Life is Real = Reality is a Platform

Body-Images in the Post-Cinematic Scenario. The Digitization of Bodies, Post-cinema & Digital Cultures

Alberto Brodesco, Federico Giordano (Editors), Mimesis International, 2018

„Imagine an event so powerful, so pervasive, that years after the initial exposure people who participated in it still gather to talk about it and lang for the days when it actually took place. An event that participants willingly gave months of their lives to, without any thought of reward or recognition, in a collective effort to help others. How would you classify such an event, what would you call it, and how would you go about understanding it? Would you think it as something religious or spiritual, or perhaps even cultish?

What if the event itself never took place but was entirely fictional? A carefully constructed and deliberate attempt to deceive people while prompting a secret agenda. And, to make it even more difficult to comprehend, the participants came to know that they were indeed being misled, and still reminisce about the event as one of the most enjoyable things in their lives. Maybe now you would think was some sort of mind control or conspiracy on a grand scale. And you wouldn’t be far too wrong.“


These words originate in Dave Szulborski book This Is Not A Game – A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming. He was the first professional independent Alternate Reality Game (ARG) developer and keen on turning around the idea of what a game is supposed to be.

What caught my attention is the intensity in which Szulborski describes the feeling of the game, an event, a thing that changes the reality of the gambler. In this text I want to show how ARGs, sometimes also referred to as Augmented Reality Games, drastically change the concept of immersion and thus, of reality itself. There is a big variety of different definitions and concepts of what immersion is. What most of them have in common is a set of technical tools that play both with our sensual, physical and also our mental perception. The aim is to actively forget the artificial construct of the situation and create a feeling of being inside the game, of being completely absorbed in an environment.

Cover of “This is not a game. A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming”

Psychologists as Lev Vygotsk and Game Theorists as Johan Huizinga have emphasized the importance of playing as a basic human desire, as a voluntary and essential activity, in for example playing cops and robbers. Thus, the idea to engage in acting as-if within a formal system outside of the real world, defines the basis of the traditional concept of playing by Huizinga in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture11Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1938)..

Going back in history, one can find a wide array of objects and installations, manufactured and painted to create an illusion, to simulate depth of field by using the central perspective in painting or in theatre. The available techniques might alter over time: although the painting is considered as a window to the world, in which the viewer becomes the (privileged and central) function of the painting, the film formats the view of the spectator even more, by introducing time into the medium. lt seduces and invites the spectator to literally jump on the train, as film critic Béla Balázs emphatically writes: ‘The camera takes my eye along with it. Into the very heart of the image. I see the world from within the filmic space. I am surrounded by the figures ( … ) I see what they see from their standpoint. I have no standpoint of my own. I travel with the crowd, I fly up, I dive down, I join the ride'22Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory. Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p. 48..

Today, analogue films and printed photographs seem obsolete, a material item connected to wistful nostalgia, or, something you go look at in a museum. In today’s world the digital image is not only ubiquitous. Also, it is approaching us via mobile phones, advertising screens in public or full body scans at airport checkpoints. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Balázs euphoria itself became a thing of the past. lt doesn’t stimulate most people as something new, just as it used to when photography became the medium of the masses 33For analysis of how images changed the way we look at the world and reality, see Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977). She looked at the levelling and normalising effects photography has on role models and class in society and thus gives a critical view on how reality is represented and mirrored through images. Today this might be common sense but some decades ago, this was not the mainstream view in academia..

Poster from ARG Year Zero

Balázs enthusiastic sentiment resembles the introductory statement of Dave Szulborski about Alternate Reality Games. An event that never took place, being entirely fictional in its essence and highly stimulating? How is it possible?

An ARG can be described as an interactive network narrative that uses the real world as a platform and makes use of transmedia storytelling. Tue created story can be altered by the players. There is no image after image that the viewer passively has to observe.

The key point about an ARG is the way it jumps off of all platforms: ‘It’s a game that’s social and comes at you across all the different ways that you connect to the world around you'44He refers to classical platforms such as computer /video games, TV or complete web-based games., says Sean Stewart, the founder of 42 Entertainment, a company that has produced various successful ARG’s.

42 Entertainment collaborated with a music project called Nine Inch Nails. In 2007, they launched an ARG with the same name as their concept album, called Year Zero.

At its heart, the strategy perfectly illustrates how ARG work, as an article from Wired magazine indicates. On some of the merchandise T-Shirts fans bought at concerts on their tour, there were found hidden messages. The tour dates, for example, revealed several hold digits that turned out to be a Los Angeles phone number. People who then called the number would hear the recording of a newscaster, announcing Presidential address: America is born again, followed by a distorted snippet of what could only be a new Nine Inch Nails song. Then, a woman named Ana reported having found a USB flash drive in a bathroom stall at the hall where the band had been playing. On the drive there was a previously unreleased song, which she promptly uploaded. The metadata tag on the song contained a clue that led to a site displaying a glowing wheat field and the caption America Is Born Again55Which is a famous track of Nine Inch Nails.. Clicking and dragging the mouse across the screen however, revealed a much grimmer-looking site labelled Another Version of the Truth. Clicking on that again, led to a forum about acts of underground resistance66‘Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games’, www.wired.com/2007/12/ff-args/, last checked November 22nd 2016.. The Game cumulated in a live performance of Nine Inch Nails inside an abandoned industrial factory surrounded by professional actors performing as special military forces breaking down the whole event.

Alternate what kind of Reality?

ARG make use of multiple media outlets. lt typically involves a Website, although it can just as well be a contact like a phone number, or a USB flash drive. The engagement in the game involves solving puzzles, without any set of rules and without an official beginning. Just as reality is always somehow ‘there’: as are the ARG.

lt becomes a second layer, invisibly and immaterially spreading across your personal life. In contrast to traditional computer games, as well as beside the fact that there is no screen, ARG are played in real-time without an Artificial Intelligence mastering the game. Instead, a human being, the so called Puppet Master (PM), creates obstacles or resources to the game while it is being played. The (PM) designs the ARG rule set while he or she remains behind the curtain, which is what performers would call the fourth wall, and what gamers would call the outer wall, the wall between the PM and the players. A Rabbit Hole is the point of entry into the game, which would be the hold digits in Year Zero. A popular sentiment however is the TINAG (This Is Not A Game) philosophy that ‘one of the main goals of the ARG is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all.’88Dave Szulborski, cit.

The playmakers make use of tools and media outlets that are already a very important part of our lives, as Szulborski puts it: the pieces or components of alternate reality games are websites, e-mail messages, videos, Internet blogs, phone calls, and even real world interactions. The aesthetic principle is thus to maintain a seamless real world platform and to keep authorship open to the randomness of actual real world interactions99See Elizabeth Rywelski, http://e-flux.com/aup/project/elizabeth-rywelskitime-share/.

The academic Jane McGonigal wrote in This Is Not a Game: Immersive Aesthetics and Collective Play, that the computer-driven alternate reality that ARG create can be make-believe, but every aspect of the player’s experience is, phenomenologically speaking, real. Furthermore, she notes that the use of various methods of contacting and interacting with the players, makes the game even more interactive with the real world. In this sense, the interface is not your computer or TV-screen, but rather all the interfaces regularly used to communicate with the real world.

Or, according to Friedrich Kittler, who is mentioned by Szulborski: if an ARG is done right, there is no software.

Obviously, a film can be immersive, it can pull the viewer into the storyline, the action, even if it is clearly a fictional story. But it has no interaction between viewer and the medium (the film). With virtual interfaces and environments, for example with the Oculus Rift, ‘a virtual reality system that completely immerses you inside virtual worlds’ as the advertising slogan says, a player can walk through an artificial environment. Physically, he is totally immersed in a symbolic representation. But just because this virtual world moves along with him while he moves his head, it does not mean there is a meaningful interaction within this virtual world. Immersion remains mainly on the level of the senses, whereas – while watching a film – immersion primarily happens in the mind.

What both descriptions have in common, is that the forms of immersion (those of mind and of sense) are still lacking something to complete it, a something that would ‘reduplicate’ reality. Inherently, this logic aims at creating a fully 360° immersion of the player with the goal of jumping into a new world as if you were jumping into water. As Jane Murray puts it in ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck’: ‘Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. We seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool – the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus.’

ARG’ work differently, since you immerse yourself into your own personal real life, trying to immerse the components of the game into the player’s everyday existence. lt seems that this is a very effective marketing project in order to sell products. Not surprisingly, ARG have been used to advertise movies, games, fashion brands or, as in the case of Nine Inch Nails, rock bands. In that way, the ARG is the meta-platform for advertising products of the cultural industry. Szulborski remarks that, ‘in a strange but very real way, the ARG creator is trying not to create an alternate reality, but to change the player’s existing world into the alternate reality1010Ibid..

lt sounds quite like a Science fiction novel such as Neuromancer by William Gibson. Alternate reality? How will you be able to distinguish the real life from the fictionalised life? Why would there even be a need to do so?

Let me summarise: ARG use ‘real life’ as a medium. A player operates within the game using his real world gadgets and entities that identify him, such as credit cards, license IDs, address, phone number. Additionally, he might build fictional stories in order to win challenges with other players.

With the introduction of ARG, I propose a shift of attention, from thinking about immersion only in terms of the physical and psychological perspective, to rather thinking about the correlation between reality, production and representation. Something peculiar seems to happen with this type of games that do not appear as traditional games. Indeed, reality seems to be upside down, as Dave Szulborski describes ARG emphatically. Obviously, the reality that surrounds us has always been created by representations of something: feudal systems, hierarchies and role models in familial structures, the display of power within political systems and democratic nation states. These examples are entities rather linked to a traditional perception of reality.

In the age of mass media proliferation, said reality is additionally created by digital imagery and the internet, the products and artefacts that contemporary visual culture and industry produces.

As things become visible, they also become real. The media philosopher Vilém Flusser was among the first who saw this ground-breaking change in the 20th century: in the very moment things become visible, they also become real and thus, relevant: they are just as susceptible to propaganda as older media like text or speech. This is why today there is a great amount of scholars and academics that are involved in trying to understand the way these mediated and networked images shown on screens work, in an attempt on creating, producing and changing our Weltbild1111For an overview see for example Margaret Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture. The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005)..

Photo and film critics or media scientists acknowledge the gap between two different types of reality: the one before and the one post mass media proliferation. lt is harder than one might imagine to think this through. Also, for good reason, the qualities and the integrity of a rather traditional conception of objective reality have been challenged by many thinkers. This gap between a real or natural reality and its mediated descendant becomes not only visible in the term Entfremdung (alienation) of the human in the industrialised factory or the bureaucratic administrative building that many philosophers from the school of critical thought used in order to express their discomfort with contemporary society.

Especially with regards to technology and computer science, a certain Unbehagen (uneasiness), accompanied by a feeling of Unheimlichkeit (uncanniness) is picking its way through, from the back-end of the laboratories to the front-end of everyday life in modern societies. Those huge machines of early industrialisation quickly started to look unrefined and awkward compared with today’s tiny smart mini-computers that appear with a sleek design. With the emergence of mass media, and mass proliferation of images, this Entfremdung became another feel, another dimension was added. A distrust in reality that presented itself through mediated images, popularly described by Baudrillard’s term of Simulation and Simulacra in 19811212Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations:’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.. As he argued, the people in western societies do not get in touch with reality or truth anymore since they mainly seem to operate with sign and symbols (Simulacra). As a result, the experience of human beings can only be of simulated character. Add the internet, global marketplaces and the human DNA code, unquestioned premises of that ‘one objective reality’ started to crumble. lt was again Flusser, who observed the shift from things as objects to things as information and who saw the human being thrown into his self-made universe of technical images.

Life is Reality = Reality is a Platform

But then again, this new reality is broken or its matrix has not become completely sealed yet. lt suffers from glitches and blind spots. The people of these invisible hence dark areas do not live in this second veneered internet world and cloud-computing service yet. They are the wretched of the screen, re-purposing Hito Steyerl’ s term1313Hito Steyerl again took this term from Franz Fanon 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. But as always, the hierarchies are more complex. There is more than a cheap, hundred-times down-and uploaded low res jpg file and a high-resolution shiny rich Hollywood image. Steyerl’s essay In Defense of the poor Images invites to think about an interesting perspective on reality. „The poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art. lt has been expelled from the sheltered paradise that cinema seems to have once been. After being kicked out of the protected and often protectionist arena of national culture, discarded from commercial circulation, these works have become travelers in a digital no-man’s-land, constantly shifting their resolution and format, speed and media, sometimes even losing names and credits along the way. Now many of these works are back – as poor images, I admit. One could of course argue that this is not the real thing, but then – please, anybody – show me this real thing. The poor image is no longer about the real thing – the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. lt is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.“ Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the poor Image, in: The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p.28. See http://thecomposingrooms.com/research/reading/2013/e-flux_Hito%20Steyerl_15.pdf, last checked November 22nd, 2016., the poor and thus, needy class of western societies, the poor class of developing countries in Asia or Africa.

You thought the world is already explored and subdivided? Far from it. Google sets out to explore the stratosphere with high-altitude balloons directed by artificial intelligence in order to provide rural and remote areas with internet access1414See Google: Project Loon/X https://x.company/loon/, last checked November 22nd, 2016.. Wael Ghonim, Google’s Egyptian executive has an idea to altruistically help these dark corners that have not been illuminated by the transparency and democratic structures of the web: ‘If you want to liberate a society just give them the internet.'1515Wael Ghonim, cited in Rebecca MacKinnon, Consent of the Networked. The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 2012), p. 10.

And again, reality is fixed by mediated images, data visualisations or Google Maps, to say the least. But I am going too far here. The reality of the world is not a platform (yet). However if reality is produced and fictionalised in Alternate Reality Games, the player is emphatically immersed in his own personal reality and willingly (actively?) forgetting that he is the consumer of his own life. 360°immersion equals commercial circulation and total concurrence of old and new reality. Maybe this is an exaggeration. Maybe it is more realistic to speak of a hybrid, successive and step-by step integration of technology and world-scale informational communication systems.

And, you might ask yourself: So what? Where is the relevance? I’m not playing these games.

But maybe you can see where I am going: the ARG is, in its quality, a mega structure that implements and absorbs all the different available technologies. Using Benjamin Bratton’ s idea of the stack1616Benjamin Bratton, The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016)., a figure of thought that thinks through the implications of software and computation on life, bodies, earth and state, which underlines my point: ‘The Stack is planetary-scale computation understood as a megastructure. The term “stack” is borrowed from the TCP/ IP or OSI layered model of distributed network architectures. At the scale of planetary computation, the Stack is comprised of seven interdependent layers: Earth, Cloud, City, Network, Address, Interface, User.

In this, it is an attempt to conceive of the technical and geopolitical structures of planetary computation as a “totality”‘1717‘The Cloud, the State, and the Stack: Metahaven in Conversation with Benjamin Bratton’. http://mthvn.tumblr.com/post/38o9846io78/thecloudthestateandthestack , last checked: November 22nd, 2016.. The ARG represents contemporary ‘planetary scale computations’ and a new form of sovereignty insofar as it uses a corporeal monopolist tech-infrastructure – may its overall content be a fictitious game-narrative, its backbone is very real. As it absorbs all the fragmented parts, your mobile phone and your driver’s license, your computer screen, it sneaks right into your life.

By using the platforms of Google and Facebook, by snapping selfies, by monitoring and tracking my pulse rate, I am consuming myself through my mediated self split on running code and data stored on servers around the world. What a true globetrotter. And if I’m get hungry I’ll just eat my own data.

I hijacked the logics of ARG to speculate about a life in which tech-companies that are creating data out of flesh and real bodies, are making money not only with your social life but turning reality into real-life entertainment. Reality turned upside down. Maybe reality never existed. Or these structures reveal old feudal forms of capitalism in a new fashion, propagated by the cloud. A cloud feudalism1818I take this term from Benjamin Bratton. that illustrates that the more intrusive and essential technology’s role becomes in a mechanised everyday life, the more opaque the distinction between actual national demarcations and corporate territories become.

This coming of new hybrid forms of governing that mingles sovereign functions of the state with private technological knowledge in Google™ hands also lays out another tendency. The gamer is a user but is he/she still a citizen? Or rather a person reduced to mere personnel?

 Benjamin Bratton speculates: “Those without means to purchase their way into a Sky Club Sovereignty are left to the wilderness: no privacy, poor services, easily curtailed access, highly restricted channels of online work, etc. Perhaps that is simply to say that Cognitive Capitalism creates its own bourgeoise, proletariat and lumpen proletariat, and that the highly centralized nature of Cloud platforms to date suggests that their architecture is Feudal. Again, the Cloud very well could evolve into a horrible totalitarian world of inescapable stupidity. One version of it probably will. But it will also engender its own counter-hegemonic forms.”


But at least a new interpretation on reality looms on the horizon. One that does not focus on the dark sides of surveillance but sees the potential of total freedom within Deleuzian control-societies1919See Gilles Deleuze, Postscripts on the Societies of Control (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992) and that is, the freedom to express yourself. A new pragmatic realism propagating that you are shaping your own world as the curator of your life and body and you are worth your data – an idea of circulated sovereignty. Just as indicated on the poster of the Year Zero ARG Art is Resistance. An artistic, maybe even aesthetic resistance, to be played in a game in which you consume yourself and you are watched over by machines of loving grace2020This is a title from a film by Adam Curtis, a filmmaker from the BBC who looks at the superimpositions of power, capital, science and technology. lt is ‘a series of films about how humans have been colonised by the machines we have built. Although we don’t realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers’. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/bo11lvb9, last checked: November 22nd, 2016., somewhere in the cloud. This is not a game – What a beautiful world.

 

This essay was published in: Body-Images in the Post-Cinematic Scenario. The Digitization of Bodies, Post-cinema & Digital Cultures, Mimesis International, 2018.

 

    Footnotes

  • 1Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1938).
  • 2Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory. Visible Man and The Spirit of Film (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010), p. 48.
  • 3For analysis of how images changed the way we look at the world and reality, see Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977). She looked at the levelling and normalising effects photography has on role models and class in society and thus gives a critical view on how reality is represented and mirrored through images. Today this might be common sense but some decades ago, this was not the mainstream view in academia.
  • 4He refers to classical platforms such as computer /video games, TV or complete web-based games.
  • 5Which is a famous track of Nine Inch Nails.
  • 6‘Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games’, www.wired.com/2007/12/ff-args/, last checked November 22nd 2016.
  • 8Dave Szulborski, cit.
  • 9See Elizabeth Rywelski, http://e-flux.com/aup/project/elizabeth-rywelskitime-share/
  • 10Ibid.
  • 11For an overview see for example Margaret Dikovitskaya, Visual Culture. The Study of the Visual after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
  • 12Jean Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulations:’ in Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1988), pp. 166-184.
  • 13Hito Steyerl again took this term from Franz Fanon 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth. But as always, the hierarchies are more complex. There is more than a cheap, hundred-times down-and uploaded low res jpg file and a high-resolution shiny rich Hollywood image. Steyerl’s essay In Defense of the poor Images invites to think about an interesting perspective on reality. „The poor image embodies the afterlife of many former masterpieces of cinema and video art. lt has been expelled from the sheltered paradise that cinema seems to have once been. After being kicked out of the protected and often protectionist arena of national culture, discarded from commercial circulation, these works have become travelers in a digital no-man’s-land, constantly shifting their resolution and format, speed and media, sometimes even losing names and credits along the way. Now many of these works are back – as poor images, I admit. One could of course argue that this is not the real thing, but then – please, anybody – show me this real thing. The poor image is no longer about the real thing – the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. lt is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation. In short: it is about reality.“ Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the poor Image, in: The Wretched of the Screen (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), p.28. See http://thecomposingrooms.com/research/reading/2013/e-flux_Hito%20Steyerl_15.pdf, last checked November 22nd, 2016.
  • 14See Google: Project Loon/X https://x.company/loon/, last checked November 22nd, 2016.
  • 15Wael Ghonim, cited in Rebecca MacKinnon, Consent of the Networked. The Worldwide Struggle for Internet Freedom (New York: Basic Books, 2012), p. 10.
  • 16Benjamin Bratton, The Stack. On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016).
  • 17‘The Cloud, the State, and the Stack: Metahaven in Conversation with Benjamin Bratton’. http://mthvn.tumblr.com/post/38o9846io78/thecloudthestateandthestack , last checked: November 22nd, 2016.
  • 18I take this term from Benjamin Bratton.
  • 19See Gilles Deleuze, Postscripts on the Societies of Control (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992)
  • 20This is a title from a film by Adam Curtis, a filmmaker from the BBC who looks at the superimpositions of power, capital, science and technology. lt is ‘a series of films about how humans have been colonised by the machines we have built. Although we don’t realise it, the way we see everything in the world today is through the eyes of the computers’. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/bo11lvb9, last checked: November 22nd, 2016.