An exploration of New Media and Interface Design (2012)

The Role of the Dice Roll: An exploration into how dice can inform new media design and interaction.

“The dice fell: a one and a two – three. He was to leave his wife and children forever.”
The Dice Man

“God does not play dice.”
Albert Einstein

“Not only does God play dice, but… he sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen.”
Stephen Hawking

INTRODUCTION

dice

The following pages are aimed at exploring my recent research into new media art with a focus on the nature of the new media interface as a system that can re-contexualise, reflect and immerse users in order to facilitate the critical space associated with art as experience (Lee, 2009).

Over a number of months I have become fascinated with the differences and similarities of experience that can be achieved through both real world and simulated (new media based) interactions.

The key to developing this research lay with some dice, which as I thought about them began to formulate a question that related fundamentally to my practice:

If a die is a hardware based random number generator, how much layering of experience in a digital simulation would be needed before users considered the outcomes of any interaction (any roll of the die) to be representative, in terms of experience, of a “real world” die?

I began to research the implications of this question with people whom I asked to first hold two dice in their hands, to feel the texture, the weight etc. and then asked if there would be a similarity between them throwing the dice and them pressing a button that generated and displayed two random numbers between one and six.

The overwhelming response was that there would be no similarity at all. A variety of reasons were offered including references to control, luck and the physicality, the “actual-ness” of the dice and while all understood the premise and agreed that a die is a random number generator, they were still unable to reconcile the two interfaces as being of the same nature.

Consequently I started to add layers of complexity and simulation to my question such as a 3D representation of the dice in motion, real world physics and a physical interface to “shake and throw”. At this point, those to whom I was talking suggested that I was “getting closer” to what they felt was the essential experience of throwing dice.

Interestingly, as the complexity of the design grew, the notion of the new media experience I was describing seemed to become more transparent (representative of “real world”) to the user.

Thus it became increasingly clear that there were a great number of influences that were governing peoples imagined experience of digitally simulated (new media) interaction with dice.

The central theme that seemed to be emerging was that the dice roll has three distinct phases that can be summarised as: shake, roll and outcome.

Or in new media terms as: interaction, action, outcome.

These three stages of the dice interaction also have very broad needs in terms of its usability:

1. The context is important as there would seem to be a need for a physical interface, a period of the roll actually happening (being acted on by physics) and the notion of the outcome being “fair” in terms of the user being part of a physical system from shake to roll to outcome.

2. The nature of the interface seems to change in terms of how it reflects, immerses and again reflects the user within each stage:

The shake phase is reflective as the user may follow habitual patterns that “give luck” (physical interaction based on culture and experience).

The roll phase is immersive in that the user is now witnessing the effects of his ritual on the dice in movement (processing phase).

The outcome phase is again reflective as the user reacts to his influence on the system (or call for luck) and can be reactive in terms of how he will throw the dice next time (reflection on experience) (Bolter and Gromala 2005).

3. The experiential reaction to the idea of dice would seem to be laden with historic and cultural references and personal narrative (specifically game playing) through users comments regarding feel, technique and a sense of some control over an admitted random number generator.

These findings when applied to new media can form the basis of interaction design that can encourage a re-imagining of experience but also contain fundamental questions and references in relation to context, liminality, narrative and the nature of the new media interface in terms of how feedback and rhythm within that interface reflect and mirror the user.

Rolling Through History

Dice are one of the oldest gaming instruments in the world. From the Aztecs to Ancient Egypt, from the Sumerians to the Vikings, dice (in various guises from fruit stones to animal knucklebones) have been used to play games, to wrestle with chance, to divine the will of the Gods, to see the future, to make decisions, to cheat and to try and control Fate and of course to gamble.

Today, dice are still an integral part of game playing from snakes and ladders to role-playing games (such as Dungeons and Dragons) as well as its design as random number generator being adapted to the online gaming world within multiplayer online role playing games (MORPGs) such as World of Warcraft.

Johan Hulzinga suggests that these systems of game, ritual and play are fundamental to the development, reinvention and re-creation of our human culture and thus the die itself can be viewed as an instrument or an interface that promotes change, re-imagining and re-thinking of culture and experience (Hulzinga, 1955).

Thus, the die’s fundamental function as a hardware random number generator interface has been an integral part of our culture, our mythology and our society for thousands of years, but it is the die’s physical properties as a system in itself, the die as a physically designed unit that still provides a corporeal experience for the user.

To “roll the dice” or to “shake the bones” provides an experience for the user that can provide a wide variety of experience, from joy to rage and from ecstacy to depression as the user “wins” and “loses” in random rhythm.

Along with the familiar context of the die within gaming systems and gambling that are prevalent in our culture, the die has also been present at, and sometimes a driver of, significant cultural change.

For example, the development of mathematical, rationalist probability theory can be traced to an exchange of letters between the 17th Century French mathematicians Pascal and de Fermat and the resulting work of Cardano and Gallilei, which were based on a question revolving around a dice game of the time.

Thus, the die can be viewed as playing a role in the development and formation of modernism and Enlightenment culture that has been a pervasive driver of scientific, rational endeavour and objective reduction for the past 400 years (Liszkiewicz, 2011).

So it might be said that “rolling the dice”, in this context, has contributed to a revision of cultural systems including the rational empiricism of physics and mathematics.

However, there would seem to be a problem with the rational application of the die as “hardware probability generator interface”, in that the die itself is still imbued with the corporeal and thus subjective properties of premodernist philosophies including fate, luck and divinity that appear to stand at odds with the rational modernist philosophies of logic and reason.

Postmodern philosopher, Bruno Latour suggests that we have never been modern, despite the proclivity of modernist philosophy and culture, and we still hold to older philosophies of magic and myth, fate and luck. (Latour, 1993)

Perhaps then, it may be said that the age old die, with its cultural and epistemological properties is in rhythmic flux between being representative of a system that is premodernist, modernist and postmodernist depending on how it is examined.

Or to put it another way, it depends on which face of the die we choose to look at:

  1. The die is representative of premodernist epistemology, whereby the “control” of the outcome rests with the mystical, the magical, fate and luck.
  2. The die is representative of modernist epistemology, whereby the “control” of the outcome is informed by empirical probability.
  3. The die is representative of postmodernist epistemology, whereby we choose to lose (or relinquish a degree of, dependent on context) control. The die as a physical system, in this context, is an integral part of a human system that is defined by action and thought which in turn are influenced through culture and experience.

Thus in designing an effective interface that allows for reflection on and due consideration of this multitude of cultural and historical experience, it would seem imperative that care is taken to develop a starting point in the new media feedback/interaction system that is culturally and experientially familiar (at least initially) as well as conscious of the initial context of the user.

Randomness, Glitch and Liminality

It is also important to consider these issues in relation to the design of the system itself: the randomness of the die is difficult to represent effectively in digital terms as the generated data cannot be truly random as it is based on computational randomness which has an inherent pattern.

This issue may be overcome through digital pseudo random generation (PRG) or seeded randomness.

Although this method of generation is often held as true in statistical randomness testing (itself borne out of modernist mathematical probability) true randomness is more often described through physical models including for example, coin flipping, card shuffling and of course dice rolling.

It would seem that true randomness possesses a quality of unpredictability that is difficult to replicate in a digital manner unless it is possible to “randomise the randomness at random”, or to put it another way, introduce unexpected results, themselves generated at random through intentionally introducing what may be considered a “digital error” or glitch in the system (Krapp, 2011).

Glitch art has become a form viewed by many digital artists as being an aesthetic of the digital age, from its inception as a music genre in the 1990s through to use and incorporation in VJing and other image based practices.

The glitch has its basis in corrupting digital data (at random or intentionally) that has the effect reconfiguring the data and creating new forms and representations as opposed to those initially described by the “ordered” data.

Owing much of its philosophy and approach to circuit bending (repurposing digital hardware), glitch art can offer an unexpected re-imagining of form that can produce works that challenge digital art as rational, somehow predestined and un-human.

Glitch art (perhaps like digital and new media art generally) is in many ways self-referential (in that it is reflective of the creators position within the technology that creates his work) and this can create its own issues of accessibility in terms of the initial data source: a glitch art work can perhaps only make sense when that initial data source is transparent to the viewer/user and thus the process itself becomes the focus of the work.

While glitch art in and of itself may present issues around elitism (albeit a “hacker-elite”), the concept of introducing error and glitch as a part of an interactive system may help in presenting a more real world “feel” to and experience of new media art (Downey).

Whilst to intentionally cause errors in the data output may initially (in the case of the die simulator) allow a more tangible experience for the user in terms of the cultural weight of the die as a hardware interface by producing a “truer” randomness, the introduction of a glitch also offers a means of exploring and re-imagining the nature of that experience.

If the glitch creates a “truer” randomness, the pattern of probability is disrupted and at a conceptual level it may be the case that another particular cultural facet of the die can be explored: cheating.

The notion of cheating or in some way exerting control over what is a random event is closely linked with play, especially within games that involve dice. From the die tappers (whereby dice are constructed with a central well of mercury that when tapped can add weight to a particular corner) to loaded dice (dice specifically constructed to favour a particular face) and even the introduction by casinos of walled tables for dice throwing, all seem to indicate our predilection for trying to control premodernist concepts of chance, fate and luck (Liszkiewicz, 2011).

From Greek stories of cheating the Gods (who in many stories and writings use dice themselves to decide men’s fates) to breaking the bank in Las Vegas casinos there seems to be an inherent cultural “excitement” over how chance, fate and apparent true randomness can be “loaded” in favour of the user/player.

Within these cultural references, the stakes are often high; life or death, win big or lose big and while the concept of cheating aims to shorten the odds in a more favourable way for the user/player, the human dice interaction system is still dependent on the three stages of the die roll: shake, roll, outcome.

In terms of the glitch in the system, the effect is perhaps most applicable during the roll phase whereby the user is now pure spectator at a window awaiting the outcome of his physical technique and interaction (or to put it another way his attempt to control the outcome) during the shake phase.

This roll (processing) phase of the experience, when coupled with the stakes applied to the outcome, can be said to be representative of a liminal state that in itself poses questions about the nature of experience and how the glitch and error, needed to be more representative of true randomness, play their part in the development of the narrative of the system as a whole.

This liminality; this state of becoming; this limbo of existence that is in flux; that exists during the roll phase can represent the more corporeal element of the experience as the die takes the user/player from winner to loser; from life to death in an analogue period that can be representative of every state in between and yet neither one of the binary opposites that are eventually revealed.

The glitch in the system, an approximation of true randomness, also has its liminal properties: it is often referred to as “error”, “corruption” or “bug” that has the effect of suggesting that the process is flawed. However when applied in a new media sense this flaw has the potential to allow us to explore, re-imagine and revise our socio-cultural relationships with historical experience, identity and narrative

Narrative

Aristotle’s Poetics, complete with its prescriptive forms and character archetypes, describes a concept of narrative with three distinct phases: beginning, middle and end.

While this model seems to fit well with the phases of the die roll (as outlined previously), within a new media system, with its inherent ability to re-contextualise, re-represent and challenge perception, there may be an opportunity to explore and re-examine this concept of narrative.

Central to this proposition is the notion that the outcome (Aristotle’s narrative ending) is not set and is dependent on the liminal phase of the die roll.

Thus the “die narrative” challenges the notions of fatality with its reliance on random chance as being the driver of the outcome.

This notion seems to fit well with the socio-cultural aspects of the hardware die and when set within a new media context invites system design that can take advantage of this break with traditional narrative and perhaps present a re-contextualised, re-imagined and revised approach to personal narrative and identity.

The looped nature of this tripartite experience, whereby the user can be encouraged to keep rolling and re-rolling the die, offers the opportunity, through the inclusion of glitch, to change the context of the experience as the system can, for example, randomly freeze the action during the liminal roll phase, play out the action in a different order and “load” the die dependent on not only the nature of the interaction but also via the hard coded error within the window interface.

Thus within the ordered, culturally specific experience of the (new media) die (shake, roll, outcome) there is potential to reshape and re-organise the narrative as it is playing out.

While the nature of the glitch itself can play a role in challenging Aristotle’s Poetics (which in many ways the random, fate-challenging die has always contributed to) the concept of the die itself has its own story to contribute when thinking about narrative.

From “choose your own adventure” literature, through the text based adventure games of early 1980s personal computers (leading to the development of MORPGs) and the exploration of hypertext as literature (as in Heath Bunting’s readme.htm) and Luke Rhinehart’s flaneuring  “The Dice Man” (with its derive that is inherently unreliable and challenges notions of fatality), the die as being representative of random number generator hardware interface, has had its role to play in challenging the prescriptive nature of Aristotlean narrative.

Thus this attitude to the changing narrative of the self, society and culture, whether resulting in Manovich’s spatial narrative of the “digital cinema” (as a product of re-mediation) or a more drastic, postmodern rejection of narrative and “the end of history”; the die and its new media counterpart, the glitch, can be seen as central to explorations and investigations into what narrative means in a non-linear, object orientated digital world that by its nature is in its own constant state of liminal rhythm and flux.

Conclusion

In terms of my original question, it would seem there are a great number of considerations to made regarding both the interface design and its context and also the potential of that interface to offer a critical space of reflection, re-imagining and re-conceptualisation of the die throwing experience for the user.

While notions of the glitch can be seen to offer the potential for investigations into narrative, identity and culture within the new media interface, it would seem imperative that initial conditions for the experience are reliant on the cultural, social and historical faces of the die.

This initial transparency is crucial in order to promote exploration and re-contextualisation of the experience and all its implications (social, cultural, historical plus narrative and identity) for the user to revise through play.

The rhythm between transparency and opacity (in the case of the dice roll as mirror, window, mirror) of the interface can also be central in encouraging the critical space needed for this re-contextualisation.

Finally while this document has concentrated on the re-mediation of a seemingly fundamental and familiar instrument recognisable for is socio-cultural, historical and game play facets, the act of that re-mediation involves a depth of research and, perhaps more importantly, an appreciation of the role of the roll of the die and how that tripartite experience is a feedback loop between user and interface that carries substantial power in terms of its meaning and implications.

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