Dylan Lederle-Ensign bio photo

Dylan Lederle-Ensign

Graduate Student at UC Santa Cruz. Studying games, software and ultimate frisbee

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Prom Week is a recently released game from the UC Santa Cruz Expressive Intelligence Studio. It takes place in an over the top, stereotypical American highschool in the week before prom. The creators describe the game as a puzzle game based on “social physics”. Where typical physics puzzles might involve manipulating levers, weights, and momentum to move an object from point A to point B, Prom Week levels are along the lines of “Get the nerd elected prom king”. Playing it I found two things. It is very difficult, and very funny.

In one early level, the main character in the story is the slacker skater dude named Doug. Doug decides that maybe he should try to get a date for prom, and maybe repair some of the enemies he has made in the past four years. Interaction with the game involves playing from a omniscient position rather than just as Doug. You select a character, then select a second and can initiate a variety of actions between them (Ask out, flirt, insult, confide in, etc) depending on their current relationship. My first move was to make Doug walk up to Oswald, the mean popular kid, and initiate a “brag”, which if successful would make Doug cooller in Oswald’s eyes. Surprisingly (not) it failed miserably, leaving Oswald with a lower opinion of Doug, and Doug with feelings of embaressment. This game is tougher than I first thought.

Theoretical Digression: Noah Wardrip-Fruin is a professor from UCSC who worked with the Prom Week team, published a book entitled Expressive Processing (his dissertation of the same title is available for free on his website.) Among the many ideas he explores in this book is three different examples of interpreting interactive systems.

He calls the first “The Eliza Effect” after Eliza the early “Artificial Intelligence” that was nothing more than a clever text manipulator. Despite its underlying simplicity, many early users were tricked into believing Eliza possessed intelligence. The Eliza Effect occurs when an audience over-estimates the system’s complexity.

The second he calls “The Tale-Spin Effect”, and it is the opposite of the Eliza Effect. Tale-Spin was a research project by James Meehan. The program simulated characters and their goals, spitting out a simple fairy tale that related the events of the story. Sample Output: “ONCE UPON A TIME GEORGE ANT LIVED NEAR A PATCH OF GROUND. THERE WAS A NEST IN AN ASH TREE. WILMA BIRD LIVED IN THE NEST. THERE WAS SOME WATER IN A RIVER. WILMA KNEW THAT THE WATER WAS IN THE RIVER. GEORGE KNEW THAT THE WATER WAS IN THE RIVER. ONE DAY WILMA WAS VERY THIRSTY. WILMA WANTED TO GET NEAR SOME WATER. WILMA FLEW FROM HER NEST ACROSS THE MEADOW THROUGH A VALLEY TO THE RIVER. WILMA DRANK THE WATER. WILMA WASN’T THIRSTY ANYMORE.”

Great literature this is not. Given this, most readers would think that the underlying system is as simple as the prose that it outputs. However, these environments and characters are intricately modeled. Thus, the Tale-Spin Effect occurs when an audience under-estimates the system’s complexity, due to a faulty interface.

The “Sim City Effect” is the happy middle ground. Sim City is a relatively complex simulation of an urban environment, and by playing with the game, players come to understand the system. Exposing the complexity of the system to the audience results in the Sim City Effect.

Wardrip-Fruin has stated that Prom Week was intended to try to answer this question posed in his book: “Can we find similar success with characters more complex than eight mood meters, and fictions more well formed than The Sims’s implied progression through possessions and careers?”

As a player, I glimpsed that the social simulation’s complexity when I failed to impress Oswald with my fumbling “brag” attempt. Making significant progress in the game requires laying groundwork, perhaps by impressing one of Oswald’s friends first, or by humiliating one of his enemies. That said, I have found it difficult to predict the results of my actions. The game gives you tons of information about what factors will influence the success or failure of your choices, but sometimes “success” has unexpected side effects. I need to spend more time improving my own play, but have enjoyed my initial experience with it.