A week of seminars, lectures and workshops (part 2)

3 10 2009

I’ve broken this week summary into two posts as I simply didn’t have time to get it all down in one session. In yesterday’s entry,  I went over the current state of the proposal and the TrAIN Seminar with Oriana Baddeley.

In this entry I will summarize this week’s digital art seminar regarding ‘Two Myths about Immersion in New Storytelling Media”, the peer-reviewed article by Pierre Gander. Gardner essentially deconstructs the validity of the myth that new media is by nature more immersive. Specifically he analyzes the common mis/conceptions that increased audience immersion is directly related to 1) an increase in sensory information and 2) increase interactivity. The mainstay of his argument is that there is no empirical data to evidence these claims yet a number of academics base much of their work on these assumptions. I admire the scope of his critique and agree that more scientific evidence is needed on the digital factors (if any) that contribute to immersion, but I feel his argument could have been stronger in several ways.

Gander pulls on and deconstructs various definitions of immersion to reinforce his claims. One such example is his deconstruction of Steur’s 1992 definition of virtual reality ‘which defines immersion in terms of technological dimensions such as the number of sensory dimensions simultaneously presented.’ Gander goes on to say that immersion ‘in the story-telling context is in the feeling… (or) mental state.’ Gander is touching on the fact that immersion happens on an emotional level but he doesn’t explain what causes it or why sometimes more sensory input actually does cause more immersion. One can’t ignore the success of hyper realism in regards to first-person gaming. I am certain there are a slew of N.A. males between the ages of 14 to 29, game designers and marketing moguls who have empirical data that can substantiate the claim that the more realistic the product the more immersive it is (more sales).

That said I do agree with Gander. More does not always mean better (where better is assumed to be more immersive). I appreciate his examples of MUDs  and story reading to support his argument against the two myths of immersion in digital media, but I feel the article would have been stronger if he deconstructed obvious instances where immersion is indeed increased by more stimulus and interactivity.

Gander does make an attempt to deconstruct the myth phenomenon of immersion in his use of a media/degree of immersion table:

(Score is calculated according to the following rules: “No” = 0 points, “Yes/2-D” = 1 point, “3-D” = 2 points)

Storytelling media

Sense modality

Participatory

Degree of immersion according to myth (numerical score in parentheses)

Visual

iconic

Visual

symbolic

Auditory

Written text:

e.g. a novel

No

Yes

No

No

Low (1)

Oral storytelling:

e.g. a bedtime story

No

No

3-D

No

Medium (2)

Text adventure game:

e.g. Deadline

No

Yes

No

Yes

Medium (2)

Film:

e.g. Casablanca

2-D

Yes

2-D

No

Medium (3)

Play:

e.g. Hamlet

3-D

No

3-D

No

Medium (4)

IMAX Theater film

3-D

Yes

3-D

No

High (5)

Multimedia, VR:

e.g. Myst

3-D

Yes

3-D

Yes

High (6)

Although his table quite clearly shows the flaws in assuming that immersion is related to  participatory and sensory factors, the table is too simplistic. One can obviously argue that reading a story (Low, level 1 immersion on the chart) is not always less immersive than a playing Myst, a multimedia VR videogame (High, level 6 immersion on chart), but Gander fails to clearly point out why this is the case. I agree with him but feel he could have addressed factors that aren’t always scientifically measurable to be other causes of immersion.

I believe that the level of artistic quality and relevance to the audience are directly related to audience immersion. These two factors can actually be enhanced by use of the two ‘myths’ of sensory stimulus and interactivity (qualities that are easily achievable through digital means) but are certainly are not dependent on them. This is the reason that a well written book can be just as immersive as a well designed multimedia video game. It is really about clear communication and it is up to the author/artist to understand the audience and the context in which the narrative/piece will be delivered to create an effective/immersive piece.

Gander could have added another level of depth to his deconstruction by referencing Marshall McLuhan. In McLuhan’s Understanding Media, he defines media as either being ‘cold’ or ‘hot’ where cold media, like reading a book, forces action from the audience to fill in gaps of information (ie. one often creates imagined images of protagonist and scene when reading a novel as part of a common immersive process). Hot media, like watching TV, requires the audience to be in receptive state and provides most, if not all the necessary information. No gaps need to be filled in. One knows exactly what the deck of the Starship Enterprise looks like in red alert. McLuhan’s definition of media takes into account a deeper context when referring to the immersive value of media.  Through his definition certain things can be both hot and cold depending on what you compare them with. Books are cold relative to TV, but if the audience is highly literate books can often be hot in comparison to TV.

For me, Gander’s article made me further question the immersive nature of my intended project (very timely as I endeavor to start the ‘Outcomes’ section of my proposal in the next week or so). How important is immersion to the project? In what context and to what level do I want my work to be immersive, hot, cold, participatory and multi-sensory stimulating? I find myself thinking about the ‘bells and whistles’ of the project, the extra technological bits, that could add or hinder to the concept. I intend to utilize animation and audio to my previous practice of static images. In what ways could this enhance or hinder my creative process? Will the additional use of 3D imaging distract or aid in the immersive nature of the work?  Ultimately, I’ll have to tackle these questions one at a time as part of the workings of my artistic process. Questions similar to these were worked through years ago when I added digital collage to my traditional painting practice. It has been a few years since I have made a painting (with just paint) and I look forward to the day when I can say the same for a static digital collage.

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