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June 01, 2007

Alternate Reality Games or Fiction of the Future?


The Space between me and my Avatar

The virtual world of Second Life got a little bit stranger for me this week. I went over to see Destroy Television the other day at the gallery where she’s hanging out at the moment, and my avatar, Walker Spaight, ended up marrying her! (That’s Destroy’s rock at left.) Now, if you know me and you know my Second Life, this is slightly unusual, since for me there’s very little space between myself and my avatar(s) in the virtual world. I use Second Life as simply an extension of my first life; there’s nothing virtual about it. But here I was role-playing the lovestruck journalist to Destroy’s hard-to-get videographizing vixen. Walker even started a Tumblog about his romance. The formal ceremony was yesterday afternoon (Walker was all nerves — though he didn’t show it), and you can view images of the happy couple together on Destroy’s Flickr stream.

It struck me at some point that what I was doing — along with Annie Ok, who was driving Destroy at the time, and Jerry Paffendorf and Christian Westbrook, who conceived Destroy and brought her to life — was creating a little Alternative Virtual Reality Game, in a way. I don’t write a lot about alternate reality games (ARGs) — i.e., narratives that involve audience participation, which usually have some real-world component, and which often feature a prize or reward at the end — mostly because I don’t really roll with them as a genre.

Things like Perplex City and World Without Oil are very cool, to be sure, and I’ve been fascinated to see how this stuff is developing, but I’ve always found myself rubbed the wrong way by this “alternate reality” moniker. But it wasn’t until I started getting my alternate reality on, via Walker, that I realized why. What’s going on in all these cases looks to me less like “alternate reality” than it does like fiction, and fiction being formulated on the same level as broadcast media like television — i.e., it’s just the same kind of fiction that’s happening in a TV show like Law & Order, for instance, only with the audience involved in writing the story as it goes along. From some angles, it looks like there isn’t any such thing as an alternate reality game at all — there’s only the fiction / narrative / media of the future.

That’s increasingly what it looks like to me. I’m not sure why I get hung up on the semantics — maybe because labels confuse things as often as they clarify. But I increasingly see games and role-playing in virtual worlds as falling under the media rubric. They’re made-up stories that we experience for ourselves, and which we increasingly tell each other, which I think is the important part.

It’s interesting to me to stop and look at the world of games and role-playing in virtual worlds as something that’s often less personal than we think it is. Destroy Television helps illustrate this, since she’s such a good media machine: everything she does is pumped out to the Web and (at the moment) gets archived on Flickr, turning her life into a constant media stream, just as Justin Kan is doing with his life at Justin.tv.

We usually think of games and role-playing as more or less private pastimes: I may be creating my own story in GTA: San Andreas or EVE Online, but even in the massively multiplayer environment of EVE, my story is usually being shared with only a limited number of people. But with the advent of lifecasting — the kind of constant streaming being done by Destroy and Justin — the story I’m creating is available to many more people. To me, this pushes it away from being a personal experience I’m sharing with a few friends, and more toward a performance of the type we’d recognize as media in any other context. It’s still a bit of both, of course, but it’s interesting to see things shift.

Maybe Andy Warhol was wrong. Maybe in the future, we’ll all be famous all the time. [posted by Mark Wallace on 3pointD]

Posted by jo at June 1, 2007 04:57 PM