Our discussion of digital media and narrative coincides with the launch of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Microsoft's third console, the Xbox One, will appear on store shelves around the world later this week. It seems appropriate that, as the release of new platforms heralds the next evolution of video game development, we take this opportunity to (re)assess the intersections of digital media and narrative study.
Videogames have long been at the forefront of discussion about digital storytelling. Particularly in the nineteen-nineties, when affordable personal computing, the popularization of the Internet, and the rise of the dedicated gaming console coincided with advances in virtual reality simulation research led to speculation about a version of Hamlet playing on the Holodeck, video games looked like the future of narrative. Whether or in what capacity games have fulfilled those projections is a topic for debate. If Microsoft's own introduction of the Xbox One last May is any indication, there is still a great deal of optimism that video games can capitalize on their narrative potential. And yet, their press event revealed that this optimism still hinges on videogaming's assumed immersivity.
Microsoft's central pitch was that their "ground-breaking technology"--from enhanced animation detail to new trigger mechanisms--will "broaden the landscape and canvas for the storyteller" to "[make] games more immersive." A developer's insistence that new hardware promotes immersive storytelling is not uncommon. What is remarkable is that producers and consumers of digital narratives might buy into such an established fallacy at this late date in digital culture (Salen and Zimmerman 450). Fallacy aside, on a more basic level, the immersion metaphor, which likens user-machine interface to being submerged in a "completely other reality" (Murray 98), simply doesn't describe our everyday interactions within virtual environments.
Whether making balance transfers at an ATM, sending an update to Facebook, using a GPS to find a restaurant, or playing Angry Birds on the subway, the boundary between the virtual and the real is never in question nor is it very relevant. Videogaming is an ordinary occurrence, woven into the practices of everyday life. While gaming, I might talk to a friend over voice-chat about dinner plans, glance at text message that just popped up, and leave the game running as I fetch a soda from the kitchen. In such a scenario, Edward Castronova observes, it may be possible to isolate when I'm in-game and when I'm out, but to what end? "Our culture has move beyond the point where such distinctions are helpful" (159).
In my current book project, Mixed Realism: A Theory of Fiction for Wired Culture, I suggest that the immersion metaphor persists because it derives from deep-seated expectations about media and mediation in general, the same expectations at play when we say a reader gets "lost" in a book. For this reason, the study of digital media, and videogames more specifically, overlaps with literary and narrative studies in important and unexplored ways. This overlap brought me to literary metafiction--its peak and decline corresponding roughly to the rise of videogames--for models of self-reflexive structures that subvert their own immersive capacity in order to traverse presumed ontological boundaries.
I have no doubt that the next generation of videogame hardware will draw lush, detailed, and inviting virtual environments in which to play out compelling interactive stories. Still, I hesitate to call them "immersive" because of the implied division between what happens on- and off-screen. Instead, I propose we seek out what I've been calling mixed realism, or the intertwining of media-generated virtualities--print and digital alike--and the real world circumstances in which we engage them.
Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory.” Postmodern Culture 5, no. 1 (1994). http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v005/5.1ryan.html.
Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.