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Reality as a Storytelling Medium - ARGFest 2011 Presentation

This is a presentation given at ARGFest 2011 at Indiana University Bloomington entitled : Using Reality as a Story-telling Medium

Image removed.

My name is Reed Berkowitz and I'm here to talk about using reality as a story-telling medium.  I'm the director of Curiouser llc, a media and fiction research company and we've been studying this class of stories which we call "experience stories" or "experience fiction" for a while and we'd like to share some of our insights about it.    

We define experience stories as any stories that use reality as their medium.  I would say this covers ARGs, LARPS, location based stories, and a wide range of up and coming story forms that will use Augmented Reality, Pervasive Computing, and other technologies.  And some of those will be more game than story, and some more story than game... but the stories will be there nonetheless... and I'm going to focus on those...

So far this is a very niche story-form in terms of volume and participation, but it is a very important form to understand.  Besides helping us to define the relationships between fiction and reality, we feel that is that this story-form is about to become extremely popular.  Where, at the moment, really only dedicated gamers have ever experienced this type of story-telling this will change radically in the near future.  There are many indicators pointing to this, but an easy to see one is that as the internet comes with us into the real world... all those stories are coming with it. 

Even right now, even in it's nascent form, I press a button on my iPhone, and I become a pretend mage fighting in a fictional war but against real people and in this specific location.  I press it again and I'm not.  I think that as the new generation of kids grow up they will simultaneously be acting in several alternate realities at once. Some of them maybe persistently 24/7.

 

Shadow Cities

 

So all of you here are here before it really starts for most people.  And during the rest of this presentation I'm going to talk about how I think reality and fiction work or don't work together. 

Now my first introduction to merging reality and fiction was this movie... Mazes and Monsters.  

 

Mazes and Monsters VHS cover


(spoilers ahead)

 

It came out in 1982, starred a young Tom Hanks, and was kind of the Reefer Madness of RPGs.  In it, a young Tom Hanks LARPs for the first time.  That is Tom and his college buddies play their D&D knock off Mazes and Monsters in some caves, with some skeletons on strings, and play the game "for real".  But as the world knows, when you mix fantasy with reality, you unleash forces you cannot control... and then you go insane.  

So Tom Hanks goes insane and is forever trapped in the world of Mazes and Monsters in a merged reality space he can never escape.  He casts spells, he fights dragons, has adventures, and can only recognize his friends as their in-game characters.  Apparently he lives out the rest of his life in a quiet rest-home by a lake.

This was inspiring.  This was what I think I really wanted.  Insanity in this movie seemed like the next step in immersive game playing technology and I wanted to be on the cutting edge... So at thirteen I got my friends together and we started LARPing... Hoping that sooner or later, reality and fantasy would merge, and my parents would become inkeepers, and my teachers would become wise wizards, and my life would become magical.  

This... did not happen.  I had a great deal of fun, but the first rule of mixing fiction and reality together is for all intents and purposes

 

fiction + reality = fiction

 

And this seems to have been borne out by the research.  There have been several studies done recently that show that people's brains actually process things they know are real, like their friends, differently than they process things they know are fictional.  We even think about people we "know" are real but that we have never met differently than we process information about people we think of as fiction that we have never met.  This is a paper called : "Meeting George Bush versus Meeting Cinderella:The Neural Response When Telling Apart What is Real from What is Fictional in the Context of Our Reality"   It shows, among other things, that reality and fiction are stored and processed differently at physical levels in our brains.  

Now that doesn't mean that fiction doesn't feel real, especially when it takes center stage in our consciousness, but this is called immersion and it happens with all forms of fiction; books, plays, movies, etc.  However, when we compare it to reality (which we do) we can't help know the difference.  They can't be merged.  To really merge reality and fiction would require a neurological illness of some kind.  We might become highly engaged in a fiction and even act "as if" but we know the difference.  This is not merging reality and fiction.  We know on a fundamental level what the difference is.    

So experience stories are definitely stories.  They are fiction that exist, not on the page, but in our experience.  And so to really understand what's going on when we play or create these games... we have to understand what fiction is in relation to reality.  

 

Hi I am Julia

 

Here is Julia.  She's a ten year old girl who loves girl detective stories.  She loves them so much, that she's set up a detective agency in her front yard with a sign that reads.  "Mysteries solved.  Prices negotiable.  Inquire within."  Now, what is it, that Julia wants...?

It's clear because she has set up a sign, and invited others to participate, that she wants to do something in reality.  That is true.  But what is it?   

Does she want to solve real crimes?  No.  She doesn't.  The police blotter in the local paper is filled with B&Es and loitering and there is an article on the drug problem in the Pontifact district.  No.  Julia thankfully does not want to canvas the neighborhood and solve real crimes.  Not because it is dangerous but because it is boring.  That is reality.  She really wants something much much more important than that.  Something that has nothing at all to do with reality, but that she wants to experience in the format of reality.  

So to find out why Julia wants to be a child detective, and what that means, we have to know what fiction is to Julia.

Many people will tell you that fiction is "unreal" and reality is... real... factual... That doesn't really work very well as a definition.  Here is a little example from Kendall L. Walton's Mimesis as Make-Believe.  Let's say Fred imagines that he has won the lottery and moved to the sunny South of France to enjoy his winnings.  Here is what Kendall Walton has to say about that.  

"Much of what Fred imagines is false and known by him to be false.  But he imagines, also, that his name is Fred, that he prefers warm climates, that France is in Europe, and much else that he knows to be true.  [...] Imagining something is entirely compatible with knowing it to be true."  

So it seems that fiction itself might be a mix of reality and fantasy.  But we know that people can tell the difference between reality and fantasy.  So what's going on?

During our research at curiouser we have created an understanding of fiction that defines fiction not by its qualities, but by its uses.    By doing that we find we don't care what is "fact" or "fiction".  And because of that, there is no inherent conflict with "merging" reality and fantasy to create something that is used only as fiction.

But now we have a bigger problem... what is the USE of fiction.  What is Julia using fiction to accomplish?  

The short answer to that is that Julia is creating herself.  Most fiction is about ego development and maintenance.  Jenny is not looking "out".  She is looking in.  To herself.  Fiction is reflective.  It is like a mirror.  We look out at it, but it shows us what is inside and operates on our egos.  When we engage in fiction, we are engaging not with the outside world, but with ourselves.  

 

Fiction is Reflective

 

So fiction is very very important to us.  In fact it makes some sense out of the sheer amounts of fiction we engage in.    According to Neilson, the average American watches nearly 40 hours of TV and video a week.  So we don't sit in front of the tv six hours every day for entertainment.  We watch it because it does something important to us.

Our ego is a story that we have been told since we were babies.  "What a good boy!"  "You're a good girl!" It's a part of ourselves that cares about symbolic things like love, honor, and Javascript programing the way our physical bodies care about the temperature, food, and more physical things.  Our early caregivers and circumstances essentially created us at first.  And then we took over the process and now we create ourselves.  And fiction and stories are one of the ways we do that in an increasingly symbolic world.  If we get destructive messages from outside, we can use fiction to bolster ourselves and the parts of ourselves that we want to flourish.

So fiction is how we maintain our egos.  Julia is "finding herself" or more accurately she is creating herself.  So this explains not only why reality and fantasy don't mix, but why she doesn't' care about reality in this situation at all.  This detective stand is an outgrowth of her love of detective stories.  Fiction.  Somewhere in those stories of brave, smart, young girls who persevere through danger and adult deception to uncover the real mysteries around them she has found something that affects her deeply.  And she wants to run to meet them... Or in other words, to meet herself.  

So she wants something in reality that will work the same way as fiction does.  Fortunately she has some good friends to help her, because the next day...

Her doorbell rings.  And there is the older brother of one of her best friends Christie.  And he says "Julia, Christie said that you solve mysteries.  I think our attic is haunted and I want to hire you to check it out?"  Now she's excited.  

Does she think this is "real"?  No... not at all.  That's not why she's excited.  She's excited because someone who knows her is creating something for her that she hopes is going to work just like her stories.  She knows this is Christie's work.  But it's not pretend either because she has no idea at all what is going to happen next.  She is going to get to live her dreams for the afternoon.

Her dreams... not her start on a career in forensics.  

Now you can begin to see that the fact that reality and fiction don't merge is meaningless.  Julia doesn't want them to merge.  She is only interested in the reflective, symbolic, qualities of fiction.  So far so good.

So how DO we create a symbolic inward facing world within the real one?  What is the actual process for telling a story in reality? 

The desire for extension of symbolic fiction into reality is very common.  For instance... It could be action figures, costumes, or activities.  If you are an adult who loves cowboy literature, you might get cowboy boots.  You might visit famous locations like the OK Corral, or Western museums... You might even go to a dude ranch to know what it feels like to ride a horse and rope a steer.  So that you can have a closer connection to the stories you read and what they represent to you.  That is pretty common in people who love a kind of fiction.  Has anyone here ever done anything inspired by a book or genre that you love?

Now the person who likes cowboy fiction doesn't want to REALLY be in a life and death gun battle, or work with cattle, or live off of the land... these are real things people can actually do if they want to.  But the things people choose to do, that make them happy, are symbolic.  That is, the action they pursue is a symbol to them that has real meaning.  Important meaning.  That is what I would call a "sign".  

When humans communicate we use what is called in semiotics... signs.  A sign in semiotics might be rather loosely defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity".  As Daniel Chandler writes "Anything can be a sign as long as someone interprets it as 'signifying' something - referring to or standing for something other than itself. We interpret things as signs largely unconsciously by relating them to familiar systems of conventions."  This is how we "know" things symbolically.  This is the mechanism with which stories are told and things in fiction have meaning.  And a sign minimally has two parts

 

sign

 

A signifier and a signified.  A simple linguistic sign is the signifier of the word "dragon" and the signified concept of "a dangerous mythological creature"  maybe.  As philosopher Susanne Langer says

"Symbols are not proxy for their objects but are vehicles for the conception of objects... In talking about things we have conceptions of them, not the things themselves; and it is the conceptions, not the things, that symbols directly mean."  

And since symbols are proxies for concepts, those concepts are tied to emotions, experiences, etc.  So by manipulating the signs, we can manipulate our inner world directly.  So the word "apple" can be a signifier, but a sunset can also be a signifier for something.  And therefore a sign.  Maybe something we can't even know consciously.  Something built out of our personal experience or societal conventions.  So a tin star, a ghost, a girl detective, can all become symbolic and tell a story.  That is what we are doing in an experience story.  Using reality and experience itself to tell our story to the participant's ego, thereby affecting their nature.  

So here is how stories work, maybe especially experience stories. We project our inner life outward onto the symbols we see, and that inner life is reflected back to us.  Each signifier evokes in us a vast association of memories, emotions, experiences, physical sensations, and interlocking ideas.  And while it is "external" we can manipulate it and explore it. 

 

dragon

 

So let's use an example.  A boy is playing an ARG about dragons.  These are very powerful and ferocious city devouring dragons.  He is trying to find them and kill them.  He is a dragon hunter.  This is very symbolic.  He is projecting something deeply personal onto the idea of these powerful and dangerous dragons.  And the ARG puts him in the position of experiencing a world in which "there are dragons", and in which he can battle and defeat them.  So how the ARG makers portray these dragons is crucial.  They must remain symbolic.  

Because, this is not about wish fulfillment.  The boy in the ARG does not want to become a dragon hunter.  He is not pretending that dragons are real.  He is projecting something onto that dragon that he doesn't realize.  But it is something that he wants to vanquish, destroy, or get power over.  The dragon is half of the sign.  It is the signifier and the signified is inside the boy.  The dragon already exists in him.  As G.K. Chesterton said...

"Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon."

If the ARG makers had the power to actually create giant lizards that breath fire they should never do that.  If it were real it would be filtered by the "reality" part of the brain.  Then the dragons become an animal control problem.  Maybe a terrifying one, but that's not what most people want.  Dragons would then become symbols that signified large dangerous animals.  And that is not what they currently symbolize to the boy.  It is not about simulation.

On the other hand, a person running through the street in a rubber costume is also not what most players want.  That is a comedy.  Things that are symbolic have a hard time in reality.  It's one of the reasons LARPs are so maligned.  It takes an inordinate love of the material to be able to pretend that hard.  Most people can't or won't do it.  

You have to know your symbols and what they will mean to people.  You don't have to do it consciously, but make sure that it always "feels right" vs looks right.

Aristotle writes in the Poetics "The Epic, [...], affords more opening for the improbable, the chief factor in the marvelous, because in it the agents are not visibly before one."  and he goes on to talk about how a great scene in an epic poem would be ridiculous on the stage because you would see it.  

Another way to visualize this is that in reality, a man in a superhero costume does not read as a superhero.  Cosplay characters do not = their drawn counterparts. 

 

spidey

 

Not everything translates into physical reality.  And this is especially important in experience stories because maybe only in experience stories can a single story can be told with multiple media.  So as the characters translate from text, to video, to reality, different rules must be applied to keep it symbolically pure (the same).  So if you have the symbol of serious dangerous dragons... you will be asking a lot of people to continue the story with a paper mache dragon.

So not only are experience stories not real, and not only don't we want them to be real, the actions and symbols we encounter in them are also symbolic and unreal.  They serve very different purposes.  It is very important in experience stories for all elements to be reflective and psychologically true. 

Now this is why Alternate Reality Games may well become Augmented Reality Games.  Because soon you will be able to see and interact with symbolically significant dragons AND they will be broadcastable so that everyone can do it.  So you can see why Augmented Reality and Pervasive Computing are going to completely change this landscape.  They will provide symbolically appropriate visuals and action to real life.  Since they can also be broadcast, this is going to lower the bar tremendously for these types of games.  They will be everywhere.  

So the last point I want to make is to Julia.  I hope that whatever she gets from those wonderful stories of hers, she takes to heart and into the real world.  I hope she can keep those feelings of bravery with her and believe in them, and work on them, and use them.   When she feels brave reading a story about brave actions in a dangerous and imaginary world... that's because she is brave in a dangerous real world.

It's real.  The feelings we get playing the game or experiencing the story are real feelings that we already have inside us.  Don't feel afraid or silly.  The dragons, and the robots, and the monsters, are all symbols to remind us that yes, we are living in a mysterious world.  And the world is magical.

That's what we know... and that is true...   You don't need to go insane to live in a magical world.  We all already do.

And that's the end of my presentation... thank you.  

 

NOTES: 

During the presentation there was some confusion (or disagreement) about the idea of psychological accuracy versus realism in fiction especially in regards to Augmented Reality.  As we have seen our emotions and memories are activated, evoked, and manipulated by symbols.  So when I project my internal psychology onto the sign of a dragon, I'm not looking for physical accuracy (smell, body weight, etc) but a good psychological match.  Story-telling is not about simulation.  Realism can be effective as a symbol but only if it is psychologically accurate. 

Fairy tales endure, not because giants and genies are realistic, but because they reflect accurately the way a child's inner psychology works.  It feels genuine to them.  They can project all sorts of useful things onto them.  For instance the idea of a genie being trapped in a bottle for 10,000 years works perfectly for a child.  The idea that the genie decides to kill the first person who opens the bottle also makes sense to them.  Is it logical?  No.  Is is realistic?  No.  But children may feel all-powerful and magic.  They may feel violently angry and ignored.  If you've ever left a child alone in a room ten minutes too long while you're on the phone you may return to find an angry little genie who has been left in a bottle for an eternity and mad enough to lash out at you when you return!  (I recommend reading The Uses of Enchantment by Bruno Bettelheim if anyone wants to read more about fairy tales)

Augmented reality will bring signs that are psychologically accurate.  They may be more realistic, but they will more importantly, be reflective; capable of any kind of look or action.

I look forward to your comments below.

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