Three Levels of Interaction

Volume #1 Issue 3 August 1987

For many years I have yammered about one of my favorite themes "process intensity versus data intensity". I have argued that computer programs not just games derive their value from their emphasis on processing of data rather than the data itself. The conclusion I draw from this is that game designers should focus their energies on creating process-intensive designs.

Lately I have modified and extended this thesis. I now claim that the intensity of interaction provided in a game can be assessed on a spectrum that is marked with three milestones.

The lowest level of interaction is interaction with data. Most adventure games fall in this region of interactivity. The data consists of the design of the maze and the positions and capabilities of the objects populating the maze. This is not very rich or interesting interaction.

The middle level of interaction is interaction with process. A game in this category would be my old nuclear power plant simulation, Scram. The player interacts with the various thermal processes in the plant, trying to maximize performance without melting down the plant. Most resource-management games fall in this category, and a goodly portion of all the games on the market have strong components of process-interaction.

The highest level of interaction is interaction with free will. One might argue that free will is a special capability that only humans possess, and that the attempts at free will that we see in computer games are really just elaborate processes, but I would argue that processes that model free will, if executed properly, constitute a higher and richer form of interaction than conventional process-interaction. Only free will can shoot back at the player in an interesting and deeply interactive manner. If our designs are truly going to interact with our players, then we must be able to contest with them on more nearly equal terms.

Modeling free will is, of course, a difficult task. But the richness of interaction that it offers our games makes it a prime target for designers on the cutting edge of the field.