What did you say happened?!
The alternative reality machine and opinion game
By Víctor Navarro Remesal
One day the machine stops, as in the story by E. M. Forster, and we discover that the unthinkable out there is form. We step out of Twitter and find out that Brexit has won, that the sorpasso doesn’t exist or that there are people who actually enjoy Batman v. Superman. Paralysed and stunned, we run again towards the heat of the machine, to the consolation of its certainties, until next time. Even I started writing this before the American elections thinking this year it was impossible to fail and still Trump, the unthinkable, has invalidated half of my notes. The machine has stopped, once again, and maybe it’s time to accept that there’s something dangerous in it.
The victory of trumpism (pronouncing it is still quite scary) has probably made you read all I wanted to tell you: echo chamber, filter bubble, fake news in Facebook, selective exposure… Lipovetsky warns us against selfmedia and Manuel Castells talked about mass self-communication, although who cares about what they say, since you might have also heard “people” are sick of experts: language, as Mary Beard puts it, has lost its value and ‘post-truth’ is the word of the year. Henry Frankfurt’s “bullshit” and Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” rule. That is, each one believes what they want to believe, lock themselves up in circles that agree with them and look another way when algorithms (for Ian Bogost, a “computer theocracy”) decide for us to isolate us from any dissident ideas. Journalists, academics and critics have become irrelevant, since we haven’t been able to see beyond our own echo chambers. To boot, we still try to function following some kind of noblesse oblige that challenges the certainty of any bubble. You might have read all this already, and nevertheless I think we need something else to be able to understand the machine, some lost piece. What I’m going to tell you now isn’t that piece.
I don’t have a total solution because, should there be any, we will take years to find it. What I propose here is something different: instead of completing the puzzle, looking at the machine from a different angle. Playing at defining, or at re-defining. Mark Deuze warns us that we don’t live with the media but inside the media, a kind of ‘media life’ that is as invisible as water for the fish swimming in it. If we focus for a moment on that water, what do we see? In what space are bubbles and echoes and corridors and tunnels formed? How is the machine, really? I think the most useful answer to this question was given by Charlie Brooker, who in 2013 closed his How Videogames Changed The World by choosing Twitter as the most influential game:
“Twitter is a massively multiplayer online game in which you choose an interesting avatar and then role play a persona loosely based on your own attempting to recruit followers by repeatedly pressing letter buttons to form interesting sentences.”
OK, Brooker is using estrangement, but could he not be much more literal than it seems? Are social networks a game? Is that why we can never get it right with them? Theory says no, because in order to play you need to have accepted to do so freely and knowingly, but still, this explanation seems somewhat plausible. Here’s where I extend Brooker’s proposal: Twitter is a game, yes, but not any game: it’s an Alternate Reality Game.
ARGs are digital gymkhanas, fictions hidden in the real world pretending they actually exist, as secrets fully visible to the eyes but that only the initiated can grasp. Between treasure hunt and conspiracy theory, the ARG uses fake profiles, videos, e-mails, answering machines and even GPS coordinates, invading the physical space. Remember alternative marketing campaigns such as the one for The Dark Knight, with its Harvey Dent web site hacked by the Joker, or that Lost Experience in which hundreds of participants tracked for months information on the inexistent Hanso Foundation? If a normal videogame happens in a virtual setting that is relatively autonomous, the interesting thing about an ARG is its use of everyday channels and settings: instead of taking us to a new world, it imposes a layer of additional meaning to our own. Collective intelligence agrees to pretend it has transformed the world. Does this ring a bell?
One of the keys of an ARG is its lack of centrality: it isn’t a game you upload, or a service you access, it has no login or menu. The ARG is opaque and most of the game-playing has to do with finding out whether something is part of it, whether that weird web site or that lost tweet hide some hint or are as mundane as they appear. The rhetoric of the ARG has to do with suspicion and revealing: when playing, we adopt the role of the conspiranoid. The one pulling the threads is appropriately called ‘puppet master’ and we never want to see his face so as not to break the illusion of reality. Because that is the ultimate attractiveness of the whole thing: the ARG is everywhere and it happens live, in real time, with no limits isolating it. Nothing in an ARG should reveal its fictional condition. Its reward is the hacker, hermeneut or archaeologist’s fantasy of power: the (fake) truth is out there, in the guts of the world, as text, and we can conquer it.
Let’s go a bit beyond: is an ARG really so different from an urban legend? For a long time I fantasised with a fictional story, half way between Kafka and K. Dick, in which an ever growing group of users becomes obsessed by an ARG that does not exist, seeing hints where there’s only monotony, and sense where there’s only noise, a puppet master-less theatre in which puppets pull their own threads. Well, my story is no longer needed: is that not what happens with our online bubbles? Don’t we sell the story to ourselves? We go to The Guardian looking for articles confirming the ridiculousness of Brexit, share memes about Rajoy, consider Colombia’s “yes” as settled, make fun of Trump’s boasting and celebrate that Spain wants a change that is nowhere to be seen. We milk the networks searching for information that make us advance in the game without caring whether it’s true or not (did you know that Trump never said that republican voters were the dumbest?). The signs are there, hidden in the net, and between all of us (those on my side) have found it. We have completed the game and want a happy ending.
All this, deep down, is nothing new: we have always read newspapers that told us what we believed in and listened to those who agreed with us. The difference is digital gamification: social networks, with their diffuse loggias and shibboleths in hashtag form, with their instant gratification in the shape of likes and retweets, reward us for re-interpreting the whole world as an ARG. Nothing of what happens in them escapes these game logics. Each new follower is a level up; each comment, an achievement. Each little heart proves that, as Mamá Ladilla used to sing, the world is not as it is, but as I say it is. Opining is now a competitive game. We’ve made trending topic a success parameter; or even worse, a real parameter.
As I said earlier, this solves nothing, neither Trump, nor Brexit nor whatever happens next, but it might help us refocus the whole thing. For instance, the contact with contrary opinions: we do see them, but are only a kind of atrezzo, a drawing of the conflict, since any game needs a final boss to beat. An ARG doesn’t confront two equals, but offers a narrative built for a single side. Breitbart and his alt-right acolytes are thus fictional henchmen and brother-in-law accounts in Twitter show a world about to become extinct that will make us laugh in the next instance of RancidFacts. We can also refocus the range of the game: there’s no inside and outside of the machine, but different overlapping bubbles, as in China Miéville’s novel The City and the City, in which two cities co-exist in the same geographical space and are compelled to ignore each other. This might be good news: those at the other side are no less prisoners of their own filters than us, they’ve just been able to understand the game a bit better (or have a better puppet master).
Every now and then the machine stops and we realise all this, but we have no longer an external world to go back to (remember: media life). The only option is to stop using it as an ARG and rethinking the game; forgetting about the “in my house we play it like this” and take very seriously all the things we do not agree with. Paying less attention to the parameters and points, and more to dialogue and meeting, retrieving arguments and counterarguments, looking to convince rather than beat. And should we find any final bosses, as I’m sure we will, analysing them in depth, believing their warnings: if in the 20th century Mein Kampf should have been read much earlier, in the 21st century we should start studying Trump Time Capsules in The Atlantic. The game will be long, and played in real time, that thing that, as K. Dick more or less said, doesn’t disappear, even if polls and trending topics don’t believe in it.