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).
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 games, such as 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; 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 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 production 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, a 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; I Love Bees; Push, Nevada; Evoke. This examination will be 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 Mithchell and Hansen argue, ubicomp and DNT change time and space—which are, in combination with communicative media, the components of collaboration. Finally, ARGs, with their collapsing of the real and the virtual (or reality and fiction) produce what Virilio calls a “field effect”: metageography, metacities, instantaneous communication—the altering of the experience of time and space in a way that echoes the concerns about the collapsing of the real and virtual (or, perhaps, the phenomenological and the mediated) expressed by Debord, Enzensberger, and others.
Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media.” The New Media Reader. Noah Waldrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Bushman, Jay. “Cloudmaker Days: A Memoir of the A.I. Game.” Well-Played 2.0. Drew Davidson, et al., eds. ETC Press, 2010.
Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Donald Nicholson-Smith, trans. New York: Zone Books, 1995. Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” The New Media Reader. Noah
Waldrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press, 2006.
Jones, Caroline. “Senses.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. WJT Mitchell and Mark BN Hansen, eds. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2010.
Levy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence. Robert Bononno, trans. Cambridge: Perseus, 1997.
McGonigal, Jane. Reality Is Broken. New York: Penguin, 2011.
McGonigal, Jane. “’This Is Not a Game’: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play.” Conference Paper. Melbourne DAC, 2003.
McGonigal, Jane. This Might Be a Game. Dissertation, UC-Berkely. 2006. McGonigal, Jane. “Why I Love Bees.” The Ecology of Play. Katie Salen, ed. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.
Mitchell, WJT and Mark BN Hansen. “Time and Space.” Critical Terms for Media Studies. WJT Mitchell and Mark BN Hansen, eds. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2010.
New London Group. “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies.” Multiliteracies. Virilio, Paul. Information Bomb. Chris Turner, trans. New York: Verso, 2000.
[i] The term “metastaticmedia” is a neologism. The idea for this term comes from one of the first artifacts from the I Love Bees ARG. Visitors to a website dedicated to honey recipes were greated with an “error” that announces “this medium will metastasize” (“Why I Love Bees” 202). I think metastasis and metastasize are appropriate in describing narratives that grow into one medium from another in an organic or logical way that takes specific advantage of the aesthetics and properties of specific media, as opposed to narratives that are simply discretized and distributed to multiple media in order to find more or new audience.
From the OED: metastasize: 1. intr. Pathol. Of a disease, esp. a tumour: to spread from one part or organ to another; to undergo metastasis; 2. intr. Chiefly U.S. In extended use: to transfer or spread from a place of origin; spec. to intensify or escalate in an undesirable manner.
metastasis: 1. Rhetoric. A rapid transition from one point or type of figure to another. 2c. Geol. Change in physical character rather than chemical composition. 3. gen. Transformation; change from one condition to another.
As far as I know, I’m coining it in this paper. I’m suggesting it as a replacement for the term transmedia, which is both too ambiguous and has become co-opted to mean nearly every contemporary type of media produced. There is—finally! —considerable push-back against the term transmedia from those who have long operated within the industry and perhaps could be considered as “founders” in some way.
[ii] I realize that ARGs are not ubiquitously understood. Thus, here is one definition I have previously used, written by Jane McGonigal: an interactive drama played out online and in real world spaces, taking place over several weeks or months, in which dozens, hundreds, thousands of players come together online, form collaborative social networks, and work together to solve a mystery or problem that would seem impossible to solve alone (“Alternate Reality Gaming: ‘Life Imitates ARG’”).