You can’t build a future unless you can imagine it, sci-fi author Ayodale Arigbabu once stated. That’s why sci-fi is an important element in technological development. Sci-fi is reality, Arigbabu says. The questions posed by science fiction have been inspiring scientists and inventors for generations, and no less so now, as sci-fi narratives take on the digital realm.'You can’t build a future unless you can imagine it' - Ayodale Arigbabu, Sci-fi AuthorClick To Tweet
Future of Storytelling
What do stories do to us? They are more than just escapism. Stories have been told since the dawn of time, either challenging the status quo of the time, or reiterating it. Stories affect our political identities as individuals, and can also affect political and cultural reality outside the text.
From a writer’s perspective, one’s personal politics also affect the story you tell. In the world of indie gaming, for example, there has been a massive upsurge in narratives that challenge received gender politics.
GamerGate and the VR Empathy Machine
You’d have to be living under a rock (or at least off Twitter) to have missed the GamerGate fiasco. Female gamers and games developers harassed, threatened and doxxed for daring to suggest an alternative to the male centred gaze of mainstream gaming culture. And yet, female indie games developers have stood strong, as have those with differing gender identities and sexual orientations, who are striving for a more inclusive gaming universe.
There is an argument from those who subscribe to the mainstream, inarguably male-dominated gaming world, that these games are marketed towards them because this is the fantasy world they wish to inhabit. A world where even the kick-ass female characters are scantily-clad and formed with impossible proportions; where a souped-up version of the male dominates.
The counter-argument is about proportional representation, breaking down the sense of segregation of gender, sexual identity and race that pervades the mainstream. A more egalitarian representation, it is argued, is essential to actioning cultural change outside the gaming world, in which patriarchal discourse on gender roles, which are as damaging to males as they are to females, can be overthrown for the benefit of all.
This is where VR comes in. Could virtual reality act as an empathy engine, exposing those with limited mindsets to alternative perspectives? Literature, of course, has been doing this for centuries, absorbing the reader in consciousnesses sometimes vastly different from their own. The landscape of the consumption of storytelling, however, has changed, and is now a many-headed hydra. I’ll go into this later.
VR takes the empathy engine to its logical conclusion: total immersion in an alternative consciousness.
What, for example, would the effect be upon a confirmed male chauvinist who inhabits a female character in a fully immersive VR setting? What about trans identities, racial or cultural identities? Could VR be a tool for obliterating prejudice?VR takes the empathy engine to its logical conclusion: total immersion in an alternative consciousness.Click To Tweet
Well, that’s the most optimistic outcome. The challenge is steering those with one particular mindset towards the experience of another.
AI and Social Media: A monocentric experience?
A popular current discussion concerns the limitations that AI, specifically on Facebook, places upon our perceptions of politics in the world around us. The algorithms Facebook works from, as well as those presented by search engines, can throw up vastly different results for different individuals.
On Facebook, in particular, our news feeds are tailored to what the algorithms decide we want to see. So, if you are engaging with a lot of left-wing posts, for example, you’ll be presented with many more. Same goes for the right-wing. What happens then, over time, is that we are only presented with content that confirms our view of the world. We become less and less able to question our own views, as we fail to be confronted with alternatives.
As individuals from all sides of the left/right divide are increasingly presented with only content that confirms their viewpoint, real world divisions may become more tense. Re-engagement with differing perspectives via VR could be a valuable tool in breaking down these divisions.
Whilst social media has the potential to narrow political viewpoints, fiction is re-opening them in a different way to that which VR can offer.
The Changing Face of Fiction: Netflix and Fan Fiction
Of course, there are many different ways of presenting fiction nowadays. Netflix series, for example, are fast overtaking the novel as the medium of choice.
Back in the seventeenth century, one of the earliest novels, Pamela, was eagerly devoured by all who could get a copy. Dickens published both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist as a series of weekly instalments, to enthusiastic response. Readers eagerly awaited the latest episode, and like Pamela, these were discussed high and low throughout literate society. Sound familiar? The only difference with Netflix is that we can now binge our way through an entire season of Orange Is The New Black in one go.
But for those who write, the narratives of which we have a special passion, whether written or film, the text is not the end. The author is dead; the author is legion. Two words: Fan Fiction.
You don’t have to go far online to discover a huge trove of fan fiction that takes the original narrative as a jumping point to create whole new journeys for the characters they know and love. Harry Potter, of course, is a prime example.
Individual fan writers bring their own political stance to their beloved stories. There are queer Harry Potter offshoots, both erotic and not. The characters are re-imagined in different racial and gender contexts, different settings, and so on ad infinitum. Whatever reality you can imagine, you can create. This has always been possible, yet the digital world has awakened a whole generation of writers to the open universe of their imagination.
As such, there is no literary canon anymore. Fans can disagree, they can talk back (as they do so often on Twitter – see J K Rowling). The publishing world should be quaking, because it’s not just the marketable fictions that people are reading; and it’s not just Amazon’s self-publishing functionality responsible. Every narrative can now be annotated.
VR, Coding and the Democratisation of Creativity
So, to be explicit, what has this got to do with virtual reality? Well, there’s the fact that these alternative fictions can be gamified. And with gamification, we come to VR.
How long before all the fan fiction out there, combined with the fanart of a million different artists, comes together within the gaming world? With the next generation coming up code-literate from primary school, the democratisation of creativity, the capacity for immersive empathic experiences within the perspectives of other identities, and the pluralisation of narratives, is only set to grow.