The illusion of interactivity

...myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation. [1]

The form of the story permeates every aspect of our cultural life. History, politics, memories, even subjectivity, our sense of identity, are all representations in narrative form, signifiers chained together in temporal, spatial, and causal sequence. Narrative is a component of those deep structures with which we construct ourselves and our universe; true stories through which, in the manner of certain Aboriginal legends, the world is dreamed into existence. Narrative appears to be as universal and as old as language itself, and enjoys with language the status of a defining characteristic of humanity and its culture. A people without stories seems as absurd an idea as a people without language, (a people with language but no stories even stranger, for what is language for if not to tell stories?)

Over the past few years there has been a tremendous investment in the idea of digital media, the use of computers as the site of culture rather than just tools for business or science. This is partly due to the drive on the part of manufacturers to create new markets as price/performance ratios in digital technology improve - only recently have cheap computers been capable of simulating analogue sound, stills or moving pictures with sufficient verisimilitude. At the same time, there is a desire at work here, a fantasy which exceeds its technical and economic conditions. Implicit in the notion of digital media is the belief (read desire) that digital computers and digital communications will provide a unified site for 1st world culture in the near future and that this new medium will offer distinct advances over existing media, above all by offering its audience interactivity.

Interactivity refers to the possibility of an audience actively participating in the control of an artwork or representation. Until now, what we call culture has not allowed for a great deal of interaction from the audience. The audience is given a space for interpretation and a space for reaction, but not for interaction. There are those who argue that interpretation is interaction, and so of course it is, but not in the sense intended here. For the purposes of this discussion, interactivity means the ability to intervene in a meaningful way within the representation itself, not to read it differently. Thus interactivity in music would mean the ability to change the sound, interactivity in painting to change colours, or make marks, interactivity in film the the ability to change the way the movie comes out and so on. In its most fully realised form, that of the simulation, interactivity allows narrative situations to be described in potentia and then set into motion - a process whereby model building supercedes storytelling, and the what-if engine replaces narrative sequence.

There are those who see the replacement of narrative form by interactive simulation as political progress. Many who in the 60s and 70s rejected the blandishments of mainstream narrative, the elision of its own means of production and the naturalisation of passive spectatorship, discern in interactive media an opportunity to go beyond the impasse of avant garde structural materialist film practice (see Zap Splat by Malcolm leGrice) Similarly, in the rhetoric of neo-liberal political thought interactivity can be figured as a form of freedom, a liberation from the tyranny of authorship and the servile passivity of reading. Interactivity in this context is something that gives the individual more choice, takes the mediation out the media and empowers us all as free consumers in the marketplace of signs. Interactivity here is something to believe in, a democratic revolution in representation...

This discussion is an attempt to speculate on the collision between a dominant cultural form - narrative, and the technology of interactivity. I will argue that there is a central contradiction within the idea of interactive narrative - that narrative form is fundamentally linear and non-interactive. The interactive story implies a form which is not that of narrative, within which the position and authority of the narrator is dispersed among the readers, in which spectatorship and temporality are displaced, and in which the idea of cinema, or of literature, merges with that of the game, or of sport. The consequences may be far-reaching and profound. Can an interactive construct, or a simulation, successfully adopt a narrative form? Will there be a general transformation from a culture of stories to a culture which expresses its truths through an immersive, interactive medium, the shared experience of the simulator?


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