Optimal unreality

Bret Victor gave a guest lecture today to a class I’m co-teaching with Hiroshi Ishii at the MIT Media Lab. As always, what Bret had to say was inspirational and highly thought provoking.

For me one of the highlights of the class was a spirited discussion between Bret and Xiao Xiao — one of Hiroshi’s Ph.D. students, and also a brilliant musician.

Bret had used The SIMS as an example of a simulation world that is deliberately stylized. As Will Wright has explained, the unreality in the look and behavior of the characters in this game is a key part of its design. This feeling of unreality creates a sense of mystery, which allows players to project their own stories and emotions onto the characters.

Xiao then pointed out that in fact character behavior in The SIMS goes beyond merely mysterious — SIMS characters often do things that no real human would ever do. In fact, their behavior can be at times downright alien. She posited that this feeling of the SIMS characters being “impossible” people helps to remind players that this is an alternate world, thereby increasing the sense of freedom and possibility.

Which leads to an intriguing question: Is there an “optimal” level of unreality in a virtual world, at which a sense of possibility is maximized? Science fiction plays with this edge all the time. If characters and stories are too weird and incomprehensible, then the reader can become lost. But until this point is reached, the experience of encountering strange beings and unfamiliar ways of thinking can be very mind expanding.

Which is, after all, one of the reasons we make art.

2 Responses to “Optimal unreality”

  1. Adam says:

    One of Vernor Vinge’s best tricks in the Zones of Thought series, both “A Fire Upon the Deep” and “A Deepness in the Sky”, is where he writes the aliens mostly as humans with a few odd quirks.

    At some point in each book there is a wrenching moment when he lets this facade slip, and then things get much weirder as he follows up on the truly different aspects of the species. Enough empathy has been built that the aliens still work pretty well as characters, it goes a long way towards making an alien intelligence more relatable.

    In “A Deepness” this is eventually a fun plot point when we get a look at those responsible for intermediating in-story. It is cheating on the part of the writer/translator? Misleading, possibly dangerously so?

  2. Adam says:

    This is as opposed to the approach in “The Mote In God’s Eye”, where it is the aliens who delibrately attempt to act like humans to develop empathy and hide their differences. When the writer of the book you are *actually reading* does the adaptation, it becomes effective on the reader as well as the characters.

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