Saturday, April 22, 2006

Three kinds of detrimental closedness in the IF community

Reading up on the struggle for a free information society, notably in Lawrence Lessig's Free Culture and Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks, I was inspired* to think about the similarities and dissimilarities between the Open Source Software community and the Interactive Fiction community. Both consist of individuals creating software for each other to enjoy for free; but the OSS community seems to be more 'open' in at least three different ways. I believe that it would be immensely beneficial for the IF community if it were to get rid of the following three kinds of closedness:

  1. Most Interactive Fiction is published under closed source licenses, or under no explicit license at all. Even when the source is available, this is never (or next to never) used by people to improve the works of others. Quite in general, the ethos seems to be that only the original authors of a work should change it, and that it is off-limits for others to do so. But a large part of the success of the OSS movement is based on the fact that people continually wish to improve each other's programs; it is unwise for the IF-community not to adopt this idea. Think of the quality that pieces could have if, instead of a work being released in a 'final version' by the author when he is finished with it, enthousiastic people were to continue improving it far beyond its original merits. It is only an out-dated concept of authorship that keeps us from adopting this policy.
  2. For some bizarre reason, it seems to be 'not done' to discuss pieces you are working on in any detail in public. Technical questions can be asked, yes; but how is it that the newsgroups contains no substantive discussion by authors of the pieces they are working on? What keeps authors from, say, publishing their initial 'story board' and asking for comments? What keeps them from asking for advice on how to best incorporate the theme of conflicting loyalties in their new superheroes game? I can answer those questions - it is a practice of being very closed because of the possibility of 'spoiling' the piece for your future audience, a substantial part of which hangs out on the newsgroup. But this practice is detrimental to the quality of works, most of which would benefit from continuous discussion with peers throughout the process of creation. We need to lose our fear of spoiling; hopefully this will become more easy as the number works not based on puzzles increases. (After all, good static fiction cannot be spoiled. "In Crime and Punishment the protagonist first kills an old woman with an axe then later repents his crime and gives himself up to the police!" Does that spoil the book? Of course not.)
  3. Witnessing the success of such community efforts as Wikipedia, one wonders why there are no similar IF projects. What is wrong with everybody being able to contribute to a piece? Obviously, software is more critically dependent on coordination than an encyclopedia; but most OSS projects cope with this by installing an organisational structure that is quite a bit more relaxed than the 'absolutist' paradigm of a single author controlling everything in order to ensure consistency. We need to experiment with projects the development of which is far more open to active participation that the projects we are undertaking now - almost all of which follow the "there is one author who does everything"-paradigm.
As for RPGs: 1 is not quite as relevant as it is for IF, because (a) there is a practice of making adaptions, and (b) using parts of someone else's work is much more straightforward than in software, because the important parts are ideas rather than code; 2 seems to have been effectively solved by an active culture of discussing your designs with fellow designers; and 3 has not been solved and does seem somewhat urgent.

* I was also inspired to become a member of the Free Software Society and the (Europe-based) Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure. I had been planning to join them for quite some time, but finally came around to it today. (What are you doing to protect essential liberties?)


  1. Hello, philosopher! Some points: you are too quick to regard the polishing of and working on software as being similar to writing and polishing a work of fiction, 'static' or 'interactive'. Also, you presuppose that the more people work on a project, the better it will be. As if a single individual would not be able to achieve anything of value. Where does that leave some of the greatest things created? You mention Dostoevsky - would 'Crime and Punishment' been much improved had ten Russians or a hundred been involved in its creation? Apart from the sheer impossibility of a complete agreement of vision among these masses of toiling creators? You have a very mechanical way of regarding the creative process. The thing with interactive fiction writers is that, yes, they have a very authorial stance. But the point is - they are busy (the best of them I think) to express a personal vision of life. I know it is outmoded to see the artist as an individual, with Barthes and Derrida et al., but turning to your own 'Baron' - I played it, I can see room for improvement, but: I see a person trying to express something in his own way, and THAT is the thing art can offer us. You meet a person who has transformed himself into the art he's practising and in the greatest of cases these persons were and are one-offs, just as every single human being is. I wouldn't have liked Wagner, for instance, to have listened to all the sensible advice by his contemporaries when he hit upon the crazy idea of writing four opera's to be performed in a specially-built theatre. To recap: improving software code is one thing, working together to improve something for the common good - all right! But - expressing my mortality and the vision accompanying it - let no-one come near, before I'm ready!

  2. Dear anonymous,

    You may be reading more into what I wrote than what I intended. What I am proposing is something to do in addition to what we are already doing; it would, of course, be an impoverishment if no solitary authors were struggling to express their own visions through a highly personal work of art.

    But - suppose you see room for improvement in a piece, but I, the author, am no longer interested in working on it. Wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest if you could make changes as you see fit and distribute the result? Your changes might be as simple as fixing some typos and making the parser a bit more responsive, or might go as far as rewriting large portions of text, adding more solutions to existing puzzles, adding new locations, puzzles, NPCs and whatnot. If the result of your tinkering is to make the piece worse, well, no harm done: the original is still there. If the result is to make the piece better, great! And perhaps the question of how good it is compared to the original cannot be answered, but we now have two author's expressing their vision instead of one - sounds like a gain.

    And although I agree with you that, of course, it wouldn't have been very sensible for Wagner or Kafka or Nietzsche to ask his contemporaries for help in creating the works they did, I don't think we can generalise that conclusion! For every truly original genius, there are a hundred writers who benefit from writing classes and workshops. We don't want to force the solitary genius to follow workshops, but does that mean that we shouldn't give any workshops? I don't think so. (The workshop is a metaphor. I am not arguing for IF workshops.)

    As to large numbers of people working on the same project, well, I think it is worth a try. It might fail miserably, but it might also be the only way that non-commercial works of IF canmake the step from short story to novel, so to speak.

  3. Dear Victor!

    Thanks for your answer. (Before I begin - as I said, I played your game (in Dutch, quite a sensation to play IF in Dutch!), and I came across some things I'd like you to look at. Where do I send the notes I took?) I'm glad your opinion isn't as extreme as I feared it was. Your qualification that working as a collective is 'in addition' to the legendary 'solitary genius' seeking his artistic salvation really put me at ease. So - no quarrel there. One last thing: your idea that IF writers don't divulge beforehand what they are working on because they don't want to spoil it for the players is only partly just; I think another reason can be added: the wish to be original, to be there first (with a theme, a new technique et cetera); just as with patents, you don't share your idea. Here the comparison between closed source and open source is valid. The writer tries to 'own' an idea, and because he was there first, it's his or her property. I agree with you that this, in the long run, could be detrimental to the continuing development of IF.

    I'll leave it at that. Just to conclude by saying I like your blog and I myself am NOT an IF writer, but a 'static' one, from Delft.

    Het beste!

  4. Dear anonymous,

    Good to hear that we are not in disagreement. :) You can send any comments about "De Baron" to the email-address which is mentioned in the piece's menu: victor = at = Thanks in advance!

    Vriendelijke groeten,

  5. RE my last post: I think I found an address of sorts on your website... Problem solved.

  6. I do wonder how well an open project of this nature would work. In so far as it is just a programming problem, then I think making it open would be advantageous. Allowing others to fix 'bugs' would be fine, but I'm unsure about the value of 'openness' in the creative-writing side of things. I'm not sure I can express a valid complaint. It just doesn't feel right. Perhaps its just because it hasn't been done before,

    _Are_ there any examples of successful 'open' creative works?

    As a long-term MOO programmer in a large MOO, I've seen both sides of this problem. I've written quite a lot myself that I would not want anyone to mess with, but I've also spent a lot of time wandering the MOO and finding places and things that would be really good, if I could just get my hands on the code and make a few changes...

  7. Hi Malcolm,

    In a MOO, if were to change something you had written, would that make your original vision unavailable?

  8. For me, the reason I don't discuss works in progress on the newsgroups is to avoid hype. I currently have four or five unfinished works that I intend to finish and release. If I had discussed these works in public while I was actively working on them, people would be disappointed that they weren't released, and might even feel let down. Vaporware is an annoying thing.

  9. Gregory - a valid concern about vaporware. Of course the open source idea is a great way to combat vaporware. If you are developing in public, and your commitment to the project is less than other people's interest, then they can step in (in fact, one of the impetuses for open software was to deal with orphaned software, that was still usefull, but the author was no longer interested in fixing bugs in).

    That said, I think there is a difference between collaborative story telling and sole author story telling. Shared world fiction was one attempt at collaborative fiction writing, and I think it showed some of the problems.

    With fiction, there's also a consideration of changes that change the author's message. Do we really want racism (or any other ism) to get edited out of a work? What if that ism is the whole point of the book?

    A big difference is that fiction is subjective and softare is objective. Of course IF is both fiction and software, so improving the software is a good goal (and I definitely think it's cool that the z-machine was reverse engineered so all those cool Infocom games could still be enjoyed).