Notes Toward a More Pervasive Cyberdramaturgy

Notes Toward a More Pervasive Cyberdramaturgy

Jane McGonigal
Riposte to: 

Jane McGonigal goes mobile with a “transformational agenda” shift for Cyberdrama.

What would cyberdrama look like off the computer screen?

To put it another way: Could there be a more pervasive cyberdramaturgy?

Computing is increasingly ubiquitous and mobile. Why shouldn’t cyberdrama be, as well? Imagine a set of scripting, design and production strategies that employed digital technologies but tended toward a more nomadic, embodied, and embedded aesthetic. What might we learn about the dramatic potential of cybernetic systems and new media – or about the cybernetic potential of modern drama – from performances developed along these more pervasive guidelines?

In their First Person contributions, Janet Murray and Michael Mateas outline a preliminary body of cyberdramatic works (The Sims and Façade, e.g.) that is decidedly un-pervasive. All of their examples play out entirely within a relatively local, limited, and fixed digital system – the typical desktop or laptop computer. Even when unbound to some degree by networking (The Sims Online, e.g.), the cyberdramas discussed by Murray and Mateas remain confined to a series of stable monitors, processors, and speakers. Ken Perlin, in his essay on the challenges of creating dramatically convincing interactive characters, likewise focuses on the computer itself as the primary stage of cyberdrama, positing digital characters or avatars as the primary actors. Identifying cyberdrama as “a visual narrative medium,” Perlin emphasizes the on-screen dramatic action above any user performance or off-screen action.

The user’s off-screen actions are not trivial in their respective conceptions of cyberdrama, of course. Noting the continuous user-system feedback loop, Murray calls cyberdrama an “improvised collaboration” between user and program/programmer. And Mateas wants the user’s intentions to be a “formal cause” in the dramatic chain. Perlin even seems to lament to some degree the importance of the user’s influence, noting: “All I have really experienced is my agency,” as opposed to vicariously experiencing the characters’. But in the end, it seems to me quite clear that in the story-games presented as cyberdrama thus far, while the human user may get to script or direct to a substantial degree, the digital collaborator and digital causes are clearly doing the majority of the performing and dramatizing. That is to say, the story is processed digitally, the characters are represented digitally, and the dialogue is delivered digitally. In short, the actual dramatic action itself transpires digitally (in “the digital medium” and in “digital format”, as Murray puts it), even as it is guided or experienced by a human user.

The essential point I want to make here is that for Murray, Mateas, and Perlin the computer is seen as the medium itself for drama. This makes perfect intuitive sense: It is precisely, after all, what makes their vision of cyberdrama `cyber’ – the medium of the drama is the computer, the drama itself is digitally constructed, rendered and communicated. But I want to ask, from my own pervasive-leaning standpoint: What else might `cyber’ mean in a dramatic context, besides the use of cybernetic systems as a medium for play and performance?

As I see it, the theorizing and development of cyberdrama has concentrated to date primarily on the following problem: how to transform computer systems into sites for dramatic storytelling and theatrical play. I am interested, however, in adding a different transformational problem to the exploratory work of the cyberdramatic genre: using digital technologies, computer and otherwise, to transform everyday spaces into sites for dramatic storytelling and theatrical play. In addition to making computer programs, games, and digital interfaces more dramatic, I would like to suggest, cyberdrama could make the world more dramatic through the computer programs, games, and interfaces that currently pervade it. Mateas refers to the field of story-games as “the space of interactive narrative,” (emphasis mine) and I would like to take him perhaps more literally than he intended. Interactive narratives should have space, real-world space, in which the human “users” are doing as much embodied dramatizing and performing as the computer systems are, digitally, in current visions of cyberdrama.

This shift in transformational agenda, I believe, would significantly broaden the critical concerns of cyberdrama, as well as potentially sharpen its aesthetic edge. Currently, Murray and Mateas seek increased agency in drama, and Perlin hopes to develop tools for a more powerful emotional impact from digital content. But what else could digital technologies do for drama besides make it more meaningfully interactive, and what else could drama do for digital technologies than make it more effectively affective?

I, for one, would like to see modern drama become more active, not just more inter active. That is to say, I would like to users not only to be able to direct the outcome of the performance (the current interactive vision of cyberdrama) but also to be directed in the performance as actors themselves (an active vision of cyberdrama). For instance, what if a story-game told the user what to do, instead of the other way around? Picture a user receiving GPS coordinates and a performance art mission over their cell phone; the successful completion (in character, of course) and digital documentation of said mission at the specified location would advance a larger dramatic narrative of some kind. In such a story-game, we might say that the cyberdrama is distributed, twice over. First, dramatic responsibility is distributed to the user, and second, the dramatization is re-distributed to an online audience (or fellow players) through the digital documentation.

Pervasive cyberdrama also introduces the element of potential scalability to modern drama: Could cyberdrama produce the first massively multi-actor theater? Scalability would work in two ways here: massively scaling the size of the cast and massively scaling the size of the audience. With 100,000 actors worldwide interpreting and performing the same script or mission, the live performance suddenly takes on the reach of broadcast technologies, a possibility unimaginable without new media and network technologies.

The flash mob phenomenon of the summer of 2003 is a perfect example of this kind of twice-distributed, massively-scalable performance. Flash mobs, of course, tended toward pure spectacle and therefore lacked the narrative aspect of cyberdrama. I can easily envision a story-game, however, in which flash mob-style spectacle were required, say, to attract the attention of a particular character or to unleash a narrative chain of events.

Two other genres of story-game that also are already engaged in cyberdrama very similar to what I am describing include urban superhero gamingThe Go Game (Wink Back, Inc., 2001 - present) and Uncle Roy All Around You (Blast Theory and Mixed Reality Lab, 2003 - present), e.g. – and alternate reality gamingThe Beast (Microsoft, 2001) and Aware (Real World Gaming, 2004 - present), e.g. Although the former tends to emphasize dramatic narrative less and the latter tends to feature more dramatic narrative than player performance, it is exciting and quite natural to imagine the two genres blending together to form a pervasive cyberdrama.

As for what a pervasive model of cyberdrama might do for cybertechnologies beyond imparting more affective power, I believe that public, spectacular deployment of the technologies would create opportunities for dialogue about their emerging ubiquity in our everyday lives and support public, critical awareness of new media and technologies in a highly accessible way. Here, I think of the Citywide Project and the Equator Project, groups that have for several years now argued for the importance of staging public, technological performances as a design research tactic. In short, cyberdrama could make digital media and computer technologies visible in a way that has nothing to do with computer graphics.

In conclusion, I believe that the dramatic story-game can be performed not only on PCs or consoles, as Murray, Mateas and Perlin currently imagine it, but also through cell phones, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, Bluetooth mobile local area networking, and the Global Positioning System (to name a few pervasive platforms). These pervasive versions of cyberdrama, rather than deriving `cyber’-ness from choice of medium, emphasize the original meaning of the cybernetic root, considering drama primarily as an information system requiring specific kinds of communication, control and feedback. As information technologies become more mobile and ubiquitous, so too can the information system of modern drama, an exciting prospect that would no doubt energize theater practice.

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