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Immersive Media in Star Trek

by Jesse MacKinnon

    Science fiction has frequently taken a skeptical stance on immersive media.  In the halcyon days of the genre, such statements were not particularly bold; after all, such technologies were purely speculative for the majority of the twentieth century, and such narratives were more focused on the nature of reality than the implications for technology itself.  Yet in the last few decades, technology has started to catch up to the storytelling.
    I select the Star Trek franchise in this posting (and likely in for subsequent ones) because it has been such a trendsetter in the genre.  The Trek spinoffs, as well as other popular televised science fiction series such as Battlestar Galactica and Firefly, tend to fail to adequately address the virtual.  Fictional futures are postulated which completely ignore cultural and practical realities of the modern world, such as contemporary music or the internet.  We are led to believe that in the future, communication over a networked system will be rare, and everyone will listen to classical music.
    The holodeck has been the locus for Trek’s discussion of new technology and new media.  The spinoffs utilize it for whatever purpose is needed for a particular episode.  If Worf needs to be doing “calisthenics”, into the double doors he goes; if Picard needs to ride a horse or Data study Shakespeare, there is a visually compelling outlet for these activities.  At the end of the day, it gives the production design team something to do other than craft featureless gray panels week after week.
    Yet in drafting holodeck themed episodes, the writers tend to make value judgments, both implicit and explicit, surrounding the uses that the space is put.  If rooted in a leisure activity from our past, such as vintage literature, characters embrace its use without reservation.  However new narrative content is treated with a large degree of skepticism.
    In Hollow Pursuits, Lt. Barclay relieves his social anxiety by using the holodeck.  In the attached clip, he is discovered by his superior and chastised for his indulgence.  However, this is nominally the first time in the series a character is shown participating in an interactive narrative that is nominally original.  All other depictions in the series are rooted in some cultural form that predates 1950.  True, the characters are in seventeenth century garb, but the story was written by a contemporary character.  This demonstrates a cultural conservatism that belies the ostensibly liberal political outlook of the franchise.  In addition, when La Forge questions the ethical implications of creating avatars of real people, a contemporary viewer might think how this is now common practice in Second Life or The Sims.
    The second clip is from a later episode, The Game, in which the crew of the Enterprise literally becomes addicted to a small electronic device, using it everywhere they go.  Of course it turns out to be a megalomaniacal alien scheme to conquer the galaxy.  Try to tell me that this isn’t really happening now with smart phones.  My curmudgeonly nature aside, the episode still offers a fairly severe indictment of any media that does not involve a violin or a book written before 1950.  In other scenes, the crew is shown in psychotropic rapture over its effects, vastly overstating the case against such media.
    The final clip, It’s Only a Paper Moon, jumps series, but was written and produced largely by the same creative team.   This is the furthest that the series goes in defending immersive media.  After not responding to traditional therapy, friends and family discuss his choice in using the—you guessed it—holodeck to escape from the world.  This kind of media is portrayed in very polar extremes: Nog’s immersion and Bashir’s childish fantasies as opposed to Sisko’s vintage baseball games and Worf’s exercise regimen.
    The point of critiquing these clips is not necessarily criticizing their conclusions.  When characters in Star Trek—or many other television series, for that matter—are shown participating in immersive or interactive media, it is often in a negative context, emphasizing the addictive aspects of that media.  Yet when a character (or a person in the real world) immerses themselves in an established (dare I say elitist) form of media such as Jazz or Literature, they are being dedicated and cultured.  This trend reveals itself most profoundly on Star Trek: a franchise that seeks to be politically progressive, yet culturally remains rooted in the fifty year old mindset that spawned it.

--Jesse MacKinnon

Reality and Realism

by Evan Sforza

As the processing power and graphical integrity of computers continues its exponential growth, games come closer and closer to providing us with more 'realistic' graphics; but, by simulating the way light glances off the suppleness of human skin or the way it enters and refracts through a variety of substrates, do games necessarily provide us with a greater sense of 'realism?' 

According to Alexander Galloway, they don't; to Galloway, games only achieve realism when they expand upon a gamer's social life - their place in society; they attain realism when there is a feedback loop between the player's in-game actions and their actions in real life, when there is a relationship and a correlation between the two. Galloway does a great job at illustrating this point by suggesting how an American teenager playing the game Special Force, a game where you assume the role of a young Palestinian participating in the Islamic Jihad, is not experiencing realism, while a youthful Palestinian gamer playing the same game most certainly is. This may be understandable in the realm of modernity, where, for the most part, games are displayed through screens with discernible edges and controlled through devices as removed and remote as controllers, blocky, bulky apparatuses where pressing buttons are likened to the act pulling a gun trigger or strangling an assailant, but how would Galloway feel in a world populated by Holodecks?

Holodecks are just one of many hi-tech devices the crew on the Starship Enterprise has access to; it's a room that creates a fully interactive holographic world around the user. If a game made for a holodeck would require you to put an enemy in a sleeper hold, you wouldn't do so simply by pressing and tapping the 'X' button repeatedly; you'd do it by trapping the neck of what feels and smells indistinguishable from a human in the bend of your arm, continuing to hold and squeeze as you feel their fingers clawing at your head and at hands, squeezing as their legs kick and as their voice squeaks forth from any opening you allow in their throat; you complete the action as their movements weaken to a halt and as the simulated life is drained from their simulated form. But, just because there is a distinction between the room labeled 'The Holodeck' and the world in which your everyday reality persists, would that prevent the experience from being considered 'realism?' 

Let's say the same typical teenager were instead to play a version of Special Force designed for use in a holodeck. Of course, it is still obvious that once the teenage gamer leaves the holodeck, their life is very far removed from the content and reality represented by the game, yet their physical in-game actions, the way they were spoken to and treated by their simulated Jihadist peers, and the kinds of things they worried about were relatively accurate representations of what a real Palestinian youth located on the other side of the planet is confronted with. 

It's hard to know exactly what Galloway would say about a situation like this, but perhaps he's too strictly defining what can constitute realism in games. Galloway makes it seem as if the teenage American and the Palestinian youth are in completely separate worlds, and, although we could consider that true to some degree, literally speaking, they're not; both of them exist in the same universe on the same planet. And, is it not possible for a game like Special Force to give that American teen a wake up call to what's happening around the globe? Is it not possible that playing this game could change the kinds of actions this teen did in their 'real' life? Maybe they'll take action to attempt to change what's going on in the world - what's happening on the other side of the planet they inhabit. Should this not be considered 'realism?'

Also, with technologies like the holodeck or the SQUIDS from Strange Days or the Pods from ExistenZ, it becomes harder and harder to separate 'real' from 'game' life, and it becomes more and more meaningless to try and separate real experiences and memories from simulated ones. So, should this teen have played dozens of hours of Special Force in a complete sensory immersive virtual world, could we not say they are becoming a Palestinian youth on the verge of Jihad?

TNG S3E21: Hollow Pursuits - Holodeck Scene

LaForge discovers Barclay's addiction to the holodeck.

from Hollow Pursuits (1990)
Creator: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Posted by Survey of Interactive Media