Below is the prezi from my presentation at the 2013 NASAGA 2013 conference in beautiful Saraosta on 26 October. There is also a PDF handout for basic ARG design considerations. Thanks for NASAGA for hosting me!
I’m working on a v 2.0 of my rationale, but thought I’d post this second version for the sake of posterity/transparency.
I’ve opted with the 1.1, as though it dose contain some substantial changes, I don’t feel as though it is necessarily more than a small departure from the first draft. Mostly, I’ve added some explication and connections.
In the upcoming (in a few days) v 2.0, I’ll largely try to do the opposite: discretize these blended areas in order to more clearly define them. I’ll also be following up with a reorganization of my booklist, which is currently on Evernote. I’ve been reluctant to match the list to my areas, as I personally cannot not see many texts applying to more than a single area. Alas, it is time to try!
Rationale after the break… And, as always, comments welcome!
The following is the first version of my Preliminary Exam Rationale, including: the major area of transmedia narratives, production, and aesthetics; a minor area on ergodic and nonlinear literature; a minor area on ludology and simulation.
Preliminary Exam Rationale
My major area of focus is on the production, aesthetics, and analysis of transmedia narratives, with a specific focus on Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). In Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture, he explores transmedia storytelling–“entertainment for the age of media convergence, integrating multiple texts to create a narrative so large that it cannot be contained within a single medium”–in terms of the eponymous media convergence, which “represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections amongst dispersed media content” (97, 3). Therefore, in order to explore transmedia, my foci will concentrate on media studies, with a specific focus on “new media” aesthetics and production, as well as transmedia narratives and traditional narratives that explore the notion of “alternate reality.” Some of these texts include: Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media, Waldrip-Fruin and Montfort’s New Media Reader, and Mitchell and Hansen’s Critical Terms for Media Studies for media studies; texts, message boards, and other paratexts from ARGs, such as The Beast, I Love Bees, The Lost Experience, Year Zero, and Push, Nevada; narratives that represent “alternate realities” of a dystopian, science fictional, and magical realist variety, such as the works of Borges, Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and VALIS trilogy, Robinson’s The Wild Shore, Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades, and Link’s Magic for Beginners.
Complicit with Jenkins’s understanding of transmedia narrative–and perhaps new media, at large–is the engaged reader/viewer, or, in Jenkins’s words, “participants who interact with each other according to a new set of rules that none of us fully understands” (3). As such, I’m interested in exploring the boundary between reader and author as found in metafiction, an area with which my own creative work often intersects. I’m also interested in exploring the breakdown of this boundary as a print medium example of the superimposition of the virtual and the non-virtual (or “real”) in order to create a different (or “alternate”) experience of reality, what Virilio refers to in Information Bomb as a “field effect” view of reality that is a result of the collapse of time and distance facilitated by light-speed digital networked communication technology (43). Texts that explore this metafictional boundary include many short works of Borges, Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), and Marias’s All Souls and Dark Back of Time.
My first minor area, ergodic literature, is both an extension of my interest in transmedia narrative as well as a reflection of the desire in my own creative work to incorporate a more active, participatory reader. In Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Espen Aarseth defines ergodic literature as a form which requires the reader to “[effectuate] a semiotic sequence,” or order the text in a nontrivial, self-selected manner. This active role for the reader can also be seen in what Manovich describes as the “database logic” of new media, which requires a reader to sort narrative elements, much like players in ARGs sort narrative clues in to a narrative. Some representative examples I will explore include both non-electronic ergodic literature, such as Cortazar’s Hopscotch and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and the electronic, including Joyce’s afternoon and Jackson’s Patchwork Girl.
My remaining minor area of interest is ludology and simulation, which is, again, related to my main interest in transmedia. The theoretical intersection of ludology and narratology is a turbulent space, as evidenced in Waldrip-Fruin and Harrigan’s First Person. Transmedia narratives that incorporate video games, such as Star Wars or The Matrix, blur this boundary; moreover, ARGs are definitionally positioned as games, yet are frequently presented as transmedia stories, as they lack the interface of the screen and controller and purposely confuse gamespace with “real,” everyday spaces. Similarly, Aarseth asserts, in “Nonlinearity and Literary Theory,” that “simulations are somewhere in between reality and fiction” (79). I will explore this transliminal space between reality and fiction in terms of “alternate realities” and as a dominant form of representation in post-modernity, through the visual representation of computational and dynamic rules. Some texts that will be applicable to this area include Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx & Crake, the films Run Lola Run and The War Game, the reality television show The Colony, and the critical texts The Order of Things, by Michel Foucault, and Suspensions of Perception, by Jonathan Crary.
A common method of critically examining media is to approach the study through the dichotomy of production and consumption. With the turn from the pre-industrial, artisanal mode of media production—represented in textual production by the scribal system and in image production by the painter—to mechanized production and reproduction—represented in part by the printing press and the lithograph—the scale of this production and consumption grew exponentially. More recently, digital networked technology has also increased the sophistication of media production and, sometimes, increased the accessibility and speed of media distribution. Marxist media theorists from Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Guy Debord have focused on the mass production and consumption of media and culture, a condition precipitated by the production technologies of Fordism and industrial capitalism. In a very broad view, these approaches have largely considered production and consumption as functions of separate spheres of society: production is set by the bourgeoisie by means of the labor of the proletariat; those who have power produce, those who lack power consume. Thus, as Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle, this contemporary media, especially mass media, is “essentially one-way” (19, emphasis original).
Recent approaches to media studies, however, seek to complicate this simple dichotomy of production and consumption as being mutually exclusive categories. One of the common threads to these studies has been the importance of digital networked technology. Henry Jenkins, in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, explores fan production as a complicating factor in this dichotomy. Examples of fan production, or consumer production, cover a wide range of examples: vidding—creating video mashups of favorite scenes in tribute to a favorite television show or movie; machinima—using video game graphic engines, such as those of the Halo and Grand Theft Auto franchises, to create narrative movies, with the game world as the backdrop and the players’ avatars as the actors; writing fan fiction (fanfic) that creatively extends characters from mass media produced narratives into new—and sometimes transgressive—contexts, such as “slash” fiction for the Harry Potter narrative world; fans of films and television series flocking to message boards where they exchange theories, interpretations, knowledge, and experiences and build community in order to appreciate, critique, and celebrate their enjoyment of a particular narrative.
While these are all ways of viewing production by individuals we might traditionally view as consumers—the purchasers of video games and novels, viewers of television and movies—most of these productions do not require a community, per se. An individual can make a machinima, write a fanfic, or edit a fan vid on their own and choose or not choose to share it with others. It’s produced in isolation and doesn’t necessarily meet a community or even an audience. In this manner, then, these examples of production might complicate the “one-way” claim of Debord; they do not, however, address another of Debord’s central claims:
The reigning economic system is founded on isolation; at the same time it is a circular process designed to produce isolation. Isolation underpins technology, and technology isolates in its turn…” (22)
This isolation is not necessarily overcome through many of the types of production about which Jenkins writes. Fan communities centered on the narratives produced by mass media corporations do exhibit shared production, however, and do so in a manner that resists Debord’s claim that technology is only an agent of isolation. This specific type of production can be understood through Pierre Levy’s concept of collective intelligence (or CI). CI seeks to understand collaborative production enabled by the proliferation of digital networked technologies, such as the internet. Levy argues that the exchange of information and ideas through global digital networks should “mobilize and coordinate the intelligence, experience, skills, wisdom, and imagination of humanity” (qtd. in “Why I Love Bees” 199). It is important, though, to also view productive fan communities within the “reigning economic system” of today—which, of course, is not unaltered from the time of Debord’s writing in 1967. In one sense, the CI production of the aforementioned engaged fan communities is in reaction to the content produced by the dominant forces (or the administrators of society, as Debord might state); as a reaction, it is dictated by what the entertainment industry chooses to produce. Another way of approaching this distinction between production and consumption in CI communities is through Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s notion of a “socialist strategy” for using contemporary media to undermine and resist the power of bourgeois society through collective production and manipulation of media (Enzensberger 267).
For this paper, I will explore one specific genre of CI-infused media: the alternate reality game (ARG). Through this exploration, I will seek to show how ARGs problematize the distinction between producer and consumer that Debord enacts, that Enzensberger seeks to reverse, and that Baudrillard, in “Requiem for the Media,” seeks to transgress. In order to show this blurring of producer/consumer, I will examine the effect and agency that players—who are a type of collective intelligence community or communities—exhibit in controlling not only the outcome but the development of ARGs. In a sense, players collaborate with the game designers (or puppet masters [PMs]) in order to create the game as it unfolds. To show this, I will examine a discrete set of ARGs: The Beast; Push, Nevada; World Without Oil. This examination will be, in part, carried out through published player and PM reflections.
Furthermore, I will explore how ARGs operate within the current economic reality in order to closely examine the degree to which strategies of resistance to the dominant system are available and affected. For instance, if most ARGs are produced as marketing for the products of the entertainment industry, how transgressive or revolutionary might these sanctioned forms of CI be? One way I hope to approach this specific question is to study ARGs through the lens of digital networked technology’s (DNT) and ubiquitous computing’s (ubicomp) effect on our experience of reality. I will argue that it is, in part, the ascendance of DNT and ubicomp that aligns the ARG with the conditions of fast capitalism, which the New London Group (among others) see as a major influence on the literacies required to be active citizens in a networked world. The CI structures of ARGs also provide potential to resist and shape these economic conditions and power structures through the power of the collective. As Mitchell and Hansen argue, ubicomp and DNT change time and space—which are, in combination with communicative media, the components of collaboration (Mitchell and Hansen).
For my digital project, I created an interactive supplement to my essay on ARG player production using Inform 7, a language used for writing Interactive Fiction.
I chose to do this for a few reasons. The main reason is that I wanted to gain some experience working in Inform 7. This is a contextual programming language that looks very different from most code that I’ve previously tried to work with. As I’m interested in interactive narratives and games, I figured learning this language was beneficial to me, personally, as both a writer and academic (which is most of the time a meaningless distinction for me).
My interest in interactive narratives, however, also reveals why I chose to mediate this digital project in the way that I did. In general, I’m interested in exploring different patterns, ethics, and logics for “texts”, modes and media. By working in Inform 7, I can still work with type on a screen/page, which is both comforting and potentially subversive (I hope!). It is comforting, in that this project uses writing, just as a print (or digital copy of a print) essay does. I hope that it is subversive, as it allows the reader (or interactor) more agency in determining the shifting logics and coherences of the work, through making choices within the possibilities I have written.
You can visit the (rather generic) homepage for the project here. Clicking on “Play In-Browser” will allow you to do just that.
Metastaticmedia[i] and Collective Production
Excerpt from Original Proposal
One thought is that one way of understanding the small resonance of the ARG[ii] (alternate reality game) is seeing it through Debord’s description of the spectacle as reflective of isolated individuals, the product of hyper-specialized labor, the ubiquity of images, and the embodiment of the productive means of contemporary society. I can see how Debord’s classification of the spectacle relates to the ARG, in that it uses many modes of production for media (it is “transmedia”), requires specialized labor because of this, often engages a spatially distributed audience, and are largely created as marketing tools to sell other products. However, there is some real tension here, for me, as well. Where Debord might see isolation and call the spectacle a one-way communication, Jenkins, Pierre Levy, and others see the ARG as a site of community-building, cooperative and individual interpretation, and a destabilization of the categories of producer and consumer (though this latter does fit with Debord and his notion of workers clocking out and being regarded as consumers).
A common method of critically examining media is to approach the study through the dichotomy of production and consumption. With the turn from pre-industrial, artisanal mode of media production, represented in textual production by the scribal system and in image production by the painter, to mechanized production and reproduction, represented in part by the printing press and the lithograph, the scale of this production and consumption grew exponentially. More recently, digital networked technology has also increased the sophistication of media production and, sometimes, increased the accessibility and speed of media distribution. Marxist media theorists from Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer to Guy Debord have focused on the mass production and consumption of media and culture, a condition precipitated by the technologies of Fordism and industrial capitalism. In a very broad view, these approaches have largely considered production and consumption as functions of separate spheres of society: production is set by the bourgeoisie by means of the labor of the proletariat; those who have power produce, those who lack power consume. Thus, as Guy Debord argues in The Society of the Spectacle, this contemporary media, especially mass media, is “essentially one-way” (19, emphasis original).
Below, I’ll try my best to represent the scattered thoughts I have at the moment for potential paper topics. Bare with me, as, in hindsight, I meander in the middle sections (or maybe everywhere), as I’m still working through many of these ideas. But, I think that, by the end, I do consolidate these threads into a larger, if still imperfect, research question. As far as help, general suggestions on further readers for keywords mentioned below is always helpful. As the draft comes together, clarity of terms and context is always a concern when I talk about unfamiliar media.
One metaphor that several of the writers this semester have employed uses spatial language to describe our collective relationship to media and mediation. I first recognized it in Benjamin, with his mention of closeness, a section of text that I featured heavily in a blog post on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”–and a post where Anne called into question my reading of the term as a positive concept (i.e. that being “close” to objects and their representations is a good thing for the proletariat in Benjamin’s view). As I still haven’t figured out how to read this “close”-ness, I feel the want to explore it more.
Early in the first section of Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, he focuses on the separation of reality from a part of lived life to “unfold[ing] in a new generality as a pseudo-world apart, solely as an object of contemplation” (Thesis 2). Upon reading this, I was immediately reminded of Benjamin’s “close,” but not necessarily because it seems to be as opposite as close and separated might seem to imply. (Again, I’m in need of revisiting Benjamin.) One way “into” a concrete discussion of these ideas might be to analyze one of the concepts the Debord ties to this spectacular separation: the manifestation and perception of reality.
This is where my interest in alternate reality games forces itself onto the screen. Debord goes on to write that “the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world… it is the very heart of society’s real unreality” (Thesis 6). This paradoxical “real unreality” encourages me to analyze the ARG as a type of spectacle, or, moreover, as a genre that resonates with some because it can be situated into a society of the spectacle. The connection is more than the convenience of the term “real unreality” or Debord’s continual use of the word “reality” early in his book; I see this pull between “close” in Benjamin and “separate” yet “unified” in Debord as potentially leading to some understanding of immersion–a relationship between humans and media that Jane McGonigal argues to be one of the key features of the ARG genre. While Debord and Benjamin do not explicitly address immersion as such, the ubiquity of images in the mechanical and post-mechanical economy and our ability to distinguish between original and reproduction (and the perhaps artificial distinction between the two categories) are of key concern to both. And, as Paul Virilio argues in The Information Bomb, the predominance of images, especially those mediated by digital networked technology, create an immersing effect of overlapping virtual realities.
“If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch. This image makes it easy to comprehend the social bases of the contemporary decay of the aura. It rests on two circumstances, both of which are related to the increasing significance of the masses in contemporary life. Namely, the desire of contemporary masses to bring things “closer” spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction. Unmistakably, reproduction as offered by picture magazines and newsreels differs from the image seen by the unarmed eye. Uniqueness and permanence are as closely linked in the latter as are transitoriness and reproducibility in the former. To pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose “sense of the universal equality of things” has increased to such a degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction. Thus is manifested in the field of perception what in the theoretical sphere is noticeable in the increasing importance of statistics. The adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality is a process of unlimited scope, as much for thinking as for perception.” — from section III, paragraph 2 of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin
Through the above excerpt, I see something of Benjamin’s concerns, approaches, and hints toward his conclusions regarding the function of art in his contemporary context. In this passage, I begin to see how mechanical reproduction effects the image and how this effect is of particular significance to the potential relationships between media and the masses. Through these concerns, the role of mediation in our every day life might be better understood as a way of shaping our perception of the world and our own reality.
One of Benjamin’s central claims is “that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art” (II). This change, to Benjamin, seems to be the most important direct result of the processes of mechanical reproduction of images; in some way, all of the aspects of art in this age that are of concern to Benjamin in this essay seem to rely on this condition. From the quote atop this post, I understand the social significance (i.e. how art/image changes its relationship with the masses/proletariat) as being of two major points, both of which are clearly stated by Benjamin in this above passage, but not necessarily clearly presented upon first read. It is through these two “circumstances” that I wish to explore the relationship between mediation and “reality.”
Benjamin first talks of the masses’ “desire… to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly” (III). With respects to spatially, Benjamin’s concern with the accessibility of art/images to the masses becomes evident; (a member of) the masses can more readily experience a work of art, like a Picasso painting, or experience a physical space, such as the alpine scene used as the foundation for this writing. Mechanical reproduction simply means copies, copies that extend beyond the aural setting or ritual within which the art/image was originally displayed. To show how mechanical reproduction destroys aura, he later states “[t]o pry an object from its shell, to destroy its aura, is the mark of a perception whose ‘sense of the universal equality of things’ has increased to such as degree that it extracts it even from a unique object by means of reproduction” (III). From this, the importance of accessibility (“‘… the universal equality of things’” [though it is unclear is this is Benjamin’s term or if his quotation marks signal another original]) can be understood as a type of leveling of the social structure; art is no longer the exclusive realm of the bourgeoisie.
While the above may account for the spatial closeness, that of the humanly might be understood in a few ways. First, I’d like to suggest that a focus on the interface of the media technology might be an interesting avenue to pursue this human connection. This approach would focus on the human as the bodily connection between the viewer and the image, such as the paper or frame of a photograph. It might be concerned with questions of permanence and trace, or prosthesis and materiality.
Another potential understanding of the humanly might be through the concept of authorship. This, I think, converges with the notion of mechanical reproduction as equalizing. In a perfect copy, there is no human creator–or at least no obvious human creator that is part of the image’s aura (since there is no aura). There may be examples of human-made perfect copies, such as the works of Elmyr D’Hory as shown in F for Fake, in which case we might admire the virtuosity of the forger; there are also images with aura that have no discernible author, such as Chartres cathedral, also featured in Orson Welles’ film. The mechanical reproduction, however, removes the human author from the reproduction that is both accessible to the masses and now humanly closer, in that there is not an authorial ownership exerted over the image in the same way that a single, original painting by Cezanne when viewed in a museum might be subjected to that ownership. [Works by Duchamp or Warhol, to name two popular examples, problematize this last assertion.]
\”The Most Profound Moment in Movie History\”
Finally, I believe this closeness of the humanly can also be understood through “overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (III). In this way, the human relation to reality is problematized: reality is not a singular possibility, but one potential, probabilistic iteration of a series of conditions and rules. (This fits nicely with both a Marxist view of history and the mention of “the increasing importance of statistics” later in the paragraph that helped to form this post.) The phenomenon of the moving picture, enabled by the mechanical technologies of the camera and the processing of film, reproduces a kind of reality that is immediate, able to approach the speed of speech (I). [It is also interesting that Benjamin notes that cinema only appears to be real through “the height of artifice”–a paradox of hiding cameras, lighting, microphones, etc., from the viewer through the positioning of the lens (XI).]
The technology of mechanical reproduction and its media, such as photography and cinema, allow us to understand our reality in new ways. For instance, high-speed photography allowed us to see that all four legs of a horse simultaneously lose contract with the ground while running. If this mediation can reveal, I’d like to think that it can shape, as well, especially with our perception of reality.
With specific concern of bringing closer the human and understanding reality as a probability, one way of understanding the potential relationship between mediation and reality for the masses might be through the insertion of the individual into the work itself–an extreme closeness, in a way. Some possible veins to explore would be: alternate reality games and their employment of multiple media, interactive transmedia narratives/games; Marxist and recombinant theatre and their focus on the interactive and iterative, producing new simulations of power relationships blurring viewer and actor and author; digital database narrative and interactive fiction, whose output is influenced by the viwer’s input. All of these objects share an element of interactivity and immersion and those are what can bring the human closer to the work of art while emphasizing the equality of copied images. Specifically, perhaps as the name implies, alternate reality games can also blur the distinctions between “real” and “fictional” space, through the genre’s specific “this is not a game” aesthetic and strong immersive qualities, leading players to renegotiate the “real” and to manifest social and economic change through the conferring of narrative events from ARG to spaces outside the boundaries of the game.
Below is an attempt at converging two of my main interests, metafiction and simulation, with Alternate Reality Games, my main focus. Many of the ideas are rough, and the seams are jagged, but it is a first attempt!
Narratives and games have enjoyed a close, if contentious, relationship over the past decade. With the increased adoption of digital technology into games—whether digital remediations of board games like checkers, chess, or Monopoly, or games developed solely for a digital platform, such as Asteroids, Pac-Man, or Grand Theft Auto 3—the convergence, as Henry Jenkins describes it, of what is more traditionally seen as narrative media (print, film, television, etc.) and interactive video games has led to many new possibilities. With the increase in computing speed and power, more and more complex narrative elements, such as photo-realistic animated “cut scenes” that serve as interstitial narrative guideposts between the “playable” segments of many digital games, are appearing in video games. Most recently, these cut scenes have been integrated into the playable interactive user interface. One such example is with Quantic Dream’s recent title Heavy Rain, which has been described in the New York Times as “a brilliantly engaging example of nonlinear storytelling” and compared, not unfavorably, to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, and David Lynch (Schiesel). With the increasing convergence of games and narrative, it is no wonder that narratology is a popular tool for the academic study of video games.
The 2004 critical essay collection First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game showcases many of the narratological approaches to video games. Janet Murray and Ken Perlin, in separate essays, situate interactive video games as an extension of narrative, applying the aesthetics of storytelling to games. In the same volume, however, Espen Aarseth passionately argues against the narratological colonization of games, stating that “games are not ‘textual’ or at least not primarily textual,” questioning “why aesthetics would be the most relevant perspective” for the study of games, and finally, plainly stating that “games are games”—with the strong implication that games are not stories (“Genre Trouble” 46-9). While this dialogue serves an important purpose for the foundation of video game studies as a distinct discipline, as well as a primer for constructive critical approaches to video games and storytelling in what Lev Manovich calls the “database logic” of new media in The Language of New Media, the particular question of whether games are narratives is not the central focus of this critical assessment. Rather, Gonzalo Frasca’s response to this debate provides a framework from which I explore narrative text in terms of a specific type of game, the simulation—an approach that is perhaps a reversal of what Aarseth finds so polemical about narratologists infringing upon the field of ludology. I will argue, that by considering the aesthetics of simulation and the shortcomings of hypertext, the metafiction of a group of Argentine writers—Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, and, most importantly, Macedonio Fernandez—can be understood as offering readers an interactive, generative framework to realize the possibilities of narrative form. The aesthetics of this type of metafiction interrogate the distinction between the real and the fictional, a perspective that is increasingly relevant to an everyday life imbued with digital telecommunication technology.