Product & Growth Tips

What video games have in common with Colonial Williamsburg

Jordan Carr
Frank Rose has been writing about his twin passions: technology and entertainment for four decades now. With countless articles in The New York Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Wired and more, books such as West of Eden on Steve Jobs’ expulsion from Apple, The Agency, on the history of Hollywood über-agency William Morris, and most recently, in 2011 The Art of Immersion. In The Art of Immersion, Frank postulates that new technologies are unlocking our natural inclination as audiences to immerse ourselves in the media we consume, rather than just passively receiving it.

 

We interviewed Frank to help guide us while we were putting together the 2018 Mixpanel Media & Entertainment Benchmarks Report, and these were his takes on the rapid evolution of the way audiences consume stories.

What are the primary changes you’ve seen since the publication of The Art of Immersion? How would you revise the central thesis of the book to fit the current moment?

I see two major changes: the arrival of VR, and the, shall we say, clarification of our relationship with social media—which actually involves not just social media but any online service that monetizes its users by selling the data they generate. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal has been a long time coming, and what it’s shown to anyone who pays attention—which does not seem to include most of Congress—is that we’re making a making a devil’s bargain when we opt in to any service that mines our data for profit. Unfortunately that seems to include most successful Internet companies at this point. I don’t know whether we’re going to muster the will to resist it, and when I say “we” I’m certainly including myself. But I do think the phrase “surveillance capitalism” is a good start.

As for VR, I think the jury is still very much out on that too. There’s some wonderful things being done with it—at the Columbia Digital Storytelling Lab we just cited Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena and a Pixar-level animated VR story called Arden’s Wake in our Digital Dozen list of the past year’s most innovative examples of storytelling. But it’s an entirely new and different medium, it has nothing to do with the grammar of cinema that’s evolved over the past hundred years, and there are still only handful of examples of successful VR storytelling. But I think the main thing is we haven’t finished inventing it yet. Until we can interact with one another as easily in VR as we do in real life, or online, it’s not going to be ready for mass adoption.

How can smart content creators use immersive narratives to engage more deeply with their audience? More to the point, how does the notion of “artistic control” conflict with immersive storytelling?

Many years ago—in 1977, to be precise—I did a series of interviews with Brian Eno in which he talked about rethinking music as a system. He’d recently discovered cybernetics, and he was really taken with the idea that you could create a limited series of possibilities and let people improvise within them.

This is essentially how video games work, and it’s also, more or less, how narratives work. By “more or less” I mean to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the narrative and depending on the author. Stories don’t give you the same degree of freedom that games do, obviously, but it’s not true that we simply sit back and consume them. That’s a very 20th-century notion. In fact we “co-create” them in our heads. We have an imaginative response, which is why no two of us have exactly the same experience of a book or a play or a movie.

So storytelling in a digital world means recognizing this and adapting to it in ways that invite the audience in. It doesn’t mean letting the audience decide whether the main character jumps off a cliff or hides in a closet. Choose-your-own-adventure is a really simplistic form of interactivity. Choose-your-own-point-of-view, on the other hand, can be pretty interesting. It’s what Steven Soderbergh did with his Mosaic app. It’s what Kurosawa did with Rashomon. There are many ways authors can bring people into their stories without giving up control of the plot. We see this in long-form television all the time. We see it in The Americans, which provoked me last season to read up on Fort Meade and Lassa fever. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy and J.J. Abrams do it all the time with Westworld. You can have all kinds of fun with it, like they do, but the basic rule is, don’t explain too much—which of course is exactly the opposite of the basic rule in television during the broadcast era.

And, this one seems simplistic, but I think it’s clarifying: why do audiences like immersive experiences?

I think part of it has to do with video games—they’ve trained people to expect to have agency in the imaginary worlds they inhabit. And part of it has to do with the rise of the Internet, which allows us to supplement whatever we’re doing with an external brain we can turn to whenever we feel like it—I mean, there’s hardly a show on television that doesn’t have its own wiki. But its also just how we operate as humans. For a long time we were trained to believe that we had to consume art in frames and stories in books or through a proscenium arch or on a movie screen. But that didn’t mean it was what we really wanted to do. Have you ever been to Colonial Williamsburg? It was created in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. to serve as a kind of living history lesson where we could go and imagine ourselves to be caught up in the debates and the daily life that led up to the American Revolution.

 

I’m a big believer in the idea that very few trends are ever really new—it’s just a question of whether the technology of the day makes them possible. What do you think people 150 years ago would have done with a pocket-sized device that enabled them to speak to other people and write to one another instantaneously and read stories and play games and view sports and watch actors in a comedy or a drama? They would have been glued to this thing the same way we are. They just didn’t have the chance.

 

For more from Frank Rose and other tech, media & entertainment experts, as well as aggregated data showing what standard and elite performance across key metrics in the industry looks like, read the Mixpanel Media & Entertainment Benchmarks Report.
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