Thick & Thin: “Direct Manipulation” & The Spatial Regimes of Human-Computer Interaction






  • Consider a design trajectory, figured on one end by the screens of early command-line computer interfaces and Coleco Vision’s “Donkey Kong” (1981), and on the other, by the more complex and finely rendered spaces depicted in “Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft” (1999) and Apple’s newly-released Mac OS X.

    Lara Croft runs, jumps, tumbles, and blasts away at her opponents in visual fields that are more subtle and perspectivally sophisticated than those inhabited by Mario and “Donkey Kong.” The responses of the screen images to the user’s keyboard, gamepad, or joystick have been enormously enhanced, in both quickness and variety. But the fundamental spatial tropology – the tropology of space: abstract space, empty space, space that doesn’t get in the way of players or their agents on the other side of the glass – remains consistent, from the earliest to the most recent examples of both desktop computing interfaces and computer gaming. The conceptual and psychological commonplace that grounds play in the domains inhabited by Mario and Lara, and the principles of “direct manipulation” in the graphical user interface, is the assumption of a permeable field of agency, essentially free of substance or resistance, or marked only by the sorts of resistance that a more efficient game pad, a faster processor, or a more “intuitive” visual metaphor, may eliminate.

    In this paper, I propose that the “thin” spaces typical of the modern GUI and videogaming appear self-evident or “intuitive” to users and designers because they draw upon conventions of spatial thought that strategically foreclose traits of actual embodied encounters of human-computer interaction. It is desirable, I argue, to reconceive the forms of space commonly presupposed by the contemporary discourses of the GUI – to grasp these spaces materially, not as empty domains, open to the user’s purposive manipulations of objects sited within them, but rather as persistently impermeable, resistant – “thick” – spaces, in which objects are only imperfectly manipulated and incompletely detachable from the lived moment of the interaction.

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