New Media and Interactivity

One of the central metaphors at the heart of the activities of New Media, both from the creation and audience side, is “interactivity.” This is a powerful trope, since it suggests not only that something new is going on, but also that interactivity is what distinguishes “old” and new media from each other. Most analyses of new media celebrate the role of interactivity and the term has “sewn” its way into the fabric of present-day media somewhat like the ‘spiders’ that trawl the Web to classify and assemble information for search engines. It seems inconceivable to talk about modern digital technologies without referencing their interactive components. And to be fair, there are obviously radical differences between watching a Star Wars movie in the theater and playing a Star Wars game and the distinctions become even more pronounced with on-line games, which often involve hundreds of thousands of players.

 At the heart of nearly every analysis of interactivity is a set of assumptions about human experiences. These include, for example, that shifting characters or avatars within the multi-dimensional planes of a television screen gives control over those characters to players. To some degree, this is correct. But, the more interesting process that needs examination is the imaginative work of projection and interpretation that players engage in to achieve some power over the game and its outcome. In this case, projection has some similarities with telepresence which is the sensation of being elsewhere, a sensation that is aided by computer technology. However, it is important to recognize that telepresence, immersion and projection are also active parts of “conventional” experiences with any number of media and with the written word. Interaction, whether it be through the generation of mental images or tearfully watching a character die or whipping through a mystery novel to find the resolution to its plot, in novels, photographs, cinema and theater, is all about various levels of interaction. Clearly, Videogames integrate all of these characteristics into a powerful mix (except for the theatrical experience) that is distinguished by the use of controllers. (For a wonderful history of controllers and a family tree, click here) The type of hand-eye coordination that is required to remain in ‘control’ of the game is very specific, needs to be learned, and is precisely the kind of feedback mechanism which distinguishes Videogames from watching a sitcom. But, what is the relationship between the structure of a game and playing it? Can the experiences be understood by observing the players? These questions also apply to any number of other cultural experiences. In this essay, I will explore the issues I have raised by examining the connections between photography, cinema and games with some parallel considerations given to projection, immersion and identification.