A Tale of Computing and Gatekeeping
D. Fox Harrell
Massachussetts Institute of Technology
Citation: Harrell, D. Fox. “A Tale of Computing and Gatekeeping.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 21, 2019. doi:10.20415/hyp/021.g02
Abstract: Gatekeeper is an online game that simulates the phenomenon of impression management; for instance, players may choose to perform the identity associated with their own clan or pass as a member of another in order to gain admission to a fictional castle.
Keywords: game, narrative, simulation, identity, impression management, passing, virtuality, culture.
License: CC BY-NC-ND. (human readable summary)
“Hailing from the Sylvann tribe, you stand before the gate of a keep. You need to enter; the need is dire. You are tall, wearing fine clothes, and articulate. You see a Brushwood guard with sturdy armor.” So begins the interactive narrative short fiction work Gatekeeper. What happens next is up to you. Do you try to fit in based on how you perceive the Hobbit-like Brushwoods? Or do you flaunt your elven-like finery? Do you code-switch based on what seems to be working best – or stay true to one way of expressing yourself throughout?
Gatekeeper models a common role-playing-game scenario—a player trying to gain access to the inside of a castle. While this fantasy scenario may seem far removed from physical-world experiences of managing one’s impression on others in the face of sexism and racism on the job, such experiences are common in the everyday lives of many people. For example, in the U.S., speakers of southern dialects of English have described needing to change their speech patterns to suitably impress an employer; women in business and politics have described pressures to de-emphasize stereotypically “feminine” characteristics to advance and avoid harassment in the workplace. In fact, in one way or another, most people have have had to get past “gatekeepers.”
Gatekeeper uses a patented computational approach implemented by a platform called Chimeria that supports simulating experiences based on social-group membership. Gatekeeper is not just a branching Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style story. Rather, it relies on Chimeria to use a complex algorithm that determines and customizes narrative outcomes based on decisions the users makes that result in subtle changes to how the player character is categorized over time. Figure 1 shows screenshots depicting a player who chose dialogue to try to fit into the accepted category.
In Gatekeeper the path to entry is not always obvious – conforming is not the only way to gain entry. For instance, you might choose not to adapt yourself at all to the gatekeeper’s social category, but then surprisingly be welcomed merely as a token (what sociologist Erving Goffman called “stigma allure”); there are many possible outcomes. Furthermore, the ending urges reflection not only on whether you get in or not, but how you feel about the choices you have made. For instance, the ending depicted in Figure 1 is a reflection on the phenomenon of “passing” as you muse: “Well, I got in, though I had to pretend to be something I’m not.” An important feature of Gatekeeper is your ability to replay it and try different strategies. It is through the parallels and differences in playthroughs, after all, that the more universal themes of impression management and exclusion/inclusion begin to emerge. As such, the model of dynamic and gradient social category membership in Gatekeeper seeks to capture the nuance, contingency, stakes, and power relationships often at play in real world social interactions.
Gatekeeper presents a modest example of an approach to enabling interactive narrative systems to model identity in a manner more aligned with the social critiques by writers such as James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, or Samuel R. Delany’s Return to Nevèrÿon series than to the more utilitarian uses of character identity implemented in many mainstream computer role-playing games.  The Chimeria platform is not limited to making works just like Gatekeeper. Simulations made using Chimeria may take different forms; it has already been used to implement a 2D visual novel game, a fictitious social network chat narrative, a 3D virtual environment experience, and more. Ultimately, this work is a step toward the important aim of enabling more expressive forms of interactive narrative capable of evoking a richer array of social identity experiences and their associated phantasms.
- D. Fox Harrell, Dominic Kao, Chong-U Lim, Jason Lipshin, and Ainsley Sutherland. “Stories of Stigma and Acceptance Using the Chimeria Platform,” Electronic Literature Organization Conference 2014: Hold the Light, Milwaukee, WI, June 19 – June 21.
- D. Fox Harrell and Chong-U Lim. “Reimagining the Avatar Dream: Modeling Social Identity in Digital Media,” Communications of the ACM. July 2017 (cover story).
- D. Fox Harrell, Dominic Kao, Chong-U Lim, Jason Lipshin, and Ainsley Sutherland. “Authoring Conversational Narratives in Games with the Chimeria Platform,” Foundations of Digital Games 2014, Fort Lauderdale, FL, April 3 – April 7. Designated Exemplary Paper.
- Harrell et.al., “Stories of Stigma and Acceptance.”
- Because it is built using Chimeria, we sometimes refer to Gatekeeper as Chimeria: Gatekeeper.
- Harrell and Lim, “Reimagining the Avatar Dream.”
- D. Fox Harrell. Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression, MIT Press. 2013.