Following an MSc in Business Systems Analysis (City University, London, 1993) and an MA (Conv.) in English Literature (Trinity College, Cambridge, 1978), my work then focused on an examination of the application of drama theory and practice in the construction of interactive virtual environments. This is a development of ideas first formulated in my MSc dissertation, "The Use of Systems Design Methods in the Construction of Interactive Fiction". If you use any of this material, do please credit me. Thanks.

Position Statement (1993)

The use of virtual environments is growing. In the last twelve months, such diverse fields as architecture, geological and marine surveying, telecommunications, medicine and financial dealing have all begun developing the modelling power of VR for commercial use. At the same time, hardware support for VR is improving, falling in price, becoming more widely accessible.

However, VR design is still not sufficiently developed to provide coherent interactive environments between humans. The drive is on to develop coherent practice for the development of such environments; applications and markets are foreseen in entertainment, training, education and therapy.

Drama is a mechanism for examining the interactions between people, theatre a "complex aesthetic machine, dedicated to the representation of the imaginable through performance" (Hilton J., 1993). It seems entirely practical that drama and theatre should be appropriate technologies for the massively interactive environments that VR offers.

Translated from the Greek, drama is "the doing thing"; theatre (theatron) is "the seeing place". The two are often confused, but their distinction is crucial to an understanding of the place of drama rather than theatre in human interaction environments, where engagement is not fundamentally linear (as in a book, film or play - though each of these differs in its "linearity"). but multi-threaded, as in an improvisation, or a play rehearsal. Virtual reality might appear to be the natural successor to the cinema, as cinema appeared to be the successor to the theatre. But virtual reality offers a medium that does not require or respond to the linear constraints or editing of the cinema. Current interactive technologies, loosely described as multi-media, and largely working on hypertext principles, provide only limited dramatic interaction within a linear framework, relying on branching selections of pre-recorded material and drawing on film editing principles - the "interactive movie".

Theatre is itself a linear event, with limited direct interaction between performers and audience - but purposeful improvised drama, as used in schools, in rehearsal and in experimental theatre, provides a framework for action in fictional virtual environments, where it is of importance that the users (or players) are represented as in some way other than themselves. Indeed, the word "represented" can be written as "re-presented", emphasising the changed nature of self-presentation that virtual environments encourage. The theatre itself offers a wealth of theory, knowledge and experience of constructing dramas for presentation, and though usually studied as an experience for an audience, the experience of the performers is also pertinent to re-presentation in virtual environments.

Current Work (back then)

An ontology connecting drama and computer-based virtual environments has been tentatively established, and three conference papers have been written, placing ideas linking drama and virtual environments for discussion in an academic arena. The acceptance of the first of these, "Envisonments - the Construction of Dramatic Virtual Worlds", for VRST '94, Singapore, has gone some way to establishing confidence in the work, receiving very encouraging feedback from reviewers.

The paper was intentionally broad and covers these main themes:

Dr. Peter Holland, Head of English at Trinity Hall College, Cambridge, is acting as second supervisor, overseeing the drama and theatre elements of research. Our relationship goes back over fifteen years, to when I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, heavily involved in university theatre.

Further lines of research are examining the following areas in closer detail:

As can be seen, the subject area is situated at the overlap between a number of disciplines, and I have no doubt that other as yet unexamined themes must be drawn upon.

Future Work

A continuing focus on the nature of computer-based dramatic interaction seems appropriate, with further integration of theory and practice using:

  1. Non-Aristotelian drama, especially forms of twentieth-century interactive drama such as:

    Character development (Chekov, 1952, Stanislavski, 1937, 1963, Moore, 1979)

    Improvisation skills and Drama-in-Education (Pfister, 1988, O'Toole, 1992, Bolton, 1979, 1984, Heathcote (in Wagner, 1976), Jackson, 1993, Frost & Yarrow, 1990, Boal, 1974, 1992)

  2. Practical experimentation to examine simple interactive dramas using the multi-user graphical game, Doom (id Software, 1994) which allows both collaborative and competitive play on a small network of PCs, and can be edited to alter graphic content (though not the behaviour of its agents). It is of particular interest to find out more about the psychology and physiology of the phenomenon known as "suspension of disbelief" (Coleridge, 1817), and the application of status transactions and transactional analysis techniques to interaction (see below).

  3. Envisionments - a design methodology for interactive environments - requires a deeper level of understanding and more sophisticated examples than those given in the paper. The publication of the 2nd edition of Ian Graham's book Object Oriented Methods (1994) gives access to a broadening of the SOMA design methodology and Edward Yourdon has also extended his object-oriented analysis methodology (1994). An analysis, deconstruction and development of Shakespeare's play Macbeth will serve as the basis of a larger study of both the analysis and the design of an envisionment.

  4. Status-based dramatic "transaction" in character (actor/agent) development. This engages the use of acting techniques developed over the last ten years from status-based improvisation (Keith Johnstone , 1981, and others), transactional analysis (Berne, 1963, Harris, 1967, Klein, 1980, Steiner, 1990) and non-verbal communication (Birdwhistle, 1970, Morris, 1978, Bull, 1983) with work on co-operative / collaborative / competitive agents in distributed AI (Galliers, 1990, Castlefranchi, 1990). Already, work is under way examining how spatial awareness informs non-verbal communication in VR at Nottingham University as part of the UK CSCW initiative VIRTUOSI. There is also research investigating the phenomena of embodiment in VR (Benford, 1994) and "presence" (Steed, Slater & Usoh, Department of Computer Science, Queen Mary & Westfield College, London).

Further Considerations

There are no easily available models or products that can be used to assess or evaluate dramatic virtual environments. Editable graphic games offer only tightly limited interactions and little possibility of altering their nature - Doom allows for only run, shoot, pick up and die. On the other hand, commerci virtual world-building software offers very limited behavioural functionality. It remains to be seen if a suitable world builder emerges in time to provide a practical, experimental basis for my conclusions.


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All material © Copyright 1995-2012 Ivor Benjamin unless otherwise specified. Last updated February 2012.