Stranger than fiction: How our multimedia world is changing 21st century literary culture

Learning about video games in school is what childhood dreams are made of, and as unconventional as it seems, there’s a course at Otago University’s English department that does just that.

Dr David Ciccoricco teaches students about digital storytelling in video games, and is an expert on what happens when modern technology meets narrative fiction. He talks to Idealog about some of the assumptions around digital literature, how one of the world’s most popular games is a prime example of electronic fiction, and whether commercial interests will try and appropriate the world’s newest mode of literary storytelling

Why was digital literature and narrative fiction something you wanted to focus your research interests on?

I look at how storytelling in different media represents what goes on in the minds of characters in different ways. But I also consider what these fictional minds can tell us about actual minds, especially as we negotiate our media-saturated culture.

There are many popular misconceptions about the relationship between digital media and literary culture. One would be the assumption that literary culture is bound to the print medium—that it somehow starts and ends with it, and that it is threatened directly by digital media. But that’s not the case, and the proliferation of creative texts that have emerged with digital culture certainly attests to that. A related assumption is that digital media is, to put it in broad terms, bad for our health. Or more specifically, bad for our attention spans and our memory. My book Refiguring Minds in Narrative Media sought to address some of these general assumptions by showing how stories in any medium can nourish creative imagination and cultivate critical and ethical reflection.

Why do some people view digital media as threat to literature? Is it to do with traditionalism, or because it’s still a new and unfamiliar form of storytelling?

There are a lot of conventional assumptions tied to literary experience. The word literary is itself rather contestable and difficult to nail down. But for generations it’s been seen as a contemplative, reflective, meditative, even solitary pursuit. When you get into digital environments, the values tend to gravitate towards collaboration, openness, and immediate spaces where speed is a virtue above all. Our attention is divided now more than ever, switching quickly between different tasks instead of being focused on the solitary pursuit of, for example, reading a novel. There's been a lot of cognitive scientific research about the way we're being generationally wired differently based on the media environments we grow up in, and that people are now more used to this rapid switching between different tasks rather than sustained periods of attention. So it’s a very real threat in a lot of ways, but I think it’s a matter of figuring out how we read differently in digital environments and how we think of literature in different ways in such environments.

Nightingale's Playground

What are some examples of digital literature that we may be familiar with?

Works of digital literature (also called electronic literature) are distinct in that they would lose something vital to their artistic function if removed from their digital medium. I teach and research a wide range of these works, anything from an interactive digital fiction called Nightingale’s Playground by Andy Campbell, which most people have never heard of, to some commercial videogames that place a heavy investment in storytelling, like BioShock, which many people have heard of.

Both works, however, have something compelling to say about contemporary cognitive-scientific understandings of memory, and its highly (re)constructive nature in particular. In Nightingale’s Playground, we take on the role of the protagonist who, in one segment, explores his now abandoned childhood home, finding free-floating fragments of text in the hallways that he must piece together to make sense of his past (and a missing friend). The experience is a strange mix of virtual environments, cognitive maps, and the ancient practice of the Arts of Memory.

In the dystopian world of BioShock, we eventually learn that our memories are not our own. Then it gets worse. In one scene the player loses control entirely over his or her player-character, which offers a kind of meta-commentary more generally about control in digital environments, and in games, where we more commonly feel our sense of control over the world enhanced and amplified through gameplay.

One artist duo that did attain something like rock star status in the field was the Seoul-based Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries. In fact, during one of their visits to New Zealand several years ago, one of their digital narratives, The Life of the City of the Mind, was projected on the side of a building in downtown Auckland.

This semester I’m also teaching a fairly recent work called The Stanley Parable by Davey Wreden, which is a great example of a story and game hybrid. I think of it as a cross between 28 Days Later (without the zombies) and a Samuel Beckett play. You play as Stanley, as he tries to figure out where everyone went in his deserted corporate office block. There is a narrator, which in itself is unusual for a videogame given that most action occurs in the present tense of gameplay rather than a retrospective narrative past. But this narrator takes on a sort of adversarial role, scolding you for not following his narration and ridiculing you for your decisions.

BioShock

We've talked about how digital technology is being used for literary and artistic means, but do you also see the potential for it to be appropriated for commercial or business means?

In the history of new technologies it’s always kind of a rush to see who's going to get their hands on it. For example, the World Wide Web had its roots in a military context, but it was artists and intellectuals who really spread the World Wide Web as an entity, and then it was only five or ten years afterwards that commercial interests really took hold and changed the complexion of the web. But you always see a mix. Sometimes the artists get to the technology first and then commercial interests step in and appropriate it. But other times you see the opposite. You see these technologies developed for commercial purposes, and then an artist comes along and thinks, hey, this might be interesting. For example, with touchscreens, Pry was the first novella for iPads so it used that touchscreen technology to work in the metaphor of 'prying' into someone's mind.

I think it’s a healthy arm wrestle between the consumer/commercial interests and the artistic interests. There's always going to be tension between those two things, but it's also what makes cultural production a very healthy thing. They keep an eye on each other and appropriate whenever possible.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, ‘Lotus Blossom’

What are your predictions on future growth in the world of digital literature?

One trend that is sure to continue is the appropriation (and indeed creative subversion) of new digital technologies for literary or artistic ends – and here I mean anything from software apps like Twitter through to Augmented Reality hardware. For example, it didn’t take long before artists were creating digital fictions told serially in instalments via email, and later murder mysteries told via blog platforms, or stories told through multiple narrators in a Twitter fiction.

For literary scholars, it’s rewarding to see these often instrumental or commercial digital forms steered toward creative ends. The other task for us, of course, is to show how these new forms have a long historical and conceptual lineage in earlier print culture (such as the connection between blogs and the epistolary novel).

Either way, it’s important to register that literary culture and the literary imagination is alive and well not despite but because of the digital medium. For these artists and writers, technology and the arts go hand in hand – as they should, and as they have done in some of the oldest conceptions of “technology” itself.