December 8, 2017

Something Wicked

(Adapted from section 8 of “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative”)

The Haggadah annually reminds us of the Wicked Child, which is to say the child who holds himself aloof from and superior to the story, the child who asks “what is this computational narrative of yours?”

John Gardner famously chided writers who treat their own characters inhumanely; is it not equally wanton for us to maltreat computational worlds and their denizens? If so, blame is due not only to the thoughtless interactor but also to the writer who led her into error. Michael Joyce’s afternoon, a story famously begins by tempting the reader with Satan’s question: “Do you want to hear about it?” We could not refuse an acquaintance who asked this, but we might be tempted to deny Peter who is, after all, a program in a plastic box. If we do, though, afternoon acknowledges the temptation and gently steers us toward righteousness.

Writers of chatbots and of Interactive Fiction are particularly plagued by wicked children, for the freedom to type anything into the parser inevitably invites people to tell the computer to “fuck off.” It’s tempting in Dwarf Fortress, say, to experiment with odd conditions that interest you, even though your dwarves will not enjoy them. Tabletop role-playing games address the wicked child problem through social sanctions: if you’re tasteless, you’re unlikely to be invited back. New media remediates social storytelling to make the story yours, but requires a new mechanism to discourage a cynical or unthinking stance.