Essays & Articles


Foreword: Computers as Theater (Brenda Laurel)

Foreword to:

Laurel, B. (2013). Computers as theatre: A dramatic theory of interactive experience (Second edition.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley. (Computers as Theater at Amazon.)

What does a gesture-operated smart device have in common with a Shakespearian play?

No, this isn’t a pun and it isn’t a trick question. The answer gets to the heart of this book. Theatre is about interaction, about themes and conflicts, goals and approaches to those goals, frustration, success, tension, and then the resolution of those tensions. Theatre is dynamic, changing, always in motion. Our modern technologies with their powerful computers, multiple sensors, communication links and displays are also about interaction, and treating that interaction as Theatre proves to be rich, enlightening and powerful.

Up to recently, computers interacted with people in a stilted, pedestrian manner. Each screen was a static display. Designers and those in the field of human-computer interaction tended to think of each screen as a fixed entity, making sure it was well-designed, understandable, and attractive. This is obviously good, but it isn’t enough. Real interaction does not take place in the moment, on a fixed, static screen. Real interaction is ongoing over a protracted period. It ebbs and flows, transitions from one state to another. Transitions are as important as states.  Up to recently, the only computer systems that acted this way were games. But as students of the theatre have long known, we get the greatest pleasure from our ability to overcome early failures and adversaries. If everything runs perfectly and smoothly with no opportunity to deploy our powers and skills, pleasure is diminished. Human emotion is sensitive to change: starting low and ending high is a far better experience than one that is always high. Is this a cry for deliberate placement of obstacles and confusions? Obviously not, but it is a cry for a look at the temporal dimensions, at engagement, agency, and the rise and fall of dramatic tension.

Many years ago I wrote the foreword to the original edition of this book. Years later, I reread it, this time with a broader, richer perspective. The next time I met Brenda, I told her that I finally understood the book. “What?” she exclaimed in horror: “You wrote the Foreword and didn’t understand it?” “No, no,” I hastened to reassure her. “I understood it then, but now I understand it quite differently. Your book,” I told her, “was ahead of its time. I thought I understood it when it was written, but I missed some of the most important points, most especially the role of time, change, and a continuing encounter. The book was ahead of its time when it was initially published: please bring it out again, now that the time is ready for you.”

Here it is. I’m delighted to see it reborn, now, when the time is ripe. The first edition was ahead of its time. This new edition comes at just the right time. Now the world is ready.

What makes the difference?

Both Brenda and I started In the early days of computers, long before computers routinely displayed images on the screen. It was remarkable that they could do anything at all. As the years passed, the machines got more powerful. We started by controlling them with typed commands, moved from typing to selection through mouse and menus, and finally graduated to the potential for interaction with the entire body, starting with simple gestures, speech, eye gaze, but for some systems proximity, location, movement, angle of regard, and whole body motion also being relevant. Today, social interactions are the norm, as is the networked interaction of multiple people and systems distributed across the globe. None of this was true in 1991 when the first edition was published.

When I first encountered Laurel’s ideas, I envisioned them being applied to the formal elements of display screens and the early devices used for interaction. This is a very limited viewpoint. It is better to think of these systems and their programmed applications as a platform, the stage, upon which the dramas are enacted. To quote from Chapter 1:

“Thinking about interfaces is thinking too small. Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality–worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act.”

Shakespeare Said the World Is a Stage: For Us, Computer Applications Are Our Stages

“All the world’s a stage,” said Jaques in William Shakespeare’s As you like it, “and all the men and women merely players.” For us, the computer and its various programs and applications are the stage, providing the platform on which we enact our own scenes and activities. Much as plays are divided into acts, sometimes with intermissions, our computer-based activities are divided into sessions, sometimes separated by short periods, other times by long breaks.

Although Laurel focuses upon the theatre, she extends her metaphor by looking at plot structures in television (Chapter 3). Contrasting forms of dramatic media have unique rules of engagement; they are different for a play than for a movie, different again for a television drama, and different yet again for the activities done with the aid of a computer.

Games are the easiest of computer activities to translate into the language of theatre, although it is more like a television episode than a theatrical performance or movie being viewed in a large auditorium. In a theatre or movie, once the drama has begun it is difficult to leave, whereas in television, the viewer can leave at any moment, so it is important to keep people continually engaged: long explanations, background or back story information that might be necessary for the story must be disguised to maintain the audience’s interest. In similar fashion a computer game must continually engage interests, for the disinterested player can easily quit. Attention must be continually maintained. This can be done even in quiet periods through anticipation as long as the player always has an expectation of future interesting engagement. Anticipation is the soul of emotion.

What about more mundane examples of computer usage? Laurel shows how even the activity of writing or composing a budget on a spreadsheet has a dynamic that permits interest to be sustained for long periods. Here, the actor is also the playwright and the spectator, so the expectations are self-generated, enabling interest to be sustained for what otherwise might be considered long, dull periods. After all, the actor/playwright/spectator is always watching to see how their self-generated drama unfolds, whether it meets expectations, whether the characters (the numerical characters in the spreadsheet) behave as expected.

Television and movie series provide yet another lesson. Some episodes might follow previous ones in periods measured in years: think of Space Wars, Star Trek, or James Bond films. These gaps require reminders to carry the viewers over the gaps. Sometimes these reminders are given through flashbacks or asides, sometimes by introducing new characters who then have to be brought up to date with the audience as eavesdropper. Similar needs for reminders exist for email interactions, checking up on friends via social networks, or even writing a homework assignment, an essay, or a book. These activities are spread out over time, with variable gaps between segments. How do we maintain continuity? One mechanism is through repeated snippets of previous conversations in social networks or email, another through ready access to previous work, and yet another though mechanisms somewhat akin to the way movies and television episodes must brief newly introduced characters. With computer systems, this can be done through active reminding and prompting.

This component of drama is usually overlooked by computer system designers. When a break in activities is caused by interruptions from competing activities, when we resume the initial task, if the playwright (that is, the programmer or system designer) does not provide reminders of the previous states and activities the result can be errors in the conduct of critical tasks. Witness errors in the use of medical systems, in aviation, and in complex activities that range from cooking a meal to controlling a complex chemical plant. Just as playwrights must help the audience bridge time gaps, the designers of systems must help computer users bridge their gaps.

Simple Rules, Emergent Outcomes

Many interface designers tend to optimize every element of an experience, but as Laurel points out, maximum enjoyment and emotional peak can only come about as a contrast to lows, disappointments, and tension. A positive experience is much enhanced by contrast to just previously experienced negative ones (and in turn, negative engagement is enhanced when it follows positive ones). The shaping of the emotional experience is critical to the development of dramatic experience, whether in a theatre or trough a computer-mediated interaction.

Although the basis of dramatic theory can be traced to Aristotle, over the centuries of thought and experimentation, much more has been learned. We don’t have to consider drama as a self-contained play on a single stage, because even in Elizabethan times it was sometimes played out on several simultaneous stages. Modern experiments allow such things as the sprinkling of actors throughout a house, all engaged in various patterned activities. Engagement and emotion can occur in a wide variety of settings, and we can imagine multiple future possibilities as well as the existence of ones that we cannot yet imagine, but which are sure to appear. These themes are explored in the provocative ending chapter.

What will the future bring? That will be determined by you, the readers of this book, aided by the speculations and discussions of the concluding chapters. But one thing is certain, the future of our interactions with technology will build upon the foundations provided by Brenda Laurel in this deep, thought-provoking, and critically important book.

Don Norman

Silicon Valley, 2013