Last week I read Violence by Slavoj Zizek. An insight that stood out to me was his analysis of the torture at Abu Ghraib, which was described by George Bush at the time and others in the government as the result of a few perverted individuals who were disobeying the command chain (or something). Zizek points out that actions and habits are the result of the social climate of individuals and makes comparisons between the (particularly theatrical/performative and recorded) scenes of torture we saw on TV and in newspapers and American hazing rituals and even performance art. Where my thoughts wander after that is basically unrelated, but Zizek references a lot of movies and some works of fiction in his writing, so naturally I think a lot about how those particular movies and books use violence. I guess to Zizek these stories are representative of the social worlds the writers experience and can be read as much as a product of a society’s “obscene underside” as a commentary on it (this is not what he says, but just kinda where I’m going with it).
But what this really made me think about, which is not at all related to what Zizek was writing about, is the use of violence in different kinds of media. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea of introducing violence into stories I’ve written, for many reasons, the primary one being that violence is basically unknown to me, in the immediate sense that I’ve never shot a gun, I’ve never been attacked, though I’ve been in a few “fights” in my life, none have resulted in significant injury. The closest feeling I’ve had to what I imagine violence feels like is playing sports as a kid, when I was pretty aggressive at a pretty non-competitive level. So the idea of writing detective stories with guns has always felt strange and impossible to me, though obviously many people who write detective stories have just as little actual experience of violence as I do. But when reading fiction and watching movies it often feels like its difficult or even impossible to tell a good story without violence. The Great Gatsby has a fatal car accident, Hamlet has a bunch of sword fighting and poison, Jane Eyre has the red room, etc. When it comes to creating digital art I think this strangeness I feel about violence is exacerbated. My initial feeling was that digital work sort has a certain feeling about it that makes violence as a narrative device seem silly, maybe relating to privilege, on the part of both the author and the reader in an assumed digital work, you might guess that people creating and viewing art on Apple devices are probably not experiencing violence first hand, but of course that doesn’t make sense, one because there are violent images all over digital media, from The New York Times and other news sources, and two because you that same basic assumption might be applied to novels and movies for similar reasons, which are probably incorrect or at least imperfect. Anyway, what’s interesting, or different, is that when it comes to books and movies, as its often been noted, the viewer has no real options except on or off. Whether or not you are able to interpret what’s happening in a movie, its going to keep going, and a violent action is in a way forced upon the viewer, which is obviously part of the enjoyment of some movies, like horror or suspense movies. We may know that a violence action is coming, but we don’t have control over it.
Digital media doesn’t (always) work that way. In the story “Refresh” that I published as an iPhone app in January, there are hints that a violent action may occur, and part of the narrative is about one character’s fear of another character’s violent action, but because of the interactivity of the story, there’s no way for me to predict when the reader will encounter that action (if at all). In a way, this makes the idea of hinging a story on a violent act, kind of absurd. One of the issues that I often come up on when working on an interactive project is the question of whether the reader will actually understand how it works and be able to access all of the content. This makes sense to address if you’re designing a piece of software for commercial use, a website, or an interactive map. When you’re creating a narrative or a work of art, this consideration is actually terrible for the work itself. In this way, unlike movies or fiction, interactive narratives have more in common with works of visual art. A painting is completely viewable at once, but this doesn’t mean that the viewer will understand the painting, at all or in degrees, and it isn’t the work of the artist to ensure that any view will understand the painting. Of course, if no viewer understand the painting, it might not be a good painting (or maybe it will sell for a million bucks), but if a painting was so simple as to be understood by anyone immediately, it probably wouldn’t be particularly interesting (obviously there are cases where this would not be true). So the problem with creating interesting or provoking games/interactive stories/digital art is that the average person assumes that something digital that isn’t immediately obvious is either broken or poorly designed/executed. Creating digital works requires the risk that many people will find it frustrating or simply unfinished or broken, and hoping that its intriguing enough to those readers who have a little more patience. This is definitely a far tangent from talking about Slavoj Zizek, but this is kind of where my mind was wandering while reading that book.