Academic Research

Dissertation Title: “Some Stuff I Did”

You’d think that getting a PhD means that you know what it means to get a PhD. A website came my way that gave a good general visualization of what it means to get a PhD.

What is a PhD?


The illustrated guide to a Ph.D.

PhD’s also mean different things depending on discipline. At the last lab meeting, we read about what it means to make such a contribution. Noah, one of my advisers, drew on one end of the white-board, “The Sciences,” and on the other end, “The Arts and Humanities.” Between the two was “Engineering.” On one side, we make our hypothesis and support it with quantitative results and on the other end, we form a thesis and we justify through sound arguments. The main point being to know well the communities we are contributing towards, understand the standard for a contribution, and be able to defend it.

We’d recently read some more professorly advice about the thesis and dissertation.

First, do you understand the difference between a dissertation and a thesis? A thesis is an idea. A dissertation is a document that supports your thesis. After you write your dissertation explaining why your thesis is a good one, you have to stand up in front of a crowd and defend it — the thesis defence.

It is best if you can capture your thesis in a single sentence. If you can do this, make it sentence #1 of your dissertation, and repeat this sentence, word for word, wherever you need to drive home the point of your dissertation. This is a tremendous aid in focussing your work. A side benefit is that it provides an unassailable defense to an entire class of attacks on your work. (

Noah asks me about my work: What have I accomplished? What tradition is it coming from? What community have I directed it towards? Having been doing it for so long, I lean towards connecting with everything and anything, but as a scholar, I’ve had to learn to make stronger claims for reasonably fewer contributions.

Earlier in my pursuit, I remember having a hard time choosing whether my work would contribute towards a user experience or an authorial tool. To me, they seemed the same. Similarly, I felt the areas of story generation and interactive storytelling to be similar pursuits. I’ve always had a hard time keeping track of those sorts of distinctions. Despite being able to see the differences, I still find it an awkward decision to make.

What were my influences?

Why did I do this? Well, I’ve always wanted to go into this area, ever since my senior thesis back in 2005. I wanted to become an expert of storytelling in video games. So, here I am working with the leading experts of the area.

The personal influences of my PhD:

  • The personal impact that games have had on me
  • The desire create a canvas for complex expression
  • The pursuit of making myself understandable through digital interactivity
  • Thinking that this will help me understand the world better

The more traditional influences of my PhD:

  • Film: Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. “The term “Rashomon effect” is used to describe how different witnesses are able to produce differing, yet plausible, accounts of the same event, with equal sincerity. The film does not select the “authentic” narrator from the differing accounts: all versions are equally valid and equally suspect.” (Wikipedia: The Unreliable Narrator)
  • Cognitive Psychology: Robert P. Abelson’s Goldwater Machine.  “The notion that beliefs, attitudes, and ideology were deeply connected knowledge structures was contained in Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding (1977, with Roger Schank), a work that has collected several thousand citations, and led to the first interdisciplinary graduate program in cognitive science at Yale. His work on voting behavior in the 1960 and 1964 elections, and the creation of a computer program modeling ideology (the “Goldwater machine”) helped define and build the field of political psychology.” (Wikipedia)
  • Aesthetics: Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric. My adviser wrote a paper synthesizing Aristotelian Poetics with Janet Murray’s aesthetic categories for interactive dramas. Structuralism in drama or structural principles, he says, translates into design guidelines for creators (whether human or computer). In particular, applying Aristotelian design guidelines to Murray’s phenomenological principles are a justification towards Artificial Intelligence research for interactive dramas. Rhetoric, on the other hand, makes a bigger comeback in Post-Structuralism and Neo-Aristotelianism.
  • Literary Theory: Seymour Chatman’s Narratology. The idea that narrative is composed of the story events and discourse (or presentation)– taken from the Russian Formalism’s fabula and sujet. “The Structuralist assumption that fabula and sujet could be investigated separately, gave birth to two quite different traditions: thematic (Propp, Bremond, Greimas, Dundes, et al.) and modal (Genette, Prince, et al.) narratology. The former is mainly limited to a semiotic formalization of the sequences of the actions told, while the latter examines the manner of their telling, stressing voice, point of view, transformation of the chronological order, rhythm and frequency.” (Wikipedia: Narratology)

Looking back on things now, I realize that the Artificial Intelligence community is unavoidably interdisciplinary– especially what I do. Within the last century are so many traditions of thought and scholarship.

What were my contributions?

  • A new evaluation method for interactive stories (Authorial Leverage)
  • New heuristics for author specified guidance of drama management (DODM)
  • 3 use cases for logic based story generation (tabula rasa, partially constrained, and highly constrained)
  • A new model of supplementary (low cost) variations with author specified rhetorical goals (RoleModel)
  • Continuing the conversation of Neo-Aristotelian justification for AI in interactive story in regards to evaluation and a repositioning of the problem space (theoretical contribution)

Who cares?

  • Authorial Leverage (AIIDE, ICIDS, INT, AAAI)
  • Authorial models for story construction (ICIDS, INT)
  • Rhetorical goal driven story variations (ICIDS, INT, GDC, ICCC, IAAI)
  • Theoretical Contributions (ICIDS, INT, DiGRA)

I obviously can’t make contributions in all these communities at once, so it’s more like a list of communities I’d like to be part of someday. Clearly, the community I’m most active in is Intelligent Narrative Technologies. With a little more work, Authorial Leverage work could be a more general AI contribution. Rhetorical goal driven story variations can be a candidate for IndieCade, and GDC, if I can manage to create a great user experience someday. ICCC and CHI would be great places to publish work on author tools, and DiGRA would be where theoretical contributions are most welcomed.

If I were to create a family for myself, these are the systems I’d want to join:

  • POLITICS – POLITICS is a system of computer programs which simulates humans in comprehending and responding to world events from a given political or ideological perspective.
  • Terminal Time – Terminal Time Terminal Time is a mass-audience interactive work that constructs documentary histories in response to audience feedback.
  • Curveship – Curveship is an interactive fiction system that provides a world model (of characters, objects, locations, and things that happen) while also modeling the narrative discourse, so that the narration and description of the simulated world can change.

What next?

That’s a good question. I think that the challenge of the PhD isn’t a trial of scholarship, but an emotional trial. One that forces you to discover who you are, figure out where you fit in, and prove that you belong there. Fitting in is a matter of making sense in context of my environment, and making sense to people has always been hard for me. I naturally don’t think like other people– it’s like acknowledging colors in ways that seems colorblind to the people around you.

Since I’ve been making lists, here’s the list for that:

  • I think I’m going to continue teaching for Stanford’s precollegiate studies. They’re letting my create my own curriculum around computing and games.
  • I’m still figuring out what to do with the non-profit work. The project is called “Academic Bridges,” and we want to connect with universities all over the world. Passion Talks is a similar endeavor and probably one of the most successful things I’ve ever initiated.
  • I’d like to continue publishing work on intelligent narratives, but I’m not sure what that looks like from the other side of the PhD (when you don’t become an academic).
  • There’s potential for me to join the business world and be mentored by an amazing silicon valley veteran. It’d be like getting a great and unique hands-on MBA.
  • If there was an opportunity to, I’d like to work on authorial tools for narratives.
  • I’d also like to go indie and make more than just Lab Bunnies.

See, even after all that concentrated education, I’ve found a way to still be interested in everything. Now I just have to budget time to play jazz, make that documentary about education, and write an interactive narratology book. In the mean time, here’re three posters that highlight my academic career.




One thought on “Dissertation Title: “Some Stuff I Did”

  1. Pingback: Soul Searching: My Life in Four Lists of Fours | Intellectual Faith

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