Computers as Theatre Second Edition

Back in high school, a very long time ago, I took a drama class. I also took a one-sememster drama class at the university. This means I have a very elementary foundation, but I am far from an expert in the field. However, from the moment I heard this book’s title I immediately saw the potential.

Computers as Theatre, Second Edition is an update to a 20-year-old classic in the field of human-computer interaction. The author, Brenda Laurel, is an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science and Affiliated Faculty for Games and Playable Media at the University of California, Santa Cruz. In addition to her academic credentials, which include a PhD in theatre, she also has serious real-world experience with previous employers like Atari, Activision, and Apple.

The book is based on the simple premise that effective interface design, just like effective drama, must engage the user directly in an experience involving both thought and action. Laurel’s key point is that a user’s enjoyment must be a paramount design consideration, and she posits that it demands a deep awareness of dramatic theory and technique. While I might shrink back from the idea that this awareness is an absolute requirement, I will quickly and easily concede that this awareness would be extremely useful.

This is not a book of practical tips and tricks. It is a reader-accessible study that lays out the philosophical and academic foundations for understanding first how humans audience members interact with drama and uses that as a basis for thinking about how computer users can more effectively be enabled to interact with computers.

The beginning of Computers as Theatre focuses on both classical and modern schools of thought and theory about drama. This is very interesting and outside of my previous experience. It got me thinking about things I had never considered. I like that.

The rest of the book takes this knowledge and applies it to computers. It does so in ways that alternately seem obvious and revolutionary. I will illustrate using one small portion of the book’s content.

In drama, the action is represented as a whole and created by the playwright and director to be the same in every performance. In human-computer interaction, the action is collaboratively shaped by both the designer and the person using the computer; it is a joint-venture and may change with each interactive session. And yet, in both instances, there is an expected beginning, middle, and end. The audience expects to move from a beginning point to an end point with a purpose. The characters in a drama exist and act to move this plot forward. So do the elements of a computer interface design.

Have you have ever sat at a computer looking at a piece of software and wondering “What’s the point?” Then you have experienced a bad interface design. Learning how to create an interface that has an obvious point and reason behind each of its constituent parts and actions is one of the things this book intends to teach, but again, from a philosophical rather than practical standpoint. Here we do not learn the “what to do” answers so much as the questions to ask. In the long term, this is usually more valuable regardless of the topic or field.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?