Joseph A. Hodgkiss, Dr. Michael Moshell, Jeff Wirth
The Multi-Player Story Engine presents a new way to engage individuals in an interactive story from an in-story and out-of-story perspective. Taking the MSPE a step further, into the realm of a virtual open space such as World of WarCraft, brings up new possibilities for in-story and out-of-story of individuals playing; and who specifically can be the players. With a game player in WoW taking the playing in the MPSE story, there are now new story elements to consider: in-story for the game player controlling his/her avatar; out-of-story for the game avatar while within WoW, and then an out-of-story for the game player while at the computer screen playing.
This paper is the beginning of observing how an Interactive Performance, and quite likely the Multi-Player Story Engine, can be applied and utilized in a virtual Interactive Performance that would take place with a persistent, open virtual world. Presently, Interactive Performances have been relegated to the real-world. On the few occasions where a virtual world has been incorporated, it has been used as a controlled, limited, and enclosed world that was made to resemble real-world scenarios, but simply took place in a virtual setting. While a stepping stone that shows Interactive Performance can occur in a virtual space, they suffered from hindering the nature of that virtual world.
As an example case, World of WarCraft is a persistent virtual world, ever-changing, and has participants going about the world as they please. Inside this world, they have developed their own community, their own culture, society, and way of existing in that space that is separate from the real-world. What makes this interesting is that these avatars are being controlled by people who are part of the real-world culture and society. It’s a unique duality that has not been explored in storytelling.
The MPSE is partially designed on the exploration of in-story and out-of-story situations for characters who are participating in the Interactive Performance. Virtual worlds present a new dynamic to this by having separate states while within the virtual world, and then the state of being in the real-world at their computer screen. With the MPSE taken into these worlds, there exists the possibility for new story forms to be explored.
When engaging in an Interactive Performance, spect-actors and interactors rely on what they know in real-life, and are familiar with. It helps them to play and imagine what a character they’re playing would or should do. By adding a part of them into that role, the character is drastically different from how someone else may interpret it. Similarly, when a video game player in engaging in a Massively-Multiplayer Online world such as EverQuest or World of WarCraft, they too are performing in much the same way.
The player takes control of an avatar that has certain features and attributes that represent its in-game species. Players are then able to add part of themselves into that role as the puppet master for their avatar, and make a unique character exist in the game world. Why then is little done to bridge these two worlds?
Most, if not all, Interactive Performances involve real-life. All of the various forms and structures are designed to take place in the real world, with real people, physically in the same room, engaging each other. A benefit to this is body language, improvising, and immediate communication between all the participants. Previous attempts at virtual world performances were limited to the same structure.
A prime case which was used for a SimuLife did use a virtual world, but it was controlled, built, and closed in. The virtual world was built with a world builder engine. It resembled reality, and was only used as an extension to the overall performance which predominantly took place in real-world settings. The spect-actor, who did get to play in the virtual space, was limited. There was no time or opportunity to bond with the virtual avatar and establish a dual entity through this character. Key lacking point was how enclosed it was. Outside of a small specific area, the virtual world did not exist elsewhere, and was encapsulated. Without an opportunity to create a true world in the virtual space, it lacked the fundamental ability to become its own world in and of itself in the same way others such as Second Life have become.
One other example case had an Interactive Performance taking place within Second Life. The spect-actors and interactors were involved in a real-world scenario for the scene, and engaged each other as people. This would make sense as Second Life, visually, resembles our world. The greatest differences between real-world culture and those in Second Life, is that predominantly, those in Second Life feel a freedom to behave in ways they only dream about doing in reality. While certainly a milestone in bringing Interactive Performance inside a virtual space, Second Life is so closely related to real-life, and does thereby allow players to behave differently, they are in many ways still the same person they would be in a real-world setting.
Both, Interactive Performance, and MMO game experiences, involves a non-traditional performer taking a role in the experience. Interactive Performance is about empowering a spect-actor. MMO video games are about creating a rich, empowering world for players to escape into and appreciate. Without realizing it, most players are taking part in an Interactive Performance by playing the game and taking the role of their avatars.
The MPSE brings a unique element into the mix. One goal of the MPSE is to have a storyworld taking place where only the spect-actors are running free to play – no interactors are directly playing with the spect-actors. As the game world already has players who are playing characters, spect-acting, they have some background preset to play in this world with other players, and not have trained interactors as part of their experience.
Beyond the simple interaction is the behaviour from in and out of story for all the participants. Another goal of the MPSE is to observe in-story and out-of-story of the spect-actors. It’s done to see how a character plays in-story of course, but also how they react to events occurring in-story, while he or she is not actively in the story at those times, and how it may or may not change the dynamic of the way the person plays or behaves when returning to the story. Virtual game worlds can add an entire new dynamic to this process. Now, you have the in-story of the avatar the player is controlling; the out-of-story for that same avatar; the in-story of the player himself/herself physically in relation to how actively engaged he or she is within the story; and the out-of-story for the player while sitting at the computer playing the game. This is an entire new way to create an Interactive Performance as you observe the in and out-of-story for the same person, as themself, and controlling an avatar which is meant to actively be part of the story.
This too will present a problem as it’s the avatar who is part of the story, and the physical person not, in their physical being, part of the story. We are now bridging the gap between the escapism of being a spect-actor in an Interactive Performance, with the escapism attributed to playing a video game. Both are unique and have similar sets of rules in their escapism. Another important task will be to consider which parts of escapism can be utilized best.
When playing a video game, many players have become familiar with the “Game Over” screen. Across most games there is the commonality that the in-game character can die. Several stories have used deceased characters as a rich part of the as well, including outside of video games. With Interactive Performance however, one of the natural rules is that no harm should come to a spect-actor. When dealing with real-life beings, that makes absolute sense. Once inside a virtual world, how do we tip that boundary of harm? Inside most of these virtual game worlds, the player can die. Some games do it differently, as with World of WarCraft, the player’s avatar temporarily can become a ghost for however long he or she chooses potentially. Is that ‘ok’ for a virtual world MPSE? No form of theoretical or applied ethics has been devised to handle the behaviours of a virtual world people, and almost none of them can truly relate to the virtual world behaviours.
A final problem arising from the differences in rules for real-world Interactive Performance brings up the considerations of outside factors. In a real-life scene, when a person comes near who is not meant to be part of the experience, they are suggested to move away due to complications that may arise, both for the scene, and for safety of everyone in the area – such as a spectator calling the police for not understanding what is going on. In a persistent virtual world, how do you control this? Players are walking across the landscape at all times, and are freely able to interject in a scene as their own discretion. If you tell a player to walk away, he or she may listen, or may not. There exist no laws or ethical boundaries to stop a player from getting involved in a scene. This brings then the question, so we really want that person to walk away, or could this become a new element of the story as their avatar can now face the same “consequences” that the present spect-actors can face?
The clear solution is to design a form of the MPSE to work in a virtual, interactive and persistent game world. Considerations will need to be made with the ethics, delivery, and technology of course. As there is firm definition of how the MPSE is suppose to be, it provides a grand opportunity to begin shaping it to how it would work in a virtual space. Development could be done to consider the player and the player’s avatar in respect to the story. Capture would then be done from in-game to witness the story taking place, and of the player sitting at the computer, playing.
A set facet that must be made is to keep the players at the computer screens separated by rooms. One of the elements for the in-game escapism to take place is to understand that players are not typically with others while playing the game. The player is likely at a computer screen, privately, with no one else around. This allows the player to feel more free in making decisions in the game world, as there will be no one around in real-life to pass judgment on that behaviour. Placing the spect-actors physically in the same room will cause the experience no not work properly, and not allow the players to play effectively.
In terms of the ethics involved, research will need to be done in creating an entirely new form of theoretical ethics for people’s behaviours in a virtual persistent world to differentiate from real-world attributes. Current ethical theories were spawned in a time when virtual world interacton either did not exist, or did not exist in the same capacity which can be experienced today – they are all based on the interactions between human beings in the real-world as we live in it. When no current theoretical or applied ethical form can properly create an understanding of virtual world culture, the best option is to examine creating a while new one. Excursions into MMO games and other virtual worlds has shown distinctions in the way people behave and present themselves, and that’s part of the escapism, so understanding and creating a benchmark for that behaviour will be necessary. Along with this there will need to be a fundamental understanding of the morals and virtues, if any, players in these worlds adhere to as part of it. Considering that in video games players are more willing to pull a trigger of swing a sword, we cannot assume the sense of in-game moral values will resemble our present ones. Testing should be done to examine how a spect-actor can handle a virtual death, and how that affects the way that spect-actor plays further, if at all.
These affects should also be tested on outside influences. One of the problems addressed is how do you handle other in-game players who were not originally part of the story, as those players may come into the scene without provocation simple because they “can.” If this happens, and it possible to happen, then guidelines should be in place to prepare for it, and how it should be treated depending on certain circumstances; such as if this new participant is playing the role of his/her in-game avatar. When/if someone enters the story in such a way, they are subject to the same principles instituted on the spect-actors – that includes the potential to “die.” The key to achieving this correctly is to continue playing the story as it is evolving. Assuming the player is already behaving as their in-game avatar, then technically they are a character in the story. Attempting this may bring the player more into the story in the scene rather than just being an outside who came in to interrupt or watch, and the player now too is a spect-actor and didn’t even realize it.
Delving more into the potential for spects, unexpected spects should be welcomed. As in most online games currently, fellow players join a group and behave, as some in the group would feel, not as he or she should as a member of their in-game party. This is where we will take care of how to measure the in-story and out-of-story for the real and virtual characters.
While real-world people are playing the game, those who are intentional participating can be observed for how they are out-of-story. Measures can also be taken based on physical and emotional reactions just how much they as a human being have become in-story. Even though they are not physically engaging in the virtual story, the connection between the human and the avatar does create a degree of in-story semblance due to the level of engagement provided by the game itself from the beginning of the experience. Following the events of the story, they can be interviewed to discuss the effects of engagement in the game. Sadly, players who inadvertently join the experience who were not originally planned to be part of would not be easily recordable from this perspective. Sending messages to the additional participants could be done, but as for whether a reply and feedback gets returned cannot be certain, and more measurements for them would need to be done via the virtual world.
From within the virtual world, the performance can record the chat logs taking place live by all the participants. Based on the direction and dialogue in the chats, it can be assessed whether/when they were in-story and out-of-story. For instance, chats to another individual elsewhere in the game world unrelated to the story, and possibly about an outside world fact, could be judged as out-of-story for the avatar. What would be noteworthy here is whether or not the player is attempting to use the dialogue to quickly take care of this need, and return to the story as soon as possible. This could be interpreted as the avatar being out-of-story, but the player controlling the avatar remaining in-story due to the engagement. Measuring this would involve cross-checking the data taken by the avatar and comparing it with the data taken of the player at the computer screen.
Technologically speaking, the in-game engine provides most of the uses necessary for the tools desired in the real-world versions of the MPSE. Currently, the MPSE is planning to use a device for help prompts and quick quip communication; essentially a messaging device. All virtual worlds being viewed have built-in chat support which can take the role of this mechanic. Private messaging can be utilized for prompts going to specific characters in the experience.
Communication amongst participants would prove difficult. Most game worlds use text communication. Now, another quality among most of them is in-game gestures characters can perform. This should take the place of body language communication. Using voice communication should still be a necessity. Programs such as Xfire allow for web-based communication via a headset or microphone. It’s an effective solution used by many gamers, and a relatively cheap solution as well.
For the team capturing the event, the use of a virtual world would provide simpler and easier manipulation camera control. Utilizing various first-party technologies (by the maker of the video game or virtual world), and third-party technologies as well, would allow for custom cameras to be created in the game world controlled by various stations. Much the same way as a WWE event is covered, there could be several cameras capturing at all times, and being synced into the live product at a moment’s notice by a single camera director.
As part of the MPSE’s end-goal desire is to have a finished video at the end and require live-editing, this could be done much easier as the space can be controlled. Also, having more avatars hide and control cameras in the game is far cheaper and cost-effective than having to purchase a dozen or so cameras for a real-life event.
A small test trial was made to observe how easily in-game players would respond to a character in the game world attempting to engage in an interaction. Characters were placed in the game to reach out to other players to bring them into a story created by the interactor. The interactor took on a persona relative to the avatar being played; taking into account factors such as in-game race, class, level, and statistics. This again was only done to test working with virtual spect-actors.
During the tests we encountered two in-game characters who responded to the outreach. In one case, the person responded as a player at the computer screen, not behaving as the avatar he controlled. The other person who interacted was another story. This person took the persona of the avatar he was playing as.
Usage of the in-game chat system, bubble speech system, and gestures worked remarkably well to achieve goals. Players got involved and responded quite easily, even without the use of vocal chatting. I would still like to use voice in other trials to see if that makes a significant difference, but that would better serve for a planned event.
From experiences in World of WarCraft we have made several unique discoveries. We have managed to assess potential interactivity scenarios based on people’s behaviours, how they present themselves. Also, new technology ideas have come about on how to interact with the in-game characters.
Obviously, it’s possible to engage characters who were already part of the world rather than having to bring in people to play roles as spect-actors – they were already in the game. Unique about this is that World of WarCraft has “role-playing server” where people go to create scenes for Machinima purposes, and this experiment did not take place on one of those servers. Clearly, people there are able to extend their play from just the game, to a story within the game. Especially in an MMO game world where a real storyline is rarely a driving force, people had interest in a quest made by a player.
The technology limitations and requirements facing the real-life run of the MPSE does not appear to be a problem for the virtual world incarnation. The built-in capabilities handle the needs for cross-spect-actor and director conversing needed. Thankfully, as gamers have needed these abilities for years, the technologies have already been in place for the gaming aspect, and can now be utilized easily for the virtual world MPSE. Technologically, the only limitation would be voice chat, which would limit the interaction of outside players jumping into the experience. Ultimately, the end pleasure will be to see the behaviour of in-story and out-of-story
The heading of the Acknowledgment section and the References section must not be numbered.
I wish to acknowledge Dr. Michael Moshell and Mr. Jeff Wirth for allowing this exploration from with their co-instructed Graduate course at UCF in Applied Interactive Story. Being part of a production for a new form of Interactive Performance has allowed me to consider elements of the story where the experience is meant to only involve spect-actors as the drivers for the story. Also, I would like to thank Dr. Nancy Stanlick of UCF for allowing me to pursue research and explore the ethics of virtual worlds in her Graduate UCF course, Theoretical and Applied Ethics. Time in her course allowed opportunities to learn more about the various forms of theoretical ethics and applied ethics, and how they can be applied to a virtual space. It has also given opportunity to research and develop a new form of ethical understanding specifically geared towards virtual world culture and society.
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