Network: The tragedy of interactive fun

Slightly baffled geeks in jeans were given the full celebrity treatment by Bafta
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The Independent Culture
THE ARRIVAL of autumn weather signals the awards season in the computer industry. The new entrant to the usual round of Very Useful but Rather Boring database awards is the "New Media Oscar", otherwise known as the Bafta Interactive Entertainment Awards.

For a fledgling industry, this new award is being executed in a terribly grand manner, with ICL sponsoring the proceedings and dispensing largess and Bafta lending glamour to the occasion.

At last week's nominations party, a crowd of slightly baffled geeks in jeans were given the full celebrity treatment in the sumptuous Bafta building in Piccadilly. Without semi-naked actresses wearing dangerously tight red tops, though, the effect was somewhat different to a traditional Bafta awards night. Perhaps this could be improved upon at the actual awards ceremony, which will take place on 29 October. For example, a glamorous girlfriends-for-hire scheme could be sponsored by ICL or Cisco Systems, while the de rigueur white stretch limousines could be provided by Microsoft.

Seriously, though, the establishment of the Bafta Interactive Entertainment Awards is quite timely, as soon we will be flooded by the stuff, with the arrival early next year of interactive TV. Up to now, interactive entertainment has consisted of a hypertext link and a couple of animated GIFs. Raising our expectations and kicking the creatives into action is a welcome first step toward improving the current sad state of interactive entertainment.

Wheeling Bafta into the proceedings, though, is rather less convincing, as it would seem to suggest a direct link between the art of storytelling and the kind of entertainment generated by computers, databases and CGI code. The finalists for the awards are a slightly haphazard mixture of websites providing news, educational CD-Roms, games and toys like Barney the Microsoft Dinosaur. Hardly any of the entrants was a storytelling product. The game Riven could probably be considered a sort of storytelling, but its fun comes from the mind-boggling puzzles, each of which takes you a week to solve. The pleasure and joy of Riven comes from the struggle with your own lazy brain, and not from emotions provoked by a particularly moving scene.

The dissonance between the kind of entertainment that comes from playing Riven and watching a good film or play is made particularly poignant by the symbol of Bafta - the ancient Greek mask symbolising the tragi-comic nature of drama. A play or film works when it manipulates our emotions, engages us by identification with the hero and provides dramatic tension through conflict and resolution. Such deep emotional experiences are hardly comparable with problem-solving in games such as Riven or You Don't Know Jack. I fear that positioning interactive entertainment as a son of Greek tragedy can only cause disappointment. It will be perceived as a weaker cousin of the great art of storytelling.

And yet, since simply clicking on hypertext links has proved to be sufficiently addictive to create a huge industry on the Internet, interactive entertainment is obviously delivering something to the user which, although different than an action movie, can keep people online well after midnight. My own list of top interactive fun sites would include Dissecting the Frog, a biology website from Georgetown University. It simply allows people to select which parts of a frog's anatomy they want to inspect. Very gory, but very educational, and although it has been a while since I visited the site, I distinctly remember every detail and figure that I know as much about frog anatomy as your average biology graduate.

Other lovely gems of intelligent interactivity include the banners from Obsolete, which, when you click on them, do strange things to your website (and if you are not careful, to your room as well). OK, perhaps having worms coming out of a banner and nesting in my hard drive on a serious news website wasn't quite what I bargained for, and at the time I was infuriated by their cocky arrogance. But I have come to love these little surprises that arise when you break the mould of the expected.

The missing category in the Bafta awards is for sites that have broken all the new ground in interactivity - the so-called "adult entertainment" sites. It's amazing what you can make your mouse do on one well-known site that has made great use of Macromedia Director. I'll never look at my mouse in the same way again!

Online erotica is the great playground of interactive entertainment, and it is a sign of excessive sobriety that those labouring on the best tools are to be for ever barred from recognition because of their unorthodox nature.

Finally, another missing nomination was one for Yahoo!, which has long since crossed the dividing line from search engine to pure surrealist entertainment. Entering a keyword into Yahoo! is like playing the game of associations, as typically practised by New York psychoanalysts. You search for "pub listings in Wales", and you get "pubic hair", "molecular analysis" or, if you are lucky, a list of "publicly available image compression software". This is a sheer interactive delight, as long as you go to search engines like Yahoo! for fun and not for functionality.

So, although interactive entertainment is most definitely not related to the type of experience that a Greek tragedy can deliver (despite Bafta's blessing), there is a lot of fun to be had by just clicking your mouse. How much fun is up to the creative geeks who push the boundaries of imagination. We can only hope that not all of their interactive talents will enrich playboy.com, but spill over to other areas for our collective clicking pleasure. Meanwhile, mail me the examples of your best interactive fun sites to eva@never.com

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