Jan 1 2011

Up In The Air

Unusually for me, commonly gaming or poking at the internet, 2010 was a year in which I watched a large number of films. The last of these was 2009′s Jason Reitman-directed Up In The Air, starring George Clooney.

The movie is about Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham, who makes a living by being hired out to fire people on behalf of various companies. As such he travels constantly around North America by air, living out of a suitcase. He has perfected this lifestyle to such a degree that he even does motivational speaking on the topic – using the metaphor of a backpack containing all your worldly goods and relationships to suggest how traditional lifestyle trappings weigh you down. When we do see his one-bedroom apartment, it first appears to be another hotel room. His life is in his carry-on wheelie suitcase. He spends most of his time in airport lounges, and in flight. And that’s okay. He loves the system. He is knowledgeable about air travel. He relishes it.

What is interesting about the portrayal of this character is that it is – at least to begin with – almost entirely positive. His life is made easy because of loyalty cards and hotel conveniences, and the collection of points for services has become a game for him. Bingham has a tough, thankless job, but it is one that he handles gently. While the platitudes about the business made to his co-worker seem trite, the truth is that he is skillful at handling people’s feelings and he faultlessly humane in a brutal situation.

Bingham is one of those postmodern characters – people who have rejected traditional norms and “family values” in favour of the professional exile of network society – that are traditionally portrayed as cruel robots, alienated servants, or pretentious jerks. Bingham is none of these: he is personable, reasonable, and kind. And he is enjoying himself.

As the film unfolds the intention is to examine his philosophy by placing it against the context of his co-worker’s struggle to deal with the realities of the job, and the break up of her relationship; to stress it with Bingham’s own migratory relationship with a fellow traveler; and to make it seem alien against the backdrop of the provincial wedding of Bingham’s sister, from whom he is largely estranged, but for whom he does display considerable concern.

What disappointed me about this was that despite the special efforts the film made to show that Bingham had not been dehumanised by his lifestyle – his capacity for solidarity with other people was unhindered, despite his lack of family ties or traditional home, as is demonstrated in the way he handles both the firing and the people he chooses to interact with – the plot still essentially appealed to “family values” as the ultimate arbiter of meaning. All the female characters, in different ways, ultimately sought relationships and families as the fundamental truth of “real life”, and for them meaning was to be derived from those relationships. The implication is that Bingham’s own meaning – that of his points collection, philosophy of weightlessness, and care for his duty of work – could never really be enough.

Now, I am not trying to devalue or deride family life, because I enjoy and value it myself. I do, however, think that film was mistaken in not allowing Bingham the strength of his convictions, or some kind of ultimate vindication. Although the plot eventually okays his lifestyle, it is done almost grudgingly. He is allowed to return to his unlimited travels, but only after his lifestyle has been argued to be somehow less than those of his colleagues and relatives. The story attempts to draw what is missing from his life, and can’t really manage it, since Bingham is actually so well adapted. “I am lonely,” he says, joking but not joking, in the least convincing moment of the movie.

In the particular case of the woman with whom Bingham has a sexual liason, I found myself expecting something less obvious. When Bingham defaults to romantic feelings of wanting something more complicated from the relationship, it was revealed that she had a family, and he was simply an affair, a “parenthesis” as the character described it. This seemed like the point at which the story failed. It would have been bolder, and probably more useful, if she had turned out to be more committed to the weightless philosophy than Bingham, and had then criticised and withdrawn from him for faltering. If that had happened then the film would have not only been a little less predictable in its characterisation of what women need from life, but would also have said something positive about modernity, and about the capacity of smart, humane people to make these kinds of philosophies work on the weird frontiers of modern living. It could have still been about testing Bingham’s philosophy, but without feeling the need to pander to the accepted wisdom of what most of us regard as normal life.

Up In The Air could have been a film about how people who ascribe to philosophies such as Bingham’s can be fine human beings and get on in life as well as anyone else. Instead it chose to make Bingham into a kind of charming abberation. The film rolls to an uneven conclusion, unable to deal with the character it has created: He’s okay, I suppose, but you wouldn’t want to live like that.

The film closes with the “fired” employees talking about how things had actually been fine because they’d had their families. I wasn’t sure what this was intended to do, or what that said about Bingham. Perhaps that he couldn’t afford to be fired, because then he’d have nothing? Or was it meant to show that they were just too earthbound and weak to follow in his footsteps? Maybe it was just a vague stab at dispersing the more bleak elements of the film, which were about people’s total dependency on their work. Either way, it was an awkward end to an otherwise elegant and intelligent movie.

Nov 27 2010

Death And Infrastructure: Thrilling Wonder Stories II

The two hour delay I faced getting into central London yesterday seemed somehow thematic of the day. A “suspected fatality” somewhere on the Paddington to Swansea rail line had brought things to a standstill. (Surely someone is dead or not? Were they nervously poking the suspected corpse with a stick to see if it was actually a sleeping tramp that would leap up and roar at them? Or was the phrasing designed to not imply definite tragedy, therefore saving us the concern about the loss of a life?) Death and infrastructure: key themes for the Thrilling Wonder Stories II, a sprawling multi-disciplinary event at the Architecture Association.

I arrived with seconds to spare, just as the AA bossman Brett Steele began to talk about the inability of architecture to see through its grand designs for the future. (I sat down in an opened alcove – a peculiar set up that one of the speakers would later point out meant that one half of the audience sat in light, and the other in darkness.) Steele set up the day by observing that visions of the future almost always end up scattered through the layered reality of the past. There is no blank slate, no matter how confidently great thinkers might predict it. The concrete towers that range across London a mark out of that sort of vision – fragments of one future, one way of looking at the future, at the city – and even the building we were in: once an elegant town house, now a bustling educational facility, bears the affect of different ways of understanding its own existence. So the stage was set for some fresh speculations – not necessarily to predict the future, or even say anything credible about it, but to make sure that the idea of the future was entertained, and that it was entertaining.

The day was divided up into small panels, each consisting of a number of individual presentations, illustrated by slides and videos which appeared on a number of screens around the room. The first panel was “Counterfeit Archaeologies”. BLDGBLOG editor Geoff Manaugh started the events proper as a double-act with his wife Nicola Twilley. Their method – one of offbeat or accidental suppositions blossoming into wider speculations – was filled with the kind of material that has made their blogging so interesting. They talked about the titular counterfeit archaeologies (faked fossils, simulated plastic stratification), as well as anti-archaeologies, simulated archaeologies. The myth of a “cow tunnel” into the slaughterhouses of Manhattan, the idea of fabricating fossils to test theories about deep time, and how to build something that would deter archaeology. All themes that percolate through Manaugh’s interests. Manaugh and Twilley raised typically interesting conceits and play-on-ideas from current research: could bees be made to produce concrete in the manner of living 3D-printers? Manaugh outlined the idea of “animal printheads”, speculating that we could engineer social animals to build or modify our buildings by manipulating their natural systems – modified spiders printing out steel for new superstructures. All great stuff.

Next up were “design provocateurs” Dunne & Raby, who were working with similar material, albeit in a way that was presented rather strangely. I think I rather missed the point of their presentation, but they showed a series of designs for externalised digestive tracts for humans – suggesting that people could soon be modified to “forage” rather than relying the traditional modification of land and vegetation that we rely on in farming. A related idea saw them speculating that policing could be handled casually if mind-reading bazookas were deployed by the community at large. They explained how, having designed this stuff, they brought in a writer to fill out the backstories – a writer who humanised ideas that might otherwise have seemed rather alien. These ideas could happen, they seemed to be saying, and would create tensions if they did do. Tensions would create stories. It chimed with the narrative theme of the day, which was something all the speakers seemed to touch on, as if it was the nature of story that somehow connected or delivered their work through to usefulness.

The second panel, Cautionary Tales, consisted of two authors and an artist. The first author was Jeff Vandermeer, who explained how his book Finch – in which his fantasy city “Ambergris” reaches parity with the 20th century real world and is then colonised and occupied by a race of fungal intelligences – acts as a kind of “non-preachy” analogy for failed states and occupations in our own reality. Following him was Will Self, who was typically awesome and droll, grabbing the biggest laugh of the day, and also the most sinister reading. His piece on leaping to his death from the Bay Bridge in San Francisco seemed fine-tuned for the audience, but also for making a point about the ideas of the day. Psychogeography, for Self, is often a consideration of what buildings demand of us – his usual example of the airports demanding calm and boredom, despite the fact that we are about to be hurled across continents at 600mph, was also rolled out to supplement the tall tale from the bridge. Third to this panel was Paul Duffield, the artist on Freakangels, who described his personal project, Signal. This wordless graphic work was inspired by both the cosmic perspectives of Carl Sagan and the ongoing search for life at SETI. Signal is a short story about the last man alive searching for that signal from other life under the light of a “galaxy rise”. Does he find it? Perhaps. His transformation into a crane/heron delivers a cryptic ending. Duffield struggled a bit in the Q&A, but he was so close to making the point that he had presumably intended to make, which was that mathematics, which is the universal language we would probably use as a starting point for contact with extraterrestrial life, was also the thing that underwrites much of graphic art, since it is interwoven into the geometries that Duffield uses on the page.

(I’ve actually been thinking a lot about SETI recently. I wonder if it should be abandoned because of the potential for melancholy. It seems to me that we’re only ever likely to pick up a signal from some far away, long-dead civilisation, and then have to listen to it, possibly for centuries, without being able to do anything about it. On the one hand it could mean we aren’t “alone” in the universe, but perhaps it would only amplify our isolation. Here we are, trapped in our tower, able to catch glimpses of the living world outside and yet never touch it, never let it know we exist… We could end up stuck here on Earth, in love with a teeming universe that never bothers to acknowledge our existence.)

The third panel was Near Futures. A little closer to home for me – and yet still somehow alien by virtue of being an Xbox game – was the opening demonstration of Child Of Eden by Ubisoft. Visually spectacular, it is nevertheless Rez with motion control. I can see the appeal of it, but this isn’t what is exciting about games for me. Projects like this feel like a hangover from the 1980s, a sort of realised dream of what shoot ‘em ups could be, though the format ends feeling archaic even under the guise of this fresh technology. Also on this panel was the phenomenal Alex Rutterford, a film-maker responsible for videos such as Autechre’s Gantz Graf (below) and many other pioneering electronic works. What was interesting about his work, I felt, was that he used architectural forms without really having an considerations for architecture. It was all about surface for his work, as if he were an architect who worked purely in facades – something that I think is common with a lot of work in videogames, too.


Also on this panel was Matt Webb from BERG. This London design firm are rapidly becoming popular outside just the design sector, thanks to their over-arching philosophies, omnivorous interests, and thorough blogging of all the topics surrounding their research. They’re the kind of creative force that is fast making general design more interesting, purely on the level of ideas, than any other sector. Anyone who has been following Webb for a while will be familiar with the themes he touched on here – the inspirational value of 1970s space station illustrations, the idea of the macroscope, and the importance of Hello Little Fella in design. He also looked at “fractional AI”, the idea that AI isn’t turning up in the monolithic intelligences of Wargames or 2001, but instead in things like hamster toys that make “hilarious noises”. It’s not huge and all-encompassing, but cheap, tiny, and handling just a tiny fragment of what we might regard as intelligent. This led to a discussion of ubiquitous computing: what is interesting about technology now is that it is, thanks to be distributed and fractional, “disappearing” into the world around us. The screen is (possibly) become less important as the focus of all things hi-tech, because hi-tech, and the internet, is in everything from kids toys to washing machines.

I’m not sure whether this is a consequence of the last Thrilling Wonder Stories, or simply a factor of me being older and broader, but I was far more familiar with the interests and obsessions of this set of speakers – and, consequently less surprised by their ideas – than I had been at the first event. This is a purely personal observation, of course, but it was interesting to see most of the speakers setting up their obsessions as a kind of pitch stall, staking out their little landscape of ideas and offering up its fruits to others. As a consequence it felt more prosaic than the original Thrilling Wonder Stories, much more about showcasing work than about simply unloading ideas. Vandermeer and Self particularly were reeling off variants of their standard book pitches that I had already seen elsewhere. As beautiful as Vandermeer’s mind is, and as funny as Self remains, they were somehow less useful than last year’s participants, and had neither the same intellectual verve nor the same quotient of take-home ideas as the previous speakers.

Panel four – Apocalyptic Visions – was also largely familiar to me. Anthony Johnston, the author of the Wasteland comics, spoke about how the city in his novel had begun to tell its own stories, pushing him away from his original “wasteland” remit of telling stories out in the desert. The city exhibited so much pull, because buildings automatically tell stories, that he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – steer away from it. For Johnston, the value of buildings is how we understand them, as place that imply things, and ask questions. It is “the locked door”, the thing that instantly creates mystery. What is behind it? Why is it locked? Who locked it? And so on. Johnston handed over to the remarkable Rachel Armstrong. She too a science fiction author, but also a working scientist researching synthetic biology, and particularly metabolic materials for buildings. Armstrong’s work is fascinating – life like systems operating without DNA programming – and she is an extraordinarily vivid and glamorous character. It seems as if she could easily have been written into existence by one of the other speakers. The speculative project she outlined was using cell-like chemical systems to create a kind of reef-like deposit under Venice, and to thereby save it from sinking into the sea. Of all the ideas that were presented at this event, hers was the most extraordinary and – by virtue of her being a working researcher – the most plausible and pragmatic. Amazing, almost fictional, but edging into the real. As Manaugh pointed out, Armstrong’s work was less an apocalyptic vision, and more of an apocalyptic antidote.

Last up for panel four was Ed Stern from Splash Damage. He talked about the background for designing The Ark, the floating eco-city gone bad that plays host to Brink, their forthcoming shooter. Stern was at his best here, working hard to outline the commercial constraints of modern videogames as well as pointing out how its possible to be creative and provocative even within the tight templates of something as formulaic as a first-person shoot ‘em ups. His closing statement – the game’s trailer – got the biggest cheer of the day. Whatever the crowd, people seem to appreciate men with guns, and Stern had provided an illuminating glimpse of the difficulties that the Men With Guns creators currently face. Brink is particularly ambitious, trying to set itself apart with a mixture of hyper-realism and a scenario that had not been seen before in either games or film. The panel’s subsequent conversation also turned to Minecraft, thanks to Anthony Johnston, as they touched on the idea of whether the indie games scene equates to the same kind of things as Art cinema. Stern argues that it does not, and I agree with him. But more on that another time. A good outing from the videogame fraternity, anyway.

The final panel I recollect through a haze of exhaustion, as we had been going for eight hours at this point. Thoughts were starting to lose their glue. First up were Ant Farm, an “alternative” architecture practice founded in the 1960s and based in San Francisco. These chaps talked about their time capsule projects, ending with a recollection of a dream that one of them had, which didn’t really make much sense to me. This deliriousness might have been a consequence of their presentation being via Skype on a big screen in the room, rather than in person, an event that was simultaneously a super-modern instance of network power and baffling disconnected, or I might have just really needed a cup of tea. Also in the bafflingly disconnected camp was the final presentation from radical artist (and enormously accomplished sculptor) Joep Van Lieshout, who spoke about his speculative “free state” A.V.L.ville, which he had built as a kind of studio-cum-anarchist commune on a piece of land off Rotterdam harbour. Having declared themselves a free state, the AVL inhabitants began to try to operate as such until Van Lieshout made claims about the possibility of dog-fucking to the local press, and the authorities became involved. Having been frustrated in his attempts to build a real society, Van Lieshout moved his architectural art (via his key obsessions of mobile homes and sex) to a new city design: Slave City. This design, fortunately never realised, proposed a 60km2 ideal city, which was self sufficient, given enough slaves. The slaves would work in call centres, generating $8bn a year in revenue, while weak or unsuitable candidates would be butchered for food and biofuel. The audience laughed, astonished at these proposals for organised prostitution and cannibalism, all of which were delivered by Van Lieshout with a dose of good humour. It nevertheless ended up seeming rather sinister. If Roche had closed last year’s event sounding like the mad architect who would build the villain’s volcano base, then Van Lieshout ended this event by sounding like the villian himself. “It’s not my fault,” I imagined him saying, “it was all in the name of art!”

Art probably isn’t a good enough excuse for much of this stuff. Liam Young and Geoff Manaugh are producing a series of events (there’s due to be a third Thrilling Wonder Stories next year) that I suspect some commentators will see as weird or frivolous. Entertaining the notions of fantasy authors and fringe intellectuals seems at odds with some of the tasks that architecture faces, but, as Self pointed out, so many architects will end up having their work prescribed for them by forces beyond their control, ending up building boring airports or safe rail infrastructure, that any chance to push them towards genuine creativity must be snapped up. It isn’t just about art, because even art is never just about art. Nor is architecture just about buildings, or even just about the people who inhabit the buildings. It’s about everything. That seems to be what these events are designed to demonstrate. For the rest of us, particularly those of us in comparatively closed circles of interests, such as the games industry, Thrilling Wonder Stories represents a kind of challenge: to find out where interesting projects intersect with our own, and to see what we can learn from them. Perhaps we’ll learn nothing at all, but it’s worth finding out.

Sep 23 2010

The Prosthetic Imagination

This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

“We tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

- Steven Shaviro, 2003, Connected, or What it Means to Live in the Network Society, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Videogames are the reason I could be considered a cyborg. Not in the sense that I have had parts of my physical body taken over by electronic or mechanical systems, but in the sense that I often have had my imagination taken over by electronic and mechanical systems. Gaming, particularly electronic gaming, often imbues me with some of the most essential properties of a cyborg.

The reasoning behind this idea unfolds as follows. Technology, each and every technology, is “an extension of ourselves”. Marshal McLuhan makes good that claim in his writings, and it is an idea that stands up to significant scrutiny. The poking stick that increases our reach, the car that increases our range and speed, the giant radio telescopes that extend our gaze into the heavens and through the electromagnetic spectrum: all are extension. They extend, or even replace (for the cyborg), our natural faculties. Technology is extension. Extension, then, is a core principle of the cyborg, too. The point at which extension and biological limits cross over.

Games are high technology, and so what do games extend? As items for sensory and intellectual interrogation, it seems to that they must extend our minds. More specifically, perhaps, our imaginations. This will be true of all games. Initially that extension might have been rather rudimentary – extensions of logic and chance with card games, extensions of the fantasies of childhood with wooden props and cardboard castles – but now, with the gaming Guttenberg press of the persona computer (those “personal idea amplifiers”), games are sophisticated systems that model incredible complex processes in splendid pixellated parody of both real and unreal worlds.

Listening to Alan Moore’s spoken word performance Snakes & Ladders, where he muses on how creative people are “importers” and “explorers” from the realm of imagination, I began to think about how games are, in a sense, shared imaginative structures that have been exported from a group exploration of that realm. The combined intellectual alloy of the design teams that produce them are fashioned, sold, and then experienced by gamers like me. Something similar is true of novels and movies, of course, but the game has an even more direct influence on the imagination. By enabling the brain to manipulate with virtual systems, to engage with simulation, it creates systems than span the mental and the virtual, the biological and the electrical. Also, even more significantly to my point, our imagination is not a description as a book is a textual description, or a film is a visual description. It is, instead, a model.

However incomplete a model the imagination may be, it shares this primary attribute with games. They too are models. The game designer Will Wright, of SimCity and The Sims, has spoken a number of times about how the “real” model of the videogame is in the player’s mind, with the models presented by the game itself simply acting as a kind of mental compiler. Ours is a capacity to internally simulate things, to model them in consciousness, and then to predict how the world might be different. It’s a faculty that came about through a natural selection of efficient systems of perception. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argues that complex animals’ ability to imagine has evolved out of necessity because they were required to be able to simulate their world, mentally, in order to survive it:

“Natural selection built in the capacity to simulate the world as it is because this was necessary in order to perceive the world. You cannot see that two-dimensional patterns of lines on two retinas amount to a single solid cube unless you simulate, in your brain, a model of the cube. Having built in the capacity to simulate models of things as they are, natural selection found that it was but a short step to simulate things as they are not quite yet—to simulate the future. This turned out to have valuable consequences, for it enabled animals to benefit from “experience,” not trial-and-error experience in their own past or in the life and death experience of their ancestors, but vicarious experience in the safe interior of the skull. And once natural selection had built brains capable of simulating slight departures from reality into the imagined future, a further capacity automatically flowered. Now it was but another short step to the wilder reaches of imagination revealed in dreams and in art, an escape from mundane reality that has no obvious limits.”

This offers a strange kind of realisation: that we are probably at our most human when engaged in acts of simulation.

Returning to that earlier notion of extension and replacement – the classic cyborg tropes – it’s interesting to swing by the work of Steven Shaviro, and particularly his book Connected. In that masterful musing on network society he talks about the notion of being a cyborg, and writes this:

“I extend the power of my hand or my mouth or my brain only at the price of excising the original organ-whether literally or figuratively-to make room for its replacement. Each time we extend ourselves technologically, some part of the real gives way to the virtual. This is why every cultural innovation is attended by an ambivalent sense of loss. And this is also why we tend to equate virtual with disembodied, even though it would be more accurate to use it as an equivalent for prosthetic.”

What would the implications be for our culture, Shaviro wonders, if prosthetic had been the dominant metaphor during the information revolution, rather than virtual? For games the ramifications are pretty obvious: prosthetic reality, prosthetic worlds. Not empty placebo realities, but useful extensions of this one. That also seems more apt when you look at the experience of gaming. You are not simply waving at passing spectres in the night, you are right in there, wrestling with the invented physics, unravelling the stories, ripping open alien monstrosities. The imagination is extended into this space, it spills back and forth from technology to mind. You can see this happening when you watch players at work. Their thinking is right there on the screen. As with the Clark/Chalmers model of “extended” cognition, players are thinking on the screen with the Tetris blocks, working out the peculiar physics of each game world in a loop that encompasses the electronic state of the computer and the brain in one recursive process.

There’s something else here too: the way in which games appeal to the pattern-completing instincts that are fundamental to our behaviour. The way they entrance, compel, and mesmerise. Electronic games colonise and inhabit the imagination in a way that’s analogous to the traditional image of electro-mechanical devices colonising/extending the human body in cyborg physicality. Taking over systems while they are engaged. Parts of my brain are tracking imagined, simulated spaces that are also tracked and mapped in the game. And do I remove an arm of my imagination to replace it with MMO processes when I can think of nothing else? Games are more than the tune you can’t stop humming because you heard it on an insurance commercial, and they are more than singing along to that tune on the radio. Games are, rather, like a system of scaffolding for the imagination, allowing to make its work more concrete, and for it to climb higher than it has even done before.

Of course most games are terrible, limited, unimaginative things, which seems to cast a gloom on all this speculative excitement. But that might not matter. The faked, regimented gardening of the Farmville player is just as much an instance of the kind of cyborg I am talking about, as the most poignant flow of light from Shadow Of The Colossus. What is important here is to recognise how the cyborg, and the nature of the cyborg in our world of information, is not the nature of Robocop and other such crude caricatures collisions of humanity and technology. The cyborg is mental, psychic. The new human which is emerging from the flows and processes that our technologies are surrounding us in is projecting itself into inner space, via physical space. Any and all games can do this.

Shaviro again, completing that passage that takes its cues from Haraway’s account of the cyborg.

“The cyborg is the very figure of this permeability. It is fully physical, but light and cool: a “subtle, fluid and tenuous” form of materiality. In their indifference to binary categorizations, their easy trafficking between real and virtual, Haraway writes, “cyborgs are ether, quintessence”.”

Ether, quintessence: the same words that writers end up using to discuss the immaterial boulevards of our imaginings. What videogames are is something fully physical, but it is also an instance of that easy trafficking between the real and virtual. It is, perhaps, as a playful technology, the easiest extension of them all. The prosthetic imagination.

Jul 25 2010

I’m Working On Something Fairly Big, And It’s Taking Some Time

Some of you will already know what it is. Hopefully I will be able to blog about it soon. The project should soon result in www.big-robot.com pointing somewhere other than this blog.

For entirely unrelated robot-themed happenings from my fingers, check out Total Eclipse Of The Reactor Core.

More soon.

Jul 6 2010

This Gaming Life Digital Version Now Online

It’s readable in full here. And it could have been there for ages, but no one told me. Why would they? I only wrote the damned thing.

Jun 19 2010

Talk To Me About The Future Of Humanity

Last Wednesday I spent some time at Future Human‘s “Immersion Drama” event at The Book Club in Shoreditch, London. The attending crowd was a fashionable herd consisting of more of the local Old St digerati fauna than most games-related events I attend in London. It felt a little odd to recognise only a handful of the folks in the audience, but I still ended up being asked about RPS, so the basal-level of PC nerd was still there. That was reassuring. Also, I got this sticker:

Stickers are almost always okay.

The evening kicked off with a presentation by Ben Beaumont-Thomas, in which he talked about “transmedia storytelling” and related things. This basically referenced all that alternate reality and cross-format pollination of content and marketing that seems to have proliferated massively in the past few years. His most interesting example was the Nine Inch Nails event based around Year Zero, which was beautifully spooky, with coded messages in “found” USB keys, decrypted images of a giant hand trailing from the sky, and general warnings from the future about some pseudo-Rapture horrors. It was a story told in a distributed sense, across the music itself, attendance of gigs, real-world discoveries, and lots of digging around on the internet. You will probably be familiar with this format by now, of course, thanks to it being heavily explored by some big corporations, such as Microsoft. (There was also reference to a book that was on screen briefly in Lost, and then was created as a real, essentially unrelated book by a publishing house invented and created by the lost team. Wikipedia reminds us that there are a lot of other fictional books that would have been more interesting to bring into the real world.)

Anyway, Year Zero was all fun and games for NIN obsessives, but this kind of thing is exciting stuff for the rest of us, too, because it points a way towards participatory story-telling activities that take us into a potential realm of expression and imaginative exploration that previous generations of artists and thinkers seemed to have longed for. Beaumont-Thomas’ specific example was the idea of the “4th dimension” with regards to the Cubists, which was – I am guessing – another degree of perspective, perhaps a poetic dimension, that was required to understand their work. Cubism wasn’t about technical accomplishment, so there was something else going on, something about how the general imagination of the audience dealt with this new art-form. I’m not sure I quite understood the link he was making, but I think the crucial idea to take away from it was that alternate reality projects, or “transmedia”, could potentially provide a way for us to find new perspectives on art and story-telling: making it more like an ecosystem of imaginative activities than simply the broadcast of one (or a few) mind’s vision to an audience beyond.

All of which had me stoked for the rest of the evening… which didn’t go so well. The second section was a “crowd-sourced” trans-media project, which basically had some volunteers from the audience, the audience, and the organizers trying to suggest how some kind of game-event-competition could be organised using the principles of transmedia storytelling. It was a little confusing, even if the resulting adultery project on the Titanic (entitled “Cruising”) was very funny to watch unfold.

Then came a panel section with guests Matt Wieteska, ARG designer from Six To Start, Jade Tidy, producer of episodic murder-mystery PS3 game Blue Toad Murder Files, and Tim Jones, producer at interactive theatre troupe Coney. There was a fourth panel member, too, but I don’t know who that was. This was supposedly aimed at exploring the ideas of alternate reality and transmedia, but it also arrived at the “immersion” of the evening’s title. It was at this point that things really began to come apart, as it became clear no one was quite sure what they were addressing when they were talking about immersion. Old pennies of game debate, such as the Holodeck and “what happens when we can’t tell if we’re still inside the game” began to crop up alongside questions of worth and dangers of involving people in alternate reality scenarios, and thoughts about what it means to be engaged in different types of storytelling provided through digital platforms. Quite different kinds of immersion that were indistinct in the discussion, leading to some confused answers. Yeah, I’m was feeling a bit snobby at this point, and I’m probably going to seem snarky, but in truth my own beret-wearing arthouse crowd of mainstream and indie gamers has already explored these subjects individually and thoroughly, and it was clear that the discussion was only just getting to its feet with Future Human’s panel and audience.

Ultimately, although well intended and with some fun ideas, I think Immersion Drama probably failed for thinking it had to have anything to do with “immersion”, or, in truth, any discussion whatsoever of old-fashioned on screen videogames. Beaumont-Thomas’ initial foray into discussing how many different kinds of media are creating a new palette for story-telling and involvement in artistic spectacle was a great starting point to an event of some kind, but it was one in which the attendees chased down those specific concepts: exploring whether there are additional formats and platforms these things could exploit, asking about whether we really want or need reality and fantasy to become indistinct, examining why it is that marketing has provided the motor for so much of the alternate reality invention, and looking at what the imaginative fallout could be for people who are spend time treating reality like a grand Easter Egg hunt. I’d be interested to see more discussion along these lines, and I hope Beaumont-Thomas expands his initial piece online somewhere for all to see.

Is the future of humanity a confused debate about our engagement with digital games followed by a disco? Perhaps. But we took flight to another reality in a nearby pub, just to be safe.

May 30 2010

Victory For The Apocalypticians?

Dystopia and apocalypse are consistently popular imaginative themes. Between Jericho and The Road, or 2012 and The World Without Us, there is a sprawling middle ground of abandoned metropolises and imagined dooms. It filters into the real world too: online we share photographs of urban decay, wandering into the abandoned corners of our cities to taste what the future might really be like without us. In the world of suits and headlines, even with the threat of global nuclear war so diminished, apocalypse remains at the forefront of policy. What of the climate, the seas, the air we breathe? The sheer numbers? Collectively, we’re keen on wondering if we’re at the brink. And, if we are, then we’re asking: what are things going to look like?

A common interpretation of apocalypse in fiction is that it represents the author’s wishes to radically change or destroy himself: by obliterating everything that makes him what he is, perhaps, he is reincarnating himself, what he has become, or what was going to be. This, I suppose, transfers to the reader. They get to imagine the inverted tyranny of deleted worlds, and their own shattered futures, too.

What does it mean, then, when the default view of the future for a large part of any given society is an apocalyptic one? Are we trying to find a way to express a need for change? We’ve been here before, I think. Plague and war in the Middle Ages inspired an epidemic of apocalyptic thinking, with all the attendant prophesying. There might be disaster, the Christianity-bound soothsayers argued, but heaven would follow for the believers. It might even have seemed sensible to assume the end times really were nigh. And why not? When things are crummy and the chips are down, it’s fair enough to want things to change, whether that’s via disaster or otherwise.

Looking around at the atmosphere in entertainment contemporary culture, the attitude of some of the people around me, and the general climate of fear created by, well, the climate, the same could be true of today. Our situation is rather different, of course, and I’m not making such claims lightly. I am not a doom-monger, nor a climate-change denier. I’m partial to a fictional apocalypse, and I’m probably part of the dystopian centre-ground: I think things need a lot of work. Still, I don’t feel qualified make any real predictions. What interests me is the taste for apocalypse in entertainment culture right now. I’d noticed that taste long before I’d really connected any of the dots. My own shelf was full of end times scenarios, and they seemed like a good idea in games, too. (To balance out the elf and space marine quotas.)

It was last year’s Thrilling Wonder Stories that finally made me sit up and think about this. The key moment was in the talk by science fiction writer Iain MacLeod, in which he spoke about the visions the future that he had been getting kids in schools to produce over the years. Increasingly, he reported, visions produced by children were dystopias, or even apocalypses. The visions of the future produced by contemporary schoolchildren, said MacLeod, were dark. Observably grimmer than those produced a decade, or two decades ago.

A startling thought! The trickle-down effect of what was popular in entertainment culture, and what was popular in international politics, had pooled in the imagination of children. Not for this generation of kids, the lure of the stars, or the wonders of limitless human invention. Rather, they were destined to be pessimists by default: ready to accept the decline of civilisation, or the death of the Earth, as just the prevailing narrative. They parsed the mass of sci-fi images produced by our culture, interpolated them with terrorism and eco-doom, and decided that the funny bald author guy at the front of the class wanted to see transmissions from a future dark.

Perhaps they didn’t actually interpret this stuff as necessarily negative. Apocalyptic imagery is “cool” in terms of imaginative currency. It’s hip and credible in a way that Dan Dare’s rocketship no longer is. Nevertheless, it’s a disconcerting message.

MacLeod’s report is, of course, purely anecdotal. The current surge of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes in films, games, and fiction could be purely coincidental. But perhaps it is nevertheless irresponsible. We might be enjoying the voyeurism of utter destruction, we might be finding release in the portraits of radical change that these destructive fictions offer, but perhaps we should stop assuming it’s our lifespan that matters. Perhaps we should be turning up at the cinema expecting more stories about resilience, or reports from the future where the problems are what to do with limitless energy, or Japanese consciousness multipliers, rather than dustbowls and gasmask hipsters. Authors: is that nihilism really what you want to leave behind? Your silhouette a stoop, rather than a hurrah?

I was banging on about this stuff last week and someone said to me “Yeah, you do like your retro shiny shit.” And I realised that I’ve only recently learned to like it, because I want to rescue something from it. I want to rescue an attitude which said that the imagined future looked more like this:

Apr 5 2010

Only Four Shuttle Flights Remain

Strikingly sad realisation that manned space-flight is at an all time low point. Those flights that are planned now are maintenance of the ailing space station, and tourism for the super-wealthy. As Ballard pointed out, the true space era lasted just fifteen years, from Gagarin’s journey to 1975, when Apollo’s capsule splashdown was not shown on TV.

“Only intelligent machines may one day grasp the joys of space travel, seeing the motion sculpture of the spaceflights as immense geometric sympohonies.” – The Atrocity Exhibition, 1993 edition, JG Ballard

Mar 2 2010

The Ghost Of A Wheelbarrow

A couple of years ago we bought a house. Half a house, really, as it was the end of a 19th-century cottage. We’d been living there for a month or two when we found something peculiar in the letterbox. It was a sepia photograph of the house, which you can see below. (Click for full size.)

The print was in a cheap cardboard frame of the kind you might have used for class photographs in at school. There was no writing on it, no leaflet, nor any other explanation. It had almost certainly been delivered while I’d been in the house, so whoever had dropped it off clearly had no intention of explaining themselves. We put this mysterious gift above the fire and occasionally pointed it out – along with the accompanying tale of anonymity – to visitors.

Months later and my mother had come by. She – as is her inclination – went off to nearby second-hand bookshops, returning with random publications for us and the rest of my family. One of these included a book of photographs of the local area. Two of these photographs were of our house, and one of them was the photograph which had been put into our letterbox.

The caption read: “(c1903.) Here the photo-grapher has gathered a small group of ladies, and a dog, to stand still long enough for this superb picture to be constructed.”

That isn’t a dog. It’s a wheelbarrow.

Intrigued by this mistake, we began to discuss what this could mean. We soon realised that our house, being old and creaky, must be haunted by the ghost of a wheelbarrow. Perhaps the wheelbarrow was already dead when this picture was taken, and its appearance in the photograph is actually some kind of warning. The wheelbarrow could quite easily be the West Country equivalent of the black dog of legend.

Later, when clearing away the heavy undergrowth in the back garden, we found a standing stone. A gravestone. Who or what could be buried here?

The answer seemed clear: our house had been built on an ancient wheelbarrow burial ground.

Feb 15 2010

Rock, Paper, Shotgun, And Why We Need To Make Publications Into Homes, Or Maybe Just Local Pubs

I was fascinated to read Wired UK‘s take on the Apple tablet, the rivals to the Kindle, and the race to create a digital magazine format, as featured in the latest issue of that magazine. Peter Kirwan’s article relates to the kind of topics I’ve touched on before on this blog, but it wasn’t so much the HTML vs other online design that really grasped me, but rather how a number of comments made in the article relate to the experiences I’ve had with something I haven’t talked much about on this site: the creation and success of Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has been my other project for the better part of three years, and I co-own it with three other writers. Our intention was to create a unique website – specifically one about PC gaming – which we’ve done fairly successfully. The site now sees roughly 400,000 visitors each month and largely pays for its own smooth running. Part of the reason for this is, I believe, the way in which we’ve identified a community and then managed it. We realised early on that the rush to create commercial blogs for the generalist gamer had left one particular format – the PC – out in the cold, despite the fact that the same format had dominated the early days of the web. PC gaming media had fragmented into community niches, or particular gaming genre sites, and there was no equivalent of, or supplement to, the kind of thing that magazines like PC Gamer were doing, which was to deliver a broad survey of what was going on in that space. We wanted to do precisely that, because it matched with our own diverse tastes. Secondly, much of the web is rude, thoughtless, or chauvinistic. That’s often true of Rock, Paper, Shotgun too, but we’ve gone much further than most other communities in actively cracking down on it. Rather than rely on a crowd-based system of voting comments and up and down, we’ve opted to curtail free speech and employ massive deletions. Create an atmosphere in which trolling and idiocy is not tolerated at all, and it starts to recede. All this left us with an excellent place for people did want to discuss the issues of PC gaming to start reading on a regular basis.

So anyway, the Wired article quotes Sara Ohrvall of Bonnier R&D, who says of web media consumption: “People become ‘rootless’ in their behaviour… They consume media in places where they happen to end up. This leaves consumers uncertain about whether they have read/listened to/viewed what’s relevant to them, or not.” She goes on saying that you “always link somewhere else, the story never ends.” It’s about curation, says the article. Magazines curate content for readers. Which is, of course, a lesser feature of news blogs and RSS feeds. They are an attempt at a different kind of curation, one that is similar to, but more fragmentary than, the kind magazines offered previously.

What has perhaps fallen by the wayside is the sense of a connected community that is built into the systems. Many of these sites aren’t engendering the kind of communities we’ve seen based around magazines, sometimes because they’re just news links that point elsewhere, and sometimes because they’re hostile environments, difficult for a newcomer to break into, or feel comfortable in. However, if they do manage to create a sense of community then that rootlessness begins to become less significant. Online readers begin to regard certain sites as bases from which to head out onto the web from. One of the most common bits of feedback I hear from RPS readers is that they’ll always have the site open in a tab, because they feel the need to check back and see what everyone is talking about, both in the editorial and the site comments. For my part, I use a number of sites I’m familiar with the explore the web from, returning to them later on. They’re my homepages in a very literal sense of the word.

Later in the Wired article the founder of The Wonderfactory, David Link, is quoted saying that new digital magazines designed for tablet-readers won’t link out much, because “they’ll want to keep the readers immersed in premium material.” They will, in effect, want to retain the “walled garden” that they’ve previously had with magazines. This seems to be me to be nonsense, and a recipe for disaster. Rock, Paper, Shotgun is a far better model for a web magazine: a stream of news punctuated by longer articles, embedded within a community which is reasonably well-policed. This new generation of digital magazines, if and when they happen, should regard themselves as home-pages, or bases from which their readers can make excursions into the web. They are somewhere to focus a particular interest, to provide relevant material, and signposts to exploration. They’re also a place to return to later on. The best example of how this works on RPS is our regular ‘The Sunday Papers’ feature, in which readers regularly return to RPS to comment on an article, rather than – or in addition to – commenting on the source site. Why do they do that? Because they’re coming back home to share their thoughts with the people who they know have a similar understanding of the world to themselves. They’re not going to do that with something that is all controlled editorial, and an unpoliced pure-news site will have similar issues. Sure, we have riotous arguments, but the common thread of the site is enough to keep things ticking over, and keep people feeling invested.

Magazines, paper magazines, can be translated into these e-reader formats, but that does not mean the transition is actually useful or that it won’t be pointless against the backdrop of what the web is already doing. Learning from how the smaller, consistently popular sites like RPS are operating is the only way print media can evolve to meet the demands of the future reader.