Living on the edge of virtual reality

[From The Nevada Appeal; a detailed article about Brock Enright’s “Videogames Adventure Services” is available in The New York Times here]

[Larger image available here]


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Living on the edge of virtual reality

By Ursula Carlson
For the Nevada Appeal

I like the words “virtual reality” because they suggest an alternate world, one that is not real, but that seems almost real. To me it’s like the world we encounter whenever we read a novel, watch a movie, recall scenes from the past or imagine scenes that might occur in the future.

But this is not the way we understand the words today, nor was it the meaning Antonin Artaud had in mind when he coined the phrase in his 1938 book, “The Theater and Its Double.”

Artaud, a poet, actor, director and theorist, decried theater’s dependence on the “text,” the words and language. He thought of theater as a stage that was its own reality, not a mere representation of it, and called it the “theatre of cruelty.” This theater needed to “swoop down upon a crowd of spectators with all the awesome horror of the plague … creating a complete upheaval, physical, mental and moral, among the population.”

In his production “The Conquest of Mexico,” he had the wall of the stage “crammed unevenly with heads, with throats … horrible faces, glaring eyes, closed fists, plumes, armour.” He called these “gestures” but we recognize them as symbolic images.

Science fiction, in books, movies and television (ie., “Neuromancer,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Tron” and “Inception”) has employed the idea of virtual reality for decades. Today, a computer game developer like Jane McGonigal believes in using virtual reality games in a serious way to “change the world” by teaching, for instance, “social entrepreneurship.” Physical and psycho-therapists have also used various simulation methods in positive ways.

And then there is Brock Enright, a self-proclaimed artist/actor in Brooklyn, N.Y., who with his cast of players offers “reality adventures” for a price ranging from a low of $5,000 or $10,000 to $60,000 or more. These adventures may be kidnappings, simulated rapes, or any “narrative” that Enright thinks is the client’s “game intent.”

In this game the “stage” is the real world and the client doesn’t know who is one of Enright’s actors and who isn’t.  This is a formula for creating paranoia — apparently a delicious paranoia. One client said what she enjoyed most was being “the center of attention.” Another found the adventure “so heightened” that coming back to his real life was depressing. Enright himself says these games are a “way to understand life.”

If everything I’ve written here were a novel I was reading, I would have to conclude that this virtual novel mirrors us: We’re uneasy in our world; we thrive on delusion and intense physical sensation; we respond to images, not language; we need virtual reality to facilitate human connection. 

Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.

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