The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories
354 pages by Frank Rose, Norton,
Don’t let the title fool you — there is no art in technology writer Frank Rose’s bracingly new take on “immersive storytelling.” This book is so of-themoment that it references movies, video games, and even research from late 2010, and is so lacking in critical discernment that it made me alternately want to burn the book in a fit of Luddite pique or find the author on Facebook and chastise him. I did not do the former because, save for a crisis situation, I would never burn a book; and I did not do the latter because I refuse to let my personal Facebook use support any of Rose’s many theses — among them, human beings would rather live in a game; audiences are increasingly eager to wrest control of the story from the storyteller; and people really want to interact with advertising in ways that sound, to me, extremely timeconsuming.
In the book’s early chapters, Rose makes the case for the human mind being associative rather than linear, and he establishes some historical context. For example, the annoyingly modernsounding term “multiverse” was in fact coined in 1895. And the basic theory of hyperlinks, the very skeleton of connection and communication on the internet, was first posited back in 1945 by Vannevar Bush, who was concerned about the human mind’s inability to remember what it has already learned. There are also some rather amusing stories about the discontinuity in the toys, comics, and other merchandise surrounding the original Star Wars movie in 1977. But it leads nowhere. The story Rose is telling, whether or not he acknowledges it as such, is about the inevitable fusion of technology, capitalism, and the public’s insatiable need to be entertained. The Art of Immersion should come with a DVD copy of Mike Judge’s 2006 movie, Idiocracy, which envisions a future so saturated in marketing that water has been replaced by an energy drink and no one can figure out why no plants will grow. “It’s got electrolytes!” the people insist, defiantly touting an advertising slogan as though it were scientific proof of something.
Rose makes many sweeping assumptions about the way people desire to engage entertainment. Much of what he puts forth about our ever more immersive technological world and the blurring of the lines between entertainment and marketing is true in that these things are indeed happening, but this book speaks not to those who question technology but to people who embrace it in all its forms.
Whether it’s internet games based on movies based on comic books that send players on reallife treasure hunts in order to ultimately increase opening-weekend box office, virtually commanding a pre-programmed “subservient chicken” on the Burger King website to play air guitar or “pee in the corner,” or enticing the masses to create and upload their own commercials for products such as the Chevy Tahoe, Rose does not make value judgments. He does not issue a single thought about what multiplatform marketing tie-ins might mean for art and culture — the future of the book, for instance — though, by his logic, the proliferation of e-readers dictates that choose-your-own-adventure literary classics will hit the market any minute. (Books are referred to as “passive” entertainment, though he makes exceptions for Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, and Phillip K. Dick.)
Rose has little to say about the violence of video games; as far as he’s concerned, virtual murder, rape, and warfare are just part of emotionally connecting to the audience. He is very excited about how advances in artificial intelligence might eventually allow game programmers to tell “stories” with a wider array of outcomes, because games will respond to individual players in the moment instead of being confined to however many preset responses a programmer can code until he reaches the limits of his personal life — experience and imagination.
That this is a boys’ world is clear (embodied most strongly in Rose’s emphasis on the wonderful memories the grown men he profiles have about their childhoods in gaming) — despite the fact that about 40 percent of gamers are female. A game’s ability to make an emotional connection in a player would seem to hinge on programming with that in mind, and female gamers have long complained of the medium’s gender bias, but Rose doesn’t even touch on the topic.
What is most dystopian about The Art of Immersion is Rose’s continual insistence that storytelling is just a means to an end (financial profit) while maintaining throughout that this is really about something deeper and more meaningful — without ever making the case for an alternate motive, other than “people like games.” True storytelling is art, not commerce. If we have come to such a point in our culture that we believe they are synonymous, then Rose is right. We have been immersed.