Thursday, March 1, 2012

Cup of Death and Interactivity - Richard McKita

The Choose Your Own Adventure series, and various knockoffs, have been a popular form of children's literature for a long time. They promise the reader the ability to actively participate in the action of the book through a non-linear reading experience where the reader chooses from among several possible courses of action at various plot points, and being written in the second person. However, I distinctly remember not enjoying these types of books very much when I was actually a child, and as I read Cup of Death for class this week I tried to reason out why that was.

I think the main reason I preferred "normal" books as a child was because the Choose Your Own Adventure format offered a great deal less in terms of actual material, because they were only the length of a children's book but contained dozens of different branches and endings, each of which is much shorter than even a short story in the end. This made the book ultimately less fun because the story was so shallow there was very little actual excitement of discovery or action within it. I think what I recognized back then was that a real book is supposed to be interactive by presenting you with a wealth of ideas, events, and materials to allow you to participate intellectually in its discovery and interpretation without resorting to false "interactive" gimmicks.

The interactivity of the Choose Your Own Adventure novel is quite shallow and uninteresting when compared to the true interactivity of intellectual engagement with a text, even on the level of a child's reading for fun. There are definitive choices made by the author which are restrictive in this format, despite its own claims to the contrary: Gilligan chooses when to have our character (the "You" of the book) act within her own prose passages and when to present us with options; she chooses the consequences of those options; she chooses when to leave us with those bold capitals - THE END - signaling that our story is "over." This is not interactive in the sense of two people coming together to create a collaborative story - it feels like a patronizing adult giving you some small, token decision making power while retaining secret knowledge of the "right" answer the entire time.

I contrast this with my other reading around this age - mostly horror or science-fiction series like Goosebumps or Animorphs ordered from Scholastic Books catalogs in elementary school. I remember following series for months and months, delving into the characters and the story arcs, making drawings and what I guess would be called fan-fiction if I was conscious of that sort of thing at the time, and being inspired to write my own original pieces of fiction too. That is what real interactivity feels like to me: entering a dialogue with the material, feeling the impetus to create oneself and engage in cultural discourse, even as a child. The idea that adults feel the need to talk down to us by writing in second person and offering 23 different endings to choose from shows just how much these authors underestimated children's ability to engage with a beloved text.

And this brings me as well to the supposed "interactivity" of video games. Increasing breadth of choices and ability to roam freely in a virtual landscape are qualities which are praised constantly by video game designers and players as epitomizing "interactivity" or similarity to the "real world." But I ask, like I did previously: is a medium which presents you with a limited set of choices pre-ordained by an omnipotent Author/Designer really that much like interacting with other people or your environment in the "real world?" I find that idea almost offensive in its reduction of our abilities. The relationship between the player of an "interactive" game and its designer is always a sado-masochistic one: we are pressured to choose, over and over again, from the options we are given, and we are punished (by a "bad ending" or what have you) if we choose incorrectly. Are we at a point in our civilization where we find this to be an accurate description of the human condition?

True interaction involves mutual creation and exchange. The "interaction" presented by video games or Choose Your Own Adventure books is merely a gimmick in which the reader/player is given a limited, token number of shallow choices to make in an artificial world. True interaction ought to occur when a creator presents his or her work and allows it to be part of a culture where people are encouraged to truly participate creatively rather than sitting back and allowing themselves to feel the false empowerment that comes from consuming the "interactive" work of others.


Adam said...

For my part, I loved this sort of crap growing up, when I could get it. But I couldn't them! Regular books offered more bang for the buck, so although I loved getting the occasional interactive book as a gift, I never bought them with my $2/week allowance.

So is this a critique of the concept of interactivity as packaged and sold to us by various media industries? It smells that way, and I'm all for that - I'd like to see that approach made more explicit, though, if you're going to do it.

Challenging the level of interactivity in Gilligan is fine, but only up to a point - you don't engage, for instance, with the story woven (not brilliantly, but it's there) *among* the various endings, nor do you engage with the question of what true interactivity, then, would look like. We need to imply that.

The discussion of, e.g., Goosebumps, would have done more if you'd been making a case for true(er) interactivity in those texts. As is, I don't think this did a whole lot for us.

The critique of sadomasochistic "interactivity" is potentially fantastic - that's first paragraph material, fit for structuring the essay around. It reveals itself as worthy and interesting, but it also reveals the secondary/uninteresting character of much of the surrounding material. If this is going to become a critique of our "concept" of "interactivity" (I put concept in quotes because I think we define it purely operationally - in terms of the number and perhaps character of choices - rather than of the foundation or origin of those choices).

You define interactivity ably at the end. Maybe it belonged at the beginning.

Overall: This essentially is the introduction to a critique of CYOA books as an example of the fakeness and decadence of what we call interactivity. Good! However, it's really a page of introductory material padded out: there are no substantive readings, here, either an attempt to interrogate Gilligan a little more deeply (you expose her as a fake a little too easily; you need to discover such substance as there is first, to dismiss it convincingly), and, more importantly, present an articulate example of what real interactivity looks like. There needs, in other words, to be more of a reading here - not just a response to that reading.

Jacob Pavlovich said...

The first few paragraphs I couldn't agree more with, however when it comes to the video game section I get a sense that you haven't delved into one of these "real world" games. If you add examples of some games like this and compare them to what you would say is a game that gives you no options but a great story line to follow would give more substance to your writing. Talk about a new game like Skyrim or Mass Effect and then contrast that with a game that is less interactive.