Category Archives: net_native

world without oil: democratic imagination?

I’ve written a couple of times recently about alternate reality gaming as an emergent genre of Web-native storytelling. But one of the things that’s puzzled and frustrated me is the fact that the stories played out in most of these games tend to revolve around sinister cults, reborn gods, out-of-control AIs, government conspiracies and suchlike: the bread-and-butter paranoias that permeate the Web. No criticism here, I should add. Asking ‘What if all this were true?’ can kick-start a very entertaining daydream.
But in exploring these games, and reading around them, it becomes clear that the way these stories are told is as interesting as their content. In particular, there is a tendency (see this paper by academic and game designer Jane McGonigal for example) for ARG-style collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.
In addition, the founding dramatic convention is “This Is Not A Game.” That is, the games are supposed to leak out into players’ lives. And this, combined with a chance to practice widespread collaborative problem-solving, is a phenomenally powerful and intriguingly democratic artistic form. So why, I wanted to know, is no-one using it to address contemporary politics?
No sooner do I formulate the thought than I discover that McGonigal’s latest project, trailed in a talk she gave at the 2007 San Francisco game developers’ conference , is an ARG called World Without Oil. Its central characters believe that an oil crisis is approaching on April 30 – the game’s launch date – and are trying to spread the word. Or are they…? Who is trying to stop them…? And we’re off.
I’ll be following this one closely. Rather than taking a fantastical theme, it invites players to think seriously about a situation which is increasingly imaginable in the near future. And it seems that people are ready to engage: since its appearance yesterday, the the Unfiction discussion thread about the game is already many pages long, and mixes discussion of the game with serious musings about the very real possibility of a world without oil.
It also looks as though it’s going to go way beyond asking its players to solve ROT-13 encryption for the next clue. In this Gamasutra interview McGonigal explains her ideas about collective intelligence and gaming, and outlines the way in which World Without Oil will be not just a game but a collaborative storytelling process. Along with the narrative of the main fictional characters, players will be invited to create blogs detailing – as if it were happening – the problems they would face in a (so far) fictional world without oil. And the game will respond. So, in effect, it will invite players to take part in a huge collaborative exercise in imagining a very possible future.
Looking at this game, I was reminded of the RSA’s response to the Stern report on climate change, where it was pointed out that reactions to climate change and the like often lurch between optimism and pessimism without progressing beyond high emotion to imaginative or practical engagement with the situation. On a similar tack, Dougald Hine wrote an article recently for opendemocracy discussing climate change as a challenge to the democratic imagination: “Whether or not we succeed technically in mitigating its effects, it is all too easy to envisage the result as a more or less unpleasant authoritarian future. The task is to imagine and bring about a future which can accommodate both austerity and autonomy.”
It may be too soon to tell. But if it goes well, I have some hope that World Without Oil may manage to engage not just collective fear but a collective and collaborative imagination to address some increasingly urgent questions.

pay attention to the dance

Sean Stewart and Elan Lee, creators of two of the most successful alternate reality games to date, gave the keynote speech at this year’s Arg-Fest-O-Con, a conference of the alternate reality gaming community. The whole video is over an hour, but well worth a look; the theme of the speech is ‘trust’.
When I wrote a little while ago about ARGs as an emergent genre of storytelling entirely native to the Web, I identified some ways in which an ARG differs from the conventions of fiction in print form. In particular, part of the pleasure of an ARG is that it blurs the line between fact and fiction. There is a strange thrill to not knowing whether the latest link in the trail is fact (out of game) or fiction (in-game). It is also participatory and collaborative: the story does not unfold unless readers (players) collaborate to follow the trail of puzzles, hidden clues and hints. And though the story itself is ‘authored’ – the sites are prepared ahead of play, the story is worked out, and the whole operation is meticulously planned – it is always in a sense improvisatory. If the players pick up on a mistake, the ‘puppetmasters’ (game creators and operators) will work as fast as they can to incorporate it into the story if possible, so as not to destroy the fabric of the game.
Stewart and Lee describe the process of unfolding an ARG as a dance between players and puppetmasters, in which players are invited to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the story. Within the invitation, they explain, is a promise that you won’t be made to feel stupid for playing along. And behind all this is trust on both sides.
This is important, he says, because no-one really knows how this genre works. Printed books bring with them a whole host of familiar protocols around how you read. People are familiar with the physical conventions of a book and the formal conventions of particular genres of book, and hence the experience is codified in a way that allows for a degree of detachment between producer and consumer. In contrast, ARGs as a genre are (in their current form, at least) less than ten years old and have very few established generic or formal codes. So in lieu of a tradition, the genre needs trust between participants.
It’s also important because in an ARG suspension of disbelief works very differently. Whereas I know my novel stops being ‘real’ when I put my book down, an ARG inserts itself into my life in a much less clear-cut way. The game might phone you up, email you, post things to your house; all these events would be part of the story. Unlike a novel, it does not have edges. This lack of edges is typical of the Web. A blog is never finished, there is always a new link, and so on. But for fiction, this poses problems: if I’m suspending disbelief so I can enjoy the story, I want to know that I’m not going to be made to feel stupid for going along with it. I also need to know at what point to snap out of it and start taking things literally again. So it is no surprise that two prominent exponents of a kind of storytelling with no formal boundary-markers (no proscenium arch, if you will) emphasise the importance of trust between creators and participants in such a story.
The late Susan Sontag’s recent piece in the Guardian is a passionate plea for the cultural and moral importance of novels. Narratives, she says, are of vital importance in helping humans make sense of their reality. I am one hundred per cent with her on this. However, she confines this faith in the improving power of stories specifically to the novel, while managing to sidestep both the cultural specificity of novels as a form, and role of oral storytellers, court poets, bards, folk tales and the countless other narrative traditions throughout history.
In the course of her rallying-cry for the novel (also, incidentally, a phillippic against those claiming the book to be dead), she inveighs against television (which rant I rather liked), and also proposes ‘the hypernovel’ as her main example of why fiction on the Net will never work. This ‘hypernovel’ as she describes it, is characteristically multiple-choice, notionally endless, possibly multi-authored and directionless narrative with none of the salutary benefits of stories that have a beginning, a middle and an end. And this, she implies, will simply not do. Readers like stories.
Given the ahistoricity of her approach to stories in general, it seems likely to me that Sontag takes for granted the established model of print authorship. This by necessity assumes a writer radically severed from its readership – which, as it is a paper book, cannot join the conversation – by a complex and time-consuming book-production process. The way she discusses debates around ‘the hypernovel’ clearly assume an equivalent level of detachment between the this notional hypernovel’s creator and its consumers. But the model of separation between author and readers simply does not work on the Web, a medium characterised by minimal publication lead time and a conversational dynamic. However, this does not mean that, on the Web, storytelling is impossible. Nor does it mean that that nothing is ever authored. It just means it works differently.
The Web is a young medium. And ARGs are – by its enthusiasts’ own admission – a very new genre. I would be very surprised if it did not evolve much further. But I’d be interested to know what Sontag might have made of a genre of storytelling that used not print but the Web; and yet, was not directionless or multiple-choice but collaboratively played out; that was authored, but with room for improvisation; and that took as its founding principle a delicate consensual suspension of disbelief rooted not in clear boundaries between ‘fact’ (the world outside the book) and ‘fiction’ (the world inside it) but in trust between all participants in the story.

incunabula of the week

Last month, when I met the if:book crew for the first time, Ben described the net-native literary forms that have emerged to date as ‘incunabula’. I didn’t know what the word meant. He explained that, in the Middle Ages, when they first started printing books, there were all kinds of experiments which explored print technologies but hadn’t yet settled into a form that made full use of them. Ben suggested that forms of Web writing today are at an equivalent stage.
The word ‘incunabulum’ stuck with me. There’s something endearlingly fragile and tentative about it, as though Net-based forms of writing were a new species of winged things, freshly-hatched and still a bit soggy and crumpled. Since abandoning the notion of writing for print (paper) publication some time ago, though, I find myself reluctant to reinvent the wheel. So I’m very interested in what is emerging on the Net around the axis of technology and (used here in its classical sense, for want of a better word) poetry.
Top of my list at the moment as the Web’s finest emerging art form is alternate reality gaming. I wrote about that here not long ago; since then, I’ve vanished into a currently-playing ARG and will write more on the experience when I can. Meanwhile, this week I’ve stumbled across an interesting cross-section of Web-based stuff and thought I’d do a roundup here.
Disclaimer time. Ben’s already admirably dissected the problems with the Million Penguins project, so I won’t go into that. I also know there is a whole tranche of early experiments with hypertext writing which I’ve ignored. My reason for doing so is that a) I can’t be exhaustive – that’s what your search engine is for. Also, in my experience, hypertext fiction tends to be somewhat sterile and frustrating, recalling the Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a child. That said, if anyone knows of any that buck this trend, please send them my way.
Anyway, incunabula. The first is some years old, and is actually an event rather than a single piece of writing: the delightfully geeky Perl Poetry Contest of 2000. In the words of the Perl Journal that reviewed it:
The Perl Poetry Contest is sort of a kinder, less migraine inducing sibling of the Obfuscation Contest. The Obfuscation Contest promotes the creation of vile looking scripts. The Perl Poetry Contest is the other end of the spectrum, promoting the generation of flowing verse, and Perl, to make something beautiful.
Here’s the winner, by Angie Winterbottom:
if ((light eq dark) && (dark eq light)
&& ($blaze_of_night{moon} == black_hole)
&& ($ravens_wing{bright} == $tin{bright})){
my $love = $you = $sin{darkness} + 1;
It’s derived from a verse from the Pandora’s Box album ‘Original Sin’:
If light were dark and dark were light
The moon a black hole in the blaze of night
A raven’s wing as bright as tin
Then you, my love, would be darker than sin.
This is only just within my personal geek:lit frame of reference, as I don’t program Perl. But I include it in memory of the first time I heard a techie use the phrase ‘elegant code’, as I remember how struck I was then by the idea that there could be an aesthetics of machine code. I’d imagined that coding was purely functional and as such more about engineering than art; lately, I’m beginning to suspect that coders play an equivalent role in the online space to the one print authors play/ed in the literary canon. Poetry written in machine code sits elegantly across the literary/aesthetic and technical spaces in a way very suggestive of this accession of coding to the status of meta-literature.
My second incunabulum of the week comes from Everything2, a relatively open-access online writing space (see the Wikipedia entry for more info). The structures of this site merit further examination, particularly in contrast with the Million Penguins fiasco. But in the interests of brevity, for the time being here’s an entry from user “allseeingeye”: a poem about online gaming with the glorious title “im in ur base killin ur d00dz“.
I won’t go into the layers of memetic accretion around this phrase (try Encyclopedia Dramatica or urbandictionary if you really need to know). What enchanted me about the piece is that it uses a mixture of Everything2’s hard links, geek and gaming slang, and relatively traditional free verse to create something in which form and function, tradition and new technologies, “high” and “low” cultures merge most intriguingly. The writer’s genderless username addes extra ambiguity to the elision of gaming and eroticism in a way that’s very evocative of how of heightened emotion plays out in disembodied online spaces.
There’s also something thought-provoking about the fact that Everything2’s hard links are, like Wikipedia, often unfinished. If you click on one and find it incomplete, the page invites you to create an account and then add the page. When you read a poem that’s full of these sometimes-unfinished links, it’s a bit like a reverse version of The Waste Land. The difference is that where Eliot’s piece functions as an accretion of quotations that refer backwards through the history of the canon, this functions as a speculative accretion of things that may become quotations, and refers forwards to a canon not yet created.
Incunabulum number three is Batan City, a MediaWiki-based imaginary city. It was started by Paul Youlten, founder of the site formerly known as Yellowikis, a wiki-based business listings directory that sparked a legal challenge from the yellow pages industry, and now at SocialText. When Paul sent a story to a friend of his, she responded not with a commentary but with another story. The result is starting to accumulate online. There isn’t much there yet, but the convention appears to be that the “city” accumulates individually-authored stories around a central fictional place. I’m very interested in what works and does not work in wiki-based fiction (providing no structure at all, for instance, really doesn’t, as Ben pointed out a few days ago; here we have some basic structure and an invitation first to submit a story and then to spread the word to other writers. I look forward to seeing how it evolves.
Incunabulum number four is Troped, a blog-based ongoing narrative. I came across this when its author commented here in if:book, and have been dropping by there every few days to try and get a feel for what it’s up to. The format is short, not always obviously interrelated stories, usually updated every day or so. I’ll admit I haven’t been following it for long or in depth, but so far what leaps out is not a strong story, but the sense of an experiment in time and form. Individual entries, each with the feel of a mini-short-story, read down the page; but because it’s posted in blog software the chronology of the whole reads in the opposite direction. That is, the first entry in narrative terms is the last you come to in formal terms, but the direction of the entries themselves goes the other way. In addition, the author/s (perhaps unconsciously) echo/es this temporal paradox with a slightly odd use of tenses within the stories (“Jameson laughs. He preferred to just use the shop as a place to dicker around–someplace other than his house“), which adds a layer of temporal confusion. So to date I haven’t got into this one. But as a piece testing the limits and possibilities and mute formal insinuations of net-native writing delivery mechanisms, it’s certainly worth a look.
So, a mixed bag. Perl poetry experiments with the constraints of language, flirting with machine code in a way that subverts the usually functionalist preconceptions that lay non-coders such as myself tend to have about computer languages. The killin ur d00dz piece hard links within its writing community to foreground the dynamic and collaborative emergence of Web-specific jargons, even as it captures the intense experience of one individual. Batan City is a tentative (though, perhaps luckily for its creators, less populated than the Penguin effort) attempt to reconcile open editing with individual authorship of story elements, that uses the twin structures of a fictional place and an alphabetised list to structure the entries it invites. And Troped tests the interrelation between online self-publishing software and narrative temporality.
What all these pieces have in common is a concerted attempt to do more than upload the conventions of print text (boundedness, single authorship, linearity) into an environment that encourages in many ways the inverse of these traditions. They all have limitations, but all are pushing at the boundaries of what the new technologies make possible: multiple or anonymous authoring, new languages, strange temporalities and explicit acknowledgement of the intertext.