February 8, 2007

Interactivity a.k.a. Narcissism

by Andrew Stern · , 8:52 pm

I just got the latest Atlantic Monthly in the mail, and in it there’s a letter to the editor commenting on November’s article about our efforts to build interactive drama. It contains an unusual critique, one that I’d never considered; I think it’s worth posting here for discussion.

Here’s a link that expires in 3 days, but I’ve taken the liberty to cut-and-paste the whole letter here:

Art For Art’s Sake

In reading about the exploits of Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern (“Sex, Lies, and Video Games,” November Atlantic), I was reminded of a scene from the film version of Fahrenheit 451. The fireman’s wife, Mrs. Montag, is sitting in front of her room-sized television screen watching a soap opera. Suddenly, the characters turn to her and ask, “What do you think, Mrs. Montag?” What she decides determines how they proceed. François Truffaut (and Ray Bradbury) used this scene to depict the mesmerizing power of video media, which is exerted at the expense of all other forms (especially books) and entraps people with an enveloping technological superiority.

Messrs. Mateas and Stern turn the warning on its head and call it art. But books (or any traditional art form) have one thing that interactivity will never have: a natural respect for the human need to experience perspectives different from one’s own. Whereas adding one’s own point of view to a movie or video game would ultimately only reinforce that point of view. In the end, however clever it may be, it is an act of narcissism, not art.

Andy Voda
Putney, Vt.

The first paragraph is simply a fear of new media, no biggie.

But I haven’t come across the concept of couching interactivity, particularly first-person agency, as narcissistic. It’s funny — to many players and gamemakers, us included, the holy grail is to make an interactive experience centered around you — yes, you, Time‘s Person of the Year for 2006. This is one of the distinguishing, progressive features of interactive media, a major reason it’s an exciting new form, or arguably a revival, in digital form, of much older forms of art and communication, e.g. oral storytelling/making.

What this commentor perhaps hasn’t considered, is that even in an interactive story where you are the star, there are NPCs (and human author(s) behind them) with minds of their own, speaking and imposing on you their perspective of the events. Sort of like life.

Also, with games, there is the option of making it with “hybrid” perspectives in which you influence the actions of a player character who has thoughts and perspective of their own (pretty much the status quo for IF, no? Personally, I prefer an player character that I have complete control of, without being told what they’re / I’m thinking.)

Actually, I suppose this does remind me a bit of Gonzalo Frasca’s point about the need to step outside immersion and maintain a critical stance while playing (1 2), an idea that I agree with.