Monday, April 17, 2017

Spoils and Consequences of Culture War: Nerds, Disney, and Star Wars

"Vampire, pirate, alien, spy. Werewolf, robber baron, Muppet, nun. Casablanca one weekend, Babylon the next. On any given night, and virtually every weekend during the summer peak, thousands of adults across the country are playing make-believe in cheap hotels, empty warehouses, private homes and isolated woods. In elaborate period dress or ordinary street clothes, they portray characters in scriptless fantasies that can run for a few hours or several years."
- Washington Post, 1996

The Orange County Convention Center has played host to an array of large events of the years intrinsically important to the theme park industry. April 2017 was no different, with Star Wars Celebration, an official Lucasfilm/Disney fan convention dedicated to the movie series and the endless array of media spawned from its vast mythology. Persons of all gender and age gathered together in the immense halls to catch a glimpse of the actors and actresses, to see a vast cornucopia of merchandise, many dressed as their favorite characters from the film. However, one of the major hoped for pieces of information to trickle out would be updates from Disney's efforts to make a part of Star Wars come to exist in some form in reality. They were not left disappointed.

A panel of Imagineers revealed new artwork showing what the land might look like, but little about the actual rides inside. However, almost of equal interest to the crowd assembled, they began to discuss different elements to the theme park land than had ever before been constructed into one. "Opportunities to support The Resistance" or "First Order" and work for bounty hunters all came up. Should those riding the Millennium Falcon attraction (which would be controlled by human crews) bring it back damaged, "there are consequences to your actions in this world." It would be a fluid, tactile world in which not only could you look for things, but things would look for you.

"The event took place on Ye Olde Commons on Northside Road. Harald Henning bought the 40-acre parcel of rolling, hilly woods, trails, large open field, winding brook and bridges with LARPing in mind.

'I blame my wife, Inger, for getting me involved. Actually, we both used to direct groups and it was always a problem trying to find a place to hold them,' said Mr. Hennings.

'We have five regular groups and several more that come on an irregular basis. LARPing is not a money-making business, it's more of a labor of love.' "
- Telegram and Gazette, 2011

Disney fandom's association of "immersion" with the theme park space has a cloudy history. When, precisely, the use of the term became prevalent is tough to ascertain. However "immersive" as a noun and verb became generally used in the 1980s, beginning with computer scientists and expanding from there. (a). Immersive Design, while likely in colloquial use prior to 2007, is credited on Wikipedia to being the creation that year of production designer Alex McDowell, an individual who's first feature film (Lawnmower Man, a film depicting a virtual reality world) was almost prophetic both about his career path and that of society. Our ability to interact with these worlds became key to the "immersive" nature of them, and among the first pieces of academic literature on the subject appears as the Ph.D. dissertation of Tinsley Galyean III, founder of Nearlife Inc, a company that has primarily worked on things such as museum exhibits. The application to theme parks has come much more slowly. First in analog (wild ringing phones with recorded spiels at various parks and zoos, Flooded Mine at Silver Dollar City), then slowly to digital (wands in Harry Potter, Kim Possible in EPCOT, Pearl Masters at Yas Waterworld).

Slow adoption of new technologies has been with good reason: until only the last decade have devices like smart phones become generally ubiquitous. That prevalence of technology provides the overwhelming majority with real literacy with high tech, without which being able to participate in increasingly complex tasks would be impossible. Disneyland, said Walt Disney, sold assurance and positive reinforcement to the public. To confront people with technology they wouldn't be able to grasp in order to function would consequently have a negative effect on that. Disney's Great Leap Forward (b), MyMagic+, was in part created to prepare for the sorts of specific tasks which no other system had been capable of in the past, creating reasonable usability for everyone attending, and fully thrust the theme park industry deep into the 21st century.

"When I look at the landscape of pop culture right now, there is no argument anyone can reasonably muster that positions nerd culture as outsider culture. 
Nerd culture has taken over, which means that we are no longer underdogs, and there is some part of being a nerd that almost requires that element. It's where so much of our art has come from. Letting go of that part of the identity is hard, and it appears to have curdled in a certain percentage of the people who love the same things we love. It”s not enough for them to love something; they have to love it more than you do, and they have to feel like you don't get it. " 
- Drew McWeeny,

In 2014, Disney somewhat quietly put into place a new sort of attraction into Disneyland's Frontierland. Called "Legends of Frontierland," it was neither ride nor show. Legends of Frontierland, in the words of David Daut, "make you feel as though you are a citizen in Walt Disney’s vision of the American West." It did this by creating a dynamic gaming environment in which individuals became citizens of Frontierland and by interacting not only with other guests but with cast members in their roles, were set into a central dispute over land, but given the freedom to act as they wished. For many like Mr. Daut, the result was an unmitigated success. It allowed guests to create their own narratives about the parks rather than merely observe one written for them, and it was deeply, deeply satisfying to many. It should not be surprising then to read the description of Star Wars Land and its interactive properties as having used Legends of Frontierland for a test bed that it will expound upon.

As an artificial world populated by aliens and "droids" alike, the world of Star Wars is free of many of the problems that arise in creating artificial worlds from Earthen influences. Star Wars does not have intrinsic racist properties, though there is a clear allusion that many non-human races are treated exceptionally poorly because of their alien-ness. It is not outwardly paternalistic, colonialism has generally been offered to the audience as less appealing than self-determination and cooperation, and women, Slave Leia aside, seem to occupy a high standard of respect. The slate has only a rough outline, and we are very much free to start filling in wherever we desire. The appeal of becoming part of Star Wars and it's Universe is most appealing to a huge subset of fans. And there will even be lightsabers. Did you hear that? Lightsabers!

If you are not a geek, you are Luddite, and that is not cool,” said Thomas Dolby, an arts professor at Johns Hopkins University and a nerd icon from the 1980s because of his hit song 'She Blinded Me With Science.'

Mr. Dolby, born Thomas Robertson, took his stage name from Dolby Laboratories because of his fascination with audio technology. He said that he decided to use his nerd persona as a way of distinguishing himself from the 'good-looking lads' on the 1980s pop scene — Sting, Simon Le Bon, Adam Ant.

But, he added, “I am no more comfortable in my geek skin now than in 1982.

- New York Times, 2014

When I was a teenager working at a grocery store in rural Connecticut, in between walking 15 miles in the snow and other apocryphal old man tales, I was invited to participate in a Vampire: The Masquerade based live-action role play (LARP). I think I remember who made the proposition that I should join, but honestly, there were a decent number of disaffected kids in the town. I really only had two friends of distinct note, and we were at equivalent ends of the nerd spectrum. AJ was into Star Trek, which I found distasteful and somehow beneath me and my acceptable-but-not-overt level of dorkdom. I, like my friend Jon, merely enjoyed Star Wars. The release of a collectible card game led all of us to abandon Magic: The Gathering in its early years and sell our cards for Lucasfilm-licensed ones that are probably worth a fraction of what we traded in for them. But there were others at varying ends of the social ladder, and they stuck with Magic and progressed further down the rabbit hole. I, a hardcore punk kid at heart, could only tolerate so much. We were too busy beating each other up to metal riffs to do something like that.

So yes, I didn't go. I did know how it worked. A space would be themed to a nightclub (sometimes it was one - how immersive!) and people created characters with a vast variety of physical and mental attributes, and there was a combat system by which your character could end up dead. In turn, you got things, you hung out with people, and probably a goodly number of those people became friends with one another along with all the usual drama that comes with human interactions over the long haul. Our interest in certain parts of what was still certainly "nerd culture" was in part stratified by social class within the insular world of our schools. Now, at a dramatically different stage of my life, I have no idea why we thought dice-based role playing games were so dumb. Death In June still sucks (c), but maybe if I had gone to LARP I might have gotten laid a lot more. I imagine my life would likely be abjectly worse for it, but in the short term, it might have been good for me! And when I encountered in college, I learned nothing from past (non?) experiences and rejected it again. I was slow to learn that interacting with people is sometimes better than not.

"In it's prime, poseur, or poser as most of you posers probably spell it, was amongst the lowest insults one could deploy. It questioned everything you stood for—your authenticity, your integrity, your commitment. If you were a poser, you were a fraud, a phony, a faker and you probably couldn't even kickflip. Off my wave, kook! But as we all know, no one stands for anything anymore, so has poser become obsolete?

No. It hasn't. And it's more critical now than ever.

Subcultures need protecting because easy access to information has made them vulnerable. Whatever it is, hip-hop, hardcore, riding waves and robbing banks, there will be vultures. Skateboarding is cool. Like punk and cosplay, it comes with a lifestyle that is alluring to norms...." 
- Noah Johnson, Complex, 2015

By the time I had reached my mid-late 20s, the world was a much different place. Marvel Studios came into being and to some degree re-wrote the rules about how nerd culture needed to be appropriated for maximum commercial gain. We are now on movie 16 or 17 in the large serialized Marvel Cinematic Universe, a success of such unparalleled nature that it has caused the entire film industry to effectively abandon mid-budget films and concentrate on nostalgia driven blockbusters. They're often better blockbuster films than what preceded them in the 90s, but have come at the expense of just about everything else. Many of the great modern directors can't even be bothered to pitch films, as studios simply want them to resurrect the X-Men or Batman franchises for the umpteenth time in my memory. Video gaming is mainstream. The Pope tweets. Action figures are now produced almost as much for adult collectors as kids. With the ease of entry and the volume of information on the internet, virtual communities for all of these things are huge. They've carried with them a whole host of other attractions at the "nerd" level; pro wrestling, cosplay, dice based board games, extreme heavy metal, anime, et al. to greater mainstream acceptance than ever before.

LARPing, however, hasn't really been a part of this. Too complex in a world of cell phone based "augmented reality" style games like Pokemon Go to be understood, much less readily played by the masses, it has stayed on the periphery. Disney's ownership of perhaps the largest intellectual property in "nerd culture," Star Wars, and their ability to fine tune a game to make it accessible to the masses, changes this equation. Unlike with Legends of Frontierland, Disney will even have tracking devices located on all the guests who walk into Star Wars Land in what is now known as the Hollywood Studios park in Orlando thanks to MyMagic+. Droids can act autonomously and react to real people with real knowledge about them; name, home address, hotel they're staying at, if they're a local, consumption habits, and more.

"Q: What are the absolute don’ts at a LARP, a.k.a. “how can I avoid making an ass of myself and accidentally ruining everyone’s day?”

A: Number 1 rule for most LARP communities that are filled with good people: Don’t be a dick. This means don’t be someone who harasses people, hits people with their weapon too hard, or cheats."
- Mackenzie Jamieson,

As a social experience, Daut notes that a natural barrier to the game play of Legends of Frontierland was that it was difficult to ease people into the role of actually talking to other people. Ultimately, Disney's creative team began to devise ways in which new players could easily obtain some rewards without necessarily having the social net that more established players had within the world of Frontierland. As Star Wars Land intends to operate within the context of a trading port and the constant flux and movement associated with one, it's likely that the game play will include these sorts of tasks for people to do on single day visits, such as those on their once-in-a-lifetime family vacation. However, this is intended to be a permanent part of the overall Star Wars Land operation, and that creates a set of potential pitfalls which will be interesting to see overcome, if they are at all:

-from a moral game play perspective, the aims of The Republic can be linked to the political far right. They should, in reality, have authority here. How will the storytellers, to use the LARP term, monitor and alter the game play around this? Has Disney considered the potential blow back if their players choose to try and force the adoption of racially-unambiguous 4chan slang?

-from a pure moralist perspective: Does creating such an "immersive" artificial world and allowing people to effectively exist as alternate beings within that world present risks of dis-associative personalities? Science fiction generally takes an ill view of allowing people to so completely submit their own identity to create new ones typically; is this what we're being warned of? Is this really a low-tech version of Total Recall rather than a high-tech version of medieval LARP?

-from a practical perspective of the players: as the limits of Star Wars Land are far smaller than, for example, the number of available World of Warcraft servers, what will entice them to play on for months and years into the future? If people do play for 3-4-5-6 years straight, how will new players be able to become part of the game without being exploited by those much further into it? Will storytellers be willing to interject should someone be able to consolidate power?

-from the perspective of the once-in-awhile or once-in-a-lifetime guest: While those introductory game bits may be fun, how will the activity look to those who are unwilling to participate in it? "Being part of Star Wars Land" sounds great for those in it, but for those sticking to the traditionalist observer role we're used to in theme parks, how sure are we that the "regulars" won't ruin it for everyone else? That was one of the great knocks on Adventurer's Club after all - the people that went every week began to overwhelm the performers, creating a scene which pleased them and almost no one else.

Even if Disney manages to work its way around all of these hurdles, there will still potentially be a knocks against their efforts. LARPing was an organic, fan-motivated, created, and operated experience. It may have sometimes been based around larger universes like Star Wars, but it was intrinsically about some form of self expression. Like all the other things which have been made more palatable by the masses, moving LARP into corporate hands will probably be seen by some as an unfriendly co-opting of fringe culture. It will be inauthentic, run by johnny-come-latelys (d) who have unappreciative or insulting to the efforts of those who made past games work and were very likely heavy influences for what Disney has and will do with interactive environments. "No one cares, grandpa," is the response they, as have all generations prior, will receive.

More concerning: by making paying guests playing along as part of Star Wars Land, it makes them part of Star Wars Land. Disney is not mere commoditizing the data of those who choose to attend the parks, though certainly that is very much part of MyMagic+. Rather, it is commoditizing those who play the game as part of the attraction itself. "Streetmosphere" a term trademarked not by Disney, but by Las Vegas Sands in the construction of the Grand Canal Shoppes at Las Vegas' Venetian, has been an effective way of making fake cityscapes seem more real. There are character actors wandering around, singers, occasionally vehicles sputtering by. In addition to the living and robotic actors of The Walt Disney Corporation, Star Wars Land will have an army of conscripts willing to pay top dollar for the opportunity to win prizes and "respect" in the kind of physical space many likely participants have probably been unwilling to enter and socialize in before.

This is a social game which is still run by people, not machines or advanced algorithms. As such, those playing the game are subject to all the foibles of actual social activity and influence. That will include something Disney has never done before; the potential of rejection over affirmation. By keeping individuals visiting the parks as mere observers, Disney could best control the way in which they interacted with the theme park and its apparatus participated back. By extending the intended interaction to purposely involve guests, increasing the "immersion" level can only come with a managed increased risk of negative feedback. Unlike traditional LARP, which is user-created and structured for the overall benefit of all participants, Disney's variation is structured to make money first. Disney will not need to rely on pleasing a small community of like-minded people because it will always have fresh meat tourists busting the door down. This new assumption of risk is both the true innovation of Star Wars Land and the greatest hurdle which Disney must clear. To establish a game that pleases not only the minority of extremist regulars, but its larger casual visitor base, and meet the needs/desires of both in a financially solvent way, is a lot for anyone, even the Mouse, to chew off.



(a) cited from "Immersive Theatres: Intimacy and Immediacy in Contemporary Performance" By Josephine Machon.

(b) Disney's Great Leap Forward obviously didn't cost 55 million lives, but in its direct aftermath many heads rolled and a different course of action - one involving actual rides and expansion - seems to be taking place.

(c) Death In June is one of the progenitors of a genre known as neofolk. There are a lot of Death In June records, and anyone who spends even a cursory amount of time researching the act comes to realize very quickly that DIJ is controversial in so much as many people believe it promotes neo-nazi ideals. Imagine, if you will, Fleet Foxes, but with less percussion, more synthesizers, and a lot more songs about genocide. Yeah, I don't blame you for not rushing to Spotify.

(d) To de-mystify this: I don't necessarily believe people interested in the game are being "untrue" to themselves. They aren't posers in the classic sense, at least in my mind. I can't even say what percentage of them have done "true" LARP, whatever the hell that resembles. I've never participated in that subculture and it certainly isn't my job to police it. But I know well enough to realize that some people will nominate themselves for that task. 

No comments:

Post a Comment