You draw a range of comparisons here to older, even pre-20th century forms of storytelling — from Daniel Dafoe to Charles Dickens. What continuities and changes do you see between deep media and older forms of serialized fictions?
That’s a question I became increasingly intrigued with as I worked on the book. Collective entertainment may be new, but there’s nothing new about entertainment that’s participatory and immersive. In fact, every new medium from the printing press on has been considered dangerously immersive at first. TV, movies, books–Don Quixote went tilting at windmills because he’d lost his mind from reading too much. And in order to gain acceptance, each new medium has tried to pass itself off at first as something familiar. In his preface to Robinson Crusoe, which is generally considered the first novel in the English language, Defoe declared the entire story to be fact. Fiction was considered an inferior branch of history that had the glaring defect of not being true, so when Robinson Crusoe came out in 1719, it had to be passed off as autobiography. Nearly a hundred years passed before the novel became a generally accepted literary form in England. And then when Dickens came along in the 1830s and his publishers started putting out his novels in monthly installments, critics decried that as dangerously immersive. Bad enough that people were reading novels when they could have been engaged in social pursuits, like conversation or backgammon–but now they were going to be losing themselves in a fictional world for months on end.
But the really remarkable thing about Dickens was the way he communed with his readers. That was something serial publication made possible–and serial publication was purely a product of technology. Better printing presses, cheaper paper, trains that could deliver things reliably, rapidly growing cities with a lot more people who could read. Few of these people could afford to purchase entire books, but they could pay for short installments. An unanticipated result of this was that when books were published over a period of 19 or 20 months, readers had a chance to have their say with the author while the novel was still being written. And Dickens relished this. He took note of their comments and suggestions, and he loved interacting with them on the lecture circuit as well. One of his biographers described it as “a sense of immediate audience participation.”
But seeing new media as a threat–that’s a pattern we fall into again and again. Now it’s video games and the Internet. Before that it was TV, and before that it was the movies, and a couple hundred years ago it was serial fiction and people like Dickens. The only constant is that whatever is new is threatening. And usually it’s considered threatening because it’s too immersive–you could get lost in it. But that’s exactly what fiction is. If it’s good enough, people are going to want to inhabit it.
You argue that the digital world has created an “authorship crisis.” What do you mean? How are audiences and producers responding to this crisis?
With a certain amount of confusion, I think. It’s certainly understandable. We’ve spent the last hundred-plus years with a strict delineation between author and audience–you read a book, you watch a movie, and that’s it. You’re a consumer. We came to think of this as the natural order of things, but in fact it was just a function of the limitations of our technology. Mass media, which is the only media we’ve ever known until now, had no mechanism for participation and only very limited, after-the-fact mechanisms for feedback. But there was nothing natural about that. That’s why you had stuff like fan fiction springing up in the shadows, mostly out of sight of the legal operatives whose job was to enforce this regime.
Before culture became a consumable, it was something people shared. The problem is, that was so long ago we’ve forgotten how to do it. So when I talk about participatory storytelling, a lot of people think I mean choose-your-own-ending or something like that. Actually, that’s not what I mean at all. I see branching storylines as a really primitive mechanism. Giving people a say in the story isn’t as simplistic as letting them decide what happens next–A, B, or C.
But what does it mean, exactly? That’s what everybody’s trying to figure out. Technology has finally created a mechanism for people to have a voice, but authors are still working out how to deal with it.
I had a really interesting exchange about this with Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, the guys who ran Lost. The fans want a say in the story, Lindelof said, but they also want to be reassured that the producers know where the story is going–and those two impulses seem mutually exclusive. Except they’re not, really. Lindelof and Cuse demonstrated that themselves with Nikki and Paulo, the slimy lowlifes who turned up out of nowhere in season 3. Viewers hated them. So 11 episodes later, they got killed off in spectacular fashion–buried alive by the other survivors after being bitten by a fictional species of spider whose venom brings on a paralysis so complete it makes you look dead. So Lost took the whole idea of authorship-sharing back to where Dickens got it 170 years ago–which is progress. But it’s still a long way from there to the narrative version of an open-world game, where the author creates a world and sets the parameters for the player to live out a story.
You cite Jon Landau as describing Avatar as “not just a movie. It’s a world.” and arguing that the film industry “has not created an original universe since Star Wars.” What do you see as the implications of these two statements for our understanding of deep media?
That’s from an interview I did with Landau and James Cameron in Montreal in 2006, when Cameron had Avatar in development but Fox hadn’t yet agreed to take the plunge. It’s the same exchange in which Cameron talks about the best science fiction as a “fractal experience” that can be enjoyed at any level of depth–anybody can enjoy the movie, but if you want to you can go in an order of magnitude deeper and see a whole new set of patterns, and an order of magnitude deeper after that, and so on. That’s how the idea of deep media originated for me, though it was two years later before I began to see that it was part of a larger pattern.
The thing about fantasy worlds–Avatar, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings–is that they give us license to imagine ourselves in entirely novel circumstances. Watching The Social Network we can imagine ourselves at Harvard–nice place, but populated entirely by humans. We know it already. There’s an allure to something utterly unknown, with its own geography and its own flora and fauna and unique experiences to be had. At the same time, it’s comforting in a way to see the basics–gravity, humanoid appearance, stuff to eat and drink–remain unchanged. The guy at the cantina on Tatooine might be four feet tall and have a head like a beat-up football, but he still likes a nice, cold beer.
This is one of the many places where Star Wars crops up as a reference point in the book. It does seem to be the ur text for many of the trends you describe. What do contemporary artists take from this now classic franchise?
I think above all it’s the possibility of engagement at so many different levels of depth. Star Wars predated the Internet, of course, but it made use of all the different kinds of media that the Internet now delivers to us. It wasn’t just the movies, though the vast majority of viewers stopped there. If you were a true fan–and a lot of people in Hollywood were, from Cameron to Lindelof to JJ Abrams–there were all sorts of other experiences to be had. Comics. Action figures. And what made all this work is what George Lucas calls “immaculate reality”–a level of verisimilitude that made the fantastic seem real. It’s all very fractal.
To what degree do you think deep media represents the global circulation of the idea of “media mix” which first took shape in Japan around anime, manga, and games?
I think it’s largely unconscious–I don’t know anybody in the US or Europe who says “media mix” to mean storytelling across different media, and it’s not just because we use different terms here. Star Wars certainly owes something to Kurosawa, but there’s no evidence Lucas was influenced by Japanese media-mix business strategies. Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner was aware of it because he grew up in Hawaii, but I think he’s the exception. But it’s an important precursor to what we’re seeing now, a sort of proof of concept that was adopted by Japanese manga and anime producers way before the Internet. Ideas take hold when people are ready for them, and in Japan people were ready early.
You cite a Madison Avenue type who says, “Advertising used to interupt life’s programming. Now advertising is the programming. And if you’re actually being marketed to successfully, you have no idea.” So many of the works you and I like to talk about were funded as promotion yet consumed as part of the story/world of the fiction. How do we reconcile those two different experiences/goals? Are fans manipulated when they invest value into things which are purely promotional or has deep media/transmedia turned promotion into an art form?
It’s all part of the blur. It isn’t just stories and games that are blurring together, it’s author and audience, fiction and nonfiction, advertising and entertainment. Because the Internet is so relentless about dissolving boundaries, this is pretty much inevitable.
Marketing is all about manipulation–that’s the whole point of it. But people today, young people in particular, are so much more media savvy than people 20 years ago, not to mention 40 or 50. I was struck by how commentators in Advertising Age would talk about “blatant” product placements on a show like Chuck at the same time that Chuck fans were using the same advertiser in a social media campaign to pressure the network to renew the show. So who, exactly, is manipulating whom?
What’s happening I think is that like other forms of storytelling, advertising is breaking its bounds. It used to be that commercials were in a neat little box 30 seconds long and there was a clear distinction between them and the show. And that was reassuring–it meant we could compartmentalize our entertainment away from the advertising that paid for it, even though the commercial breaks eventually swallowed up eight minutes out of 30.
Now things are getting homogenized. Alternate reality games like Flynn Lives and Why So Serious? are obviously promotional events for Tron: Legacy and The Dark Knight, but nobody objects because they also add depth and personal resonance to the story. People think Nike+ was developed by Nike and Apple, but they forget that R/GA, one of Nike’s ad agencies, was instrumental in making it happen as well. Nike+ is a runner’s tool that’s also a marketing platform. And if people register that at all, they’re mostly okay with it. The fact is, we live in a commercial culture. Let’s acknowledge it. I don’t think hypocrisy is ever healthy.
You talk about games as relying upon our “foraging instincts.” What do you mean by that? How conscious do you think designers are of how they expect audiences to behave?
This may be the most unexpected thing I came across while I was working on the book. I got very interested in how games and stories work on the brain, and it quickly became apparent that games work by stimulating the dopamine system, which is key to our sense of reward. This makes sense–games are all about rewarding your achievements, and dopamine release is stimulated by the anticipation of reward. But if we get rewarded all the time, the dopamine release goes down and we begin to lose interest. And if we never get a reward for what we’re doing, we get frustrated and lose interest even faster. The most effective reward pattern, it turns out, is one that has a certain amount of randomness built into it. Slot-machine operators have known this for decades, but it was a neuroscientist at Washington State named Jaak Panksepp who connected it to the behavior he calls “seeking.”
Seeking, or foraging, is one of the most basic survival instincts in the animal world. It keeps us focused on whatever jackpot it is we’re seeking–food and sex, originally, but also other kinds of payoffs–points, social recognition, whatever. I think game designers are very conscious of this, but so are people who are porting game mechanics to other areas of existence. Foursquare gives you points for walking out the door. This is a remarkably effective means of manipulating people. Because it’s so powerful, there’s a pretty high potential for abuse. On the other hand, all entertainment is about being manipulated at some level. If you’re not being manipulated properly, you’re not going to have a very good time. Nobody wants to go to a movie where you laugh at the wrong places.
Several times in the book, you refer to that moment just before 9/11 when several key experiments in deep media were first being launched — Majestic, The Beast, The Runner. In some ways, you are suggesting, we are just now getting back to that moment. What took us so long? What can we do now that was not on the drawing board back then? What have been the consequences of that delay?
It’s kind of tantalizing, isn’t it? Like a lost moment that could have happened but didn’t. I think people just weren’t ready. The Web browser was only a few years old. Broadband hadn’t taken hold yet, so online video was painful at best. Blogging was just beginning to take off. Social media hadn’t happened yet–Flickr, YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter. The Web was dominated by new media publishers like Yahoo and AOL that were basically just like old media, except the people running them didn’t wear suits. And the dotcom bust had a lot of people convinced that the whole Internet thing was just a fad anyway–the CB radio of the ’90s.
What’s happened in the meantime is that we’ve had ten years to figure out what the Net is really about. It’s not about publishing, it’s about participating. It’s about immersiveness. It’s about redefining our relationship to entertainment and marketing and each other. People need time to absorb that. Stuff is coming at us at amazing speed, but that doesn’t make us any faster at knowing what to make of it. We think we’re living on Internet time, but the Internet is in no hurry to reveal its secrets.