Saturday, February 5, 2011

Analyzing the Playbook Concept using the lens of Remediation...

Continuing on from my previous post, in which I applied precepts from my class reading to a better understanding of the strength's and weaknesses of my Playbook concept, I will now analyze it through the lenses of Immediacy, Hyper-immediacy and Remediation (based upon the theories of Bolter and Gruslin in Remediation: Understanding New Media). If you're not in my EMAC class and have no idea what I'm talking about, here is a definition of those terms along with some of the ways in which they are applied and the occasional personal commentary on the implications from yours truly.

When you are experiencing a 'virtual reality,' whether a story in a book, a movie or a video game, most mediums attempt to give you a sense of 'immediacy,' or in other words, they try to make you feel as though 'you're there' in whatever ways are possible within the limitations of that medium. The main way of achieving this goal is to make the source of mediation, the technology being applied to bring you into this alternate reality, fade into the background and achieve transparency so that you don't notice it at all.

The goal of most painting, particularly the work of the Great Masters, for example, is to provide you with a window into another place or time. Films give you an active picture into that world and video games give an interactive experience that goes beyond film. Even these mediums, however, must provide extremely moving or immersive experiences in order to distract you from the tech behind them, and only a true VR device, like the Subquantum Interference Device (SquID) seen in the movie Strange Days, could even approach the true Holy Grail of Immediacy.

Personally, while I like the concept of 'being there,' the reality of a technology that can produce true immediacy has many social and psychological pitfalls that must be acknowledged before we plunge headlong into it as we have done with every other piece of technology that has come down the pike. A good example is the concept of the 'Nanobox' computer that has no video-screen. Instead of viewing the output of the computer from a small window, nanites in your body receive transmissions from the box and 'intercept' sensory signals going to your brain and 'edit' them to provide the appropriate feedback. True Immediacy is achieved as everything you see, hear, touch, taste or feel is indistinguishable from that which your normal senses provide you.

The dangers of such a technology are as plentiful as the benefits. The first and foremost is addiction to an unreal existence. Why leave the house, socialize, have children or act on any basic human impulse if everything you've every wanted, particularly sex, is available via 'the box,' with all the consequences and downsides edited out? We see this already with folks addicted to their internet connection and spending more time interfacing with their computers than real live human beings. Just imagine the world of inactive, anti-social lardbutts we could have with true VR.

And then there's the problem of hackers. Think of what they can do now and extrapolate that to actually hacking your senses. They could fool you into doing anything, like walking off a cliff, 'defending' yourself from an axe wielding maniac who is actually your wife asking you what you want for dinner, or trapping you in a VR world of Lovecraftian horrors.

Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but I think I'll stick to a medium that keeps one foot in reality.

While the history of mediation is focused on fading into the background to convince you that you're actually 'there,' there are certain instances where a medium will actively work to keep you aware of everything that is going on around it and provide 'fulfillment' by satiating every sense you have with disparate data-streams. Rather than a structured experience, like watching a movie from beginning to end, Hyper-media seeks to provide a smorgasbord of possibilities for you to take in as you will.

The modern cable news is a perfect example of this, with the news anchor talking at you, video playing in a window over their shoulder and a ticker-tape of unrelated news running at the bottom of the screen, you can choose which bits of news you want to absorb without changing a channel. Computer desktops do the same, presenting you with multiple windows of information arranged in whatever fashion you feel is important.

Even the Rock Concert is an exercise in Hyper-immediacy, as the sights, sounds, smells and everything else that typically goes on there is actually part and parcel of the experience that goes beyond the music itself. If you've ever been to a Pink Floyd concert, you'll know exactly what I mean: listening to them and seeing them in concert are two entirely different experiences. the first is immediate and internal, the second is all about the external

Hyper-mediacy has the benefit of being more free-form, open to discontinuity and the mixing of data elements that can lead to 'aha!' moments. The problem with it, unfortunately, is that it is unfocused and can divide attention to a point where much is taken in but little is understood or internalized. In addition, in cases where all the elements are necessary to provide a certain experience, like a rock concert, missing one or two of those vital disparate elements can lead to a lack of fulfillment.

A personal example for me would include certain styles of eating establishments. When I go to El Chico to have a Tex-Mex dinner, one of the things I expect ( and the reason I've gone there for years) is an authentic 'eating experience.' I don't just want the food to be Mexican, I want the walls to look like stucco, the hangings and colors to be of the appropriate style and the music to be Tejano. There's been a push to modernize the palce in the last year, with shiny modern interiors, pop music, etc., that really makes the experience no different from On the Border, El Fenix or any other restaurant, now, so Angelina's ( a little independent place) has become my new El Chico. It may sound silly, but I don't want to hear Lady Gaga while I'm eating at a mexican restaurant. It makes me feel like I'm in a nightclub, not Mexico.

By the definition of the authors of Remediation: Understanding New Media, Remediation is three things:

1. The Mediation of Mediation: Basically, the recreation of one medium (whether immediate or hyper-mediate) through another. Making a movie out of a comic book, for instance. It doesn't improve on the comic book, necessarily, it just moves it to another medium.

2. The Inseparability of Mediation and Reality: In other words, no matter how Immediate a Mediator/technology is, there is no existing technology that can completely free you from the knowledge that what you are experiencing is not reality.

3. Reform: Using a previous form of mediation to 'fix' or improve upon an earlier form of mediation. Photography should precise images that couldn't be recreated as accurately by hand, Film shows that reality in motion, computer games allow you to interact with that imagery, etc. or social sites like Facebook are better than email because they are real-time, more visually interesting and easier to manage large groups with.

In a nutshell, Remediation is the process of taking an existing medium and 'updating' or 're-purposing' it for a new technology or medium. And this is where The Playbook comes in...

Computer RPGs are Table Top Role-Playing Games as filtered  through the Remediation concept of Reform. Basically, they took the fantasy gaming aspect of D&D and other games of that medium and 'improved' upon them by giving them visuals and automating rules tasks to provide an improved sense of Immediacy.

The Playbook, by intent, is a Remediation by Reform of CRPGs and TTRPGs. It presumes the following weaknesses in both the parent and child formats:

1. TTRPGs are a Hyper-media experience that lacks intended Immediacy because external processes (like referencing rules) tend to take the players out of the story far too often. It also requires a great deal of external paraphenalia that one must be conscious of, like dice, miniatures, a playing surface, etc. that distract from the story and focus play on the Visual space and not the Acoustic.

2. CRPGs improve immediacy through rules automation but limit the Acoustic space of the TTRPG, which increases Hyper-Immediacy, by limiting player options to whatever the programmer managed to put into the program and focusing their attention on a new distraction in the form of status bars and info boxes.

3. Neither is truly at home in the others environment. You can play TTRPG's online through social media, but the Hyper-media experience is unfulfilling for many, lacking in various aesthetic considerations that are the appeal of TTRPG's, namely face to face social interaction (with all the banter and BSing that goes along with it), and the further reduction in Immediacy that the distraction of operating all the technology adds to the already present distraction of rules-books, minis and etc. CRPGs, on the other hand, limit player interaction with the environment and also suffer form the distractions of technology, including glitches, bugs and all the other that never affects the low-tech TTRPG.

The one thing the Playbook must do to address these points if to first realize that the TTRPG experience is, by nature a Hyper-media experience, no matter how badly the players try to create Immediacy during play. You must reference a character sheet, you must roll dice in some form, etc. in order to play the game. On the other hand, Immediacy is a big part of the 'experience' so anything that can reduce that Hyper-Immediacy to a minimum is a boon, and that mainly involves keeping players interacting face to face and making sure that their ability to shape the environment of the game, through the interaction of their characters with the game world in any way they choose and the game master permits, is un-compromised. Keeping that in mind, here is how we address the weaknesses mentioned above:

1. Automate as many game tasks as possible and make all information available in a single intuitive interface, so that attention can be as focused as much as possible on cooperative story-telling with the other players.

2. Remove the distraction of Visual Spacial elements and restrictions so that the players play in a more Acoustic Spacial zone. This will create a unique spacial experience for each player as opposed to the uniform experience provided by a pre-programmed game with pre-defined visuals.

3. By doing the above, you leverage the key aspects of both mediums into a unique functional hybrid that has all the advantages of the older medium, but is updated to take advantage of the new. Basically a complete game with infinite possibilities like the boxed RPGs of old, with the automation and UI improvements of digital technology.

That's the plan, at any rate. The question is this: can it attract enough new blood from the CRPG industry to renew the dying TTRPG industry and allow it to thrive as a form of entertainment and creative expression?

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