Category Archives: Virtual Reality

Science Fiction, Mixed Media, and Surveillance

For those of us who have been reading science fiction for some time now—it becomes clear that SF has a strange propensity to becoming prophetic. Many of the themes in science fiction classics are now used as overarching metaphors in mainstream surveillance. Most notably among these is: Orwell’s Big Brother, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Kafka’s Trail. Other common tropes we might refer to is Minority Report, Ender’s Game, and Gattaca.

Though I am not trying to claim that these classics aren’t good pieces of SF literature, they may not do a superb job of covering issues implicit in contemporary surveillance. Imagine George Orwell coming to the realization that the Internet is one humungous surveillance machine with the power of mass, dragnet surveillance. Or imagine Huxley’s reaction to the lulling of consumer affect through branding and advertisement. The power of surveillance tools to control and shape large populations has become a prominent and dangerous feature of the 21st century.

As Richard Hoggart says,

“Things can never quite be the same after we have read—really read—a really good book.”

So let’s stop recycling old metaphors (if I read another surveillance book that references Big Brother or the Panopticon I’m going to switch fields). Let’s look at the work of our own generation of writers and storytellers. What I think we might find is a rich stock of knowledge and cultural data that could illuminate some optics into our (post)human relationship with advance technology.

The reason why I am using mixed media, as opposed to focusing on a singular medium, is that I believe that our relationship with media is not limited to one or the other. Novels, movies, video games, graphic novels and YouTube videos all offer us something in terms of storytelling. Part entertainment, part catharsis premised and constructed through the engagement with the story.  Our generation of storytelling has shifted into the realm of mixed media engagement.  What follows are some stories that I think are critically important to understanding the human condition in our own generational context.

P.S. They are in no particular order.

Disclaimer: Though I tried to be cautious not to forfeit any critical plot or character points, be careful for spoilers:

SOMA 

   SOMA1

SOMA is a survival horror video game released by the developers of Amnesia (another terrifying game), Frictional Games. It is a 2015 science fiction story that both frightens you and an imparts an existential crisis as you struggle to find “human” meaning between the fusion of life and machine. After engaging in a neurological experiment, the main protagonist Simon Jarrett, wakes up in an abandoned underwater facility called PATHOS-II. As opposed to people, Jarrett finds himself trapped with the company of both malicious and benevolent robots—some who believe they are human. The interesting overlap with surveillance here is the focus on neurological surveillance. Scientists (in and out of game) transform the biological brain into a series of data points that represent the original. From this, scientists hope to predict or instill behavior. Or in the case of this game, transform human into machine. This is done by literally uploading the data points of the brain in aggregate to a computer. The game instills a constant question: is there any difference between human consciousness and a copy of human consciousness? SOMA is more than just a scary game—it is a philosophical treatise on the post-human illustrated through an interactive story.

Ready Player One

Readyplayerone

Ready Player One, is a novel written by Ernest Cline, which covers a wide breath of themes: notably the uneasy relationship between surveillance and anonymity, visibility and hiding. Cline constructs a world that doesn’t seem very far off from our own. A world where people begin to embrace simulation through virtual reality (VR) as environmental disaster plagues the actual world. People hide in the sublime. The VR game, OASIS, a world of many worlds, is the home of many clever pop culture references. Mostly music, video games and movies. With an extra emphasis on science fiction. Embedded in this world of worlds is several “Easter Eggs” (surprises hidden in videogames) that act as a treasure trail to the OSASIS late founder’s fortune and ultimate control over the virtual world. Anonymity is the norm of OASIS—a utopian world where the original, democratic ideal of the Internet is realized. A place where anyone can be anybody—without reference to their actual identity. However, this world is jeopardized as a the corporation Innovative Online Industries is also searching for the Easter Eggs to take over OASIS and remake it to generate capital. The theme of anonymity vs. mass surveillance for profit is arguably a major fuel for global debate as all “places” of the Internet are surveilled in increasingly invasive ways. Anonymity has almost disappeared from the Internet, to be replaced with quasi-public profiles (Facebook and Goggle+) that exist to make billions of dollars off of people’s identities and user-generated content. The original dream of the Internet, sadly has failed.

Nexus

RN_rebrand_NEXUS_03-tiny-233x400

Nexus is a science fiction novel written by Ramez Naam following characters who are engaged with a new type of “nano-drug” that restructures the human brain so that people can connect mind to mind. There are those who support the drug and those who are against it. This conflict is followed by a slurry of espionage that exposes the characters to incredible dangers. The theme of surveillance in Nexus follows a new fixation on neuroscience. The ability to surveil the very essential, bio-chemical features of the human mind. As well as exposing mind and memory to others participating in this new psychedelic (psychosocial) drug. This is a level of exposure that far supercedes our experiences with the Internet and social media. Imagine being hardwired into a computer network. The book also follows traditional surveillance themes as the main character Kaden Lane becomes entangled in the conflict of private corporations and state government.

The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)
Social media in the 21st century has positioned Western society within the context of visibility and exposure. Most people are simultaneously engaged in self-exposure and participatory surveillance—as we post content about our lives and browse and read content about the lives of our friends and family. The Circle by Dave Eggers works this theme through a character, named Mae Holland, who has just been hired by the world’s largest IT company located in a place called the Circle. The Circle is a place, much like a University campus, with literally everything on it. This place boarders utopia—a place where work and play blends. However, following the mantra “All that happens must be known”, social media penetrates the lives of those who exist in the Circle in pervasive and exposing ways. Very quickly, the utopic illusion slips away into dystopia.

Slenderman

slide

Slenderman was, in its bare skeleton form, introduced to the Internet by Eric Knudson on the (in)famous Something Aweful forum board for a paranormal photo editing contest. However, within a year, Slenderman was sucked into a collective narrative construction across all media platforms. People blogged about it, tweeted about it, YouTubed about it. A massive and ever changing (and unstable) urban legend (or Fakelore) was constructed in the chaos of cyberspace. Slenderman, the paranormal creature, can be described as a tall man with unnaturally long arms and legs (and sometimes tentacles), wearing a black suit, with no face. It is usually depicted as a creature who watches, in other words surveils. It watches from obscure areas, slowly driving its victim to paranoia and insanity. Than the victim disappears, without a trace. Slenderman is the contemporary boogieman. But it also shares a narrative with dangerous, obscure, and mysterious secret police and intelligence agencies. As Snowden revealed to the public, governments, through mass surveillance techniques, watch everyone and everything. Could the slenderman narrative be telling of a deep seeded cultural fear of government surveillance in the 21st century? There are many ways to tap into this story—google blogs, tumblr accounts, and twitter accounts. But also, YouTube series’ like Marble Hornets, EverymanHYBRID, and Tribe Twelve. Also check out the genre called Creepypasta for an extra home brewed thrill.

 

We are always partially embodied and disembodied.  As much as online gaming seems to be a travel to the virtual--in the actual world, our physical bodies are still working.

Cyborgian Heroes: Embodiment in/out of World of Warcraft

The contemporary social playground, otherwise known as the Internet or cyberspace, has allowed the cultural cyborg metaphor to become much more concrete as people (heroes or players) embed themselves into large and complex virtual worlds. Some of these virtual worlds are meant to be a game with teams competing for supremacy in the pixelated world spread across the player’s HD computer screens. Others, such as World of Warcraft (WoW), are immense worlds filled with cultures, civilizations, guilds, monsters, dungeons, and quests for the heroes to interact and play in. This paper will focus specifically on the massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, using the concepts of Mizuko Ito in Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon to demonstrate that players are simultaneously physically embodied in the “real world” and virtually embodied in the World of Warcraft. In the era of the cultural cyborg there can be no strong distinction between the real and the virtual, rather, the virtual is but a mechanical extension of the human consciousness (Ito 341).

In order to augment the somewhat dated applications of Mizuko Ito’s concepts, I would like to utilize Brenda Brasher’s creative and innovative re-interpretations of Haraway’s cultural cyborg metaphor. Donna Haraway, a historian of science, writes in her famous Cyborg Manifesto, “a cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway). To extend the cultural cyborg as a metaphor for humans we must expand our definition of culture. Brenda Brasher elaborates, “Technology is more than just artifacts… Technology is culture… Technology is an epistemology, a way of knowing in which new technologies materialize the most plausible response to problems that arise” (814). Brenda Brasher further elaborates, “A quasi-human self, cyborg-identity is fed by the technological organization of contemporary life as well as by the material products of technology” (815). The cultural cyborg metaphor is incredibly useful to deepening our engagement with the culture of virtual worlds and the physical bodies that extend themselves to interact in those virtual worlds.

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG “set in a ‘high-fantasy world’ in which players pay a monthly fee to create and play characters of different ‘races’ (orcs, dwarfs) and ‘classes’ (mage, warrior, priest)” (Golub 27). Characters or heroes begin at level one and work their way up the level tiers (gaining new abilities, virtual material wealth and equipment) through fighting monsters and completing quests from non-player characters (NPCs). Upon loading up the WoW computer program, you log in and create a character—choosing a race, class, and customizing your appearance. Then you are brought into a server—an immersive virtual world which Alex Golub, a WoW ethnographer, describes as,

The World of Warcraft is a beautiful and complex three dimensional environment, featuring grim lava-filled hell dimensions, verdant jungles, icy tundra, and a variety of other physical environments. The sun rises and sets; it rains and snows. Dust storms kick up. From the clever visual rendvois to Gnomeregan and the Ironforge tram built into the architecture of Mimiron’s wing of Ulduar, to the smoldering aftermath of the battle of the Wrathgate, the beautiful and unique world that Blizzard has carefully hand-crafted is an important part in creating a realistic and compelling world for its inhabitants. Raiders and more casual players of World of Warcraft experience these environs as rich and immersive (34).

The immersive virtual World of Warcraft is not without a history in the culture of gaming—its predecessors are the multi-user dungeons (MUDs), which were text based RPGs that encompassed an immersive world without the visual and audio components seen in WoW.

Mizuko Ito conducted much of her research on MUD culture, which according to her, had began to gain in popularity in the 1980s, usually around a fantasy theme (333). This paper will seek to apply some of the concepts she used to describe virtual and physical embodiment in MUDs to heroes in WoW. MUDs were completely text based games, Ito described, “As a player on an LPMUD, what you see on your computer monitor is text that describes the environment and other characters in the environment, as well as the action that you and others are performing” (333). Player’s perform actions to interact other players and the world at large by typing commands into their keyboard (‘north’, ‘east’, ‘south’, ‘west’, ‘who’, ‘open door’, etc.) (333). What is interesting, and MUDs share this with WoW, is that “a sense of presence and location in the virtual world is strengthened through a progressive customization of social position and material accumulation” (333). Through leveling up and gaining treasure, equipment, and property the user works their way up a socio-economic hierarchy towards the epic levels, this only adds to the feelings of immersion and virtual embodiment.

Often times there is a large distinction made in virtual worlds like MUDs and WoW that there is a strict dichotomy of “real life” and “just a game”. I recall watching a Japanese anime, titled Sword Art Online, where thousands of players are trapped in an MMORPG (a world similar to WoW) and are told by the developer that the only way for them to leave is to defeat the 100 levels of dungeons and the final boss. There was, of course, a catch—if you die in the game or someone tries to remove the virtual reality headgear from your physical body, you die in “real life”. An interesting dynamic occurred, player killers (PK) questioned whether or not people actually died in real life and began banding together to kill and loot helpless lower level players. They were questioning the distinction between “real life” and “just a game”, and as it turned out, their virtual actions had dire physical consequences. This ontological dichotomy is incredibly simplistic, and covers up the complex realities present in both digital and physical environments. Tom Boellstroff pushes that “All human existence is ‘virtual’” (Golub 23), in other words, everything is “culturally mediated” and we should be referring to both worlds as “real” (23). Rather than using the simple dichotomy of “virtual/real”, we can replace it with another more accurate distinction of “virtual/actual” (23).

Ito holds that both of these worlds, “the game” and “real life”, “are partial realities that matter” (336). Furthermore she observes, “’Reality,’ or visible and salient relationships, is a located inflection of consequentiality, not reducible to commonsensical distinctions between fantasy and reality” (336). Heroes of the World of Warcraft are both virtually embodied in the digital world of Azeroth and physically embodied in the actual world. They inevitably must rely on their physical bodies and the social systems and interactions around them to retain sustenance, survive, and pay the bills. But simultaneously, they are involved in a life of symbols, interaction and social institutions in Azeroth. Ito calls this a “partial bracketing of ‘real life’” (336), where the body is put on standby while the subject becomes immersed in the digital (336). She is of course referring to MUDs, which are text based, with the advent of WoW digital worlds have taken on visual and auditory components (as opposed to relying solely on the expanses of the imagination). This raises new questions for immersion in digital worlds, questions of the intensity of immersion that occurred at the advent of a larger array of the sensorium being utilized to interact with digital worlds. A social and cultural fear reverberated through the ranks of the intelligentsia—the fear that a digital world would supersede the actual world, a fear of addictions and reclusive, isolated gamers attempting to escape from the difficulties of a physical reality (Golub 22).

Golub refers to the Castranova’s critique of digital worlds, which claims that the two worlds (digital and physical), though connected, they exist as separate worlds and furthermore in competition with each other (22). Golub observes, “This exclusivity is the result of increasing sensorial realism: immersion in one requires disattention to the other…” (22). Gamers subjecting themselves to these immersive digital worlds “pay only the biologically minimal amount of time necessary to [their] bodies” (22). As a piece of anecdotal evidence, I would like to refer to a friend of mine who became so involved with the World of Warcraft that he skipped an entire week of work, only leaving his room for cigarettes, Pepsi, and various fast food items. He was fired shortly after and driven back to the “real world” in which he required to pay Internet bills, WoW subscription dues, and rent. I visited him shortly after to find a shell of a person locked up in a dark room where the desk was covered in cigarette butts and A&W burger paraphernalia. This tale of cyber-addiction, and the philosophical fears of the intelligentsia, is not applicable to the population of gamers in general—as we will explore, it is quite a lot more complicated.

A hero cannot exist in the World of Warcraft without simultaneous existence in the physical world. The subject is first physically embodied and then extends their reach into the digital world, a world embedded in the material world through servers, wires, and power grids. Ito observes, “virtual identities emerge as extensible and malleable, but also particular, contingent, and embodied through the prosthetic technologies of computers and computer networks” (338). The subject of World of Warcraft thus goes through a process of “alternative reembodiment in a partially disjunctive world, with complex mechanisms for handling connection and accountability that are absolutely contingent on the technosocial apparatuses that produce their effects” (338). When participating in the World of Warcraft—a hero is subject to rules, norms, and elaborate social institutions that transcend the boundaries of the Azeroth into other components of the web. Golub refers to one of these institutions, the guild, which is a form of institution that is embedded in the game that has a striking resemblance to regulatory bodies in the physical world. Golub observes,

World of Warcraft has a mechanism for creating and maintaining guilds that is architected into the game which includes features such as a private guild chat channel, a guild bank to pool resources, and an in-game information pane which provides information about guild members (28).

The guild Golub was a member of when he was conducting his ethnographic study was called Power Aeternus that had “taken this basic structure and added to it to create a full-fledged institution which has outlasted the individuals who started it to create an enduring cultural system” (28).

These guilds act as a way of allowing players to organize, but also regulate the actions of the characters to follow specific rules and hierarchies. Ito asserts, “As in any community, in other words, a sense of belonging, identity, and social status requires substantial commitment on the part of its members” (333). The more a player is involved in their guild, or in completing quests and raids, the better “loot” (treasure) and material riches they achieve. Of course, guilds are one example of many in a vast and constantly growing digital world. Another form of regulation in the World of Warcraft is the flow of social norms—an example of this exists in the existence of player killing (PKing) as a taboo action. PKing is generally frowned upon in many contexts (unless you are on a player-vs-player [PVP] server), especially if it a higher-level player hunting down lower level players. Ito discusses PKing in her work on MUDs, she observes, “Generally… it is considered sociopathic behavior for higher level characters to prey on newbies, and many MUDs have rules in place prohibiting this kind of practice” (338). The World of Warcraft, among other things, is a game of violence—you kill in raids, or battles against other player factions, you kill monsters and NPCs, you kill bosses; you kill for fun and you kill for loot.

The problem that Ito notes with PKing is that of virtual death, she observes, “Virtual death only has structural consequences of virtual bodies, and yet it is ‘real’ or more consequential than monster killing because of an identification with biologically based subjectivity” (338-339). If a hero in WoW is a human being, using mechanical technology to extend their consciousness into reality, than an attack on a human, especially one who is helpless, is an attack on the player in the “actual world”. In this way violence is qualified as ‘reality’ somewhere between the boundaries of “real life” and “just a game”—but not so simple to be reduced to either-or (338). The fear and rage of getting slayed by a hero who is forty levels your senior, who is traversing the lower-level realms to prey on the weak, can be a vivid experience. Furthermore, as Ito asserts, “virtual bodies are difficult to discipline” (339). Although one would wonder if Blizzard’s access to a heroes personal information (IP address, credit card, phone number) would encourage players to be more accountable to their digital crimes. Even with the existence of digital institutions and social norms within the game, they are still bound to the physical materiality in the “actual” world through a complex and global system of wires, satellites, servers, power grids, and code junkies.

The hero of World of Warcraft is a cultural cyborg, Ito asserts, “the figure of the cyborg suggests translocal networks and relations that are never disembodied or deterritorialized into a homogenized global imagination” (341). Rather these worlds are embodied in material practices of human beings, who extend themselves globally through humungous communications networks. The cyborg is an incredible metaphor for understanding contemporary culture in a time of constant and turbulent technological change. It is a standpoint that allows us to understand ontological, epistemological, and ethical quandaries of the meaning of personhood and humanity. World of Warcraft allows us to experiment with identity, a breaking point of the strict binary structures that organize and regulate our social existence. Brenda Brasher asserts that the use of the cyborg metaphor allows us to de-stabilize these binary structures, and inherent hierarchies, and to re-imagine humanity as existing through pluralities. She observes, “the cyborg offers a metaphoric platform upon which complex human identities might be developed whose connective links could stretch out like the World Wide Web itself to embrace and encompass the world” (825). This was apparent as well in Ito’s time in the MUDs, “Different MUDs provide different pleasures, fantasies, capabilities, and features, and different social positions within MUDs provide opportunities for experiencing different social locations” (339). This cyborgian model of studying digital worlds, embodiment and subjectivity is not a flawless standpoint: it is rigged with dangers, risks, and inequalities that a cyborgian theorist must be mindful of when traversing cyberspace.

In the times of MUDs, long before the advent of World of Warcraft, access to such gaming worlds required knowledge of computers and their language, physical computers to log into, and a stable internet connection (Ito 334). Ito observes, “Thus, while the user base of the Internet at large may be increasingly diverse, the production of MUD worlds is overwhelmingly dominated by the technologically elite” (334). Things have changed since Ito wrote her analysis of MUDs—the Internet is largely accessible and just about everyone in the West owns a computer. However there are still instances of privilege to be mindful of; to play WoW you must have money to pay for the internet and WoW subscription bills, and you must have leisure time to make the commitments necessary to play the game. This also translates into the global, as Brasher reminds us, “given the prevailing global skewing of technological distribution, the current situation is one where the ‘liberation of the few’ is being bought at the ‘expense of the many’”(825). The digital world and our cyborg identities have the potential to explore a new kind of freedom, but it also carries the potential to strip that freedom from others.

Another limitation to the usages of Mizuto Ito’s theoretical work to analyze the World of Warcraft is that her concepts, though still relevant, are severally dated. The gap of limitations will continue to widen as technologies for virtual reality deepens the already immense immersion into digital worlds. I had some difficulties using Ito’s concepts to delve into the vastly different contexts between MUDs and WoW. Because of this, when I would apply Ito’s concepts to ask one question, there would be a proliferation of new questions that had to be avoided because of the diminutive size of this exploration of digital worlds.

The cultural cyborg plugs into the World of Warcraft extending their self over a vast network of pixels and data and furthermore the organizational and material structures that allow this network to exist. Through this paper I sought to demonstrate that the hero or player is simultaneously physically embodied in the “actual” world and virtually embodied in the World of Warcraft because of the institutional and interpersonal interactions that occur across the pixelated world of Azeroth. To summarize this analysis of WoW using Mizuko Ito’s concepts—heroes of Azeroth are virtually embodied in that they are connected to the vast and expanding digital world of interactions, symbols, and institutions. Heroes are simultaneously physically embodied in the actual world both because of their connection to material technology as a “prosthetic” tool which allows them to “partially bracket” reality and enter the immersive digital world and their need to remain embodied in a living and breathing physical body that requires sustenance. With further advancement in the technological mediums of digital worlds and the growing popularity of video games in Western culture, the importance of the cultural cyborg metaphor is becoming paramount in the explorations of digital human potential.


Sources:

Brasher, Brenda. “Thoughts on the Status of the Cyborg: On Technological Socialization and Its Link to the Religious Function of Popular Culture.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64:4 (1996). Web. 2 April 2014.

Golub, Alex. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83:1 (2010). Web. 2 April 2014.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” The European Graduate School: Graduate and Postgraduate studies. Web. 2 April 2014.

Ito, Mizuko. “Virtually Embodied: The Reality of Fantasy in a Multi-User Dungeon.” Cultural Subjects: A Popular Culture Reader. Ed. Allan J. Gedalof, Jonathan Boulter, Joel Faflak, & Cameron McFarlane. Toronto: Nelson, 2005. 333-345. Print.