Alex Wright

compression, decompression, and "engineering subversion"

September 25, 2001

compression, decompression, and "engineering subversion"

last night i went to see will wright, creator of
simcity and the sims, giving a talk at berkeley as part of their art, technology and culture colloquium series.

not knowing much about wright, and never having caught on to the whole simcity craze, i went with few expectations. but nadav and taylor were both juiced about going, so i figured, what the hey?

boy am i glad i went. wright is a flat-out brilliant guy and engaging speaker - one of the more thought-provoking talks i've seen in a while.

a few points that stuck in my mind:

compression and decompression - wright talked about his theory that computer game design is a "dual-processor" exercise - with the two processors being the computer and the user's head. the trick is creating a series of artifacts that the game player then "processes" into a set of mental instructions and experiences, a coding-and-decoding process with a specific intended outcome. i thought this was an interesting way of thinking about interactive design, as almost an algorithmic process rather than as a creative or artistic act of expression. semiotics with a twist.

gaming with higher brain functions - wright also talked about the evolution of computer games in terms of the evolution of mental functions. for the most part, computer games have concerned themselves with the lower-brain imperatives of survival, fear and aggression. but as gaming technology gets more sophisticated - moving from 2D to 3D, from simple routines to more complex application logic - we're beginning to see the evolution of games that appeal to the higher brain functions of emotive response, compassion and reasoning. as nadav put it, "it's all about resolution." simcity of course is the perfect example. but as new forms of online gaming take form, we're also seeing the formation of real communities around game cultures. wright showed a few really compelling examples of user-generated stories for the sims, including two particularly moving ones: the story of a woman's sister's abusive relationships; and a sad personal memoir of the WTC attack.

"engineering subversion" - discussing the game design process, wright divulged how the sim designers intentionally create objects that can be misused and subverted for other reasons - providing gamers with the power to tailor their environments and bend the rules. by designing experiences that can be intentionally subverted, the game designers try to tap into the individual creative energies of the gamer, rather than just enforcing a set of rules to play by.

for more on wright and his world, allow me to recommend this interview with steven johnson in feed.

File under: User Experience

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