Embodiment and Automation

Does a puppet show count as theater?  My theory is that it does: the puppet constitutes a form of displaced embodiment.  This extends to online RP – the avatar is a type of displaced embodiment.  Because an agent is controlling these alternative bodies, the requirements for my definition of theater are met.

But what if the puppets are controlled by a machine?  Is this still theater?  Here things get squishy.  If the audience is unaware that the puppets are machine-controlled, then as far as it’s concerned, the performance is theater.  But if the spectator is told that the performance was mechanized, they almost inevitably reevaluate what they experienced.  They might feel a sense of dismay, they might be thrilled by the ingenuity of the mechanics, or something else, but it’s highly unlikely they wouldn’t reevaluate the performance in some manner.

In terms of my definition of theater, the mechanized puppetshow wouldn’t be theater because there’s no possibility of intersubjectivity or a reflexive social relationship.  Experientially, however, it’s not so clear.  Some people might still want to call it theater.

One possible solution is to say that any definition of a cultural practice is going to have some fuzziness around the edges.  Although we often would like definitions to be clear-cut, in reality they often aren’t.  Take biology for example.  From an evolutionary point of view, the answer to the “chicken and the egg” problem is straightforward: what came first was the egg because what laid it was, genetically speaking, not quite a chicken.  A few genes were slightly different.  That means there are some fuzzy borders around the genetic definition of chicken.  There’s no reason why something is extraordinarily complex as a cultural practice should have a definition with absolutely borders.

Still, we know what distinguishes the egg from the not-quite-chicken, and it would be nice if we could identify the areas of fuzziness in definition of theater.  It would seem from my comments above that whereas the ontology of theater is fairly strict, its phenomenology is not.

But Second Life raises further problems.  Avatars’ movements are all controlled by programmed animations.  One popular form of entertainment in SL is dance performance.  In this genre, avatars perform choreographed movements, but all the person behind the avatar has done is set the animations running (typically, by “sitting” on a disk or other object containing the animations).  I would wager that audiences generally respond to these performances much like they do to a live performance in RL.  But the dancing could be performed equally well by a bot; in fact, arguably, the person behind the avatar has simply turned their avatar into a bot.  There have been various performances that are quite explicitly by bots, in which the artist has left her computer on, running multiple instances of a program to keep the bots operating (I have in mind Jo Ellsmere’s work particularly; see for instance Mask, Biomechanical, and Obedience).  In any case, not only has embodiment been displaced, but we have a question of how much performer agency actually remains when most or all of the performance has been automated.

Ultimately, then, the concept of intersubjectivity is probably going to be reconfigured if artificial intelligence produces computer behavior that passes the Turing test, or – as in the movie Her – meets the criteria of reflexiveness and intentionality that we associate with human agency.

Copier: “Beyond the Magic Circle”

In Beyond the Magic Circle: A Network Perspective on Role-Play in Online Games, Marinka Copier aims to dispense with the metaphor of a “magic circle” defining play (as defined by Huizinga), arguing that it establishes a fallacious dichotomy between “in-game” and “out-of-game” that hides the true complexity of actual play, game design, and research.  A corollary to this pursuit is an effort to break down another dichotomy, created by the metaphor of the “ivory tower.”  In their place Copier proposes a “network perspective,” based on the Actor-Network Theory of Bruno Latour and others, connecting clusters of people within networks (or systems of connections) which can include things, such as computers.  I’m not myself familiar with ANT, although I gather that within CR it’s been criticized for having a flat social ontology, and from what little I can tell by reading Copier and Wikipedia, that seems to be the case: the agential level is the only one considered.

Be that as it may, Copier depicts the ways that role players traverse the in-game and out-of-game realms, and (more briefly) the traffic between gamers, the game industry, and academia.  I’m very much in sympathy with her desire to excise the notion of a magic circle: as the term itself suggests, it seems to mystify rather than elucidate.  But I’m not convinced that applying ANT achieves the goal.  It seems in fact to be answering a very different kind of question, a sociological one principally concerned with interpersonal and small group interactions.  It’s all well and good to say that the real and the imaginary are constructs under constant negotiation, but that really doesn’t tell us much about the nature of role playing per se.  The epistemological or ontological status of the “magic circle” doesn’t seem to be addressed through her argument.

She does have an interesting suggestion about RP involving a type of conceptual blending, but she doesn’t explore the idea to any depth.  It might – perhaps – provide one way of understanding the fictional/game element of RP, without resorting to the notion of a magic circle.  I think it’s also going to be necessary to explore “possible worlds” (modal) philosophy as another possible avenue; I’m now reading a book by Christopher Norris that touches on those issues.  Hopefully I can avoid the notion of a “willing suspension of disbelief,” an idea which has always rubbed me the wrong way.

These readings do raise for me the question of what exactly my goal is, and how it differs (if it does) from previous work.  This may be particularly an issue with respect to Mackay.  I think that my concerns are more philosophical, specifically ontological, even if that may lead me in some strange directions.  On the other hand, somewhere or other I do need to reconnect to the history of communication practices.

RPG on its own terms?

Various authors urge the study of RPG “on its own terms,” rather than as a form of (or at least in comparison to) something else, such as other types of games, psychodrama, or – of course – theater.  So arguably my project is heretical or at least objectionable.  But what exactly does “on its own terms” mean?  How much of anything do we understand outside of its relationship to other things in the world?  If the point is that one should not efface RPGs’ specific characteristics, that scarcely entails seeing any discussion of its relationship to other modes of performance as reductive.  Discussions that seek to ward off comparison with theater often seem to have a very narrow view of what theater itself is.  Marjukka Lampo, for example, has a very traditional concept of theater in mind when she objects to the idea that RP is similar to it.  But saying that RPG is a particular form of theater does not eliminate its specificity.  A goldfish has its particularity, but it remains a particular type of fish.  The trick remains in how one defines theater; but also in how one defines RP.