Computational Storytelling

By Willis, Holly | Filmmaker, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Computational Storytelling


Willis, Holly, Filmmaker


In October 2014, the University of California, Santa Cruz announced a new Department of Computational Media. Described as the first of its kind and housed in the university's Baskin School of Engineering, the department is designed to create a truly interdisciplinary home for new directions in computation as an expressive form by uniting the humanities' concerns and methods with those of computer science. The department builds on the existing game design and computer science programs, as well as on the work of faculty members, research groups and graduate students who, over the last decade, have explored the computational processes of digital media and new forms of storytelling, playable media, participatory fiction and interactive narrative. While the new department is certainly not a film program, nor is it devoted only to storytelling, the work it seeks to undertake will most certainly have an impact on how we understand narrative in the future as it becomes increasingly computational.

The new department's chair is Michael Mateas, an associate professor of computer science as well as director of the Center for Games and Playable Media and the person currently responsible for the school's Expressive Intelligence Studio, dedicated to exploring the role of artificial intelligence in art and design. In 2005, Mateas, in collaboration with Andrew Stern, created the bold, award-winning game Façade, an interactive story celebrated for its attempt to unite narrative drama with natural language processing. The game invites participants to engage with a couple in the midst of an argument; a decade after its launch, it remains as compelling as ever.

Noah Wardrip-Fruin is another key participant in the new department. Like Mateas, he is interested in the intersection of computer science and the humanities. Wardrip-Fruin has helped shape the evolving field of new media studies through the publication of several edited essay collections, including The New Media Reader, co-edited with Nick Montfort, and three other key books co-edited with Pat Harrigan: First Person: New Media as Story: Performance, and Game; Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media; and Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives. However, Wardrip-Fruin's book, Expressive Processing, may be the most useful in helping understand the goals of the new department. In the book, he considers the possibilities computers open up for storytelling, arguing there is a form of creative and authorial expression in creating computational parameters for a story. He dubs this activity "expressive processing," which is essentially the act of defining the rules for system behavior. "It is common to think of the work of authoring, the work of creating media, as the work of writing text, composing images, arranging sound and so on," he writes in the book's introduction. "But now one must think of authoring new processes as an important element of media creation."

Claims in support of procedural literacy and expressive processing may seem tangential to filmmaking, not to mention everyday life, but Mateas and Wardrip-Fruin would disagree. Mateas has argued elegantly for new media theorists and practitioners to engage in what he calls "procedural literacy." He writes, "By procedural literacy, I mean the ability to read and write processes, to engage procedural representation and aesthetics, to understand the interplay between the culturally embedded practices of human meaning-making and technically mediated processes. …

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