Brenda Laurel’s Computers as Theatre is crucial reading for anyone interested in computer-human interfaces. That said, I definitely disagree with a lot of what she has to say.
Laurel often brings up the problem of “holes in the mimetic context,” those places where the metaphor or abstraction being employed in the interface breaks down. This is a serious problem with metaphorical interfaces or indeed any kind of computational abstraction. (See Joel Spolsky’s article on leaky abstractions for a discussion of the problem in a computer programming context.) Laurel tantalizingly mentions Ted Nelson’s views on alternatives to metaphorical UI design, but soon gets back to the world of metaphor. She seems to believe that the answer to the problem of leaky abstractions is to design abstractions that don’t leak. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible. You will always reach a point where you’ve pushed an abstraction to its limit, and if you don’t have some understanding of what underlies it, you will be lost and confused.
Laurel’s ideas apply better to the world of games, although the idea that games have narrative structure like theatre is pretty controversial. Even limiting the scope of the discussion to massive multipleplayer online simulations like There and Second Life, which seem to be intended as venues for communication rather than as games, it is questionable whether these immersive experiences are really good interfaces (for enabling communication). As David Kushner writes in the MIT Technology Review:
There will always be people who prefer the ease of a quick e-mail or instant message to manipulating an avatar. Often you don’t want to hang out; you just want to tell someone to meet you for lunch at noon.
I enjoy online games for
- the social gaming experience defined by the rules of play
- the fact that I can play with friends
- the aesthetic pleasure of the graphics