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The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories

By Frank Rose
W.W. Norton, 2011

There are other worlds than these. As readers, we know this well. Losing yourself in a story has long been the  promise – and to some minds the threat – of fiction. Through global fiction we journey to distant places, with historical dramas we plunge into other times, with fantasy and sci-fi we invent or discover entirely new realms. These fiction-conjured places have, in time, become more familiar to us than some parts of our actual terrestrial globe. I know how to get to the Lonely Mountain– it’s to the east, past Mirkwood, if you’re starting off in the Shire – I still get confused about the location of Papua New Guinea.
 
Frank Rose’s new book, The Art of Immersion, pushes us to the inevitable end of this logic. We readers love to live in stories – who, stumbling upon a wardrobe in a spare room would not push past the old fur coats, just to

see if the bristle of pine needles and the bite of wintery air lay beyond? – and the final end of that desire is total immersion. To live, as   fully as possible, the stories we enjoy, and to take a hand in their course ourselves. Now more than ever, Rose  demonstrates, this has become a possibility, and an aspiration.
 
It begins in that untamed electronic territory, the Internet. The Art of Immersion is a journalistic safari through that blossoming jungle of new media, with an eye for a phylum of narrative that is, thanks to the advent of rapid, long distance interconnection, flourishing with unprecedented vigor within the literary ecosystem. They are strange hybrids, these narratives – part game, part story, part consensual hallucination (thanks William Gibson). And while they have been with us for a long time, in one for or another, the wired world seems to be their ideal habitat.

True to the title, these narratives are ones that offer immersion, that are distinct in that they invite their readers into a virtual world, providing a door into fantasy rather than merely a window. The various species of these narratives display distinct features – some are collaborative, some strictly authored, some are fixed in form, while others lend themselves to multifarious adaptation – and The Art of Immersion takes on the daunting task of recording the genesis and distinctive import of each one. And they are important, make no mistake.

Like games, stories are rehearsals for life. We create a world in microcosm, an alternate reality, a world we wish were true or fear could become so. And then we immerse ourselves in it. This much never changes. But our ability to indulge that impulse grows with each new medium, and with it, the stakes we’re playing for.

Rose is not understating matters. If he began this project as a simple foray into a new fad, he quickly and perceptively discovered that the history of immersive narrative worlds is as old as storytelling itself. He’s a good journalist, though – he keeps it concise. Stories, he says, are universal. What changes is the technology, and with it the kind of societies those technologies produce. Cinema trained us to be viewers, television made us consumers – but now the Internet has changed the game, and brought us closer to fulfilling a dream – an impulse, really – that’s as old as civilization.

Civilization, of course, always has its discontents. Frank Rose pre-empts the paranoia we – the papyrus loving print readers who are flipping through Rose’s material manuscript – may feel about the implications of these immersive worlds. Cervantes had Don Quixote lose his mind in chivalric fictions he read. Aldous Huxley feared the ‘feelies’ he invents for his placid dystopia in Brave New World:

Too real. Dangerously, immersively, more-real-than-reality real, Huxley would say, Better to curl up with a good book.

But once upon a time, books, too, had seemed more real than reality. They offered a passport to imaginary worlds. They triggered delusions. They were new, and not to be trusted.

Rose also references Plato’s Phaedrus, one made much of by continental bigwig Jacques Derrida, where the philosopher uses an Egyptian fable to point out the dangers of writing, which was seen as a dead, synthetic memory that could not be pressed for truth, because it possessed no presence. When you read text, he states, rather than speaking to a living person, you cannot ask questions about what it professes, press it for truth or demand further explanation. Memory, too, will fail, since people will learn to just refer to what’s written rather than possessing living knowledge. Text is the enemy of truth and knowledge, at least in this cautionary tale. And this is maybe not surprising coming from the guy whose ideal Republic would exile all the poets, those purveyors of pretty lies and illusions; we can imagine what Plato would have thought of simulated virtual worlds.

Rose is where I think all we biblophiles ought to be on the matter of text: delight as opposed to despair. And this attitude – open minded, interested, ready – makes his reportage first rate. He’s interested in his subjects, and not uncritical.

A good example is his treatment of the otaku – a demographic labelled by the Tokyo press in 1980, and identified as a social ill:

One day, Japanese in their teens and twenties were normal, well-adjusted people. The next day, or so it seemed, they were hopeless geeks who had forsaken all social skills in favor of a deep dive into – whatever. Manga (comics). Anime. Super-hard-core deviant anime porn in which tender young schoolgirls are violated by multiple tentacled octopi. Trains. It could be anything, really.

But Rose calls on William Gibson’s interpretation of otaku as the children of the information age, the new citizens of cyberspace. An ideal citizen of a newtopia.

Otaku was a prequel – a glimpse of the future a connected world would bring. Passion. Obsession. A yearning to immerse oneself in stories that transpire in a fictional universe. The desire to experience that universe through as many different media as possible. A need to extend and embrace that universe by telling new stories within in.

This also comes along with the need to buy any and all merchandise associated with those fictional universes. Otaku are immaculate consumers. And the canny marketers of Tokyo’s big media business soon figured this out. Japan had already pioneered the ‘mixed media’ approach to marketing, in which a story could be told through a multiplicity of (separately packaged) media and merchandise, producing a kind of immersion via product.

The difference brought about by the kind of immersion and interconnection the otaku represented was a tendency towards, and expectation of, interactivity, the keystone of real, active immersion. ‘Otaku’, Rose explains, ‘like to live in alternate realities, and sooner or later this means they want to start telling their own stories in the worlds that other have built.’

And so fan-made media flourishes, whole floors of fan-made comics and drawings with price tags just like the ‘real’ product. All this, all painstakingly produced by devoted followers, the kind of Constant Readers who’d make Stephen King’s faithful fans look like dilettantes. I visited a couple markets like this the year before last while visiting Tokyo, and saw the care, love and dedication (not to mention the sheer time and effort) placed into these expressions of fanthusiasm. That a large portion of these tales are dedicated to the non-canonical homoerotic adventures of Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs is beside the point. To see those rows and rows of slim, fan-made volumes is to understand it as a testament not to the profanity of their work, but rather its piety.

This sort of infringement would probably throw America’s corporate media conglomerates into a panic, likely hurling more cease and desists than all the owls in Hogwarts could carry, but not so in Japan. As Rose points out, “commercial publishers [in Japan] show no inclination to send out their copyright attorneys and shut the markets down. Instead they’ve learned to look the other way, because they know that the fervor these fan-created [comics] generate can only lead to increased sales for everyone.”

That’s not to say that the United States doesn’t know how to market a story – examples of successfully immersive worlds abound betwixt shining seas. In my previous reviews I’ve talked about the richness of the Halo universe – Rose has an interview with its conceiver, who turns out to be the author of a variety of other narrative game universes. Much has been made of James Cameron’s Avatar, the authenticity of the invented N’avi language and the cohesion of planet Pandora’s alien ecosystem – Rose dedicates a section of his chapter ‘Deeper’ talking about Cameron’s ambitions to create a universe with fractal complex (though Rose has the decency to admit that the plot was ‘simplistic’ and the characters ‘one-dimensional’). He even treats with one of my oldest enduring youthful obsessions, the Star Wars expanded universe – the six movies are, as we fans well know, just the tip of the narrative iceberg – which Rose asserts “created the prototype for the kind of deep, multilayered storytelling that’s emerging today.”

What strikes me about Rose’s broad ranging survey of world building practices – some communal, some authorial, some top down, some bottom up – is the diversity of economic and social models all these worlds represent. Like all games, they are systems of incentive, engines for activity that take investment and (ideally) return pleasure, either by introducing us to a new set of enjoyments or by tapping into pre-existing ones. Rose at one point even takes us on a tour of the neurochemical mechanism that motivates games, learning and addiction – yes, all three. And with such a three-pronged path, it’s not trivial what kind of games we play, and what worlds we live in. Education is as sacred to me as it is to the most fervent PBS contributor, but addiction is the opposite of knowledge and mastery, and if these game-worlds can go either way, it seems an ethical responsibility to ensure they go the right way.

One such example Rose gives is the online game Dunder Mifflin Infinity, released by NBC to help build interest (and generate revenue) around their hit show The Office. In this web-browser based game you take on the role of an employee of that miserable paper company – Dunder Mifflin – and sell virtual paper in order to acquire virtual money to spend on virtual products. This is much more compelling than it sounds, as many such games are.

Dunder Mifflin Infinity was designed to engage people, using mechanisms that are common to every game from World of Warcraft to golf. [The game’s designer] described it as an “incentive system.” When users do something on the site – perform a task, make a comment, rate somebody else’s comment – the system awards them points.

Once a point system is in place, our lifelong training for a system of social economy makes the rest easy.

One thing you can do is satisfy people’s thirst for status by putting up leader boards – which in this case means posting a list of top-performing employees and top branches. You can sate the lust for acquisition by placing a virtual desk on users’ computer screens and selling things they can pay for with [points].

The whole game makes ‘fun’ of office capitalism, and in a dual sense. It lampoons the drudgery of trivial office work – just like the show it’s an attendant to – but it also makes that very drudgery ‘fun.’ It makes a game of work. Such games are “designed to get the users to do most of the work, and to be happy doing it.”

What seems so peculiar to me is that success in the game of Dunder Mifflin Infinity is rather like ‘becoming’ Dwight Shrute – his concern with advancement, his own preoccupation with status, his yen for desk appointment (his character is noteworthy for his array of bobbleheads) are all echoed in the aspirations of the players. The immanent ‘Dwightness’ of the game is built into the very economy upon which the game is based – the points are called ‘Shrute bucks’.

Maybe you’re noticing what I’m noticing by now: that all the worlds mentioned so far have big money behind them. This is no anomaly – while there are too many examples in Rose’s exhaustively research to list, you can take it from me, big media funding is a common thread. Moreover, these worlds/games/stories are generally designed as tools for advertising and marketing, driving hits, and drawing attention to sponsor products. Does money, then, make all worlds – even virtual ones – go ‘round? Persnickety Marxist that I am, I find this to be at least a little problematic. Need it be this way?

There are two competing visions of what the Internet – enabler of all these new immersive media forms – has made of social relations. One is is based in a fear of isolation, the sad tableaux of the pallidwebcrawler, face made ghastly in the illumination of his screen, incapable of ‘real world’ relations and living exclusively in a carefully constructed virtual fantasy. Japanese society perceives otaku as a manifestation of just this fear. The other is the belief in radical interconnectivity, a ‘global village’ with enormous democratic potential, in which anyone and everyone has a voice, and uses it.

 
Obviously we’d rather the latter, and Rose’s point is that it is these narratives that help stitch together the diverse social fabric of the so-called digital age. And not just in the digital age. The antecedent of this notion is ancient. Greek society and culture relied upon a body of common narrative knowledge – their word for it, mythos, referred to a communal tradition with many interpretations, adaptations and manifestations, but possessed of an understood unity. Shared ground.

So, too, do these immersive narratives provide the basis for community in the wired world. The fan frenzy produced by ABC’s Lost demonstrates this well. “The show became an excuse to develop a community,” Rose quotes one of the show’s creative masterminds, Carlton Cuse. The story, purposefully told in fragmented fashion, invited fan conjecture, and fan participation. The show’s fan-run wiki, Lostpedia, with its over 7,000 pages of facts, clips, screencaps and plot controversies, attests to their initial success. And the creators seem to be on the side of art – rather than looking at it like a ‘marketing tool,’ they saw it as a way to really give the narrative to the fans, to ‘share the other 90 percent of the iceberg’.

But the trouble is that this immersive style still was a marketing tool, was used as such, regardless of the purity in the creators’ intent. So I guess I’m still left asking that old orator’s rhetorical cui bono? We know we can make communities through narrative, social confluences which are diverse, active, involved and avid – Rose has demonstrated that beyond a shadow of a doubt. But for whose benefit? Are we building villages here, or markets? Because while we could use a global village, we already seem to have a global market.

In truth, all these projects have about them a mixed scent of innovation and desperation, the tell-tale signs of media capitalism in it’s latest high stakes bid for revolutionizing itself. The Internet has ‘cannibalized’ television, Rose contends, and television – whose breath and bread is advertising – has been trying its darnedest to take a bite out the Net in return. These schemes are reliant on the fervor of fans who, at the end of the day, are likely more interested in story than sales, and turned to the immersion of th internet for just those reasons – to be submerged in narrative, not ad interruption. Advertising is simply try to squeeze its way back into narrative spaces that have no need of its diluting presence. It’s no bold argument to suggest that the story of NBC’s Heroes would have been just as good (and just as bad) had it not included its product placement.

In a late chapter Rose writes about Coca-Cola, the original masters of marketing, and their ‘Happiness Factory’ ad campaign, which “dramatized a delightful conceit: that inside every Coke machine is a snowy mountain wonderland where furry little creatures toil with unabashed joy at the task of providing liquid refreshment to the humans waiting outside.” This rather Narnian in conception invites us to imagine this fantastical process taking place while we purchase a coke from the vending machine.

This is a terrifically convenient fantasy for the consumer to gloss over the realities of labor relations – a tiny, miraculous world laboring, happy as house elves, for our libation – and an exquisitely cruel joke on anyone who is actually caught within the factory system. Nike – another company renowned for its size, power and brutality – similarly gets a shout out in this chapter, for their own innovative and immersive advertising strategy. The trouble is, I don’t much care if a community of sneaker wearers emerges from the Nike+ program – it serves only to obscure the communities of sneaker makers being bled dry on the other side of our interconnected world.

Rose is not insensible to this. Far from it. In a powerful last chapter, he juxtaposes the world building practices of two almost diametrically opposed entities – Walt Disney and Philip K. Dick. Both people who understood what it meant to make a world, though both making worlds to starkly different purposes. Disney offers a ‘magical kingdom’, true fantasy escapism. Dick, however, is much more critical: ‘…unceasingly,’ Rose quotes the sci-fi eccentric, ‘we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.’

But Dick does it very differently, and his worlds could hardly be more dissimilar with the binaristic lights and darks of the Disney cosmology. And it is in this difference that Rose locates the consideration we must make when making and inhabiting these worlds. To live in and through a world is to live in that world’s ideological demands, based upon ideals – conscious or otherwise – of the world’s author.

Disney had long dreamed of building an entirely new type of amusement park – a place where he could recreate, in idealized form, the little Missouri town where he’d grown up (Main Street USA) and the settings for all those characters he’d created or appropriated (Sleeping Beauty). He called his creation “the happiest place on Earth.” It was a fully, indeed obsessively immersive environment, kept cleaner than clean and staffed with a cadre of young men and women who were trained to smile as if their jobs depended on it (which in fact they did).

Rose then quotes from Richard Schickel’s biography of Disney, citing the Great Man’s ‘semihysterical’ explanation of the highly negative philosophy underwriting his creation:

“I don’t like depressing pictures,” [Disney] growled… “I don’t like pestholes. I don’t like pictures that are dirty. I don’t ever go out and pay money for studies in abnormality. I don’t have depressed moods and I don’t want to have any. I’m happy, just very, very happy.”

In light of this attitude, a paragon of perfection via exclusion and control via repression, the comparison to Dick, another author of other worlds, becomes especially urgent.

The fictional reality Disney built out of bricks and ambition became the foundation for a global media empire that in its most recent fiscal year took in $36 billion. Dick wrote for peanuts, but the worlds he imagined now command top dollar in Hollywood, where they’ve given rise to such movies as Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and Spielburg’s Minority Report. In the end it comes down to sensibility. Whose pseudoreality would you rather live in – Dick’s or Disney’s?

I’ll say this for Dick: at least he didn’t manifest a deep-seated need to paper over his insecurities with false happiness; nor did he share Disney’s obsessive need for control.

Bleak as those worlds of Dick’s may be, there is more honesty and freedom in a spare phrase of his prose than in all the Seven Dwarves put together. Because off to work we all go, some to easy labor, some to dull, some to truly grueling. And while may visit other worlds in our spare hours, we live in this one, and if we are ever going to change it for the better, we’ll need to learn from the worlds we dream, so we might arise clear-sighted and ready.

For those of us just waking up, picking up a copy of The Art of Immersion seems like a good start.

____
Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous video game reviews for Open Letters can be found here.

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