Reading: Computers as Theatre

Laurel, Brenda (1993). Computers as Theatre. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

At the recent iDMAA 2012 conference, I asked many of the faculty that I met for their recommended readings on the subject of interactivity, in anticipation of my 2013 Interactivity course. Brenda Laurel’s book kept coming up, and a few spoke of it with great reverence. After reading the book, I can see why for some—especially early generation digital designers—the book was so inspirational: it offered what for its time was probably one of the most fully formed humanistic approaches to computers, what Laurel herself calls a “new place to stand when considering the design of human-computer activity” (p. xxi). Laurel outlines an elaborate “poetics of human-computer activity” (p. xix), with a framework and vocabulary derived primarily from Aristotle’s Poetics. The book also presents what we’d now call human-computer interaction (HCI) as important and artistic work. Says Laurel, “Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that can have a special relationship to reality—worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to think, feel, and act” (p. 32).

Laurel’s book has seven chapters. Chapter 1, “The Nature of the Beast,” assesses the state of HCI theory in the 1990s, and makes a case for dramatic theory as an appropriate resource to guide a field that Laurel says lacks a clear and appropriate approach. Chapters 2 and 3 establish “dramatic foundations,” drawing primarily on Aristotle. In Chapter 2, Laurel presents the structural elements of drama, including Aristotle’s four causes—formal, material, efficient, and end—and his six elements of structure—spectacle (which Laurel recasts as “enactment”), melody (recast as “pattern”), language, thought, character, and action. Laurel’s claim is that these elements can also be used to structure human-computer systems. In Chapter 3, Laurel provides a vocabulary for describing dramatic action, including the “flying wedge” (a useful tool—see Figure 1) and a modified version of Freytag’s triangle. Chapter 4 moves from dramatic foundations to dramatic techniques, with discussion focused on the necessity of constraints and the ideal of user engagement. Chapter 5 is the money chapter; it lists and elaborates on twelve “design principles for designing human-computer activities.” In Chapter 6, Laurel applies some of her theoretical vocabulary to several human-computer activities, including word processing, a ‘smart’ house, the Guides project at Apple, and virtual reality (VR) systems. Chapter 7 is a short coda written for the second release of the book (in 1993, two years after its original release in 1991), expressing both some considerable dismay with the state of VR hype and a recapitulation of interesting developments made, nonetheless, in the course of VR development.

flying wedge
Figure 1. Laurel’s “flying wedge.” (p. 70)

Brenda Laurel’s work with computers began when she was a graduate student studying theater, as a way to support herself. This was back in the quite early days of personal computing (the late 1970s). Laurel worked at Atari and studied at Alan Kay’s lab at MIT. During much of my reading, I was trying to decide if the book was too dated to relate to the design of interactive systems today. After completing the book, I think my answer is yes and no: as a general framework for HCI design, it falls short—not because of the integrity of Laurel’s framework, but because of the changed nature of computing, which was not foreseeable back when Laurel wrote and published the book. However, Laurel’s framework could still be quite useful in the design of some interactive texts and objects, such as video games and interactive documentaries, and a number of the individual concepts could be useful in different areas of digital theory and design.

Let’s begin with the useful. Laurel’s extended engagement of Aristotle was interesting to me, especially given that I work on new media from a rhetorical perspective. I was also quite interested in the book’s opening chapter, especially its visual models for the concept of the “human-computer interface,” as well as Laurel’s alternative view that abandons the idea of interface altogether, in favor of a “view of human-computer interaction” (see Figure 2). These sketches seem a useful starting point for classroom discussion; I’m thinking particularly of their utility for setting up an assignment that I give my Proseminar students, to analyze a “new media interface”(“What’s an interface?” they ask). Chapter 3, on orchestrating action, was another that I found compelling; it struck me as a good chapter to inform discussions of story structure in my Database and Narrative course. Finally, I was interested to find so much critique of interface metaphors in Laurel’s book. I’d read about these a bit in Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age, but didn’t realize how foundational the concept is in HCI.

Figure 2. Laurel’s alternative to the notion of human and computer, united or divided by an interface. According to Laurel’s scheme, “the triangles are agents of either human or computer-generated types, and the other shapes are other objects in the virtual environment. The shape of the ‘stage’ is oval, like the beam of a spotlight, to suggest that all that matters is that which is ‘illuminated.’” (p. 18)
Figure 2. Laurel’s alternative to the notion of human and computer, united or divided by an interface. According to Laurel’s scheme, “the triangles are agents of either human or computer-generated types, and the other shapes are other objects in the virtual environment. The shape of the ‘stage’ is oval, like the beam of a spotlight, to suggest that all that matters is that which is ‘illuminated.’” (p. 18)

I said earlier that the book struck me as a bit dated to be an all-purpose guide for the design of human-computer activities, and that’s for two reasons. First, the vision offered seems to work best for the design of immersive worlds, especially video games. Although Laurel does apply her framework to “productive” activities, like word processing and using spreadsheets, the robust Aristotelean framework seems an imperfect fit for these more pragmatic tasks (though some of her ideas certainly help to clarify design priorities; for example, her advice to embrace constraints that allow users to feel satisfying agency). Second, Laurel’s approach implies that it is the designer’s responsibility to create a complete world or system. This ideal does not seem particularly attainable, especially in our multi-device, multi-platform, networked world, where people accomplish activities—like writing a research article, for example—using quite a range of tools and practices, with some tools used as-designed, some adapted by the user. Design that proceeds with an aim to script a user’s experience in the same way that a playwright attempts to script an audience’s experience also seems less desirable than an iterative design process, which incorporates the innovations of users (see Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres Through Organizations).

In summary, though Laurel’s book won’t make the cut into my Interactivity course, her insistence on a humanistic framework for design is admirable, and the book as a whole was quite interesting to think through.