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,

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Jen­nifer Levin

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.

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