Thursday, July 29, 2010

I've Submitted My PhD Thesis

Back in 2003 I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a conference at the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough, England. It was called COSIGN, for Computational Semiotics on Games and New Media. While I was there I met one of the organizers, Dr. Clive Fencott, at the School of Computing and Mathematics. He invited me to become a Visiting Fellow at Teesside and to study for a special degree they have there called a PhD by Completed Work. The degree is specifically intended for people who have spent many years in industry, and have done enough work there to merit a PhD. I gratefully took him up on it, although it has taken me several more years to get around to writing up my thesis.

I finally started working seriously on it this spring, and I have just formally submitted it for consideration. The title is Resolutions to Some Problems in Interactive Storytelling, and it addresses some issues that I first brought up at the Computer Game Developers' Conference all the way back in 1995: the Problem of Amnesia, the Problem of Internal Consistency, and the Problem of Narrative Flow. At the time I thought that these problems might be insoluble, that they just had to be lived with. However, I went on thinking about them, and discussing them and other problems of interactive storytelling from time to time at the Game Developers' Conference. Eventually I came to the realization that our expectations about the ideal interactive storytelling experience were based on a set of unrealistic assumptions, and that as game designers we were actually setting ourselves up to fail. By abandoning those assumptions, I found a new way of thinking about the respective roles of the player and the designer that resolves the Problems of Internal Consistency and Narrative Flow. I explained my new perspective at GDC 2006, in a lecture called "A New Vision for Interactive Stories."

The thesis itself explains the new schema, compares it with the work of others in the field, and critques my older works. At the heart of it lies a realization that the player in an avatar-based interactive story is in part an actor, and so takes joint responsibility for the quality of the experience that he has. This flies in the face of conventional game industry wisdom, which places all the responsibility on the shoulders of the designer, and assumes that the player should be able to do whatever he wants.

My thesis also discusses a few other contributions I have made over the years, mostly in my Designer's Notebook columns at Gamasutra. Among them are the distinction between dramatic tension and gameplay tension and the idea that an automated story-generation system might keep a credibility budget to be sure that it didn't generate stories that were too outrageous to be believed.

Anyway, I've turned it in, and I'm now waiting for my supervisor to name a committee of examiners to read and pass judgment on it. I expect to conduct my defense (which in England they still call by the Latin name viva voce) sometime in October or November.