Trust Me

I’ve been thinking about a paper by researchers at the University of Zurich, published in the journal Nature, entitled “Oxytocin increases trust in humans.”

Scientists had already demonstrated that the natural chemical oxytocin (it is found, for example, in mother’s milk) plays a key role in the formation of social attachments among non-human mammals. This new study demonstrated that it also works like that among humans.

The researchers placed a volunteer in a room with a computer, and asked him/her to play a trading game with somebody on-line. The way the game was set up, the player could opt for one of two strategies: either “We cooperate and both win” or “I win but you lose”. The first strategy would earn more points, but only if the other player cooperated. Basically, the more you were willing to trust the other player, the more you could win.

The experiment was tried both with and without secretly pumping airborne oxytocin into the room. The researchers reported that subjects were significantly more likely to choose the high-trust strategy when the oxytocin was present.

And here is where it starts to get really interesting. They repeated the experiment, changing only one thing: This time, they told the volunteer that the other player was a computer program. The result? The oxytocin no longer had any effect on player behavior.

This suggests that we have one model in our heads for “human” and a completely different one for “acts like a human but I know it isn’t”. Which has enormous implications for all kinds of evolving media, like computer games, on-line communities, virtual storytelling, The Sims, World of Warcraft, Second Life, Facebook (the list could go on and on), and eventually maybe our kids’ android companions.

We may always feel an emotional chasm, a fundamental lack of true empathy, toward any virtual thing that we know is our artificial creation, no matter how believable it seems, no matter how advanced the technology ever gets.

And that might be a good thing.

Playing “Hack the Character”

People often talk about the differences between playing a game and experiencing a linear narrative (eg: a book or a movie). After all, when you play a game, you are constantly making choices, whereas when you are being told a story, it seems that you just sit back and passively enjoy the show.

Basically, in most stories, you are introduced to a protagonist, with whom on some level you are asked to identify. You may not like the lead character, but you still identify with him/her. Richard III is a great example of this.

The storyteller poses an overarching moral challenge to your main character, gives him/her some pertinent character flaws to make things interesting, and then the hero is seen to experience a sequence of challenges, along the way generally acquiring some increased level of self-awareness, while you vicariously go along for the ride. So far, it all seems pretty passive.

But I would argue that there is actually nothing passive about being told a story, that in fact you are actually being engaged in a particular kind of game. I call this game “hack the character”.

Your enjoyment of the story largely comes from your role as a kind of psychological detective. At every moment of the story you hold some model of the main character in your head. The storyteller’s primary job is to continually drop clues that let you evolve that model in such a way that you might be able to predict what the character will do. If the storyteller does this well, then the challenge will be neither too easy nor too hard. And, in a good story, as the narrative progresses these challenges are gradually made more difficult. And if they aren’t, you get bored.

In other words, you are playing a game.

For example, if your protagonist has invited his colleague Joe over for dinner, and the wife starts acting stiff and awkward around Joe, you might have been given just enough information about the characters to realize, before the hero does, that she’s actually having an affair with Joe. Which sets up the next puzzle, in which you try to predict the exact moment when your hero will discover the truth.

On some level, all readers and moviegoers know that they are being engaged to play this game. For example, the effectiveness of the above challenge is dependent upon our understanding that the story is in fact a sort of game. After all, if this were happening in real life, the wife would most likely be acting stiff just because she doesn’t like Joe, or maybe his politics. But because it’s a story, we know we’re being set up to solve a puzzle, so the rules are different. The moment we pick up the book or begin to watch the movie, we are agreeing to play by the rules of “hack the character”.

In this sense, the greatest storytellers are master gamemakers. Think back on your experience of Shakespeare, Austen, Hemingway, Hitchcock, Woolf, Nabokov, Salinger. Even when they reveal the wheels of the game, spinning away in plain sight, you are still held spellbound, riveted to your seat, turning the page or waiting for the next scene, unable to look away. Because they are that good.

I suspect that when interactive narrative, now still in its infancy, really evolves into a mature medium, that evolution will be fueled by a truer understanding of the “hack the character” game. And I predict that the killer app for interactive storytelling will be the mystery of the human heart.

Mock Dinosaur Soup

Looking back on my childhood, I realize that one of the greatest influences on my early years was Marx.

No, not that Marx:


No, not this Marx either:


The Marx I’m talking about is the Marx Plastics Company, makers of little toy plastic dinosaurs.


My brother and I would spend hours in the basement playing with these dinosaurs, making up stories, going on adventures, exploring new undiscovered lands.

All the dinosaurs had their genus name embossed on them somewhere, Tyrannasaurus, Stegasaurus, Triceratops. But my favourite was the biggest dinosaur of them all – the Brontosaurus, a word which translates to “Thunder Lizard”.


When I was older, I found out that scientists had determined that there was actually no such thing as a Brontosaurus. Apparently somebody had stuck the wrong head on a fossil skeleton of an Apatosaurus, and had mistakenly labeled it as a new genus.

And that’s when I realized that the Brontosaurus was even more extinct than the other dinosaurs. Which of course made me love it all the more.

Long before Philip K. Dick cornered the market on this kind of thing, Lewis Carroll raised similar questions when he had the Gryphon hang out with the Mock Turtle (shown here with Alice in an illustration by John Tenniel).


Sure, the Gryphon is nonexistent, being a mythical beast. But the Mock Turtle is even more nonexistent, since “Mock Turtle” is really a reference to “mock turtle soup”, the euphemismistic term for the cheap soup given to poor children in nineteenth century London. The soup was actually made from the discarded brains and organs of slaughtered cows.

I find myself mourning for the poor sad Mock Turtle, whose hold upon reality is so tenuous that he is not even quite a mythical beast (although he arguably had it better than those cows).

Is it wrong of me, some sort of misplaced nostalgia, to mourn for the Brontosaurus and the Mock Turtle? And is it even being nostalgic to look back with fondness on things that never were?

When everything changes

January 7 was the day of the year that George Gershwin completed his Rhapsody in Blue. I had been taking piano lessons since I was seven, but when I learned that piece at the age of fourteen, suddenly playing the piano really mattered. I remember practicing it for hours on end, really trying to understand it, to get it right, to dig under the surface. I had always liked the piano, but after Gershwin, it was true love all the way.

The first book that had that kind of effect on me was The Once and Future King by T.H. White – which made the saga of King Arthur more accessible to modern readers. When I was twelve the kids in our class at school were assigned, on a Friday, the first few pages of it to read by the following Monday. I started reading, and kept reading, and didn’t sleep, and kept on reading, all through that weekend. By Monday morning I had finished it, all 632 pages. I showed up to school that Monday completely bleary eyed and overwhelmed, having just lived through the life and death of King Arthur, the wars, quests, loves, betrayals of a lifetime. And I couldn’t really discuss it with the other kids, because they had all read just those first few pages. They had no idea what was coming.

Has anything like that ever happened to you?

Is He Dead?

I went with my friend Sophie to see “Is He Dead?”, the new play by Mark Twain. We both agreed that it was the funniest theatre that either of us had seen in a long time. And we both see a lot of theatre. It appears this Twain fellow is funny. Actually he had quite a bit of help from David Ives, who streamlined and polished Twain’s original 1898 effort, and seems to have turned it into a much better play.


But I’m not writing this because of that. I’m writing this because of the title. The line “Is he dead?”, spoken in the first act by a minor character, is the singular pivotal moment in the story, the one absolutely necessary line of dialog. It functions as a finely honed knife edge upon which the entire plot turns.

So I’m wondering, are there other works like that? In which one key line of dialog powers the narrative, and is also right up there as the title?

I can think of two titles that are vaguely in the ballpark, but not quite the same. The title of “Reuben Reuben” is indeed spoken as a line of dialog, and one that changes everything. But as those of you who have seen this delightful film will know, the line is uttered rather, um, late in the plot.

Another oddball example is “You Can Count on Me.” What is wonderful about this title is that not only does it accurately define the central relationship in the film, which determines everything that follows, but it describes a line of dialog that is never spoken. The film makes it clear that the two central characters have repeated this sentence to each other countless times; in fact it is their shared mantra. But the filmmaker respects their privacy: We are never allowed to hear them say it. And yet it’s the title of the movie!

I would expect nothing less from Kenneth Lonergan, a writer/director so self-possessed that at one point he wanders into the film as a priest, and proceeds to have an existential debate with one of his fictional characters. I mean, how cool is that?

But neither of these examples is really quite like “Is He Dead?”: A title that consists of the single line of spoken dialog upon which turns the entire plot. Can anybody think of another title that fits the bill?

Today I meta teacup.

The other day I talked about visitor comments as procedural objects, and my friend Sally took up the challenge by posting a comment that consisted entirely of a link to this lovely teacup. It took me about a day or so to understand what she was getting at.

The key to the puzzle was to remember that such meta-questions are Sally’s cup of tea. In this case the cup in question is slightly skewed, framed in close-up, lovely in repose. And now with today’s post, the comment becomes the subject, the supposedly omniscient blogger willingly following his visitor down the rabbit hole to a tea party.

Which is as it should be. Blogging is an oddly asymmetric form of communication that promises personal empowerment yet delivers fiefdoms of petty tyranny. So in a sense the blogiverse practically begs for revolt. And isn’t that what tea parties are for?

The Heleniad begins

Everybody has at least one epic poem in them. The best way to find it, perhaps, is to begin at the beginning. And this being a Friday, it is time to begin…

   And so Miss Helenius
   Feeling most curious
   Not quite anonymous
   Yet not yet eponymous
   Intent on the spurious
   Though nothing injurious
   In a moment unserious
   Set out on a lark

   Like brazen young Theseus
   Or better, Prometheus
   Whose tales still fire us
   And often inspire us
   To passions erroneous
   If not quite felonious
   But somewhat delirious
   And never too dark

Procedural Conversations

I’ve been thinking about this dynamic of a person writing a post and then other people responding with comments. It’s a kind of asymmetric conversation. It would be interesting to allow that conversation to include procedural things.


Suppose the comment writers could script a program as a way to advance the conversation. Can something that we generally think of as a “mechanism” be used to further dialog between people?The only way to find out is to try.

The unheralded day

I once went down to Brazil to see a total solar eclipse.  For an hour everyone watched breathlessly, as the silhouette of the moon gradually ate into the sun – first biting off a little, and then finally swallowing it whole.  Until four glorious minutes of totality when it felt as though we were in another world, with a strange alien light that bathed everything in eerie darkness.  Then there was the second hour, when the sun gradually appeared again.  But nobody cared, nobody was looking.  The gradual march to normalcy went unheralded, unloved.  January 2 is like that.  And yet without it, how would we ever really be able to continue on, how would the new year ever truly happen?

We find this out, we find out everything.