Three Play Effects: Eliza, Tale-Spin, and SimCity

  1. 1. Noah Wardrip-Fruin

    University of California, San Diego (UCSD)

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In the mid-1960s Joseph Weizenbaum created a stunning
piece of software. Years before HAL 9000's screen debut
in 2001: A Space Odyssey, this software, Eliza, made it possible
to have a conversation with a computer. Eliza's most famous
script, Doctor, caused the software to parody the conversational
patterns of non-directive therapists during an initial visit. While
Eliza/Doctor can seem quite smart at first blush, each script for
Eliza is actually just a set of linguistic tricks. Most of these
tricks use keyword-driven "decomposition rules" to take the
user's last statement, divide it into pieces, and selectively reuse
portions to rephrase it as a question.
But when we interact with a piece of software we don't
necessarily get a clear picture of how it actually operates
internally. And many users of Eliza/Doctor initially developed
very mistaken ideas about its internals. Weizenbaum (1976)
discusses users who assumed that, since the surface appearance
of an interaction with the program could resemble something
like a coherent dialogue, internally the software must be very
complex. Some at first thought it must be something close to
the fictional HAL: a computer program intelligent enough to
understand and produce arbitrary human language. This
happened so often, and was so striking, that computer science
circles developed a specific term for this kind of
misunderstanding: "the Eliza effect."
This paper is a brief look at the Eliza effect, and at two
previously-unnamed effects that can arise in the relationship
between the surface appearance of a digital system and its
internal operations. More specifically, this paper looks where
others haven't when exploring versions of this relationship: the
area of play.
While the initial experience of Eliza/Doctor can create the
surface impression of an incredibly complex internal system,
sustained interaction with the system, the verbal back-and-forth,
invites play ... and linguistic play with Eliza/Doctor quickly
begins to destroy the illusion. In other words, precisely the
open-ended textual interaction that helped foster the illusion of
internal complexity and intelligence enables play that draws
attention to the system's rote simplicity, its distance from human
interaction. On the other hand, a sort of inverse of the Eliza effect can be
seen with James Meehan's 1976 Tale-Spin, the first major story
generation program. Tale-Spin generates stories from rules for
character behavior and a set of facts about the virtual world.
When generating stories in interaction with an audience it asks
questions to fill in details about locations, objects, relationships,
and so on. In addition, internal Tale-Spin mechanisms draw
"inferences" from the facts. For example, if it is asserted that
a character is thirsty, then the inference mechanisms result in
the character knowing she is thirsty, forming the goal of not
being thirsty, forming a plan for reaching her goal, etc.
Further, Tale-Spin characters can use its inference mechanisms
to "speculate" about the results of different courses of action.
Meehan's The Metanovel (1976) describes a story involving
such speculation, in which a hungry Arthur Bear asks George
Bird to tell him the location of some honey. We learn that
George believes that Arthur trusts him, and that Arthur will
believe whatever he says. So George begins to use the Tale-Spin
inference mechanisms to "imagine" other possible worlds in
which Arthur believes there is honey somewhere. George draws
four inferences from this, and then he follows the inferences
from each of those inferences, but he doesn't find what he's
after. In none of the possible worlds about which he's speculated
is he any happier or less happy than he is now. Seeing no
advantage in the situation for himself, he decides, based on his
fundamental personality, to answer. Specifically, he decides to
This is a relatively complex piece of psychological action, and
certainly tells us something about George as a character. But
the surface output of a Tale-Spin story never contains any
information about this kind of action. No matter how creatively
one plays with Tale-Spin, such hidden action cannot be deduced
from its surface. This is probably why, though Tale-Spin is seen
as a landmark in computer science circles, it is often treated
with near-ridicule in literary circles. Janet Murray, Espen
Aarseth, Jay David Bolter, and other critics have failed to see
what makes Tale-Spin interesting, focusing instead on what its
output looks like on the surface. Or, to put it another way,
Tale-Spin fails to display its interesting internal processes in a
manner that makes them visible to even the most careful of
This situation is far from uncommon in digital media, perhaps
particularly in the digital arts, where fascinating processes —
drawing on inspirations ranging from John Cage to the cutting
edge of computer science — are often encased in an opaque
surface. In fact, this effect is at least as common as the Eliza
effect, though I know of no term that describes it. Given this,
I propose "the Tale-Spin effect" as a term for works that appear,
on their surface, significantly less complex than they are
An effect quite different from both of these can be seen in the
case of Will Wright's 1989 game SimCity. The seed for this
project was planted as Wright created a landscape editor for
authoring his first game, an attack helicopter simulation.
Working with the editor, he realized he was having more fun
making virtual spaces than blowing them up. From this the idea
for Wright's genre-defining SimCity was born.
SimCity, of course, unlike a terrain editor, doesn't simply wait
for a user to do something. Time begins passing the moment a
new city is founded. A status bar tells the player what's needed
next — starting with basic needs like a residential zone and a
power plant and, if play succeeds for any period, ramping up
to railroads, police stations, stadiums, and so on. As cities grow,
areas respond differently. Some may be bustling while others
empty out, or never attract interest. SimCity provides different
map views that can help diagnose problems with abandoned
areas. Players can try changing existing areas of the city (e.g.,
building additional roads) or create new areas with different
characteristics. Observation and comparison offer insights,
while answers are found by trying different approaches and
considering the results.
In other words, the process of play with SimCity is one of
learning to understand the system's operations. Conversely, as
Wright explains, the challenge of game design is to create a
surface experience that will make it possible for audiences to
build up an appropriate model of the system internals.
Here, again, we lack a term for an experience. I propose "the
SimCity effect" for this important phenomenon: a system that,
through play, brings the player to an accurate understanding of
the system's internal operations. Of course, the SimCity effect
is named for cases where the system is complex, but the
phenomenon can be observed generally. Pong works as well
as it does because it effectively communicates at the surface
level its quite simple internal operations.
What is exciting about the SimCity effect, and about Wright's
work generally, is that it helps us get at the new possibilities
opened by working with computational media. Pong is very
similar to games we play without computers, but SimCity is a
more complex system than even the most die-hard Avalon Hill
fan would want to play as a tabletop game. This ability to work
with computational processes, to create complex computational
systems, is the opportunity that digital media affords — and
the SimCity effect points the way toward creating experiences
of this sort that succeed for audiences. Bibliography
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic
Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext,
and the History of Writing. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, Inc, 1991.
Meehan, James R. PhD thesis. Yale University, 1976.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck. New York: The
Free Press, 1997.
Weizenbaum, Joseph. Computer Power and Human Reason:
From Judgment to Calculation. New York: W.H. Freeman,

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

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