digital arts & culture 1998

Marie-Louise Rinman:

Digital Art and Culture

Why do people play computer games, communicate through chat-groups and participate in the construction of virtual communities? What do these virtual worlds offer that the real world does not? Whos got access to these worlds considering ethnicity, class, and gender? These questions could probably be put under the headline of FAQ somewhere on the Net, but so far most answers have given rise to even more questions. And they have to be discussed over and over again, since the pre-conditions are changing all the time, as the ongoing on-line "net-narrative" itself.

My thesis, and the forthcoming paper, regard digital worlds as meeting-places. The digital worlds being investigated are computer games and chat-groups, sites, netzines and magazines connected to them. I look at the narrative, and the discourse working within it, that runs through these digital worlds, leaks into the real world and is brought back again to the digital universe by gamers and inhabitants.

The game worlds are divided into two main groups (which in their turn could be divided into different subgroups):
1. Technoculture:
- including computer adventure games in 3D graphics such as Quake I and II, and Final Fantasy, which are more or less goal oriented. Technoculture has roughly its roots in the American west coast hacker culture and in science-fiction. Gamers are mainly young, technically skilled, and male (probably white, middle-class).
2. Fantasy culture
- emotion-/experience oriented computer games Myst and Riven based on still graphics, are single-player games. Fantasy is connected to the Tolkien sphere, playing role-games (lives) or MUD:s on the net. The game Final Fantasy can be placed somewhere in between Techno and Fantasy containing both. Players may be male or female, all ages (probably white, middle-class though).
3. Virtual sites
- and finally the virtual game-like site in 3D, Active Worlds, consisting of hundreds of different sites. On these sites you can choose avatar, walk around through the environment, and chat with other people. Graphics, chat, and information about the site are shown at the same time on the interface. These sites are more like pure meeting-places gathered around one specific subject, and for a small amount of money you can build your own world. The idea comes from the book "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson.

When talking to young Quake gamers for instance, it is obvious that the game itself is not enough to engage them to such a large extent they actually are. Of great importance are the chat-groups, where gamers exchange ideas and solutions of technical kinds, creating new tracks etc. They meet IRL for competitions as well as in multi-player sessions on the net. How do the different worlds (Fantasy - Techno) differ and resemble one another concerning issues, ways of expression, and words, in other words discourse?

The next step of investigation is how identity is related to narrative and fiction. There are different kinds of fictionality at work in Quake compared to Myst. Quake encourages a calculating mind: how many have I killed , how many points have I got? Cracking codes, constructing new tracks, whereas Myst deals with emotions and of experiencing the beauty of the virtual world, trying to solve the riddles and finding new tracks. How do the gamers or inhabitants relate themselves to technology, to future or medievel worlds? To what extent do they pretend, to what extent do they really believe themselves to be there, "inside" the world of the computer?

Obviously many of them believe in a "thereness", in the existence of a sort of actual materialized places and spaces. What ideas, notions, and perceptions of the real world do they bring into the virtual world and vice versa? Do the "heavy" computer adventure gamers and role-game players percieve the "real" in a different way than non-gamers? What is their "real" identity?

In the forthcoming paper I will present a material based on a pilot study, a comparison made between the virtual cultures and communities expressed within the frames of Technoculture and Fantasy. I look at narrative and discourse, that is attitudes towards technology, the issues discussed in the chat-groups through an age, gender, class, ethnical perspective using discours analysis. I compare computer games to other visual media, film and TV, looking at narrative structures, game components, such as graphics, colours, settings, sound, angles, movements etc, the interactive possibilities, using theorists like Gregory Currie, Seymore Chatman, Monika Fludernik, Kendal Walton, as a base for the interpretative work and authors and researchers like Dery, S. G. Jones, Rheingould, Negroponte and so forth to broaden the understanding of these new technologies.

Marie-Louise Rinman is a doctoral student at the Department of Journalism, Media and Communication at Stockholm University.





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Last update: 26th of October 1998.