is that you dont want to throw in a curve ball that sends someone mentally out of the model, right?
WW: Right, there is definitely the believability and the plausibility of the space. If the space starts becoming totally disconnected and random and things are happening for no reason, again, your mental model will start breaking down. Really whats happening in your head is what matters. And so when this computer starts not being connected and not being plausible, thats when your mental model starts to evaporate. I think thats the main reason for keeping the topography somewhat consistent.
CP: There was a story that Espen Aarseth, the editor of the Game Studies Journal, told about playing Ion Storms Deus Ex and having basically lost the use of his legs in a fight. And then there was a cut scene thats part of the game its not a cut-away but its a linear sequence in the game engine where suddenly he was standing up.
WW: (Laughing.) Oh, okay.
CP: And it really annoyed him because in his mind, he had been shot, and he couldnt stand up. So it was the same thingit pushed him out of the game because it had violated his mental model of the world.
WW: Right. But then at that point, your model becomes more explicit. In other words, now youre not thinking about the game, youre thinking about "Oh, I see, this is a cut scene, and they pre-rendered that," so youre modeling the engineering of the game, not whats happening inside the game itself. So it just makes you pop up to a higher level where youre modeling the game engineering.
CP: Right (Laughter..) Ive been talking to people a lot lately about the idea that we now have this new genre of experience where consumption and production are synonymous. So in a game like EverQuest or The Sims, where the consumer buying the entertainment is buying the ability
WW: to produce .
CP: their own entertainment Ken Perlin came up with the term "conducer" to describe this kind of hybrid consumer/producer. What do you think, in terms of a model of the media universe, in terms of going from that broadcast and cinema idea of consumption into this consumption/production hybrid? Where do you think thats going? I mean where do you see it going with your work and in general in the game industry?
WW: I think the Internets probably the prime example of that. I think there are going to be certain types of new media where this is the natural form of interaction, a smooth ramp from consumer to producer.
CP: Like what?
WW: Well, film, television. I think right now, it comes down to how steep maybe the ramp is. Because I think you have this kind of natural progression in all media between a consumer and an author, a producer, a designer. And its a matter of the granularity of the levels of involvement as you climb the slope. And so I can sit there and watch movies and watch movies and watch movies, and I can pull out my little camera and start making movies, and that is becoming much more accessible to the average person. Maybe its not a good movie, but I can make some stupid little movie and put it on the Internet and maybe George Lucas sees it and gives me a phone call. That possibility exists more now than it did twenty years ago. But still thats a fairly large jump for me to pull out my camera and start doing something.
CP: But its still one person making something for someone else to see. Whereas youre doing something where the consumption and production are the same.
WW: I see what youre saying. Its a different activity.
CP: Yes. In The Sims, you are both consuming and producing at the same time. Youre not going back and forth between "now Im audience, now Im filmmaker." Youre both. And then you can sort of shift in this range that youve created which is, "I can put my storyboard on the web or I can post my game or I can take my skins and make them available to other people." So youve developed this interesting economy of content.
WW: In some sense thats not so new really. I mean you look at people doing model trains. And theyll sit at home, playing, "I want to play with my model train." In the course of that, they build up this elaborate model, and then at some point, people come in and start photographing this amazing thing theyve built. And then you buy a book about model trains and that persons train set is in the book. There are so many forms where at some level. Well, maybe theres this bandwidth issue of how visible is this thing Im creating to the outside world? The tools for making it more visible are advancing hugely. Especially if its electronic content.
CP: The distribution. The web gives you the ability to distribute in different ways. But also I think it redefines the relationship between the audience and the creator.
WW: But I wonder, with all the creative endeavors that people go through, how many people would still be doing these things if there was not a single person to ever see what they created? Whether its a souped-up Chevy Hotrod, or whatever.
CP: But in a way, youre also referencing the hobby culture, which has always been its own pop culture creativity space.
WW: Or crafts, or art. You know, drawing, comics. A lot of writing people do. I think we have the tools now to design new media totally with this in mind. Its kind of like role-playing, its like going to the Renaissance Faire. I go to the Renaissance Faire, and I dress up, and I go there to have this experience, but at the same time Im part of the experience. People look over and see me dressed up, wearing my sword, and so Im both the consumer and the producer in that environment.
CP: Thats a great example. Also what I like about the Renaissance Faire is that part of the economy of it is that you buy into the participation. So you know, you buy a costume or you learn a craft.
WW: You feel like an actor.
CP: You can come in at the sort of tourist level but then you can come in at higher and higher levels of involvement.
WW: Right, its a very granular progression, a very smooth ramp. With something like The Sims, its meant to be a very smooth ramp. I buy this game and it might be a while before I tune into the web button, but its real easy and so I dont really have to go out of my way to share my experience. As opposed to somebody whos doing a home page, where they have to actually figure out how to deal with their ISP. Or the film thing, where in fact, I have to actually pull out my camera and start doing work to make the film.
CP: Yes, and it seems like whats also nice about The Sims, as opposed to something like EverQuest, for example, is that you dont have to do it in public until youre ready.
WW: Right, right. So you can practice a lot. Yes, that is very important. Sports are the same way. Theres probably a big crossover in sports, where people maybe will spend a lot of time practicing at something and then going to play a game in a more public context .
CP: Its rare that you have an experience that has a flow between a single user and a group experience. Especially as the more multi-user aspects become available, it will be interesting to see how people flow between the solo and the group environment.
WW: Right. You know, I do BattleBots with my fifteen-year-old daughter, and thats the same way. We do this because we like building these things and we love meeting the other people and doing with them. And for the first few years, there was just a very small group that would show up. And mostly you were going there to meet the other people and fight their robots. At some point, kind of on top of this whole thing, television became aware of this and came in and started making it into a big television show. And in fact its now the second highest rated show on Comedy Central.
CP: Its so great. I was watching it last night.
WW: Well you know what its like, then. I mean its very hyped up, but yet theres this whole big television audience that watches it now, which is overlaid upon this smaller group of hobbyists who were just doing this for the hell of it.
CP: So its become a spectator sport as well as a hobby.
WW: Right. And so its great because for the longest time people were, you know, trying justify to their spouses why they had to spend $3,000 on these machines that are going to get destroyed. But now most of the people that are seriously into this earn quite a fair amount of money doing it. Easily enough to pay for all the robots, and then some.
CP: Thats great. Have you guys got a new robot?
WW: Yeah, Im just actually finishing up a new one right now.
CP: Whats it called?
WW: Its named "Misty the WonderBot." Because everyone else has all these tough sounding names like "the Eviscerator " or "Death Machine"
CP: Are you working with your daughter on that or are you doing it on your own?
WW: Well, shes got her own robot that shes had for the last couple years, and Ive been meaning to build another one for me.
CP: Her's is called
WW: ChiaBot. Its this big, robotic shrub.
CP: I think Ive seen that on one of the news clips you guys were on.
WW: Its fun for her, though, because shes getting used to having this media exposure and getting a sense of the way media works. Because people want to interview her and stuff like that.
CP: There arent many girls.
WW: No, theres actually one other girl her age. Theyre both close friends. Matter of fact, her father and I have started this little side thing. Were doing kind of like movie making stuff over in Berkeley.
CP: Oh right. Yeah, hows that going?
WW: Were doing some toy design stuff, just getting our feet wet making our films, and doing our battle robots over there.
CP: Tell me about the film projects.
WW: Well, we have two projects. The one were doing now is being done with little miniatures. Its an artificial intelligence story set in feudal Japan. Its about this robot that was invented by this blacksmith, entirely mechanical, no electronics.
CP: How big is it?
WW: Well, the puppets themselves are about eight inches tall. Weve actually built this entire Japanese village at that scale. And thats our set. Its kind of miniatures but its supposed to be full scale. And the robot is, roughly, a little bigger than a person. But its all about the way people relate to this machine, the way they project themselves into it. The robot is entirely neutral behaviorally. Entirely predictable, entirely deterministic, entirely neutral. Kind of a Being There type of thing (referring to the Jerzy Kozinski novel that was made into a film starring Peter Sellers.) But everybody that comes up to the robot interprets the robots actions based on their personality. So if theyre curious, then they think "Oh, I see hes curious." And so the robots kind of a personality mirror, and thats what the whole thing is about.
CP: Is this a feature?
WW: Actually, were thinking about it in terms of television right now. But were just going to see. Its kind of just more for us to learn techniques and all that.
CP: What else is your daughter interested in?
WW: Well, shes really into Japanese anime. Shes been showing me some of this stuff that is really amazing. Theres this one called Serial Experiments Lain. Its got so much of The Matrix in it, and whats interesting, is then you realize that it was made three years before The Matrix. Except its much more twisted than The Matrix.
Kids today are so much more visually literate than they were just ten years ago. And visual literacy is just going up at this accelerating pace. So the visual density that you can put on somebody is probably a lot higher right now than were seeing. You actually see it more in commercials than anywhere else.
CP: Thats interesting in terms of what you do. Im really interested in this idea of game literacy, that kids are used to certain things, like what you talked about earlier, switching characters or dealing with autonomy or semi-autonomy or different points of view. Do you think theres a kind of a game literacy that kids have as well?
WW: I think that time is an interesting component because with games you can relate to time in a totally different way than in linear media. I can always back up, load my old saved game. I can pause whenever I want to, etc. Youre starting to see little bits of that popping into linear media. Did you see Memento?
CP: Yes. Or Run Lola Run.
WW: But those films feel kind of like a square peg in a round hole. You know, its an interesting exercise.
CP: But its still a device of linearity.
WW: Yes, no matter what you do its still going to be a linear presentation. You know, even if theyre chopping up time or going backwards or whatever. Its still a linear presentation.
CP: But isnt it funny how in games, no-ones really experimented with time in that way. I mean its natural in the game vocabulary that you can go back, and you can save and you can replay and that you can be reincarnated and all this other kind of stuff, but it tends to be the game experience happens over a linear time flow. It doesnt jump around. I mean even something like Zelda: Majoras Mask where theres this 72 hour cycle that runs through and repeats. But no-one has ever messed around with chopping time up the way they have in movies.
WW: Ive always wanted to make a game that had a smooth slider where you could go forward and backward and rebranch very, very easily so that at any point I could just pull the slider back and then right there do something, then pull it back again and do something different. And so youd be kind of interactivity exploring the possibility space, but youd have equal mobility forward and backward and time. Right now, you have a lot of mobility forward.
CP: Could you do that with The Sims?
WW: You could, yes. I mean there are some technical issues, but its not that hard. I mean youd have to design the simulator to be reversible, to keep track of the differences.
CP: Youd just have to add a rewind button or something. One of the other papers in First Person: New Media as Performance, Story and Game is Jesper Juuls paper on time, which is the one that I was reviewing for the book. Its really good. You should take a look at it. He talks about different scales of time in games, and one of the things he talks about is skill and time. In my critique I wrote that you can also use time strategically. For example, when I play The Sims, I use the fast forward button to get through mundane chores so I can get to the social activities (Laughter.). So theres also the ability to manipulate time strategically.
WW: Well, it seems like that should be the case. Frequently there are technical limitations as to why we cant just instantly jump ahead because we in fact have to simulate all the interim stuff. But that seems like that should be one of the huge advantages of that medium is the fact that you have that time mobility.
CP: So the player can manipulate the time scale.
WW: Yes, because we have the spatial mobility. I can click and move the screen wherever I want really fast. I should be able to do the same thing with time.
CP: So maybe thats the next step.
WW: Actually were experimenting with scales of time and space. The plan is that the time is going to be totally based on the zoom level. So your zoom level and your time slider are the same. If you want to speed the game up, you have to zoom out, if you want to slow it down you have to zoom in.
CP: So the aggregate levels of space are also time aggregates as well. Galactic time is a million years per second, and microbial time is
WW: Yes, exactly. And it works out to where its not a linear curve but its fairly close. In fact were going to have this fairly complex curve as to how fast the time scales with the zoom. Well be going much slower than real time at the microscopic level, and much faster than real time at the galactic. Its almost a linear progression. And its kind of interesting because the processes that are interesting at each scale, you know, scale with the scale. Time and space are related scale-wise, they correlate.
CP: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. So the molecular level at that speed will look very similar to the galactic level for example.
WW: Somewhat. Except rather than dealing with gravity youre dealing with electro-magnetic forces.
CP: But you can see the differences that way too. If youre scaling them, you can compare them. You can make a mental model, right? Because if ones going really slow and ones going really fast its hard to make a comparison.
WW: Im kind of curious behaviorally what thats going to feel like. To change time I have to change scale. You know, it might be a total screw up. It might be just a total pain in the ass. But then if there was a way to go backwards to, that would be cool.
CP: That would be interesting.
WW: Reversible simulations are hard in some sense, though. I mean, this gets into a whole computer science discussion. But, you either store the data or you make it reversible. It can only be made reversible if no information is destroyed. Most simulation processes, such as system dynamics or cellular automata, destroy information.
CP: So you have to figure out what the systemic memory looks like.
WW: Yeah, so theres a real engineering issue there. But its not insoluble.
CP: With Moores Law, very soon, youll be able to have enough processing to do that.
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