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RECOGNIZING FLIRTS: ON CONSENT IN PLAY SYSTEMS

The human brain is admittedly complex, and so too are the ways in which it interprets information. Not every flirt is noticed, and not every flirt is invited. As is apropos to such work, this book focuses on consensual situations. In this context that means flirts must be intended. It also assumes that when discussing flirts between players, those flirts are consented.

It should go without saying, flirting without consent is not just creepy, it can even be illegal (a.k.a., sexual harassment). This is why the focus of this chapter centers on the notion of flirting with. Flirting with implies some modicum of consent or agreement between those involved in the flirt. Even in the case of human-computer flirting, the ideal situation is that the computer system has been designed to accept (a.k.a., consent) to such flirting. The moral and theoretical complexities of this consent—how it’s expressed and what it means—are worthy of a book unto itself. It could be argued that until a developer explicitly designs such intention and invitation into an algorithm, there is no clear consent.

Likewise, one might argue that consent—by developer intention, player use, and any autonomy given the system—are all independent, especially when considering machine learning and artificial intelligence systems. In short, just as there is understood to be an age of consent for humans, it could be argued that computer systems are not at their developmental age of consent. It could also be argued that those last sentences are entirely baseless claims, not worthy of further discussion. In short, we have a long way to go before there are clear definitions of “consenting computer systems” in play. While systems might consent in terms of input validation or security, our relatively immature history of human-computer relationship means we are still seeking to understand “consent” in play systems.

To focus these explorations, it’s easiest to assume that each flirting interaction is about players flirting between players in a system that allows players to consent to such interactions, or with players flirting with a system that consents to such interaction by design and algorithmic intention. This is what is meant by flirting with, not flirting at or toward. By doing so, it implies a two-part system that not only expresses the flirt, but recognizes the flirt. By analogy, when that bird shows its feathers as a mating cue, it is only a complete mating cue if seen and recognized by its recipient. Otherwise it’s a little dance or flutter, not a flirt. Hence, for humans to flirt with each other through play—or to flirt in human-computer interaction play—the flirt must be communicated and received.

The English language supports this perception simply. Flirting is done with, not to, its subject. Even the old expression, flirting with death, is understood this way. That’s because flirting is very much like play. Just as people are played with, flirting is done between people, not to people.

This means as a case study in designing affection it’s a particularly apt place to start. To effectively flirt takes at least two consenting people. It may only take only one to start a flirt, but like a volley, it’s only true when it is recognized and an attempt to return is applied.

This is particularly important in both understanding the history and identification of flirting and flirt-enabled games. Some games allow, or susceptible to, flirts at, not with. The earliest text adventure games, for example, allowed players to communicate whimsical flirts, but the systems were not typically designed to accommodate much of a volley. The player could attempt a verbal flirt or offer a game verb as a command that might imply some kind of flirt. In the end, the system did little to return the flirt. If a player types “I find you very attractive” as the opening move in the 1976 version of Colossal Cave Adventure (1977), the response is “all I understood is that you wanted to take inventory.” The system responds as a computer would, all business and clearly no volley.

Later games, such as Leisure Suit Larry (1987) or some of the other Sierra Entertainment games are obvious examples. The Larry series contained many situations involving versions of flirting. While an alternate version of the King’s Quest franchise, King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human (AGD Interactive 2011) contained small moments using a character known anonymously as Barmaid. She provided extra-marital flirt dialogue and rewarded the player character with a lute if he played it for her. But such games were designed with flirting in mind. They are part of consenting systems. Their systems expected players to flirt.

And of course, this is where the notion of digital flirting becomes so complicated. If it takes two to flirt, then what’s left for the computer? In the history of computer dating, there was of course plenty of flirting through the computer. In the history of simulations like Eliza (Weizenbaum 1966), there was likely some flirting with the computer. In the first move of the simulation, players are prompted with “Hi! I’m Eliza, What’s your problem.” If the player responds, “I’m in love with you,” the response is an awkwardly mechanical “Did you come to me because you are in love with I?” Yet the system is much more accommodating to the player response “I’m in love,” to which it responds “How long have you been in love?” Yet in a new session, if the player responds to the initial prompt, “What’s your problem” the conversation almost always takes a flirtatious trajectory as shown in Figure 3.1.

If the player continues along these lines, the algorithm takes a turn. If the player responds, “I love you” when responding to the psychoanalytic

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eliza — an interactive parroting

From Creative Computing magazine;

adapted for the IBM PC by Patricia Danielson and Paul Hashfield; readapted for inform by Ricardo Dague.

[type "shut up" to end]

Hi! I'm Eliza. What's your problem?

>1 think you're beautiful

Do you really think so?

>Yes

Are you sure?

>Very much so

Say, do you have any psychological problems?

FIGURE 3.1 The Eliza interactive experience responses when attempting to flirt with the system.

problems, the result is a direct “we were discussing you—not me.” Eliza accepts some flirts, but in much the way it’s designed to respond as a mature, professional counselor. Out of context, and noting only the first interactions, it might seem the player is afforded a kind of successful flirt. This ambiguity comes from the arguably positive response “do you think so” which could be read as inviting more compliments (i.e., tell me more). It could also be read as a less-inviting mechanical read (i.e., is that what you’re thinking). Either way, the end result of the interaction is all business, with an abrupt closure to the player’s attempted flirt. This after all, is a business relationship in the fiction of the Eliza system.

 
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