Avatars 97 Speaker Essay: Celia Pearce

Narrative Environments: Creating a New Entertainment Medium
Presentation by Celia Pearce
(c)opyright 1997, Celia Pearce

The evolution of most media follows a simple and predictable pattern. It begins with the invention of the new medium’s technology, followed by a period of derivative experimentation in which old forms, genres and conventions are placed into a new media context. The turning point for any medium is the moment in which artists step forth to define it as its own unique species. This combines with the adoption of technological standards to open the floodgates for a new medium to take hold on a mass market. It is the development of standards that make a medium ubiquitous, and conventions that speak to the audience which signify the maturation of the new medium, that bring it into its own as an art form. This is precisely the point we are at with Virtual Reality on the Web.

For the past 25 years, Virtual Reality has been the domain of the high-end, high-tech ghetto. Due the exorbitant cost in computational power and production complexities, there has been little mass market for VR. Trends in 3D arcade engines have changed this, but their applications have been limited. But VRML has changed all that, putting the power of virtual reality at the fingertips of anyone on the web. This is an invitation a much as it is a dare. The window of opportunity has arrived (no pun intended) and the next twelve months will be the period that could make or break online VR as a mass medium.

One word: content. Another word: experience. We must create experiences with content in VRML for the web or we will lose. The aimless experimentation that we have been doing up until now has yielded many interesting and creative ideas, as well as valuable sociological and psychological research. We are past the silent movie vaudeville phase. It is time for VRML to find its equivalent to the feature film: who will be the D.W. Griffith and the Sergei Eisenstein of cyberspace?

Please don’t take me literally on this. There is a popular misconception that the answer lies in co-opting familiar forms: should we make VRML sitcoms? Should we create feature-length streaming VRML movies? Although these ideas may have some value in their familiarity and accessibility, they remain derivative, just as the filmed play was in the first half of this century, and the televised radio show in the second half. And history has shown that the novelty of such derivative content soon wears off, for both audiences, and thankfully, for creators.

To me the answer lies in interactiviy. What makes VRML so cool? Not that it is high-end or beautiful. It’s not. Traditional VR designers look at VRML the same way filmmakers look at television: it is an inferior medium from an aesthetic and experiential standpoint. What, then, are its attributes? To me the most important attributes of 3D on the web as a unique medium are: 1. It is delivered directly into the home; 2. It is interactive; and 3. It is multi-user.

Which is of course why we are all here. Because this is a conference about Avatars. Avatars are the vehicle of social interaction on the web. They are the costumes at the costume party, the personae in the interactive theater.

Up until now, most Avatar-based online worlds are, let’s face it, pretty boring. They are anarchic and undefined, which is part of their charm. AlphaWorld is perhaps the first online commune, and perhaps the first example we’ve seen of anarchy as a political system that actually works. But your typical 3D "chat" worlds, regardless of the aesthetics of their environments, have little or no real content. They are, as I‘m fond of saying, like going to a cocktail party where you know no-one and have no idea what to say.

There are two things I think we need to seriously look at to make online worlds more than a high-tech novelty. Those two elements are narrative, and community.

To quote my dear avatar friend bliss.com, "Welcome to Z!" 3D is here. But 3D is not enough. Now we need to look at the 4th Dimension—time. What happens over time that is compelling? Rather than living in a timeless world with no beginning, middle or end, create ways for narrative cycles to occur. And I don’t mean locking the audience into a fixed story. I mean give them the opportunity to create their own stories. Borrowing from the work being done by Contact Consortium and Biota, we need to create genetic story algorithms—encoded opportunities for spontaneous narrative play. That is the secret of success. Our job is not to tell stories, but to facilitate them. Be lazy. Let the audience do all the work. But give them something to work with.

My own background in gaming and interactive narrative have led me to create a theory of interactive storytelling which draws parallels between game structure and story structure. These parallels allow for dynamic interactivity, rather than branching, which allows the audience to have more control of the experience, within a highly developed set of parameters, much the same way a good improvisational theater piece will spontaneously erupt between performers from a good set of parameters. What shall be the parameters for interaction between people? What kind of game, story or context shall we create?

This leads us to our next question. What is community? So far, we’ve seen a variety of different communities emerging on line. Within the 2D world, online services such as Echo, the Well, America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy have offered different types of online communities. Each of these groups suggests a certain demographic mix because of the sorts of people one expects to find there. Communities can be narrow or broad, focused or loosely structured. They can provide information or social interaction. They can provide methods of collaboration, political organization, or practical sharing of ideas or techniques, they can be places to find jobs, to by or sell, to trade things or give them away.

The vast majority of my experience has been in theme parks, museums and location-based entertainment. Whenever we create a venue for people to come together, we have to imagine a common social connection between those people. For example, you see an entirely different "community" of people at Disneyland than you do at an Arcade. People enter into these spaces for a specific purpose: to enjoy certain forms of entertainment in a social context that they can relate to. If I want to do something with my family, I don’t go to Studio 54.

This is how we need to look at cyberspace. What brings people together in cyberspace? Why would I want to hang out at this site with these people, as opposed to somewhere else? What do I have in common with these people, and what benefits do I get, either socially or practically, from being part of a community. Joining a community if even for a half an hour requires a certain commitment: an investment of time and energy, and a risk that entails opening up to other people on a level that is both fun and risky. So let’s consider that. What is the payoff for such an interchange?

How do I find the people I want to hang out with on-line? How do I know what to say when I meet someone in a virtual street? These are all questions we need to start to answer when we look at taking online VR to the next level. Ultimately, as a user, I want to come out having had a rewarding experience, and one which inspires me to return for more.

Indeed, in online communities the long-term commitment can and should have the biggest payoff. But how do we create environments and contexts compelling enough to facilitate that sort of long-term commitment. How do we provide direction without limiting freedom?

I realize I haven’t given very many answers here. But that’s not my goal. Instead, I am seeking to pose questions—to get people thinking in a broader way. It is certainly my intention to answer some of these questions in my own work, something which I continue to do both through my theme park work, my more recent work in VRML. But this is really a challenge to you...to everybody. I’m not afraid of competition.

As Kevin Kelley pointed out in a recent Wired article, in the networked world, the value of the network increases with each new network node sold. The fax machine is not in and of itself valuable; and it is much more valuable today at $200 per unit with millions of other fax machines in use, then it was ten years ago at $1000 when only a few thousand machines were in circulation. Likewise each node in the net increases the overall value of the net as a whole.

In entertainment, each new television show adds value to the television and to all the other stations; each new film adds value to the theater and the industry as a whole. And in online entertainment, each new entertainment world adds value to the whole. But it is equally crucial that those worlds have quality. Dozens of mediocre worlds will not serve us. We need to take the time to define this new medium, to create new conventions, to look at the experiments we’ve done so far and learn from our successes and our mistakes.

It’s not enough to just stick a bunch of Avatars together in an online world. We need to create a context. Let’s all work together on taking this medium to the next level, and be ready to invest the commitment of time and thought that will be required to create the kinds of content and experience that will take Virtual Reality out of the high tech ghetto and onto the desktop.

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