Symbolic Arenas

by Ken Sanes

These excerpts describes how we create and interact with story-based simulations, and the way they have evolved out of traditional forms of art. Like all stories, they create the appearance of  people, places and situations or, if the fiction is complete enough, they can be said to create what are commonly referred to as virtual or invented "worlds". Audiences, players and participants then use these fictions to act out their fantasies, and their deepest fears and desires, usually in disguised form.

The first essay is a substantial excerpt from a piece that provides the best single overview of the characteristics of the age of simulation. The second excerpt describes story-based simulations as symbolic arenas that let us act out fantasies.

Symbolic arenas come with a number of dangers and make a number of contributions to our lives. Among these, they can addict us to fantasy and simulation; they can be used as a form of substitute satisfaction that makes it easier for us to avoid the difficult tasks of life; and they can impart to us a philosophy in which we see life itself as a symbolic arena for the acting out of fantasy. Perhaps they can also distract us  from paying attention to what is really happening in the world or the way power is exercised. But they also vastly enrich our stock of experience by allowing us to participate in invented but lifelike situations; they provide pleasure, and they let us experience our deepest desires for wholeness. Through interpretation, they can also reveal what is on our minds.


Simulation: Art and Technology Masquerading as Life

If you look at the characteristics of fiction and the representational arts, you will find that they can be described in terms of a handful of elements. First, and most fundamentally, art and fiction, like everything else, is embodied in various kinds of physical and sensory objects. Its basic stuff is material; it is made up of actors, costumes, props and stage sets; of the rich palette of colors produced by paint on canvas; and the pattern of words on paper.

The second element can be found in the fact that these physical and sensory objects are often organized into stories, with characters, settings and plots, which are fictionalized versions of people and places and situations we know from the nonfiction world. Although these stories are most obvious in drama and written and spoken forms of fiction, they can also be seen in more realistic forms of painting, which show us settings and characters, and convey a sense that we are seeing a moment in time that is part of a larger unfolding of events.

The third element can be found in the fact that all of these stories convey ideas and fantasies that embody many of our deepest fears and desires. As the literary theorist Northrop Frye put it, art and fiction show us life as we both hope it will be and fear it might be: they contain a wish-fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream. The landscapes they reveal are always the landscape of our inner life.

Fourth, these stories also evoke basic emotional reactions in us, which are often tied to the fantasies they play to. They get us outraged, sympathizing, desiring, rooting for the heroes, and hating the villains, and through their happy endings, they take us from a state of anxiety to one of renewed hope about ourselves and the world.

Fifth, they make claims, that certain things are good or bad, both in their fictional realm and in life. They idealize, demonize, and hold up to ridicule; they make things seem exciting or dull, desirable or undesirable, not merely in what they say but in the way things are portrayed.

And finally, all are forms of action that evoke various responses from us. In addition to evoking thoughts and emotions, they may try to evoke practical actions in us, as well -- to get us to buy the video, vote for the candidate or believe the ideology that is hidden in their depictions.

As alluded to above, fiction and representational art -- as well as other story-based representations -- weave all of this together in ways that are intended to create a sense of believability. To accomplish this, the costumes and characters will have to seem lifelike; the unfolding of events that is depicted will need a certain degree of believability; and the fantasies that are evoked will have to be relevant enough to lure us into the fiction and make us care about what happens next.

But in addition to creating something realistic, representational art and fiction also tries to give us invented worlds that are better (and worse) than something real. They create a simulation of the recognizable world, but one that is more miraculous and happier or more suspenseful or more dangerous or malevolent than anything we know from life.

When we put these qualities together, it becomes obvious that the representational arts offer us the illusion of an objective reality in which everything exists to expand our inner life. In the nonfiction world, we find ourselves in circumstances that are governed by physical laws or other people's desires or chance. However much we may like to think otherwise, most of our efforts to re-create this world so it takes note of our values and desires are unsuccessful. But the enchanted realm of the arts temporarily place us in fictional substitutes that are crafted ahead of time to revolve around us, in which sense and meaning are combined in ways that satisfy our hunger for new and pleasurable experiences, and give our inner life an intensity that is only rarely evoked by the nonfiction world.

Everything that is said here is generally true of every form of art and fiction that seeks to depict a recognizable world, from some of the early cave paintings of ancient Europe to the popular fiction of contemporary culture. But, today, each of these attributes is going through a transformation, giving us sensory objects, stories and fantasies, emotional reactions, claims and forms of action that draw from the techniques and ideas of the past, but transform them to reflect the radically altered circumstances we now find ourselves in, during a time when we have a heightened awareness of the limits of personality and the unlimited potential of science and technology -- and when we are very aware that science and technology can do enormous damage when they are controlled by our very fallible selves.

Of these elements, it is the realm of sensory objects that has gone through the most notable transformation. This process started with movies and television, which are able to create more lifelike fictions than other forms of storytelling by adding a layer of simulation to the illusions of the theater. Like the theater, movies and television tell stories through dramatic productions, with actors who perform scripted roles. But those performances are then captured in images that can be edited into a fictional sequence of events and made to unfold on a screen. It is as if the performances of the theater had been transferred to the simulated space of a lifelike and dynamic painting, where the artist can modify the images to enhance the story. Sitting in a dark theater (to use the more impressive of the two media), "bathed" in what are often theatrical, painterly, images, and carried away by the story they tell, we probably still come as close as we can to experiencing what it is like to be drawn into another time and place.

Alongside movies and television, another way of drawing people into invented worlds has also developed, that relies on "themed", fabricated, environments in which people look at, and find themselves surrounded by, material images of fantasy. Long before Disney, and at roughly the same time that movies were being developed for commercial use, at the turn of the century, for example, Carl Hagenback developed an early theme park in Germany, with rides, costumed "natives" from other places, and lushly romantic nature exhibits full of fabricated rocks and artificial moats.

Today, these trends and other related trends are coming into their own, with the creation of new forms of art and entertainment that offer audiences greater realism and a range of sensory effects that is unlike anything seen before in history. Many use new forms of simulation to offer us a sensory or physical immersion in the fictional setting so it seems we really are in an alternate world. And many allow us to directly participate in the story by playing roles. Instead of looking in on a fictional realm from the outside and identifying with the characters, the audience steps into a simulation of life, which is a more alluring version of the world it has apparently left behind.

In the Lied Jungle, at the Henry Doorly Zoo, in Omaha, Nebraska, visitors go through one of these invented worlds, which builds on what Hagenback developed but employs recent advances in the techniques and technology of simulation. They find themselves in a cavernous room with an 80-foot-high ceiling, surrounded by an imitation of a rain forest, with giant fabricated trees, artificial rock formations and waterfalls driven by technology, all of it seamlessly interwoven with genuine plants and animals. As visitors make their way through the exhibit, they push away fake vines that hang over their path and cross a swaying suspension bridge as if they are on a safari.

Although it may not seem like it on first inspection, the Lied Jungle is a form of fiction, in a direct line of descent from literature, theater and the movies. But instead of portraying a lost world in the jungle in a book or on a screen, it seems to place visitors inside one. What, in the theater is usually referred to with such terms as scenery and stage-set has, in the Lied Jungle, been turned into an immersive environment that resembles the world of nature it is intended to represent.

Like traditional drama and literature, the Lied Jungle also tells a story, at least in a rudimentary form. Unlike them, it makes it possible for visitors to become characters in the story, in which (as we will see on another page) they go on a fictional journey, on a quest to learn how to save the rain forest.

The attraction has all the qualities we know from the arts -- it brings a world to life; it tells a story and it gives us opportunities to play out desires for heroism, adventure and altruism. The overall effect is, not of a rain forest, but of a rain forest transformed by the demands of fantasy, re-created so it will more closely conform to the landscape of our inner life. It also makes all kinds of claims about what and who is good and bad, and in making those claims, it becomes a form of action intended to draw visitors into the realm of beliefs it espouses, and move them to political action, in this case, pro-environmental action.

Other invented worlds go a step beyond the Lied Jungle and put audiences in a simulation of physical reality, by surrounding them with images so they seem to move through the simulated space of the screen. In the world's only Imax Magic Carpet theater, in Poitiers, France, for example, audiences look at a giant movie screen in the front of the theater and a second screen below a transparent floor. As they look down at the floor screen, they see images of land in the distance, as it might appear from an airplane, and experience the illusion they are flying. In a 3D theater in Manhattan, a somewhat different effect is created. Here, images of the ocean (to use one film shown there as an example) appear to leap off the screen and partially surround the audience, which experiences the illusion that it is in an aquatic environment, swimming passed a kelp forest and schools of fish.

Still other invented worlds being produced today are less realistic and less immersive than those described above, but they still manage to turn audiences into participants in lifelike fictions. In video and computer games, for example, players "incarnate" in a simulated realm by manipulating the images of characters that represent them in the fantasies portrayed on the screen. In combat simulation games such as paintball and laser tag, players run around mock battlefields firing imitation guns at their opponents. And in the growing number of telephone 900 numbers and the "text-worlds" that are appearing on the Internet, people engage in fictional dialogues by typing or speaking their parts, once again playing the role of actors in participatory dramas in a collaborative effort to bring fictions to life.

Virtual realities, children's toys, interactive movies, elaborate theme parks in places such as Disney and Las Vegas, zoo and aquarium exhibits, the horror theme parks that open around the country every Halloween, a few story-based Internet sites, and most of what appears on television, similarly qualify as complex simulations that are designed to draw us into invented scenes and situations.

These and other forms of simulation now increasingly make it seem that fiction has come to life. Where traditional forms of fiction let us act out our desires vicariously, through the characters, many of these new forms of fiction let us become the characters, who "act in" the simulation. Instead of reading about heroes, they make it possible for us to pretend to exercise courage ourselves as we run around those imitation battlefields; or to play the pursued object in steamy telephone dramas. Instead of merely reading or watching characters who can escape the limits of the physical world, they make it seem that we really can escape those limits, creating the illusion we are taking flight or traveling to the past or seeing distant worlds. In the symbolic arenas of contemporary culture, art doesn't merely pretend it is life and pretend to surpass life; it pretends it is our life, letting us seem to do things that might, otherwise, compromise our safety or our moral identity or that are impossible in the nonfiction world.

These new forms of fiction all draw from the same limited set of materials, ideas and techniques, to achieve their effects. They employ stage sets, costumes and props, to which they may add elaborate fabricated environments. They use 3D and computer-generated images: animatronic figures that seem to manifest body language and personality; and rides and stationary pseudo-rides that create the illusion of motion, along with a few other forms of simulation. Put in more general terms, most of the simulations they rely on can be classed as images, physical objects and forms of acting or behavior. Many are created and/or orchestrated with the use of computers.

Some, such as situation comedies on television, rely more on story and nuance. Others, such as movie rides, rely more on the sensory experience. And others, such as many contemporary science fiction movies, rely on both.

All give us various ways to "incarnate" in the simulation. Among these, they may offer some combination of:

* psychological immersion in the story;

* physical immersion, in which we are actually inside the simulation;

* sensory immersion in which we have the illusion we are inside the simulation;

* another form of sensory immersion, in which a number of senses are played to at the same time;

* the ability to affect the response of the simulation, in ways which may be predetermined or open, to create a sense of interaction, participation or control.

In addition, they usually use stealth simulations consisting of cover-ups, disguise, distraction and various degrees of invisibility, to conceal things that might interfere with the illusion, such as when equipment is hidden or noises from the outside are blocked out or masked.

Most of what has been described, so far, has to do with the sensory simulations. When we examine the stories these new forms of fiction tell and the fantasies they play to, we once again find a continuity and a break. On the one hand, they recycle all the archetypes and plot lines that have been fixtures in stories and in everyday life, in the past. They give us pastoral paradises, dark underworlds, power-hungry and sadistic villains, reluctant heroes, and unrequited lovers who come together at the end. They give us science fiction stories that (as Frye notes) are re-creations of ancient myths, and situation comedies that are in a direct line of descent from Greek comedies.

Many of these new forms of fiction also perform the same basic functions as stories throughout the ages, and give us the same, universal, story line. This story line (which is examined in another essay) lets us follow the heroes (or play the heroes) as they go from danger and suffering to victory, thereby taking us from anxiety to hope, and enhancing our sense that we can survive danger and create something better than what exists. In doing this, they help us symbolically transcend the basic unfairness of life, if only temporarily, and give us a corrective emotional experience that partly undoes the traumas of life.

But all of this is being transformed and adapted, to draw audiences and players into stories that are relevant to our unique circumstances, today. In particular, we seem to excel at a number of kinds of stories, including science fiction spectacles and fantasies; comedies, especially situation comedies; and psychodramas of sex and violence. We also do very well, as Frye noted, depicting the corruptions and limitations of society and human behavior with darker, more ironic works.

A good example of the way we re-create traditional fantasy can be seen in the Lied Jungle, which is your basic mythic garden, peaceable kingdom, and Never-Never Land of adventure and innocence. It is one of innumerable images (in this case, it is a material image) of unfallen nature that is tamed, offering abundant riches, and answering the call of our inner life. The basic story line is one in which Mother Nature, in the guise of a Never-Never Land, is threatened by a rapacious (masculine) humanity and must be saved.

In telling this story, the Lied Jungle embodies an idea that can be found in many science fiction stories and fantasies, in which some aspect of "reality" is threatened, and has to be rescued. Thus, we can see how an archetype and traditional theme has been turned into a kind of living, immersive fiction, and made to tell a very contemporary story that expresses our concerns over the stability of the order of nature and the survival of the world. Similarly, in post-apocalyptic movies such as Escape from New York, dark images of urban ruins are our mythic underworlds. But here, they are underworlds that once again express our fear that we will destroy the world by amplifying our own craziness.

Another example can be seen in Back To The Future...The Ride, an attraction at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Central Florida. The attraction, like many others, begins incorporating audiences into its story before the ride begins. It shows audiences a depiction on a television screen of the villain of the story, Bif Tannin, stealing a time-traveling device. It then shows a second depiction in which one of the heroes, (the archetypal -- and cliched -- eccentric and wise scientist) Doc Brown, implores the audience to chase the villain across time, to stop him from misusing time travel and changing the natural unfolding of events to his own advantage. With this in mind, audiences are then lifted into giant domes, where they are bounced around on motion platforms disguised to look like time machines, as oversized images on wrap-around movie screens create the illusion they are flying into the future, and back into the ice age and the age of dinosaurs, until they make contact with the villain's time machine and transport him back to the present. The synchronization of the motion of the platform and the images creates the illusion they are moving through the simulated space depicted on the screen.

Like many simulations modeled after science fiction, Back To The Future...The Ride takes audiences on an updated version of a mythic journey in which they can fulfill their wildest dreams and defy the limits of time and gravity. It lets them act out, in fictionalized form, a hope which characterizes the age, that we can escape the limits of the physical world with the wonders of technology. At the same time, it invites them to act out a common fear that we may somehow ruin physical reality by misusing this same technology. It reveals the three faces of technology: as a form of freedom; a danger, and a tool for problem- solving that can be used to undo its own ill effects. As Frye and psychoanalytic theory would put it, the ride includes both a wish fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream, except that, here, the anxiety is mastered with a happy ending in which present-day reality is saved from the villain's evil machinations.

To use another human activity as a model and metaphor, the ride is a kind of ritual in which we master danger. Not unlike the cave painters of ancient Europe who presumably were using the images of animals inside cave walls (seen by flickering lamplight) for some kind of ritual to succeed in the hunt or in life or in a journey after death, we withdraw into our high-tech caves, with our own flickering images painted on the walls, to symbolically reenact what is on our minds, individually and collectively.

We can thus see in Back to the Future...The Ride, universal elements of art and psychology, transformed by the desires and fears evoked by the modern world. As noted earlier, this same kind of story line, in which some essential element of reality (the physical world, the natural order, the unfolding of time) is in danger, can be found in many of our invented worlds. It seems that in an age when we can simulate the appearance of the world and manipulate the world with technology, reality has itself become a problem for us. We are dealing with that fact, in part, by using simulation technology to tell ourselves stories about technology....


From
A Culture Based on Fantasy and Acting Out:

(There is) a new kind of symbolic arena that now characterizes popular culture. By way of a preliminary definition, symbolic arenas are protected domains that make it possible for people to act out fantasies, embodying their fears and desires, in ways that aren't possible in everyday life. The settings, situations and actions they are created out of are lifelike representations -- fictions -- masquerading as something authentic.

Some symbolic arenas make it possible for participants to directly play out fantasies, either by engaging in physical action and role playing, or by manipulating images or objects that represent them...examples of these "high-interaction" simulations include laser tag; video and computer games; interactive movies; some rain forest exhibits in zoos; virtual realities; board games; pinball; children's toys; sexual role playing; interactive computer pornography; voice acting on 900 numbers; and so-called MUDs on the Internet, in which people play roles in fictional worlds created with text descriptions instead of images.

Other symbolic arenas place the audience in a more passive role, in which it is taken for a ride or watches, and identifies with, characters who do things in fictional situations. These include television, traditional movies and the theater, amusement park rides and the more recent movie rides.

What kinds of fantasies do participants reenact in symbolic arenas? As in theme parks, they experience the illusion of transcendence, not only from time and space, but from the roles they play in society. They become part of stories that are larger and more interesting than those in everyday life. The adolescent video game player becomes a space pilot trying to save the universe; the child becomes a parent ministering to a doll that acts as a surrogate child; the television viewer, acting vicariously through the character of the detective, solves the crime and defends the moral order of society.

Symbolic arenas also provide participants with a sense of mastery and safety by showing us characters, or allowing us to play characters, with various abilities and forms of power. Through these characters, we then reenact the universal story line that is common to all fiction: danger and obstacles are faced, but we, or the characters we identify with, win in the end.

Thus, one can say that many symbolic arenas are acts of self- and world-repair: they allow us to face and overcome simulated dangers and problems, which are a more exciting version of what we face in everyday life. In these characteristics, they are similar to daydreams, in which we convert our defeats into victories and our losses into gains to bolster the sense of safety and self-esteem.

What Dr. Robert Stoller, a psychoanalytic theorist who looked at the way the mind creates scripts, said about art, daydreams and pornography, is true of all symbolic arenas. They allow us to convert personal trauma into "simulated trauma, mastered trauma," he said. And they create aesthetic excitement by presenting fictional dangers that seem real, while allowing us to control the production to be certain it isn't real.

"...aesthetics is like a game," Stoller wrote "Like chess or football, it simulates by manipulating the symbols of danger."*

In addition to letting us master trauma and danger, and escape the limits of physical reality, symbolic arenas also allow us to play out every other kind of desire we know from psychoanalytic theory and everyday life. Power, phallic aggression, revenge, sex, love and success are routinely acted out and temporarily sated in these fictional worlds.

Symbolic arenas, based on these principles, now define popular culture, which is becoming a giant arcade that draws everyone into its lifelike fictions. Overseeing it, we once again find growing numbers of designers and fabricators who take images and ideas from nature, history, the contemporary world and their own imaginations. They convert these into forms of entertainment, which make it possible for millions of people to act out personal and collective fears and desires in artificial worlds.

Like all entrepreneurs, the creators of symbolic arenas find and exploit market niches, designing story lines for specific personality constellations. In so doing, they have turned popular culture into a vast inventory of the fears and desires of the human personality.


From
The Real Self in a Virtual World

The story-based simulations of popular culture (and all culture) are based on two kinds of illusion. First, they trick our senses and minds with their realism so we will suspend disbelief and react as if the events they depict are really happening. This is the realm of believable scripts and dialogue, lifelike computer images, ultra-realistic stage sets, and all the other tricks of storytelling that make movies, novels, and video games, et al, seem to come to life. Second, the stories and fabricated worlds of popular culture offer us forbidden ideas that are disguised as something socially acceptable, so we can safely enjoy these ideas and the experiences they evoke in us, while denying to ourselves that we are doing so. These two forms of illusion or disguise are what makes it possible for the fictions of popular culture to draw us into invented landscapes that embody the landscape of the conscious and unconscious mind.

As some of the essays on the site try to illustrate, movies and television often use these two kinds of illusion to tell stories that have a number of, often unacknowledged, levels of meaning. These stories are about society and power, and about our own psychodynamics and personal development, and, at times, about mythic beings. Although they usually focus on adults who discover their true selves, they often offer disguised depictions of children growing up in spite of regressive urges and obstacles put in their way by controlling parents, and about societies maturing to a new level, at the same time. In other words, they depict the maturation and freeing up of the individual and society with the same images and story lines, offering us rich accounts of how we might seek to undo our fallen state.

This is particularly evident in the science fiction works referred to above, in which the heroes free themselves and society from the illusions of false utopias and the manipulations of those in power. As the site discusses in the section on post-apocalyptic fiction, these works simultaneously tell stories about minds being freed from neurosis; children growing to adulthood despite controlling parents; babies being born; adults finding their true selves; and societies evolving into more ethical social orders, as well as stories about myth and religion taken from the classical world, from the Old and New Testament, and from the myths and religions of other peoples.

Ultimately, these works offer us models for how we might act ourselves, in ways that would simultaneously advance our own development and that of society. Since the models they offer are communicated mostly from the unconscious of storytellers to that of audiences, it is up to criticism to reveal the liberating truths contained in these works.

But the two kinds of illusion described above aren't used only to create pleasant fictions. They are also used by those who would have us mistake fiction for fact. The politicians playing fake characters as part of scripted pseudo-events; the TV journalists reinventing a more exciting version of events with staging, clever editing and storytelling; and the advertisers giving their products a luster that is as phony as the television news media's version of events -- all of them create fictions that are disguised as something authentic or as a trustworthy account of something authentic. And all of their illusions seek to evoke taboo ideas and feelings, in disguised form, in audiences, about indulging aggressive and sexual desires, overthrowing internalized parents, regressing into infantile dependence, shamelessly indulging in narcissistic display and, at the other extreme, becoming whole and assertive selves.

Thus the creators of avowed fictions and fake facts all do the same thing -- they invent various kinds of unreality that play to the hidden realities of the human mind. Somewhat like the governing classes described by Marx, they create illusions intended to shape our perceptions of our own self-interest. But the illusions they create are simulations that play to the illusions of the mind. In effect, they create ideologies that masquerade as kinds of people, objects, places, situations and events -- ideologies embedded in characters, props, settings, and plots, that play to our fantasies, and our fears and desires.

All of their creations, from movies and television and theme parks to advertising, television news and political pseudo-events, embody forms of ideology, embedded in those characters and plots, whether or not we are supposed to mistake the characters and plots for something authentic. All draw us into invented "worlds" that make things look good or bad, and try to move us emotionally and psychologically toward their point of view. And all are forms of action that seek to exert power over us, and help or hurt various people and causes by playing on our psychodynamics and emotions.


From Contemporary Storytelling: Tales of Life Way After the Fall

Criticism will also find many of the same elements in forms of fiction that are immersive or participatory, such as video games, virtual realities, and theme park rides that take passengers through fabricated environments and offer rudimentary story lines. One of criticism's roles, here, is to delineate how these forms of fiction differ from other forms. What happens when we play the characters in place of merely identifying with them; when we interact directly with characters instead of merely doing so in imagination; and when we go inside a lifelike setting?

We expand our appreciation of the role of criticism further still when we recognize that it can enlighten us on all the fictions that masquerade as something authentic -- politicians who give scripted and staged speeches, and so on. Criticism will find the same psychological actions and meanings at work in all of these because all are based on elements of mind that are operative throughout human life.

By directing its gaze at all of these domains, criticism can help make contemporary culture transparent. It can tell us what happens when the techniques described above get turned into the science of advertising, politics, and rhetoric, so that bad is turned into good, and low is turned into high, as a result of precise calculations made with the aid of marketing studies and computers. What happens when commercials (or erotic movies) get rid of the obstacles that allow the plot to "thicken" and just give us one invented paradise of happy endings after another? How does it change us and change other domains of fiction?

Ultimately, criticism turns out to be one of a number of fields that focus on questions of communication and representation. The role of these fields of study is to understand the process of "representation-work", in which representations get created, communicated and made to serve various functions, and in which they end up revealing and disguising what is on the minds of communication senders and receivers. Since much of what we communicate has to do with our sense of exile from ourselves and from the world we know can and should exist, as well as with all the attendant issues of right and wrong; and with identity; our relationships; our fear of death and our questions about the meaning of things, the study of representation-work will have to involve these moral issues.

In terms of the subject at hand, criticism focuses the larger share of its attention on a particular kind of representation-work in which lifelike characters, situations, and "worlds" are invented that tell us a more satisfying (and often more exciting) version of our own stories, giving us landscapes that embody the landscape of the mind. To a significant degree, this process is made possible by a form of representation-work that can be referred to as simulation-work. Authors engage in simulation-work when they construct believable worlds that express and disguise what is on their -- and our -- minds, usually with the intention of turning bad into good. These acts of construction involve two kinds of trickery -- the creation of something that seems real, which is intended to evoke our suspension of disbelief, and the disguise of psychologically and socially taboo messages, which allows us to ward off the true meaning of the story, even as we subliminally take it all in. Audiences complete the process in their response, suspending disbelief and simultaneously warding off and perceiving the taboo content.


From Virtual Realities: Then and Now:

The caves of Lascaux demonstrate that long before the beginning of urban civilization, the human race was creating imitations of reality, in which it took the components of the actual world, and reshaped and recombined them, in conformity with its own fantasies and imagination. Since Lascaux, these "imitation realities," have taken all kinds of forms, including board games, stories and novels, paintings, theatrical productions, even carnivals and similar fantasy-saturated celebrations. They have included everything from costume balls to the gladiator contests of ancient Rome, in which theatrical games were created that had life and death stakes for the participants.

But they have always had a number of things in common. All have used materials provided by the arts, story-telling and the theater, to portray not only characters and plots, but also physical environments that sometimes had their own forms of space and time, and governing rules of existence. These imitations have also provided "ports of entry" that allowed audiences to physically and psychologically immerse themselves in the situations and environments that have been portrayed. In some instances, such as in theatrical performances, audiences have been able to look in on these fictional worlds from the outside, while, at the same time, becoming involved psychologically, by identifying with the characters. In others, such as board games, players have physically "incarnated" in the game, in the form of a piece that is under their control and that represents them in the fictional world of the game. And in still others, such as religious rituals acted out with costumes and props, participants have experienced complete physical immersion, becoming characters in the story that was being portrayed.

The attempt to understand why we create these representations inevitably touches on some of the most profound questions of human psychology. We do so, in part, because we seem to have a built-in impulse to create world replicas, an impulse that is manifested, among other ways, in daydreams, where we construct our own versions of reality, using the insubstantial images of the world's first virtual reality computer, the mind. We even create picture narratives spontaneously and without conscious intention, during sleep, in the form of dreams. In imitation worlds such as stories or dramas, we have merely externalized these creations of the imagination, and given them an objective and more elaborate form.

We also invent imitation worlds because it gives us a sense of power to be able to re-create a "world" in our own image. And we do so, because these imitations act as "symbolic arenas" in which we can have experiences that are, otherwise, closed to us, allowing us to vicariously live other lives, see other histories, and explore alternative modes of existence. In effect, than, we create world replicas to transcend the limits imposed by life, to overcome the "tyranny of actuality," and achieve a kind of freedom afforded by the imagination.

The ability to create these realistic world replicas is thus, an inherent part of human nature. But it is also an ability that humanity has developed over the centuries. In a sense, we have been going through a learning process that has allowed us to create ever more realistic and engaging "worlds." We discovered how to create convincing dramas, using stage sets and costumes; how to create forms of fiction that could better bring a world to life, and how to create the illusion of three-dimensional perspective in paintings, to name a few obvious examples.

Today, as we increasingly live inside lifelike fictions, and re-create our surroundings as an endless form of immersive fiction, one has to wonder what will become of human nature. Will it change, as well, or will we end up reenacting the same things our ancestors did, but in increasingly spectacular forms?


From Virtual Realities: Then and Now:

What is interesting about these creations is that they were the forerunners of the symbolic and sensory realm of art, drama and literature, which has become increasingly elaborate with the progress of civilization. Each, in a different way, has allowed humanity to escape the literalness of its surroundings, to raise our collective noses off the ground, as it were, and produce a vision of other ways of living and other possible worlds, which are enough like this world to seem plausible.

Much of the history of civilization is the story of how we have used these forms of representation to create a "human world" that is richer and more interesting than the world of nature. We have used our utilitarian tools to re-create nature into a safer and more comfortable environment for ourselves, and used representations to re-create our surroundings after the richness of the imagination.

The caves of Lascaux were particularly effective in this regard because the cave painters and their descendents had to journey inside them, and leave the rest of the world behind. The images were lit by flickering lamps, which must have added to the sense that they were in a world apart, a world modeled after their own fears and desires, and perceptions. The comparison to today’s movie rides and virtual realities, with electronic images surrounding us, or seeming to surround us, is inevitable. Both are an expression of our desire to escape into seemingly human worlds, made lifelike through the application of art and technology, in which the landscape is that of the imagination.


Return to Simulation and Postmodernism