I have been thinking a lot over the past few days about the new narrative strategies emerging in the digital age- moving on from why and what they are, and what has provoked them (pretty much everything that I put into my two speeches at Notts Trent and Leeds Met in January) and instead considering the implications for us as a society, in their being our main way of consuming stories.
Stories are a massive part of how we learn and grow as a species. They allow us to try out other eventualities, other roles, understand the feelings of others, and our own place in the world. Stories are intricately linked to play, and playing (whether actually, or theatrically) is a recognised learning technique for both adults and children. (See the massive success of TIE in schools, prisons, and deprived areas, as well as the ways that children learn about their world). Likewise play – the ability to try and test for no reason other than the fun of it – is vital to creative thinking, whether in business and tech (where it’s called ‘innovation’) or in the humanities and social sciences, play, and narrative, is at the very basis of our evolutionary and inventive potential.
There is largely considered to be a point when we ‘grow out of’ playing. It is in evidence, in teasing, between friends, but proper immersive narrative experiences are thenceforth ring-fenced. There are areas where they are ‘ok’, and they include theatrical spaces, board games, TV, music, video game, radio, film, books. The arts, in short.
The film/television experience is inarguably passive when compared with the play that we experience as children, and with the ‘old’ narrative strategies of books (and to a certain extent radio – though ‘old’ perhaps not) where we are placed, if not in the position of another, at least in a world-constituting position of one type or another. We build worlds of the books we read with our imaginations, likewise theatre is necessarily world-constituting, the tension of live-ness with narrative, reality with suspension of disbelief, is an inherently world-constituting process – and a collective one at that.
Film and television are passive forms of narrative consumption, they are involving, largely individual, and can pretend to be interactive (the arbitrary decision of whether someone stays or goes is not world constituting) and are no less a form for that, but in terms of play, in terms of one key aspect of play – there’s something missing. Empathy. The process of placing yourself at the centre of creating a narrative – constituting a world – seeing it through anthers’ eyes is largely missing (though of course there are exceptions to this). I’m not arguing that film and television is bad art, but I do believe that to subsist on a diet of only filmic narrative will provoke illness.
Fewer and fewer of my contemporaries are choosing to read books, few play board games or go to the theatre, the two main trends in narrative consumption are the falling arc of the TV/filmic experience, and the growing video game experience.
Last year the biggest Amazon.co.uk seller was COD:MW2, outselling both Twilight and Harry Potter films (source). We spent more last year on video games than we did on both going to the cinema and buying DVDs, and in a 2005 survey done by the BBC 59% of people aged 6-65 played video games (48% were female),100% of 6-10year olds did. (source – pdf)
“With gaming you’re involved and in control. With other things you just have to sit back and watch. I’ve been gaming for most of my life.” Callum – 10 years old (source – pdf)
Do video games represent a move back to world-constituting processes? To player-as-protagonist? To some degree they do, but in the same way as film presents a fully formed other universe that you watch, (commercial) video games largely produces fully formed other universes that you traverse.
Here’s a meaty question – is the build-your-own character ethic of RPGs a new, fuller expression and exploration of our selves, or is it a more dangerous form of escapism, are we losing the link back to reality?
I have argued that the narrative strategies present in Pervasive Gaming – playful, theatrical experiences which take video game, film and tech ethics and apply them to performative, immersive, player-as-protagonist experiences – combat this escapism. I think that to some degree taking these digital ethics into a live context brings our world constituting back into context – in context to our selves. But what about the collective experience? That is something theatre and collaborative play alone represent – single person experiences, narratives that play out through headphones and that put you at the centre of the story are all very good, but they are individual. Where, now, is the collective?
I am concerned about my generation. Probably just as people always have been. I am concerned that the people I know see narrative as an escape, not a way to learn about the world, others. A whole generation torn away from a concept of society, who never knew it. Thatcher started it, and New Labour stamped out the remnants. Then the way that we used to make contact with the world and those around us – the arts that we used to re-see it – are similarly subsumed, first by a passive format, and then by an individualist one that pretends to activity.
It is empathy, the seeing the world through others’ eyes, that we need now. Love. Optimism.
“”Those who talk about revolution and class struggle, without understanding what is subversive about love and positive in the refusal of constraints […] such people have corpses in their mouths.”” – Raoul Vaneigem
“Optimism is a political act. […] Entrenched interests use despair, confusion and apathy to prevent change. They encourage modes of thinking which lead us to believe that problems are insolvable, that nothing we do can matter, that the issue is too complex to present even the opportunity for change. It is a long-standing political art to sow the seeds of mistrust between those you would rule over: as Machiavelli said, tyrants do not care if they are hated, so long as those under them do not love one another. Cynicism is often seen as a rebellious attitude in Western popular culture, but, in reality, cynicism in average people is the attitude exactly most likely to conform to the desires of the powerful – cynicism is obedience.” Source
The best, most creative, most active, most proactive and political people I know, are filled with love for the world, not hatred. If there is anger it comes out of disappointment, the kind of anger you’d have if your child stayed out late without your permission, the kind of anger that says ‘do you not see how much it hurts to love you?’
I fight for what I love in art as well as society. I know this tires some people. But I hope it is not me that they are tired with, that rather they are tired of the establishment that tells them there’s nothing worth loving that much.
Why is this relevant?
Because I believe art is still the way out of it, the way to the collective. I’m not arguing that film/video games are bad ways of consuming narrative – but that we need a balanced diet. There are projects like Duncan Speakman‘s Always Something Somewhere Else, that use GPS enabled locative narratives to locate you within one world, but the subject matter to connect you to the other side of the world, too. Practitioners like Andy Field, who are work with collective cultural memory, and collaborative creative theatrical environs. But this connective narrative trend is so far gentle. There are more complicated ethics involved when you put the weight of narrative on one participant, rather than a passive viewer, or a collective audience. When we place people directly into new roles, when we are so used to not playing, being fluid, you need to take care not to shatter people’s identities/worlds. I have been concerned that these single player narrative trends bring us further away from the sense of ourselves as a whole with others, our selves in other contexts, that they are essentially escapist. This would mean we are losing the political potential I think is central to the theatrical experience. But perhaps we just have to be gentle, move slowly. Play. Investigate.
We need to see that we have the ability to change things, make big choices, imagine different outcomes and bring them to fruition. I believe live in a world now where individualism is the main threat we face (I can’t have an affect, therefore I can’t stop bad things happening, and the bad things I do don’t count). I’d rather fight, love, and over come it, than not try in case we fail. Which is where I think I want to take my approach to this pervasive narrative trend in art. Because at the very least we need to be in it. Asking big questions of it.