Sex, Lies, and Videogames

What if a computer program combined the action and graphics of a video game with the emotional power of great art? The result could revolutionize interactive entertainment—and even change the meaning of “play”
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Interviews: "Beyond Space Invaders" (October 3, 2006)
Jonathan Rauch, author of "Sex, Lies, and Video Games," talks about a new generation of innovative and emotionally complex video games.

Michael Mateas is the sort of person who once built an artificially intelligent(ish) robot houseplant that monitored your e-mail and changed shape to reflect the mood of what it read—if that sort of person can be said to be a sort. This was in 1998, when Mateas was a doctoral student with some avant-garde ideas. Office Plant #1, as the creation was called, grew and shrank and blossomed and hibernated and waved its piano-wire fronds as it “fed” off e-mail traffic. Naturally, it also whistled, sang, moaned, and complained. Not long after building Office Plant #1, however, Mateas set it aside. He became interested in bigger things, like creating a new art form.

Meanwhile, Andrew Stern, a programmer and designer at a now-defunct video-game studio, was building artificially intelligent(ish) virtual pets. They were called Petz, and for a while they were a hit in the video-game industry. First came Dogz, in 1995, then Catz, and eventually Babyz, all adorable animated creatures that lived on your computer’s hard drive. As Stern worked on making the virtual creatures emotionally appealing and realistic to play with, he began giving them artificial minds: goals, personalities, memories. It dawned on him that he wanted to work with adult characters in lifelike relationships. He became interested in bigger things, like creating a new art form.

Not long after Petz debuted, Stern began attending some of the same conferences on artificial intelligence that Mateas haunted. It was probably inevitable that Stern, presenting his intelligent(ish) virtual pets, would run into Mateas, presenting his intelligent(ish) robot plant. It didn’t take long for them to recognize each other as kindred spirits.

In certain rarefied circles of AI academia and video-game design, people sometimes theorize about a computer program that would combine the graphical realism of a modern video game with the emotional impact of great art. “Interactive drama,” the concept is called. It might contain artificial people you could converse with, get to know, and love or hate. It might engineer dramatic situations, complete with revelations and reversals. Entering this world, you would feel as if you had been thrust into the midst of a soap opera or a reality-TV show.

“I had some idea how to do it,” Stern says. Mateas, for his part, had dreamed since childhood of building artificial humans. It occurred to him that he could advance his dream by building artificial actors. What better way to teach a computer to act human, after all, than by teaching it to act?

In 1998, emerging from a hot tub at a conference in Snowbird, Utah, Mateas and Stern decided to collaborate. “As Andrew and I talked,” Mateas recalls, “we sort of egged each other on to jump as far out of the mainstream as possible.” They resolved to create a game that would put a not in front of every convention of today’s video-game industry. They looked upon their game as a research project and figured that building it would take two years. It took more than five. Now they are starting on a larger version, this time a commercial game.

They think interactive drama has the potential to be to this century what cinema was to the last. When I spent a couple of days getting to know them recently, I asked why they’re not trying something more modest, such as making the characters in today’s video games more lifelike. “That’s a sort of incremental innovation that I think neither of us is interested in,” Mateas replied. “We’re interested in revolutionary innovation.”

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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