I do believe in the great artistic and introspective potential of highly engaging experiences. However I also believe it is crucial to ponder over the ethical implications of immersivism.
What I’m referring to as “immersivism” here is the quest of maximal degrees of engagement and of illusion.
When you want to make a living out of your games, you will want to make them as engaging as possible – even “addictive”- , as this is what’s most likely to lead you to a commercial success, especially in the golden age of free to play games, which relay on micro-transactions over time, and the long tail effect. This is games and neuromarketing walking hand in hand and feeding upon our dopaminergic circuitry. I’m not mocking that: I am a gamer, and I’ve been fed upon a lot.
Of course, and thankfully, all games and game designers do not strive for that. “Meaningful games” or “serious gaming”, are trends that precisely oppose this system.
During this fellowship, I have the luxury to take a step back and to lead a critical reflection, and that is also why I wanted to work around Stalker, which hopefully you’ll understand by the end of this development.
The question of escapism is quite exacerbated when we consider a media that reaches so many levels of engagement. Actually, many people I talk to, have great reservations regarding VR because they believe they would never leave their virtual utopia.
We might all get the intuitive fear that VR has ultimately the mean to create a complete full universe, in which we are gods, capable of replacing our reality.
We can also consider with dread, what a capitalistic society would do with this playground.
I don’t think we need to postpone that discussion to when the tech will be more developed or more democratized. Actually, I think we’re already somewhat late in addressing publicly the issue of over-engagement and hyper-illusionism.
In a way, this immersivism – which isn’t the privilege of video games, but now affects most our trends in both entertainment and art – and could be a new form of hedonism – something that does echo perhaps with the late XIXth century aesthetic hedonism: “l’Art pour l’Art”, “l’Immersion pour l’Immersion”.
Such hedonism is, I think, something unprecedented, as only a highly complex real life situation is as stimulating to our brain as hyper engaging games are.
Our prefrontal cortex for reasoning, our motor cortex for movement, our visual cortex, our temporal lobe for sound and proprioception (which is the awareness of your body in space) limbic system for emotions, nucleus acumbens for pleasure, Wernicke and Broca’s area for language, blablablah etc.
I do not know whether hedonism is viable, and I do not have the philosophical baggage to make a convincing plead against it, but I think we should at the very least be aware of what we’re looking for and how it aligns with our ideals.
Are we aware that we might strive for immediate gratification?
How much do we realize that embodying characters in a Larp is a mean to project ourselves in a controlled eternal time-space, where we decide of our fate?
How much time of our life do we wish to spend escaping in fiction or being absorbed in mechanics, and why?
Wouldn’t escapism gain ground if we were to consider joining a virtual utopia along with all our close ones?
These questions have an echo with the infamous experiment of thought by psychology theorist Robert Nozick. The experience consists in asking yourself if you’d press a button to get into a virtual world where you’d be happy according to your own criteria and definition of happiness, possibly distorting your perception of time to give you an illusion of eternity.
And that is where Stalker comes back into the game.
I do not pretend I know what were Tarkovsky’s intentions, so please consider what follows to be my own interpretation.
The movie stages a painful reality; god is very much dead, the characters are desperate to find a direction in their life, and they’re willing, at least initially, to renounce reality for it.
The story creates a discussion between someone who’s struggling to upkeep some sort of faith, some who’s unsuccessfully trying to find meaning in art, and someone who doesn’t know how to gain power over life.
Sorry for the spoiler, but at the end of it, nobody gets what they wanted, and nobody renounced their reality.
If you have 3 minutes to spare, please have a look at the final monologue of the movie:
If the 3 main characters of the movie started with the desire of finding a shortcut towards a desire, they got caught up by a passive nihilism that prevented them to take action. However, this last beautiful scene leaves us with a breath of existentialism. A sensible progression – how often must we deconstruct everything and reach the deepest abyss of despair to find acceptance?-, which I’ve been trying to replicate in Lone Wolves.
I believe ultimately Stalker has a message which is learn love your fate, to face reality, learn not only to appreciate the beautiful, but also the sublime.