Cultural Agents

I’ve been reading Eric Champion’s Critical Gaming: Interactive history and virtual heritage. Eric asked his publishers to send me a review copy, but none was forthcoming, and I can’t wait for the library to get hold of a copy – I think I was to quote it in a paper I’m proposing –  so I splashed out on the Kindle edition. I think of it as a late birthday present to myself, and I’m not disappointed.

One thing that has struck me so far is a little thing (its a word Champion uses only three times) but it seems so useful I’m surprised it isn’t used more widely, especially in the heritage interpretation context. That word is “multimodality”. As Wikipedia says (today at least) “Multimodality describes communication practices in terms of the textual, aural, linguistic, spatial, and visual resources – or modes – used to compose messages.” But its not just about multimedia, “mode” involves social and cultural making of meaning as well. Champion says:

Multimodality can help to provide multiple narratives and different types of evidence. Narrative fragments can be threaded and buried through an environment, coaxing people to explore, reflect and integrate their personal exploration into what they have uncovered.

Which is surely what all curated cultural heritage spaces are trying to achieve, isn’t it? (Some with more success than others, I’ll admit.) Champion is referring to the multimodality of games and virtual environments, but it strikes me that museums and heritage sites are inherently multi-modal.

It sent me off looking for specific references to multimodality in museums and heritage sites, and indeed, I found a few, this working paper for example, and this blog, but there are not many.

But I digress. I’ve started Eric’s book with Chapter 8 (all the best readers start in the middle) Intelligent Agents, Drama and Cinematic Narrative, in which he examines various pre-digital theories of drama (Aristotle’s Poetics, Propp’s Formalism (with a nod in the direction of Bartle and Yee) and Campbell’s monomyth), before crunching the gears to explore decidedly-digital intelligent agents as dramatic characters. Along the way, he touches upon “storyspaces” – the virtual worlds of games which are by necessity incomplete, yet create an illusion of completeness.

His argument is that there is a need for what he calls “Cultural Agents” representing, recognising, adding to, or transmitting cultural behaviours. Such agents would be programmed to demonstrate the “correct cultural behaviors given specific event or situations” and recognise correct (and incorrect!) cultural behaviours. For example, I’m imagining here characters in an Elizabethan game that greet you or other agents in the game with a bow of the correct depth for each other’s relative ranks, and admonishes you if (in a virtual reality sim) you don’t bow low enough when the Queen walks by.

Which leads on to what he calls the “Cultural Turing Test […] in order to satisfy the NPCs [non-player characters] that the players is a ‘local’, the player has to satisfy questions and perform like the actual local characters (the scripted NPCs). Hence, the player has to observe and mimic these artificial agents for fear of being discovered.” (As he points out, this is in fact a reversal of the Turing test.)

Then he shifts gear again to look at Machinema (the creation of short films using game engines, which I learned about back in Rochester) as a method for users to reflect on their experience in-game, and edit it into an interpretation of the culture the game was designed to explore. Its a worthy suggestion, and could be excellent practice in formal learning, but I fear it undermines the game-play itself, if it becomes a requirement of the player to edit their virtual experiences before comprehending them as a coherent narrative.

Also in all though, I can already see that the book will be an enjoyable and rewarding read.

 

3 thoughts on “Cultural Agents

  1. “.. I fear it undermines the game-play itself, if it becomes a requirement of the player to edit their virtual experiences before comprehending them as a coherent narrative.”
    Yes the devil is in the details..

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