KIN809 Interaction Design Assignment 2: Designing for Social Interaction

Aims: In this assignment you are asked to design a technological invention that encourages the development of positive interactions within a family/friendship group.

Copyright 2004 Leonard King except for musical elements that remain with the respective Copyright holders.

"The Dark Room"

A semi-interactive, immersive environment for maintaining "presence" in Horror Role Playing Games.

 

Introduction

"Enter freely and of your own will."

- Count Dracula to Jonathan Harker, in Dracula.

 

Roleplaying

Role play has been an established part of psychological therapy and teaching strategies for decades. It is primarily associated as a means of allowing people to enact, or rehearse behaviour within a safe environment that allows them to explore, try new ideas and make mistakes (Freiberg and Driscoll, 1996, p324). In 1974 Gary Gygax, Don Kaye and Dave Arneson took a love of science fiction fantasy, a rules system developed from a previous strategy game they had published and combined them with this concept of role playing to create Dungeons & Dragons, the first commercially available Fantasy Roleplaying Game (Butterfield, Honigmann & Parker, 1984, p9). Since that time the basic concept has spawned a multitude of games systems based in all manner of genres and settings, from comedy to action to horror, from dystopian cyberpunk and dark fantasy to old folks homes in Chelmer, Brisbane.

The basic concept behind a role playing game is quite simple. Participants play the part of characters within an imagined scenario. One participant plays the part of the "Storyteller" or "Game Master" (hereafter "GM"). It is the GM's task to describe the game world, move the story ahead, bring the characters into the scene and apply and interpret rules. The players perform actions by describing them to the GM and to the other players (Johnsson & Petersén, 1993, p9). In this way a multi-authored story and game experience is created which specifically encourages and rewards interactivity.

"Think of it this way: everyone has read a book or seen a movie in which the lead character does something that the reader or viewer finds so utterly wrong that he or she wants to shout out a warning. But no matter what we say, the character will do what the plot demands; we're just along for the ride. Even throwing popcorn won't help. In a roleplaying game, the players control the characters' actions and respond to the events of the plot… The script, or plot, of a roleplaying game is flexible, always changing based on the decisions the players make as characters" (Mulvihill and Boyle, 1998, pp8-10).

In most games the action gains a level of realism and intensity by having the players act out the characters' roles through the use of voice and costume, maintaining their persona to create a willing suspension of disbelief. Nowhere is this more necessary and rewarding than in the genre of horror. In his book "Nightmares of Mine" written for the popular Rolemaster game system, John Curtis III writes:

"Any role playing game is a better game with emotional depth, and fear is very deep while being emotionally accessible… Fear is a group activity: Like other emotions it can spread and strengthen with other people to echo it (Curtis, 1999, p6)."

The Environment

"Entering the small playhouse… for the first time, the spectator is seized with a vague uneasiness. For it is strange, this theatre, a long narrow chamber, its walls hung with dark material, its panelling severe, with two mysterious doors, always closed…"

- Camillo Antona-Traversi, History of the Grand Guignol.

It is the purpose of this assignment to design a physical environment, the "Dark Room," to create a strong sense of "presence" (the illusion that the participants are part of a non-mediated experience in a mediated environment (Lombard and Ditton, 1997)), for the express purpose of facilitating unease and even fear among participants in a horror roleplaying game. This will be achieved through designing an area that limits external distractions during gameplay, makes use of colours, sound and smell to increase realism and trigger automatic responses, and allows the player to create the visual elements of the game world within their own imagination. By doing so it is intended to create positive interaction within a small family/friendship group of up to 5 individuals by rewarding communication, creativity and teamwork through the creation of a multi-author story and interactive theatrical experience..

top view of room

"The Dark Room" consists of a medium sized, rectangular room, approximately 8 meters long by 4 meters wide. A round table with accompanying chairs is placed at one end of the room. Surrounding this table are various sensory technologies designed to help facilitate an environment of unease through the use of appropriate modality. These technologies include surround sound audio to play soundscapes into the environment, pin-spot lighting mounted at key locations throughout the room with adjustable colour output to create favourable lighting conditions, scent dispersal systems to introduce olfactory stimulation, climate control to manipulate the ambient temperature, and sound baffling in the walls to neutralise the acoustics. The walls are painted a dark grey in a matte paint so as to minimise light reflection and spill, while still allowing direct light to create shadow shapes through the use of lighting "gobos" or metal shapes placed in front of the lamp. These environmental elements are controlled by the GM through the use of a modified tablet computer which acts wirelessly as a remote control to a larger, external server. The room would be created in such a way (no windows, no telephones, etc.) as to limit external distractions which would hinder the participant's progressive sense of presence (IJsselsteijn, de Ridder, Freeman, & Avons, 2000).

Intervention

"Possibilities for paranoia become abundant"

- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

This environment is not designed to be an end unto itself - a place for people to enter and be passively entertained, but rather a tool for allowing the participants to better engage in the group activity of the social and theatrical experience of roleplaying. While it could be used for different styles or genres of gaming, it has been specifically designed to aid the horror genre, believed to be among the more difficult game styles to be successfully accomplished due to its requirement of manipulating people's emotional responses (Curtis, 1999, p6). The important thing to note here is that while environment is important to creating the atmosphere and therefore a sense of presence, it lacks focus and intent without an appropriate storyline, richly created player and non-player characters, a skilled storyteller with a sense of narrative timing and a slight theatrical streak, and players willing to engage and participate in the experience. Without these elements all you have is a group of people sitting in a dark, albeit highly technological, room, getting bored and inevitably telling jokes (Tynes, 1995). While it is unable to create these elements, the "Dark Room" is designed as an assistant to the mental and psychological processes of the human elements of the experience. It acts as an incubator, if you will, to allow the growth of the roleplaying experience. It does this through the use of the following technologies.

Sound

"In space, no one can hear you scream."

- publicity poster for the movie Alien.

Roleplayers have known for years about the emotive and immersive qualities that sound has to offer a game environment, whether musical soundtrack or sound effects. The secret is to make sure that it is appropriate to the game situation and is not obtrusive in gameplay (ReinoHagen, 1992, p67). This equates with what Lombard and Ditton said when they wrote,

For an illusion of nonmediation to be effective, the medium should not be obvious or obtrusive -- it should not draw attention to itself and remind the media user that she/he is having a mediated experience (Lombard & Ditton, 1997).

One of the main problems encountered using commercially available film, computer game or theatrical soundtracks as background music is timing. As the music score has been written to fit a predetermined, scripted event it may not necessarily fit with the mood of the game at a particular point (Curtis, 1999, p89). It therefore threatens to break the illusion of nonmediation. As can be seen in the accompanying design diagrams, the "Dark Room" has speakers mounted in each corner to help create a sound environment in three dimensions. Because of the different orientation of the participants, and the requirement to allow them to move from the table to the free standing/live action area, it would not be worth setting up individual monitors for each participant. Rather the idea is to create a sense of space within the entire room.

Sounds can be created through a combination of "module loops"; self contained musical passages that allow seamless repetition, much the same used in music creation programs such as SmartSound's "Sonic Fire" or Sony's "Acid" series. In these programs a general theme or musical style is chosen. The program takes musical "modules" from the chosen style and adds them together to create a seamless composition of any pre-determined length. In this case, loops would be fitted together as a sequence to run as a background soundtrack without drawing attention to itself. Moreover, it would allow for changes in intensity or drama to be reflected in the music, without alerting the players of the change on a conscious level. Sound effects, or soundscapes, would work in a similar manner, by running as seamless loops in the background, allowing them to change as the narrative situation warranted. These individual elements would be sequenced and controlled through a remote panel operated by the GM.

Included are a series of sounds derived from existing video game sources as an example of this idea. The first (MP3 - 626Kb) is sourced from the ID Software game "Quake" and is an example of a loop of music that, by itself, maintains a level of tension and suspense (Reznor, 1996). The two sound effects clips, sewerambient (MP3 - 473Kb) and heartbeat (MP3 - 198Kb) are sourced from the Activision game "Vampire: The Masquerade - Redemption," based on the role playing game of the same name, and are examples of the type of individual elements that could be added to the soundscape to enhance the atmosphere (White Wolf, Activision, 2000). The final clip, soundscape (MP3 - 626Kb), is these three elements mixed together to create a soundscape; a mix of music and natural sounds designed to produce an automatic response in the participant.

Producing a quality soundscape that encompasses music and effects in an environment that surrounds the players, is able to be changed to fit the mood of the narrative scene, and do it seamlessly so as not to draw attention to itself, is an integral part of the effect of creating presence. This "transparency" of the media helps maintain an illusion of nonmediation and will play a large part in successfully delivering all sensory stimulation. The use of these elements can "evoke an atmosphere or sense of place, thereby heightening the overall feeling of immersion" (Anderson and Casey, 1997, p.47).

Lights

"The common run of ghost needs darkness."

- Edmund Wilson, "On Tales of Horror."

The use of light and shadow plays a large part in horror fiction. The fear of what lies in the shadows beyond the protective circle of light is the stuff of nightmares. To facilitate this in the "Dark Room", special pin-spot lights would be installed in strategic locations to fall on the players to create various effects. The lighting of players in irregular ways (from below, severely backlit, from one side, etc.) creates an irregular and distorted appearance (Bomback and Coppel, 1971, pp 174-181). It is this distortion that taps into the fear of the unknown or irregular and the fear of the ugly, what Curtis refers to as "dread" and "gore" or the "indescribable" and the "unwatchable" (Curtis, 1999, pp12-14). The standard lighting condition, or default, would be an overhead spotlight that illuminates the table and the faces of the players, but falls off in intensity so as to leave the walls and corners in shadow. From that default, the GM would be able to access these various lighting styles, or even effect lights such as a strobe or "gobos", to create an unreal and uncertain environment.

Another element of light is the use of colour. Colour triggers emotional responses automatically and can be used to promote feelings of safety or insecurity. In its primary form, red has been shown to promote physical and emotional responses of excitement, danger and fear, while blue has been shown to promote feelings of security (Birren, 1978). Orange is considered warm and inviting, while green creates a condition of meditation and fulfilment of a task (Goldstein, 1939). While such reactions are a personal response, based on associations leading to deeper lying memories (Deutsch, 1937), this author has found good response to a key group of colours used to enhance certain situations. A warm orange, centrally located above the table to provide a focal area around which the players interact, tends to promote a feeling of community and safety, a "tales around the campfire" situation (Curtis, 1999). A light, washed-out blue provides a cold, harsh environment as a means of building an emotionally uneasy response. Finally, red, which has been mentioned previously as promoting physical responses of danger, fear and excitement, is used to enhance key climactic moments within the story. Red's other main advantage has to do with its wavelength and the way it physically interacts with the eye. While it allows the eye to see clearly and in focus in dark conditions, it is not picked up by the eye as ambient, reflected light. It fails to stimulate the eye except when its rays strike near the fovea (Birren, 1978). This allows a practical, useful light for gameplay, while maintaining a deep shadow in the environment.

Another optional light is that of a yellowish-green, which has the tendency to look awful when interacting with skin tones. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe considered such a colour "contaminated" and wrote in his "Theory of Colours,"

"Thus the colour of sulphur, which inclines to green, has something unpleasant in it… By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold (yellow) is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reduced to that of ignominy and aversion." (Goethe, 1840)

Such a light could only enhance feelings of sickness and decay for a horror environment. In the end though the use of colour is, primarily, to mentally remove the player from their physical location and create an uneasy feeling of unreality by changing the appearance of their environment (Deutsch, 1937). In conjunction with lighting angles, the GM has a wide range of variable lighting conditions to try on the players.

Smell

"By Their smell can men sometimes know them near, but of Their semblance can no man know…"

- H.P. Lovecraft, The Dunwich Horror.

Olfactory stimuli are a tricky element to integrate. They are difficult to control and deliver, and their use has not been tested empirically in creating and maintaining presence (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). While Lombard and Ditton agree that integrating such sensory elements seems likely to enhance the sense of presence for users, it seems just as likely that being too heavy handed in the delivery of scents would jolt the user from their immersion, making them all too aware of the physical surrounds. With this in mind, subtle and appropriate scents would be introduced into the climate system for dispersal throughout the room. These scents would only be very low in concentration, more to provide a hint than to be purely realistic.

As with sound, these scents would need to match the simulated environment to be most effective, e.g. the smell of old leather and books while in a professor's library, expensive perfume when hobnobbing with society's elite, mildew when visiting the house of a vanished murder victim and a more pungent aroma of decay when the victim is finally found. By integrating relevant sensory input subtly, so as not to draw attention to itself (as mentioned earlier with regards to creating a "transparent" medium), I feel that scents can be made to play an integral part in maintaining a sense of presence.

Climate and Temperature

"…a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch…"

- Victor Frankenstein in Frankenstein.

An enclosed system such as the "Dark Room" would require a means of climate control or air-conditioning if only to provide fresh air to the participants. Through manipulation of factors such as air temperature, amount of air flow and even the mix of oxygen in the air, physical responses can be triggered in the participants. The system also provides a means of delivering the olfactory elements described earlier. Once again to perform its task without jolting the user back into the reality of the room it would need to deliver its content seamlessly, quietly and transparently.

The Remote and the Room

"You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I weren't still in this chair!"

- Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Each of these elements is designed to be manipulated by the GM using a modified tablet computer. The unit consists of a LCD touch screen to display games rules books in a hypertext format (to allow easier navigation and search capabilities), a random number generator (to replace dice for deciding game outcomes), and the necessary control software for manipulating the environment systems. The tablet is networked wirelessly to a main server computer which controls the environmental elements through wireless or Bluetooth® communication. This allows the larger, more powerful server computer to engage in high data flow activities such as playing back multiple audio files while being manipulated by the remote in real time.

Built into the table mentioned earlier is a random number generator for each player, with the output display linked to the tablet. This allows the GM to view dice rolls by the players, even without them seeing the result if necessary. This allows the GM to heighten uncertainty among the players, or just to "fudge" results to better manipulate the narrative flow.

To manipulate the environmental conditions a purpose built software interface would be developed that would allow changes over a period of time, using a timeline sequencer that operates in much the same way as those used by non-linear video and audio editing software. This would allow the GM to pre-design environment scenarios that they conceive will be necessary to suit the narrative they have planned. Using a drag-and-drop methodology, music and effects modules, lighting and colour effects, scents and climactic conditions would be allocated as individual, multi-layered "tracks" in a sequence. This combination, along with a short file name identifier, would then be saved to an allocated preset accessible through the front panel of the remote. A small LCD display with each preset button would allow the GM to instantly recognise where each preset is stored and be easily accessed. Pressing another preset would trigger the main computer to transition at an appropriate time so as to maintain transparency.

Clip elements would be arranged and displayed in the interface using a colour code for different senses; Red for music, Blue for sound effects, Green for temperature, etc. To assist during sequence creation the tracks could be switched on or off quickly via a toggle to the left of the track (green on, red off). Searching for appropriate elements in a time-sensitive environment would be made easier by allowing the user to search using a series of different parameters, dependant on the user. They can break up the elements by sense-type, genre, or attached keywords ("exciting," "terror," "action," etc). This would allow the user to find an appropriate element for any dramatic situation quickly and easily. While the software would come with a range of individual elements, settings and pre-programmed sequences as standard, the user would be able to import audio files and sound effects to personalise their game. Similarly, the program would allow the user to export environment settings to be shared with other users across a network or the internet.

As noted in the introduction, one of the key elements of the roleplaying game is its interactivity. Players are able, and in some cases encouraged (Mulvihill and Boyle, 1998, p244), to take the story beyond that envisioned by either the authors of the scenario or the GM. This means that the GM may find themself without an appropriate preset. In this case additional controls are available on the tablet for introducing elements to the environment quickly and efficiently; lights can be turned on or off, specific colours can be used, air temperature can be raised or lowered. These changes are updated on the environment sequencer, which also allows for sound effects or other musical changes to be integrated quickly and seamlessly.

To combat the brightness problems of the LCD screen, which by its very nature is designed to radiate light, and the backlit preset buttons and instant controls in a dark environment, an option to lower the brightness or turn off the screen would be available. This should only be an issue in situations where complete darkness is required and the GM wishes to withdraw themself from the player's attention.

Discussion

" 'A game?' said Jive. 'No, no boy. It's more than that. It's an education.' "

- Clive Barker, The Thief of Always.

The "Dark Room" concept is based on providing a platform, or stage, for the individuals to come together and play their game. In the same way that a grand and expensive theatre does not necessarily mean that all productions within it will be made the better because of it, the "Dark Room" does not guarantee an excellent roleplaying experience by itself. The room requires individuals to create and act out the stories. If they are talented practitioners of the medium then the room acts as a means of maintaining focus and heightening emotional response. In much the same way that participants were found to engage more and feel a greater sense of presence when watching media technologies that they considered to be higher quality and higher price (Lombard & Ditton, 1997), it is hoped that participants would use the opportunity of playing in a purpose built interactive environment to create a superior and more realistic performance and experience than they would in a more generic environment.

Presence

"Horror…is fascinated dread in the presence of an immaterial cause."

- Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny.

Throughout this project I have returned to the importance of maintaining a sense of presence in the players - "An illusion of nonmediation in a mediated environment" (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Research on presence has tended to draw on heavily technology-based environments such as virtual reality and teleconferencing which rely on the technology to create this illusion. This philosophy on its own casts doubt on whether a roleplaying game is even capable of producing an experience sufficient to be called presence. However, more recent discussions have begun to look at the "self" as the agent of the experience rather than the technology or medium. It can be argued that all experiences, whether technological, biological, psychological or sociological, are mediated experiences. Botella, Baños, & Alcañiz (2003) suggest we should abandon the dichotomy "real versus virtual" and start talking about "different experiences in different worlds".

Research into low technology or "low bandwidth" experiences such as text-based virtual worlds and phone sex fantasies has started to reveal its own style of presence in which users make use of the small set of available cues to create their own idealised fantasy (Stone, 1995). Participants become caught up in the virtual world when they use their imagination to fill in narrative and descriptive gaps. The greater the opportunity to imaginatively create a virtual world, the more a sense of presence will be strengthened (Jacobson, 2002). Marie-Laure Ryan, a literary theorist, draws on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notion of the "willing suspension of disbelief" in analysing presence.

It describes the attitude by which the reader brackets out the knowledge that the fictional world is the product of language, in order to imagine it as an autonomous reality populated by solid objects and embodied individuals (Ryan 1999).

It is this idea of the player creating a shared, imaginary world that lies at the heart of the roleplaying experience. The function of the "Dark Room" is not to actively create a virtual reality to be interacted with by all the senses, but rather provide an environment that facilitates and maintains the creation of a virtual world in the combined imaginations of the players and GM through modal stimulation (the use of "conventions" of the horror genre; spooky music, disquieting sounds, clearly delineated areas of light and shadow, etc.) and a feeling of agency (the knowledge that decisions made will impact not only the in-game world, but also the playing environment through interactivity with the GM and therefore the room) to heighten the experience offered through the narrative.

Moral and Ethical Issues

"I want your permission to do what I think is good this night. It is, I know, much to ask; and when you know what it is I propose to do you will know, and only then, how much."

- Van Helsing to Goldalming, Morris and Seward, Dracula.

It is intended that the "Dark Room" is to be used for gaming purposes between friends and acquaintances. While the physical environment is designed to promote a sense of uneasiness and to possibly create a sense of dread and terror, it should be noted that this should only take place in a completely open and participatory manner. Players are participants in what is supposed to be a shared and enjoyable experience. This understanding of their own power and safety within the room may hinder the participant's ability to fully enter the game world and feel a real sense of fear, however the intention is not to cause uncontrollable panic stemming from possible previous mental issues. As mentioned earlier, the effects of sound, colour, light, etc. trigger memories to obtain their meaning. If these elements are associated with issues that are uncomfortable for the player to deal with then they should not be used. While the intention is to create an environment conducive to fear, no player should be forced to take part with anything that they aren't emotionally capable of dealing with or that they find demeaning, insulting or distracting (Curtis 1999). Similarly, if a player feels unduly uncomfortable it is the GM's duty to halt the game, restore the room to its default state and make sure the player is O.K. before continuing. As the individual in the room with the most agency over the environment, the GM must be aware that they are obliged to create an enjoyable experience, even if not always comforting and pleasant, and not to create emotional response for a feeling of self-aggrandizement and personal power.

Positive Outcomes

"There is no delight the equal of dread."

- Clive Barker.

Despite the potential for misuse, the room facilitates positive, face-to-face social interaction between the participants. While hardly considered to fall into Albert Borgmann's definition of a "focal activity" in his "device paradigm," due to the desired outcome of escaping our world of "natural signs" to an imagined and virtual world (Borgmann, 1999), it does, in a way, fulfil a secondary level through this interaction. It would be fair to say that is no less a focal activity than going to the theatre; perhaps more so given the level of social interaction throughout the experience. It is also hoped that the process would allow the participants to make the most of the role playing experience and use it to test themselves in alternate, possibly dangerous situations, express emotions they may never express in real life, and make mistakes without fear of real life consequence.

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