Game-changing narratives, or: How social media is changing reality


January 27, 2011

Game-Changing Narratives, Or: How Social Media is Changing Reality

By Bud Goodall (about the author)

Lately there has been a convergence of news narratives that coalesce into a series of otherwise disparate nouns: reality, gaming, social media, Tunisia, avatar envy, emotion, college-students-aren’t-learning-anything, the Internet, and revolution. For academics studying communication, the merger of these nouns spells good times, fascinating times, times that promise cool science and thought-provoking essays. For entrepreneurs, they provide investment opportunities. For the world beyond the academy and entrepreneurs, however, this new series of nouns creates life possibilities that are at once true, bizarre, and maybe even frightening.

Let’s begin with the basics of this first new grammar of the 21st century. Which is to say, appropriately, let’s begin with you. With the reality, and virtual reality, of you. For you are always and forever at the center of this unfolding many-storied story, because whether you are you in the flesh; or you are you in the sexier, sleeker avatar that represents and evokes a version of yourself that you’d often rather be; or whether it’s the you that creates friends on a Facebook page or surfs the “Net or the you who exchanges endless texts and tweets 24/7, the end result is the same: your pleasure in these texts, which is also to say the pleasure you give to yourself and others in and through engaging in these texts, is central to the choices about stories, and the lives, you make out of them. As Professor Alan Kirby, who defines this new narrative reality as “pseudo-modernism,” puts it: “Whereas postmodernism called “reality’ into question, pseudo-modernism defines the real implicitly as myself, now, “interacting’ with its texts.”

In the old days, say a decade or so ago, you didn’t have so many choices. There was the original you, or you-in-the-flesh, maybe another you who was playful in email, and maybe yet another you who played video games but it was like watching somebody else play you out there; you didn’t get to create characters or interact in virtual worlds beyond what the script provided. In this way, your postmodern self was always engaged in what Kirby calls “ironic self-awareness.” You knew you made the world up as you went along, whether in the flesh or online, but making it up while you knew you were making it up was patently ironic: it was a social life lived “tongue-in-cheek”; it was simulacra; it was incongruous.

In the way back days before that, or in “ancient history” as history is measured in this brave new world, you were reduced to being you-in-the-flesh most of the time, except maybe for when you used the telephone to extend your world or fantasized scenes with movie stars you stared at in magazines or on the tube. And before that you were pretty much stuck with yourself and some books. Or yourself and the Oracle at Delphi. Or yourself with a cave and a burnt stick to make drawings for your own amusement.

We have come a long way, baby. But that’s only an obvious part of this story. The less obvious part of this evolution involves how creating virtual worlds that we can engage as we do–from texting to posting to tweeting to gaming and back again–has changed us. For we are no longer who we used to be. We have new identities, some real, some realer, some that only feel real. We experience ” avatar envy.” We have narrative-and-identity options so enticing that we readily trade time spent being in-the-flesh versions of ourselves with time devoted to what Marshall McLuhan called “extensions of ourselves.” It’s silly to ask why. We know why. And if we didn’t know why there are new studies of us that prove why. The big why is based on an old rhetorical principle from the 18th century that goes something like this: “appeals to the emotions enliven our imaginations and better move our will.”

In other words, we like who we, and what we feel like , when are when we are “there, doing that.” It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s full of surprises, set-ups, set-backs, and start-agains. With the creation of so many small, relatively inexpensive portable devices, me and my avatar–whether that avatar is a virtual image or virtual identity based on who we have socially constructed ourselves to be–can now go everywhere together. And–Buckaroo Bonzai fans will remember this line–“no matter where you go, there you are.”

It really, really is all about you. Your emotions. Your pleasure. And what you want to do with it.

But we aren’t done yet. Being you has also never been this connected before. If, as a new book (Academically Adrift) is correct and it’s true that college-students-aren’t-learning-anything-anymore , then the reason may be linked to how much time they spend gaming, texting, surfing, networking, and so on. True, that.

But true also that they may have used their time well. By doing those things, by having those networked experiences and building that new social capital, they are acquiring a vital skill set for getting ahead in this crazy 21st century world: managing multiple, even global, networked relationships.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that a failure to increase critical thinking skills or writing abilities or knowledge of world geography or English literature isn’t important anymore. In fact, it is more important. The ante has been upped, that’s all. Because you really want to build a better avatar. A smarter avatar, not just a better looking one. A more savvy text. A more appealing posting. A network of smarties who are also cool. That means you need to learn the old stuff so you can be creative doing the new stuff. You want powers in that gaming environment, and you want to accumulate experiences, however you want to read that particular metaphor into your particular life.

Master game designer Jane McGonigal describes this process of virtual learning as “opting out” of a fleshy reality where status is based on stuff in favor of an alternative reality where status is gained through “powers and experiences.” To wit:

“There are economies popping up in games now because people value them. I just think it’s rather extraordinary that there are easily tens of million of people who believe that experience is more valuable than stuff.”

But McGonigal isn’t just interested in the experiences, but what building them into game environment narratives can do to us, and for us as we create collaborations around the globe to solve real world problems. In the game Evoke, for example:

“We used the narrative to tell a story set ten years in the future where it was the young people in Africa who had been working on these incredibly daunting challenges who had developed the creativity and the ingenuity to save the rest of the world. So each week there was a crisis in Tokyo or a crisis in London or a crisis in Rio, and it was the young people in Africa who said, well, we’ve been dealing with food shortages, we’ve been dealing with floods, with not having clean water, and that enabled the students we were working with to see a positive future, to see that epic win, and to be inspired by the story. I do think narrative is important, it provokes emotions like awe and wonder and curiosity.

Games aren’t just fun because we can win them. There are all these other emotions that are part of it, and narrative and art and music can be a really important ways to provoke the emotions that are necessary to stick with the challenge and to imagine that epic win.”

Which brings me to the second sets of terms in our new 21st century grammar: social media, Tunisia, revolution. Whether or not the uprising against a corrupt government in Tunisia was the result of Facebook postings, the story of it is now part of our networked reality. The incident that led to the postings–an “insult to dignity” as Roger Cohen put it–was then distributed by friends and family members on Facebook and, well, one or two postings of images and words led to a thousand, then tens of thousands, then a protest that caused a government to go down.

Observers from around the world have pointed out that, like it or not, social media are virtual world players in the real world of politics, not just neutral transmitters of news. Again, it is the merger of you and your texting, you and your images, you and your avatar in a gaming environment, and so on that changes the emotional appeal of the narrative landscape. And with how you feel about that changed narrative landscape comes other changes, not the least of which is the possibility of regime changes, or democracy, or rebellion, for better or worse. What was once “ironic self-awareness” has morphed into engagement with an emotional edge.

It is as if we have entered what John Bickle and Sean Keating call “Storytelling 2.0.” In this new environment:

“State-of-the-art neuro-imaging and cognitive neuropsychology both uphold the idea that we create our “selves” through narrative. ” New communicative interfaces allow for novel narrative interactions and constructions. Multi-user domains (MUDs), massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), hypertext and cybertext all loosen traditional narrative structure. Digital narratives, in their extremes, are co-creations of the authors, users and media. Multiple entry points into continuously developing narratives are available, often for multiple co-constructors.”

So far, so cool, right? But it is wise to remember that every advance in communication has brought with it a dark side. Social media used to fuel uprisings and organize mass demonstrations may bring democracy to Tunisia and even Egypt or Lebanon, but democracy can be a many-splintered thing. Democracy brought Hamas into power in Palestine, and Hezbollah is making the same bid in Lebanon. So there is democracy 1.0 of the variety President Bush wanted to bring to the Middle East and North Africa, and then there is democracy 2.0, which is a very different narrative about what that means in those regions.

But that is not even close to my central worry. As a person who spends part of every day studying violent extremism at home and abroad, I take to heart a recent analysis by Jarrett Brachman and Alix Levine about the viral spread of Anwar al-Awlaki as not only a purveyor of radical Islamic hatred and calls to jihad, but as an icon who appeals to youth. Brachman and Levine propose a “dynamic model” to:

“walk the reader, step-by-step, through the mechanics driving the interplay between online and physical al-Qaeda mobilization. Al-Awlaki’s original content is objectified, repackaged, and even commoditized in al-Qaeda’s virtual economy.

Fans have been transformed from passive consumers into active reproducers of al-Qaeda content: anyone can now be an al-Qaeda propagandist.”

So what we have is a way for young people to role-play a violent extremist with the hope of becoming, as the authors of this study phrase it, “the next Al Qaeda Idol.” Avatar envy crosses over from the narrative construction of a virtual self based on making a copy of an appealing image through progressive steps (alienation, replication, and performativity) to a real self who wants to take that newly minted self into the real world, often with violent results. The authors, after providing a case study of one such figure (Abu Dujanah) conclude: “The online al-Qaeda movement has created an expectation–particularly given the influence of Abu Dujanah–that Internet participants will try to live up to their virtual selves in the real world.”

Which inevitably brings us all to the question, the networked narrative game, of “what if?” We know the U. S. Department of State and the U. S. Department of Defense maintain Internet teams and tweeters to deal with emerging stories, and to influence them. We know that the military has for some time now invested in “serious gaming” to train personnel and try out alternative ways to shape and to respond to scenarios. Schools and colleges have virtual campuses, and there are courses structured as games. All of these developments are real and they are changing how we think, work, and play in the world. But are they also doing something else to us ? What if ”

You fill in the rest. Because you know you already are ”

H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. lives in Arizona where he is a college professor and writer. He has published 20 books and many articles and chapters on a variety of communication issues. His most recent books include Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice (Left Coast Press, 2010) and, with Jeffry Halverson and Steven R. Corman, Master Narratives of Islamic Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

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