The “Multipresence” behaviour pattern across (multiple) (real-time) spaces

GAIA 2021’s first session, “The New Spacemakers,” was a Zoom call close to a hundred viewers strong, a digital call about digital spaces that was started off with a prompt from Marie Claire LeBlanc Flanagan to take a breath, take a minute, and consider our physical bodies and the lands we inhabit.

(I looked out my window at the commercial and residential and mixed-use structures just outside and thought about what the land might have looked like before anything had been constructed there.)

GAIA: https://gameartsinternational.network/

Touring five aspirational and personal online spaces had me reflecting on some of the things I’d wanted to do in the past, and on the issues I currently have with my relationship to a lot of extant spaces. Social media. But Discord, too, and even texting my friends, and family.

Why is it so easy to maintain a real conversation in Skittish, in Togethernet, in Em Lazer-Walker’s bespoke Roguelike Celebration space with anyone at all – a friend, a handful of acquaintances, a total stranger – and yet in casual text conversations I can find it anxiety-inducingly hard to begin conversations, maintain them, or end them?

Multipresence

I don’t know when I adopted this habit but I realized a very long time ago that the playless text-only pseudo-real-time nature of (for example) MSN, Twitter, Discord, and SMS meant that I could have two or more conversations going on at once.

I’ve always been a fast typist with a low tolerance for waiting, so it felt natural. Why focus solely on one conversation and spend (at best) half the time waiting for a response, when I’m here at my computer, with so many ways to better spend that idle time? And since I’m already in this program that lets me talk to other people, why not spend that idle time talking to someone else at the same time?

I can have two or three or four conversations at once by overclocking my brain a bit — and nobody will know, not with the cues all eroded by platform optimizations and limitations.

I only coined the term “multipresence” today for describing this tactic, but the tactic itself isn’t new. It’s so old I forget what it was like to not do this. It’s so old it doesn’t even feel worth naming, but if you’ve followed my blog you might recognize a pattern of me naming these nameless troublesome things. Names, labels, give me power over them. They pull these long-accepted things out of the obscurity that has been protecting them from analysis.

Being a Single Presence

I’ve had my gripes about Twitter, and pined for the good old days of the TIGSource Forums, supposing that was the problem to be solved, and a viable solution, if only people still used forums. Discord has been getting a little overwhelming lately too, though, and it was troubling to me that I couldn’t find a general-case version of the problem. What was my problem?

It was in the afterglow of the whole “The New Spacemakers” session — after the grounded tours of the new spacemakers’ online spaces — after admiring the sprawling shape my conversation with xin took in Togethernet — after catching the tail end of whatever happened in Skittish (I’d missed it and just quietly hung out with Andy Baio and Mer Grazzini around the portrait of bird-droqen that Mer had painted on the ground out of red and yellow flower prefabs) — that I thought I might have finally identified the general case.

There are a few nice pictures of the aforementioned portrait of bird-droqen but I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share pictures of my time in Skittish? You can see what it looks like here and just ~imagine~ a bird made out of flowers:

https://twitter.com/skittishHQ

You’ve already read me describe it once further above; it’s Multipresence, it’s this weird thing that doesn’t happen in real life for the most part because we have one body, one voice, one set of ears. Maybe it’s just an ADHD brain thing (?) but regardless I think anyone is capable of Multipresenting —

We can have as many digital selves as we want, but with every additional simultaneous presence, our attention is further divided, our sense of whole-self-ness is further degraded.

for me, anyway, I think it’s a state that causes a great deal of harm over time.

Strategies for Disrupting Multipresentation

This topic is interesting to me as a designer and as an easily-distracted, easily-fragmented player/user. How can we disrupt multipresence in our designed spaces if it really is, as I experience it, just a “bad habit?”

Engagement (one hue-shift away from addiction, which somehow became a good word when describing games) is a powerful tool that I always want to be cautious about wielding, but I think engaging experiences that draw and demand focus are valuable weapons against multipresence. They let us focus on one thing, on being one individual with one goal, inhabiting one space.

The nature of an awkward, disembodied computer experience shatters our presence a little; the concept of Game Feel is about how as humans we’re capable, if given the right tools, of transplanting our perception-of-self into another state.

(I could go on about other books discussing the concept that perception-of-self is something not innate, that it is something we lend to even ourselves, but I’ll try to stay on topic. Ask in the comments if you’re interested though.)

So any platform can combat multipresence by, like the Roguelike Celebration’s custom MMO-like social space does with its raidable kitchens and tangible world, giving its inhabitants toys to play with that further embody them in the space itself, rather than leaving blank space which users have to fill with activities that take them out of the world. This isn’t about keeping people’s capital-E Engagement metrics high, it’s about providing tools to help people who’ve chosen to exist here fulfill what I see as a genuine desire to feel like one focused, present individual.

They can also take advantage of our existing wetware by giving us a face or a voice, or through giving us a motile avatar that makes us feel tangible and human and embodied (even if we’re birds or elephants or crescent moons or candles).

What I can do myself

Ultimately, the platform is in some ways just a catalyst; it’s my brain reacting. I completely recognize that multipresenting is not something that everyone does necessarily, or finds problematic in their own life.

I’m personally trying to spend time in at most one “digital space” at a time, somehow signalling when I plan to leave or when I’m about to go idle. Most of all I wish there was a simple, feel-y way to indicate I’ve turned my attention towards a topic or conversation or away from it, that didn’t involve calling extra attention to the fact I’m doing it.

in Discord it’s all-or-nothing, and Twitter has no such feature at all. I used to say “hello” or “goodbye” or “good night Twitter” in my tweets and threads, and I stopped a while ago, because I wasn’t sure why I still did it. Now I have a good reason to resume.

That’s everything. Enjoy your digital life.

Good night.

Design notebook for the inception of a jam game: Dungeon Bounce

Yesterday I streamed three post-mortems in one crazy video (with some technical difficulties please be prepared), but while I had collaborators on with me for the HMDL issue 0 exhibition & for Yrkkey’s Paradise

Dungeon Bounce was a game I designed alone for the #ChainLetterJam. On-stream with sylvie & torcado, I got to hear them break down their understanding of the game in real time as they were figuring it out (which was so fun), but I didn’t really get into how the game was designed. So that’s what I’m writing this blog post for.

I’d just spent the better part of the week trudging through some scope-creeped work on a certain death-labyrinthy project, and getting nowhere fast. So I yote myself out of that funk by working on my pending #ChainLetterJam game.

And, as #ChainLetterJam law demands, I was to make a game inspired in some way by Arithmetic Bounce. Because of what I was escaping from, I was setting out to make something without inventing too many new mechanics. I wanted to work with the material of the existing game; that was my starting point.

I focused on just thinking and taking notes, and the stream of thought turned out particularly readable! No visuals, but here is a lot of the text, lightly edited, from that mental design session.

Design Notebook

I started with my goals:

How could I use the existing mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce to make something that feels different? I don’t want to always be chained to inventing new mechanics to implement, so my goal is: re-use the mechanics of Arithmetic Bounce.

[..] I think I’ve gotta break it down into individual components to even begin to think about this…

These notes are from my notebook, but putting bullet points in a quoteblock acts weird:

  • There is a background number
  • You are an arithmetic sign
  • You can move, double-jump, quick fall, and switch from + to –
  • Touching a number adds/subtracts it to the background number depending on your sign
  • Lots of numbers are available at any given moment
  • There is a bit of pressure to bump the right number
  • It’s trivial to stray from both goals and danger at the same time
Arithmetic Bounce! If you haven’t tried it, play it on itch.io and see if you would’ve picked out different elements as crucial or interesting.

For a while I pursued this line of thinking first–was there an emotional arc I could capture with regard to how ‘safe’ it is to just stray from your target numbers? You can go to 20, 50, 100, and the game doesn’t really apply any pressure at all to you for that. I thought it was interesting:

As a player you’re carefully managing resources in pursuit of victory. Why be so careful when you could simply survive? Is there a real-world situation in which you have to approach a particular value and not stumble into the wrong one?

I remember getting up and pacing a lot at this point. In Arithmetic Bounce, I found I did a lot of “holding the numbers” in my head, and I wanted to turn that into something a bit more feel-y, so I was thinking about how to recontextualize the mechanics into something more intuitive. And, holding on to the above line of thought, I was letting myself feel fine about a system that’s not always forcing you to progress.

Maybe rather than numbers I can do distance? What’s a tangible, relatable scenario where I’m constantly shifting around in position, and hitting the wrong spots will leave me dead? I guess something Necrodancer-like, exploring a dungeon. Take a few steps this way, take a few steps that way. I could have walls.

If I’m exploring a dungeon, what’s the time-pressure-number-picking metaphor? Drinking potions? Maybe I’m a wizard. Hmm.

Oh, of course, monsters! So I’m a rogue with a bow&arrow, and enemies are constantly spawning, then approaching me. The “movement” items I collect are also attacks. If I don’t attack every so often, a monster reaches me, and I die.

I felt great about this solution, but a little guilty I’d wound up designing something combat-fantasy-heavy. So I wandered down a few thematic alleyways that didn’t really pan out:

Consider a social situation… giving a speech, making jokes, etc. You want to get points for saying interesting things but not lose points for saying the wrong thing.

I’m still interested in the “social scenario” sort of situation, so maybe I can pull it back somehow. The timer there is… you’re constantly trying to leave the party? Edging towards the door, and if you don’t say anything, you leave.

The life-or-death dungeon-full-of-monsters-and-traps metaphor was too tempting, or too familiar, for me to get away from.

Okay, back to the super-simple dungeon metaphor.

At some point I recognized something I’d missed from my initial set of bullet points:

  • If you take too long to make a decision (in Arithmetic Bounce), the numbers that are available to you (due to the arc of gravity) dwindle until you’re forced to either grab whatever number is right below you, or miss grabbing a number entirely (and fall off the bottom of the screen) (and lose the game).

I added this feature to the monsters; as they approached, they would eat up the numbers that had been scattered around for you to click on along the way. Unlike in Arithmetic Bounce (where you have to touch the the numbers to collect them), the positioning of the numbers in Dungeon Bounce didn’t have a diegetic function yet. So now they had one.

The super-simple dungeon metaphor as it appears in the final game.

The dungeon is a straight line (maybe a narrow/long grid, like 3×20?). Monsters approach from the “ends” of the dungeon, and if they reach you, it’s game over. Movement commands appears on the tiles of the dungeon, and clicking one grabs it. The reason for this is to mirror the ‘dwindling options’ dynamic of Arithmetic Bounce: As the monsters reach the tiles, they eat them! Just to make sure you always have a reasonable number of tiles, monsters will approach from both sides but at different rates.

The bad numbers are trap tiles.

The good number is the stairs down to the next floor.

Let’s do this.

From this point I went on to make a bunch of stuff feel and look good! But that’s beyond the scope of this blog post and I think a lot of it is stuff you can experience yourself through playing the game.

These notes were surprisingly coherent, and I wanted to share them because I thought an example of this process might be valuable to someone out there. Thanks for reading. Leave a comment, let me know if I was right!