Computer Gaming and Protocols of Improvisation


"MUD players are MUD authors, the creators as well as consumers of media content. In this, participating in a MUD has much in common with script writing, performance art, street theatre, improvisational theatre--or even commedia dell'arte. But MUDs are something else as well.... As players participate, they become not only authors of the text but of themselves, constructing new selves through social interaction. One player says, 'You are the character and you are not the character, both at the same time.' Another says, 'You are who you pretend to be.'" (Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen, 12)

We are often called upon to improvise our characters within a matrix of social codes, and there is much to learn about how and why we do this from a study of improvisation as a performative practice across a variety of disciplines.

With certain qualities of interaction, there is a feeling of symbiosis between human and technology: in the traditional theatre, this symbiosis is fostered by empathy; in immersive computing applications, we might speak of agency. "Agency is the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices," writes Janet Murray (126). At deeply personal levels, we might even test the boundaries of identity and consciousness in the process of meaning-making. This "consciousness of doubleness" characterizes both performance and the human/computer interface.

In Life on the Screen, Sherry Turkle explores the nature of the performer in cyberspace, of the performance at the interface of human and machine. Reflecting an abiding postmodern sensibility steeped in Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze, Turkle postulates a model of self that is multiple, distributed, flexible, reflective, and nomadic. She suggests that our interactions with networked computers both encourage the formulation of a multiplicity of selves, and our performance in the medium is enhanced when we recognize the possibility of multiplicity.

She concludes that MUDs "make possible the creation of an identity so fluid and multiple that it strains the limits of the notion....[Y]our identity on the computer is the sum of your distributed presence" (12-13). Turkle's influential work updates the construction of the performing self in distributed networks, acknowledges the role of improvisation in the construction of those selves, and suggests the importance of the requisite consciousness of doubleness--at least of doubleness. In our evolution from a culture of calculation to a culture of simulation (20), "it is the computer screens where we project ourselves into our own dramas, dramas in which we are producer, director and star." The subtext of this drama, as N. Katherine Hayles describes it, is the story of how we became posthuman.