walking around inside a book - bob's interview in halo space 07.12.2005, 11:19 AM
posted by ben vershbow
A couple of months ago, Bob did a rather unusual interview for This Spartan Life, a new online talk show set in the world of Halo video game series. I just received word that the first episode is now up. The show is hosted by Damian Lacedaemion, a hulking, bionic warrior sporting a thousand pounds of body armor, a visored helmet, and what looks like an enormous, ion-charged hair clip. Ordinarily, this character would be blazing his way through an interplanetary battle zone, but here, he's chatting it up with Bob (also represented by a fearsome armor-plated commando) about the future of books. The effect is truly bizarre.
The show was taped in a studio, with Bob and Damian (played by director Chris Burke), controllers in hand, seated in front of an Xbox console. Totally abandoning the story line of the game, the two avatars move through the surreal landscape - part derelict Soviet steel mill, part remote desert island - as though simply going for a stroll in the park. All their meanderings are recorded through a video feed and edited later on. Periodically, the conversation is interrupted by unfriendly fire from other online gamers unaware that a more civil interaction is taking place in the forbidding combat terrain. Damian has to deal with these intrusions, casually lobbing a grenade mid-sentence, or swooping across several hundred yards of game space to decapitate an assailant, swooping back to catch the end of Bob's remark. It's quite entertaining: the incongruousness of the conversation within the alien landscape of the game, the sudden bursts of violence. It reminds me a bit of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which turned an old Hanna Barbera cartoon character into a talk show host with real celebrity guests. In the case of Spartan Life, there's something weirdly logical about placing a conceptual conversation about the future in the future. A nice expressionistic touch.
The show fits into a recently emerged genre of films set in video game environments, known as "Machinima." Most of the Machinima films I've seen are best described as surreal sitcoms - short episodes commenting on the inherent strangeness of video game worlds. The characters are often in the midst of existential crisis, asking "what am I doing here?" Like certain other genres (say, musicals), video games can appear comically absurd by adding just a small dose of reality. So far, Machinima has played in this territory, floating banal chit chat into the hyper-violent game worlds, finding humor in juxtaposition. Other games, like the Sims, offer their own possibilities for comical remixing. It'll be interesting to see if the genre matures beyond this. By conducting real interviews, often with people unfamiliar with the game environment, This Spartan Life introduces a nice element of surprise.
It's hard for us more traditional readers to grapple with the significance of video games. During the interview, Bob muses about what it will be like to walk around inside a book. What if other readers are interrupting or joining in the story you are reading? I grew up playing linear 2-D games like Super Mario Bros. and Castlevania. By the time the next generation of game systems was hitting the market with their new immersive 3-D narratives, my gaming habit had tapered off. But increasingly, kids are growing up with the expectation that narrative worlds (like books) will be interactive, multidirectional, and almost hallucinogenically real. There is the familiar complaint that younger generations have short attention spans, but the evidence offered by gaming suggests the opposite. While many kids may indeed have short attention spans for traditional media like books and certain kinds of films, they are perfectly capable of spending long stretches of time in complex game environments that combine stories with problem and puzzle solving, and that allow them to engage with peers within the game space. This is territory explored by Steven Johnson's new book, which I have yet to pick up. But I'll end with an amusing quote from his blog that I posted back in April when the book was coming out. It imagines what might have been society's response if video games were in fact the older invention and books the dangerous new toy.
Reading books chronically under-stimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. Only a small portion of the brain devoted to processing written language is activated during reading, while games engage the full range of the sensory and motor cortices.
Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers, building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction with other children. These new 'libraries' that have arisen in recent years to facilitate reading activities are a frightening sight: dozens of young children, normally so vivacious and socially interactive, sitting alone in cubicles, reading silently, oblivious to their peers.
Many children enjoy reading books, of course, and no doubt some of the flights of fancy conveyed by reading have their escapist merits. But for a sizable percentage of the population, books are downright discriminatory. The reading craze of recent years cruelly taunts the 10 million Americans who suffer from dyslexia--a condition didn't even exist as a condition until printed text came along to stigmatize its sufferers.
But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you. For those of us raised on interactive narratives, this property may seem astonishing. Why would anyone want to embark on an adventure utterly choreographed by another person? But today's generation embarks on such adventures millions of times a day. This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it's a submissive one. The book readers of the younger generation are learning to 'follow the plot' instead of learning to lead.
Johnny Malkavian on August 21, 2005 7:39 AM:
I am reminded of a quote from The Alchemist I never really understood till now.
"It's a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say," continued the old man (Melchizedek). "It describes people's inability to choose their own destinies. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world's greatest lie."
"What's the world's greatest lie?" the boy asked, completely surprised. "It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie."
It gives much food for thought indeed, how one of the cornerstones of education can run counterproductive to the very thing it sets out to do in the first place.