Playing with Interactivity: Dialogue as Interactivity

  1. 1. Geoffrey Rockwell

    Department of Modern Languages - McMaster University

Work text
This plain text was ingested for the purpose of full-text search, not to preserve original formatting or readability. For the most complete copy, refer to the original conference program.

It is common to describe computer games as interactive, but do we know really what interactivity is? This talk will develop a theory of interactivity based on dialogue as a paradigm for interactivity, a paradigm that has been developed in the literature around computing since Alan Turing proposed a variation of the dialogical imitation game. The paper will contrast the way human computer dialogue is presented in computing literature to theories of dialogue developed within philosophical traditions. The paper will conclude with a theory of interactivity adapted to criticsm of computer games. Interactivity, in this theory, is between objects in the game and on the screen. Iteractivity is between the representation of the player in the virtual game and other entities like monsters.

This paper will do the following. First, trace the discourse around interactivity in computing from “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” by Alan Turing to Chris Crawford's “The Art of Computer Game Design” and more recently “The Art of Interactive Design.” Particular attention will be paid to a short dialogue on interactivity in Stewart Brand’s “The Media Lab” where he and his interlocutor develop a definition of interactivity.

Second, review selected theories of dialogue developed in philosophical traditions. The written dialogue has been an important form of philosophical literature from Plato to Heidegger. At certain periods the dialogue has flourished as a genre of philosophical writing and in response philosophers have speculated as to its generic capabilities. In particular the paper will deal with Plato’s discussion of the place of poetry in the just state in the “Republic”. This discussion anticipates a common critique of computer games – that they train participants to behave in unsavory ways. This critique will be followed into Italian Renaissance theories of dialogue, especially that of Sperone Speroni who presents a counter argument in support of comedic participation that anticipates Bakhtin’s dialogical discussion of the novel. The paper will contrast these two approaches in philosophy to works which represent disreputable acts and characters, as many computer games do.

Thirdly the paper will present a theory of interactivity drawn from theories of dialogue. So, what does this understanding of dialogue offer us as a way of reacting to interactivity? The first point, which will seem counterintuitive, is that interactivity is not between the user and the computer. Instead interactivity is something we eavesdrop on. Interactivity is between the characters on the screen that we watch. We can control one or more of those characters, but the interactivity is between agents of the same order - namely the components/characters on the screen and, just as in dialogue we listen in from outside, even when we are participants, so in interactive multimedia we stand outside from our avatars controlling them and watching how they interact with the world. A game like The Sims by Electronic Arts nicely illustrates this.

Dialogue and Interactivity
If we apply observations about dialogue to interactivity we come to the startling conclusion that interactivity is designed to be watched, that the point of interactivity is not necessarily the mutual reaction of the human to the computer, but is instead the scripted interaction presented on the screen between objects and characters within the game as controlled by us and the computer.

That is not to say that the player is a passive witness. Rather, there is a double involvement of the player. On the one hand they control a character or some other more primitive presence on the screen. That control is a matter of HCI (human computer interaction) or ergonomics (as far as the physical controls are concerned) and Interface (as far as the representation of the player in the virtual world is concerned.) Interactivity, then is that which happens between your avatar and the virtual world populated by virtual objects and characters.

Advantages and Disadvantages to this Theory
This way of speaking about interactivity as separate from ergonomics, HCI, and interface design has the virtual virtue that it is closer to the language of immersion around games. I don't say that I interacted with a computer where I saw my avatar interact with a blood-dripping deamon from outer space. I say I killed the deamon (and it sprayed blood all over me.) The interaction is that which takes place between the programmed entities within the game. I forget myself in the flow of the game and act as if I were that character on screen. I forget the controls and the interface and, for a moment, play my role. This is, of course, what Plato warned us about.

This perspective on interactivity has other advantages. It reflects the way game design happens in the world of consoles and personal computers. The game designers rarely control the physical interface, they can only control the objects that appear and how they interact with each other. Further, it allows us to focus on the essential contribution of game designers (as opposed to the graphic designers that work on games) - the development of the game engine. These game engines are like the rules that cover board games; they define what the objects and characters are and how they can interact in what sort of world. The player controls one or more characters and the others are controlled by an AI. The developers of the game engines program the interactivity between the objects they define which allows this definition of interactivity to focus on the programming of interactivity as the concrete work of the game designer.

This framework also gives us a handle on how to critique a computer game, especially the highly interactive ones that are hard to discuss using hypertext theory or narrative theory.

We can ask about the world in which the interaction takes place. What is the setting or the stage of the dialogue.
We can ask about the other interlocutors or characters out character meets in the game. What type of people inhabit the game world and how do they react to out player?
We can ask about the hero - the player's character that you control.
Finally, to return to advantages of this theory, it makes room for the humanities to engage an area that can be dominated by technical and engineering issues. This is why we need to negotiate and bracket the field of HCI and Interface design when discussing interactivity and games. The humanities asks how things work rhetorically, and this theory is designed itself to fit interactivity not in a tradition of human computer interface, but in a rhetorical tradition that includes dialogue as a pattern for structuring representation. If humanities computing is going to contribute to the discussion we have to make clear what we bring to the table and how computer games are not just advanced computing interfaces, but also communicative works, artistic works, and rhetorical works worthy of treatment in a tradition of playful artifacts.

1. Brand, S., The Media Lab; Inventing the Future at MIT . New York: Viking, 1987.
2. Crawford, Chris, The Art of Computer Game Design . This out of print book is available in PDF form at Crawford's site At this site you will also find a Library of other materials by Crawford on game design and interactivity.
3. Crawford, Chris, Understanding Interactivity,, accessed March 14, 2002.
4. Huizinga, J., Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1950.
5. Speroni, Sperone, Opere . Ed. Marco Forcellini and Natal dalle Laste. 5 volumes. Padua, 1740. Volume 1 reprinted, with a forward by Mario Pozzi, Rome: Vecchiarelli, 1989.
6. Turing, Alan, "Computing Machinery and Intelligence". Originally published in 1950, Mind , 59, p. 433-460. For an online version see:, accessed March 14, 2002.

If this content appears in violation of your intellectual property rights, or you see errors or omissions, please reach out to Scott B. Weingart to discuss removing or amending the materials.

Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None