Week 7: Interactive Documentary

Interactive Documentary: non-linear histories / VR journalism / the internet and impact

Prepare Nash, Kate. “What is interactivity for? The social dimension of web-documentary participation.” Continuum. 28:3 (2014): 383-395.

nash interactive doc

Bogost, Ian, et al. “Documentary.” Newsgames: Journalism at Play. MIT Press, 2010. 61-81.

Bogost Newsgames

Highrise (Katerina Cizek, 2009-) Valley (David Dufresne, 2010)

Guest Speaker TBA

7 thoughts on “Week 7: Interactive Documentary

  1. We’ve spent a lot of this semester reading different definitions and theorizations of games, agency, interactivity, and other related concepts. But I think Ian Bogost’s chapter about documentary games is the first time that we’ve read something that really grapples with the question of why something should be interactive, what the act of interacting brings to a circumstance (which is pretty ironic considering that Nash’s article is titled, “what is interactivity for”). Bogost outlines three ways that videogames can engage a documentary mode: spatial, operational, and procedural reality — and for each one, he describes a particular type of experience and affect that is mobilized by the thing as an interactive, playable object as opposed to a piece of writing or watchable media. The closest thing we’ve otherwise seen is the Tanenbaums’ article about reframing agency — but that was about moments within games, as opposed to dealing with the significance of a narrative, story, or experience being an interactive one in the first place.

    The article contrasts with Nash’s really fascinatingly, almost to the point of a clash. Nash lays out two modes of interactive documentary: participating in and participating through. The former means involvement in the creative process, either in terms of platform or content production. The latter refers to opportunities for engagement that come as a result of the documentary. I think if asked, Nash would include in the former almost any type of interactivity that adjust the documentary, including everything from people submitting clips to the documentary to Do Not Track asking simple questions like, “where do you get your news,” and including the implications of that in the documentary that you see. As written, though, it seems like Nash is really considering participatory documentary (in the sense of participatory cultures), leaving aside things that are interactive but not necessarily participatory.

    Bogost, on the other hand, is talking about interactivity and games as such, leaving aside the participatory elements. It’s an interesting split and leaves me wondering how things that are interactive in the sense of Do Not Track’s light personalization fit in. For me, Do Not Track addresses why be interactive in the same sense that Bogost’s article does: it takes as its focus the ways our privacy is eroded, and as such it uses your engagement to lay those structures bare for consideration in a way that a non-interactive documentary about privacy never could. But it doesn’t feel like that side of Do Not Track fits into Nash’s consideration, except in the way it directs people to participate through the documentary in advocacy efforts that come at the conclusion of the doc series. So, my questions for Nash would be:

    – What is the role that simple interaction plays in documentary? More, the idea of being able to decide which components are shown and in which order they appear is endorsed a couple of times through the piece — why? What does that grant beyond baseline interactivity? How does that improve the narrative, picture, or argument? It forces the segments to be combinable and largely discrete, which means it’s hard to make those blocks actually build something larger.
    – Participation through documentary doesn’t feel new because documentary has long been used as a motivating force by activists — it seems like something that has instead tracked the other shifts in advocacy and communication modes that has come with the internet. What are the ways that this participation through is uniquely different now? If it’s not new, why is it presented here as something that is emerging?

    For Bogost, my questions are more forward facing — I’m curious if mobile games might provide a stronger opportunity for eroding some of the barriers that seem to exist for the documentary mode in video games.

    – It seems like a major stumbling block for documentary video games is that they occupy a supposedly “frivolous” space of entertainment — to erode that there need to be more games that defy the label. t feels like there needs to be generally more games, and they need to get more exposure either through seeing titles, being played, and (positive) media coverage. But it seems unlikely to come from large mainstream titles, so is mobile the best hope for this mode? Or Steam? Has there been much development or experimentation in the field since 2010, and has any of it had traction?
    – Most games with a social intention that I’ve played have been basically just reskins of older games that don’t actually add anything to players’ understanding of the issue, and aren’t particularly fun. They’re usually created to be a “different way” for an NGO to engage their base — but never spread far. Which makes me wonder more broadly: do these games have hope of attracting players who aren’t already ideologically aligned with the creator?

  2. I’d like to focus on the idea of “participation.” Interactive documentary seems like a broad term, encompassing any documentary endeavor that involves an interactive medium. On the one hand this could be something like the #ShoutYourAbortion project I presented to the class, or as Nash notes, a space for those interested in and affected by a certain issue can build communities and share experiences (384). #ShoutYourAbortion involving a rather flat interface that simple lets you choose what stories you’d like to engage with, arguably no different than a newspaper or DVD menu. On the other hand, they can be much more expansive. Using technology like VR, there could be no limit to the range of situations a documentarian could drop you in or give you the ability to control—Sasha’s presentation on the military’s use of VR is a good example here. Given the “social function” of documentary that Nash brings up, “the significance of documentary in promoting dominant visions of citizenship, as journalistic inquiry and as a means of interrogating power by presenting alternative perspectives” (384), I’d like to focus on how participation might affect these goals.

    I will say one of the things that feels safe about television and film is its ontological distance. Gaudenzi gets at this, as Nash states, he “describes interactive documentary as a relational entity that, unlike the film or television text, does not exist independently but rather relies on the collective agency of user, author and system” (385). This is eventually problematized when Nash points out the issue with focusing on physicality as the determining difference between the interactive and noninteractive. She states, “[i]nherent in this framework is a distinction between interpretation (mental) and interaction (physical) that discounts the physicality of traditional documentary spectatorship while obscuring the interpretive elements of physical action” (386). I both agree and disagree with this summation (who hasn’t jumped in a movie theater, however it’s naive to discount the relational closeness that new media enables, even if calling it ‘physicality’ is a misnomer), but I’d like to move away from the argument of relationality and towards a discussion of control and mediation enabled by interactivity.

    Carpentier “divides participation into two categories: participation in media and participation through media. The former identifies the involvement of non-professionals in decision-making about the programme/platform (structural participation) and/or content production (content participation). The latter refers to opportunities for individuals to engage in social debate through documentary” (387). “Participation through media” seems to facilitate what documentary has always facilitated, discussion between viewers and those interested in the subject matter and is not what I wish to discuss. However, what are the possibilities when allowing “non-professionals” to edit structure and content, particular in an interactive word?

    As Nash points out, through interactivity, the documentary maker may limit a person’s ability to change the underlying message they are attempting to convey, constricting the text’s polysemy. In contrast, we can give the user “greater scope to contribute by making content” (387) or allow them to structure it how they please, giving users the ability to bend the message of a work. As Nash states, “[g]enuine collaboration requires that users have the opportunity to participate in the development of the argument” (387), but should anyone be allowed to do so, given that they may have no first-hand experience with that that which is being surveyed? One of the forms of interactive documentary that eschews this problem is that of the “documentary ‘mosaic’” (388) as those involved produce the content on their own and it is collected by the documentarian, thus possibly concluding possibilities for additional contribution. But what happens when prerecorded events—events that may feature a whole host of personal/tragic/serious issues—are given the interactivity of a videogame? Does part of the validity of documentary lie with the human to human interaction associated with its making? Does the (possibly intensive mediation) of extrapersonal actors too easily apply a superficial interactivity that simply does not compare to firsthand experience? And lastly, with the historical implications of documentary, could this type of mediation further dehumanize and encourage the colonization of those being surveyed?

  3. I was a little surprised to find that the authors of Newsgames: Journalism at Play were all game designers. I expected more of a journalistic background from the authors, considering that I feel they make some strangely uncritical assumptions about the motivation, purpose, and possibilities of documentary games.
    A few thoughts that arose while reading:

    – They use Sims games as examples of two completely different types of documentary content. When discussing procedural reality, they cite SimCity as an exemplar of procedural documentary games in the way that it “abstracts specific human elements in favor of urban dynamics” (72). Later, they go on to imagine a version of The Sims “in which the player can,” This American Life-style, “jump between different moments in an avatar’s life” (77). I feel like this is contradictory – having identified the procedural base of the game as its strength in documentary terms, can you then use another game from the same family to support a point that most of the chapter has actually been working against (ie, the idea of having character and narrative-based documentary)? The Sims and SimCity are two different games, especially in that one is heavily character-based (or at least has a lot of people-figures in it), but aren’t they both based on procedural logic ( seeing how the choices you make, whether character- or city planning-based, play out)? (Admittedly I have never played any Sims game, so I could be completely off-base here.)

    – I’m also wary of their assertion that the documentary game can “root out the popular mistrust of investigative reportage and documentary by reinventing it in videogame form” (64). Even after citing Joost Raessens’ recognition that many games are based on “naïve popular conceptions of documentary film as an ‘objective’ depiction of reality” (63), the authors fail to interrogate the ability of games to depict objectively. All of the examples that they explore as “operational reality” games have been constructed through specific ideological choices – which, though explicitly acknowledged in the chapter, are not explored – that inform the impact of the games, and of course, as we’ve been discussing in class, these types of choices are inherent in the creation of any object. There’s nothing different in the making of a documentary video game. Further, I wonder how a documentary game will be able to attract players without a narrative or character hook or an explicit ideological base, which, as Charlie points out in his comment, can really limit the potential audience. This is a question that documentary cinema and television struggle with now, and one that I don’t think Bogost et al. adequately address – instead, they seem to just fall back onto an uncritical assumption of video games’ ability to objectively represent a space or historical moment. (Which, again, is odd, because they do nod to this issue at other moments, like in the explicit recognition that PeaceMaker “takes a strong position, as a two-state solution is the only one that the game affords” [74].)

    – These lines really made me raise my eyebrows:
    “Indeed, if citizens were able to experience the sensations of an experience through simulation rather than by description, perhaps they would better connect world events with the joys, fears, desperations, or losses in their own lives. Human interest games, we might call them.
    “All too often, the journalistic human interest story exudes cloying manipulation instead of earnest characterization. A personal touch should make a story human, rather than melodramatic.” (75)
    First, there’s the assumption that video games provide an immediacy of experience that is somehow better at producing empathy than other media. Again, this is an ongoing debate that we’ve discussed in class, but the lack of critical examination here was one of the main factors leading me to assume the authors were more journalist than game designer. There’s a judgment on “journalistic human interest stories” that I would say is unfair; there are plenty of such stories and documentaries that don’t “exude cloying manipulation.” Finally, there’s no discussion of a) the fact that any documentary, game or otherwise, comes from a specific viewpoint and so can’t help but manipulate the audience and b) whether placing a player literally as a character is more manipulative than a traditional film documentary, which can at least present a plurality of experience (even if the ideological base of the filmmakers is probably obvious)?
    Immediately following the quote above, there’s an assertion that “lo-fi aesthetics” (handheld cameras, 8mm film stock, 8-bit style) (75) humanize the documentary experience, which is another assumption that I think should be interrogated. Does the lo-fi tape hiss on the Mountain Goat’s Zopilote Machine [] make the music more affecting than the high production value of Madonna’s “I’ll Remember” [] or Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” [] (all released in the same year)? Debatable. (I do love the Mountain Goats, though.)

    All this being said, I did really like this article – as Charlie points out, it is one of the few articles that thinks about the particular affordances of the video game platform in terms of the question, “why be interactive?” Perhaps that’s why I want to be so critical of some of these assumptions it makes.

  4. Having gone over the readings and having taken a look at some of the interactive documentaries cited, I think that documentaries could be effective in mediums like the interactive web and VR, but I am not so sure about how I feel about the expansion of the genre into video games. Especially if we look at it from the social realism point of view. The article, Bogost newsgames, talks about various games like JFK Reloaded, State of Emergency and The Berlin Wall, all of which deal with very serious documentary subjects. I have not had the chance to play these games, but just the idea of recreating the way JFK was assassinated through a role playing experience and to call it documentary could be a bit trivializing of the medium. I think some games can definitely help recreate reality and can come close to being a documentary, but I think the approach to the medium is essential in making it feel like a believable experience from the past. I think if I take away the aspect of social realism away, then yes, I do think these games are in a way interactive documentaries. The description of the game ‘Gravitation’ – “Players begin in a largely dark, cold game world with two characters on screen: the player and a child. Playing catch with the child, the player expands the view around the avatar, melting the snow, exposing flowers, and expanding the soundtrack to an uplifting crescendo. Once the player successfully bounces enough balls back and forth, the avatar’s “mania” overtakes him in the form of a fiery crown, allowing the player to leap great distances through a tight vertical maze in order to collect stars. The stars fall down and turn into blocks on the ground, which the player can push into a furnace to further fuel the artistic mania and increase the score. But the more blocks the player accumulates at once, the harder it becomes to shove them into the furnace, and the less time one has to play with the child to revitalize. Eventually, after a third or fourth search for stars, the player returns “home” to the boy, but finds only his bright red ball lying alone on the ground.” Im sorry for pasting the entire description, but this game seems to be pushing the medium to a very deep place. This does not feel like a documentary game to me, but more like a meditative narrative. To Galloway’s point of procedural reality being the key to the future of documentary games, I think that it is definitely an intriguing way of looking at the medium, however it is difficult for me to conceive of games as documentaries merely because of how traditional documentaries have shaped the way we view the medium. The web interactive documentaries like prison valley and highlife, however, come closer to harnessing elements from the documentary genre which make it feel closer to reality. Perhaps it is because of its mixed media nature of including traditional elements of photography and film that I find it to be closer to my understanding of the genre.

  5. These are the first set of readings where I feel we’ve really blurred the lines between different types of users/participants. While past sets of readings tried to complicate our understandings of agency and looked at interactive media through a distinction between the user and the designer, this week’s readings further complicated those distinctions by directly introducing the documentary participant as a producer of content. For Nash, interactive documentary adopts the same concerns as traditional documentary, a focus on recording and preservation, civic engagement, and persuasion, yet potentially provides avenues for audiences to advance their own goals. Bogost et al. take a different approach, looking at how games specifically (computational models) might have specific affordances that can engage traditional documentary subject matter. In their understanding, games can explore spatial, operational, and procedural reality, with procedural reality holding the most promise for the potential of documentary games.

    I’m fascinated by the prospect of using procedural documentary games to explore the “underlying systems that caused [the story] to come to pass” (pg. 71). In my mind, this opens up new possibilities for documentary to explore institutions and systems through computational models. While I do reserve skepticism for the implications of these projects (here, I really think of the concerns that Sasha brought up in his presentation on VR therapy), computers are quite good at producing models of complex systems that can offer new perspectives on a traditional visual form. Since much of contemporary life operates using computational systems to which most of us have limited access, I’m curious about the potential of documentary games to shed light on these systems.

    I appreciated Nash’s article for her insistence that we understand interactive documentary as it relates to the social qualities of traditional film documentary. I feel like the new media scholarship I read often extols the novelty of interactive platforms to the point of a sort of techno-fetishism, so this more critical approach was a bit refreshing. Maintaining the link between traditional and interactive documentary reminds us that some of the same ethical questions of documentary still need to be asked: What are our responsibilities to our interlocutors? What do we do when our interlocutors challenge our version of events? How does the documentary maker become woven into the social fabric of the places they record? I also have many of the same questions are as Nash: “While we might imagine that audiences experience a sense of agency when they interact with documentary, to what extent is this the case. . .?” and what are the political implications of interactive documentaries? (pg. 393).

  6. In the Nash reading from this week, I wonder about the connection between interactivity and immersion. While documentaries aim to “record, reveal, or preserve,” is interactivity the next step in immersing audiences? Documentaries are able to educate and inform viewers of times and events through history. Documentaries have evolved in style and technique as they present factual accounts through interviews, actual footage, etc. Docu-dramas have emerged which blend this information into a narrative reenactment of events and people’s lives. This peaks interest and offers a new possibility of immersing audiences into a story as the true events are recounted. This has been criticized, however, for the possibility of dramatizing events and taking creative license in production that blends fact with too much fiction. If interactive documentaries are to break this narrative trend up by offering users the ability to control and choose the story and order in which information is presented to them, is this the next step in immersive opportunity for documentary authors to engage audiences? Or, does it face similar criticism to docudramas in that it blends entertainment with the history? Nash explains, “interactivity as a specific kind of relationship between the user/participant and the documentary artefact, one in which the user/participant is positioned ‘within’ the documentary, playing an ‘active role in the negotiation of the “reality” being conveyed through the idoc’.” Nash further explains that “Voice-as-authorship” would mean that person would have participated in making the documentary. This differs from “voice-as-social participation” which explains a viewer that engages in the, “opportunities for individuals to engage in social debate through documentary.” In these instances, users/viewers are able to interact with the information whether as authors, viewers, or through social discourse. This does present an interesting way of looking at documentary, but maybe through a more active lens. When I was experiencing the interactive works assigned this week, I felt more like I was navigating the work and almost doing research, therefore, finding out information through exploration. Nash elaborates this experience as, “the act of choosing content from a documentary database as a process in which users participate in meaning-making, producing ‘polyvocal, unstable and contested meanings, rather than fixed ones’… choosing content from a documentary database transfers some aspects of the process of ‘authoring’ to the audience…” Therefore, are audiences of interactive documentary works that are able to participate in such a way more immersed in the information.

  7. My instinct is to defend the tradition of documentary film and video, or rather, to view “interactive” innovations on documentary with a scrutinizing eye. Last week, our discussion led me to ask: is the “interactive” element to cinema merely about engaging the user’s desire to click? Is it just to satisfy the viewer’s/user’s attention span, or does it achieve some other feat, either aesthetic or functional?
    The presentation by MAP students of their film Downtown Browns last week made a compelling case for interactivity doing more than just entertainment. From what we saw, their film used interactive “choices” for the viewer to decide how to react to micro/macro aggressions experienced by the protagonist (undoubtedly this was not the entirety of the film—just the clip we saw). After making a choice, the viewer then was led to see the consequences of that choice: if, for example, the protagonist rebuked another character for their micro aggression, the camera lingered on the response of the offender. The viewer/user was thus led to see the emotional and social toll of constantly navigating white spaces as a non-white person. In this sense, interactivity actually worked against the smooth narrative flow of the world: the interactive “labor” of the viewer/user mirrored the emotional labor of the protagonist.
    This use of interactivity could thereby be seen, following this week’s readings, as something akin to the “operational reality” used by interactive documentary. In Bogost’s article, he defines “operational reality” as the games that allow “players to enact specifc events, rather than explore them haphazardly”(66). Bogost sees this as a way for viewers to better interpret and grasp how historical events transpired. He names JFK Reloaded as an example of this sort of game, which would perhaps dismiss the conspiracy theorists’ speculation about the asassination’s viability (i.e. answering the question, how could it have been one shooter?) It seems that Downtown Browns offers another model of how operational reality can function: not so much through the simulation of a recorded historical event, as through the re-enactment of daily lived experience. This model is, of course, particularly valuable in highlighting the stories of marginalized or discounted, the difficulty of whose experience is regularly misunderstood.
    The other type of “newsgame” studied by Bogost is those that employ “Procedural Reality.” The innovation of procedural reality is its ability to model complex systems, and allow a user to understand how outcomes are shaped by the system’s parameters. The game’s depiction of “reality” is thus left somewhat open-ended, since outcomes can shift depending on the player’s actions, and on the parameters of the game. The author sees this type of documentary game as having the most “promising future” for its ability to illustrate more macro, structurally determined outcomes. The question I would end with is, how could “Procedural Reality” be used to highlight the effects of structural racism (as opposed to the interpersonal racism of Dowtown Browns)? Are there games or interactive media that have done this?

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