Ambient Games, Ambient Interpretation

Last night I saw a presentation by Dr Mark Eyles. It was part of a meeting of the Hampshire Unity3D/3D Interactive Group (H3DG), a groups which started up just as I was beginning my studies, so I’ve sort of fallen into it. Its a great little get together, about once a month at The Point in Eastleigh. Part of the evening consists of a tutorial demonstrating how easy the Unity3D engine is to use. (And it really seems easy, almost childs-play – but I speak as one who has just realized that he’s done his HypeDyn project all wrong, and will have to start again.) Last night for example showed how easy it was to use the 3D technology to make a 2D game. We also got a demonstration of the forthcoming Leap gesture controller, and how easy it is to integrate gesture controls into Unity3D games.

Having written this, I feel it sounds like some sort of corporate roadshow, selling the Unity3D engine, but no, its a bunch of freelance and SME Unity developers getting together to share ideas. And the proof of that is in last night’s “feature presentation” which had nothing to do with Unity3D at all.

Mark Eyles has just got his doctorate, having spend some time thinking about Ambient Games. He starting point for this train of thought was Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Eno, he said, described Ambient music by four features:

  • Engagement – ambient music should be both ignorable, in the background, and interesting in the foreground
  • Affect – ambient music should create a mood in the listener, which in turn should affect the way they perceive the space they are in
  • Persistance – ambient music shouldn’t require being listened to as a whole piece
  • Context  – ambient music should have a particular relationship to the location its played in

Eyles describes in this paper (which should be celebrated if only for referencing one of my favourite books, which no-one else it seems except for me and Mark Eyles has heard of), how he tried applying these four qualities to two experimental games: Ambient Quest (in two versions) and Ambient Quest: Pirate Moods. In the first, players wear a pedometer, and the steps they accumulate going about their business in the real world gives them power to move a character in a simple computer generated world. The second, gives players an RFID Pirate Card, which accumulates pirate resources (Rum, Canvas, etc) while the players look at an exhibition. Players can chose to ignore the game and focus on the exhibition, or play the game more actively, by choosing to stay close to the panels that give them the resources they need most.

Eyles followed up on these experiments by looking for Ambience in existing games, the most obvious examples being MMORPGs and Pervasive games, technologically augmented live action roleplaying, such as Prosopopeia Bardo 2: Momentum, which was played in Stockholm. In his presentation he also discussed how games like Skyrim (and I guess Red Dead Redemption) are not ambient, because although you are given a world in which to roam freely, that world only “comes alive” in the bubble surrounding your character. If John Marsten rides away from Armadillo, the town is frozen in stasis until he returns. But Eyles argues that games like Civilization ( was specifically looking an version 4) could well be ambient, because they are persistent – you set a city manufacturing tanks for example, and it will carry on doing that, and growing its population, and earning gold, even if you never look at it again. Of course, as Eyles admited, one way in which Civilization is not ambient is that its turn based – walk away from the game and eventually the current turn will end and the world will stop until you come back and start the next turn. (A more persistent and thus even more ambient version of Civ is the fictional game Despot, played by the main character in Iain Banks’ novel Complicity.)

Mark explained that he’d been awarded his Doctorate “days ago,” and so I’m looking forward to reading his dissertation will will soon be available here. Until then you’ll have to make do with my mangled remembering of his conclusions:

In an Ambient game, explains Dr Eyles, the player has the option of engaging more or less with the game, and the game world is persistent, in that actions can be  initiated by the player (not just AI actions) carry on after the player moves their attention away. So a feature of ambient games is moving player attention around the gamplay space, manipulating player attention resources, and providing hidden gameplay that continues away from player attention. This is turn provides opportunities for the player to discover some aspects of the game, or even invent some, which is what drives player engagement.

All of this, both the presentation yesterday and reading some of Eyles papers after his attendance at H3DG, got me thinking about Ambient Interpretation. One might argue that interpretation is pretty ambient already – some people choose to read interpretive panels, and others choose to ignore them. The display of cultural heritage does not rely only on text panels in any case, the positioning of objects in relation to each other, or in the National Trust’s case, the creation of  whole-room presentations, is a form of interpretation that visitors choose to engage with to a greater or lesser degree. Where text panels, or encapsulated room-cards at NT sites, do exist they persist whether the visitor engages with them or not.

But there are some aspects of the Ambient model that intrigue me:

  • the idea that interpretation is ALWAYS in the background, yet a visitor can pull it (and by it I mean, not a guidebook to leaf through by the most relevant, contextual interpretation to where they are, what they are looking at) into the foreground as soon their interest is aroused;
  • the idea that visitors might participate in the creation of interpretation, even when they have little interest in doing so. (I think what I’m getting at here, is that they are not actively contributing, but that their attention, their presence in an area even, as they pursue their own interests, informs the interpretive schema in some way. The easiest analogy might be on-line shopping, where by looking at items, I’m affecting what other shoppers may see as well as what items might be brought to my attention in future.);
  • the idea that interpretation might be persistently changing;
  • the idea that ambient interpretation is always contextual (of course) but also manipulates the visitors’ emotions; and
  • the idea of discovery, and shared discoveries.

At this stage I have no idea what all this means of course.

Eyles’ Pirate Moods game has the most obvious application in Cultural Heritage interpretation – in a museum environment, full of text panels, the addition of an RFID tag that collects data as the visitor wanders around reading the panels could at the very least track what the visitors is most interested in, and deliver deeper levels of interpretation, based on what the visitor has seen so far.

Its interesting to see how quickly the technology has changed. While Dr Eyles was reading for his PhD, GPS enabled smartphones have become almost ubiquitous. One feels those early experimental games of his might have taken a very different form had smartphones been so prevalent then. It makes me scared of what opportunities  might be around (or missed) by the time I finish writing my own dissertation.

4 thoughts on “Ambient Games, Ambient Interpretation

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