immersed in abstraction

I’ve tried before and I’ll probably try again, but I can’t get immersed in Second Life. It’s the lack of story there. You make yourself look how you want (or find you’re unable to) and then you stand around listening to music or whatever. A few years ago on my second attempt to get into it I signed up to go to a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Snow Crash is a novel about the kind of immersive second world SL is trying to be, but it all feels so clunky, so much more about just being in SL than about what’s going on.

I guess it comes down to my gripes about content in the social mediasphere. I find myself agreeing with the lack of Big Ideas in social media (though one of my classmates noted that some of the thinkers quoted in that article are also on Twitter).

Scott McCloud in his talking about comics has a bit about how characters are drawn and how that affects us as readers. A very detailed drawing gives us information about that specific person, whereas a more abstract drawing lets the reader put more of herself into it, to fill in more of the gaps. Immersive environments like Second Life are mixing those up. The more detailed your avatar can be the more the gaps between what’s happening to it and to you become visible.

I remember back in the ’90s my first time playing a MUSH. It was based on Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I went in expecting to have slots to fill in and skills to work on so I could become whatever kind of character it was possible for me to be in that world. The fact that I could be a Thief-Taker, just by saying I was and acting like I was, was so astounding to me I was immediately intimidated by the freedom. I still feel that way now when I’m staring at a blank page to fill with text. Anything at all can go there. You don’t have to fit into CPU cycles when you’re dealing with text. Your immersion is based on skills with language that humans have been working on for thousands of years.

That’s why I can get immersed in the flow of information on Twitter. It’s text. I’m a text person. Doing photos and screencasts using avatars and all of that doesn’t excite me. I don’t feel I’m part of a world I’m not helping to create in my mind. I love the old text-based computer games, even though the limits were very apparent. You had to learn the rules so you knew that “Take Boat” wasn’t the kind of language it wanted. Working within limitations becomes immersive once you’ve really taken it up.

Now this isn’t to say I don’t get immersed in videogames. Once it gets out of the way and I’m taking part in telling a story, I’m there. I played Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas not for the random gratuitous violence (yes, you’d go off on a five-star wanted rampage every once in a while but that wasn’t the point), but because it was a classic gangster story. That’s what I want out of any environment, really. Hell, I love the stories embedded in the numbers in baseball boxscores. That’s what I need for immersion, characters instead of customizable avatars.

This is, of course, good to know. Because if I’m like me, there might be more. And that’s why if I’m bringing a library into a space it’s to tell a story, and to help our users tell a story and imagine one. Not just about the library but about the community it’s a part of (be that physical or digital).

5 Responses (Add Your Comment)

  1. I agree. Good stories are key. And I will always love text and be able to immerse myself in it more thoroughly than any other medium.

  2. I do think that Second Life has the potential to tell stories and for play and performance, but it’s much more open than actual online MMORPGs. I think that the affordances of Second Life are difficult for me to wrap my head around, because I want it to be a online game, but it’s actually a virtual world social media, a kind of Myspace but with avatars and buildings. I would much rather have a story and some kind of gaming structure.

  3. Lack of story, lack of purpose, clunky & hideous graphics. I had a pretty terrible experience with Second Life and I am someone who plays video games fairly regularly, though maybe that’s why it stands in such stark contrast to (a recent example) L.A. Noire. Now THAT’s an immersive world.

  4. LA Noire is one of those games that made me want to get a current generation system. That’s exactly the kind of thing I can get lost in (that and the Sid Meier oeuvre, but that’s more the building aspect than the story).

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