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Technologies of the Imagination: Aliefs and Fantasy Play

Recently I came across two really fun projects:

In the first, a classic video game was transformed into the “real thing” by way of constructing an elaborate, room-size track for a radio controlled car equipped with a video camera. The car is driven from an arcade racing cabinet with its video appearing in place of the cabinet’s original video game. Plans exist to enhance the experience further with force feedback and on-track power-ups.

In the second project, the classic Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots toy has been enhanced with a sophisticated system that allows players to box with their own fists and see the toy robots play out the fight.

The minute I saw these I immediately wanted to play with them. I shared the first with a friend and we both totally geeked out over it. Later I was struck with a question — why exactly was I so excited by these? The new and improved versions still provided the same essential experience that the originals did. The added technology apparently added or revealed something, but what? Perhaps it makes the experience more real? But what significance is there in making an instrument of pretend “more real”? What does that mean?

Philosophers and psychologists have an interesting notion that I think gets at an answer to my question: the alief. An alief is “an automatic or habitual belief-like attitude, particularly one that is in tension with a person’s explicit beliefs.” When a person is freaked out to stand on a perfectly sturdy glass walkway that reveals a great height below — that’s the manifestation of an alief. That person believes the walkway is safe but still carries another more primitive belief connected to the perception of the situation.

For humans, the unreal has very nearly the same effect on us as the real. This is the essence of aliefs. Imagination, fantasy, story, and illusion — they enter our consciousness and excite our nervous system in very similar ways to reality itself. This is the power of novels, movies, theater, magic, and toys. They tickle something real within us though we know full well these things aren’t real — this is the duality and tension of experiencing our beliefs and our aliefs.

And so this brings me to answering my earlier question. I think my enthusiasm for the two projects I cited at the beginning of this post is that they each have found ways to narrow the gap between the unreal and the real. Paradoxically, in playing with these technologies, they allow me to enter more deeply into a fantasy by causing me to experience a reality more viscerally.

Perhaps this partly explains the drive to create ever more sophisticated toys, ever more realistic special effects on stage and in theaters — it’s an effort to resolve the divergence of reality and imagination.

FOOTNOTE: The title of this post and some of its content were inspired in part by the article The Pleasures of Imagination.

FLASHBACK UPDATE (August 24, 2010): I just remembered that in Pacman vs. the Real World I discussed another fun project that similarly blurred the distinction between reality and fantasy. I was really geeked out about it too.

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Reader Comments (1)

In the modern period, it has been assumed that normal human mental functioning requires a very decisive distinction between fantasy-metaphor-fiction and the facts. The blurring of this distinction and the decrease in the gap between the two makes us modern people extremely uneasy, as if we can't navigate through life unless there is a clear line between flights of fancy [as good as they might be] and walking on terra firma. Perhaps the need for this line is at the crux of the modern/postmodern conflict. How in the world did premodern people seem to get along just fine without obsessing over this distinction? For instance, classical Hebrew writings, take the early chapters of Genesis, or the book of Job for example, seem to be quite unconcerned with the distinction. When a snake talks to Eve in the garden of Eden, are we watching a Spielberg movie, or is this a factual report? Does this chapter go on the fiction side of the library or the nonfiction side? I also have an ethical question: Should we continue to generate games and movies that are closer and closer to producing the same kinds of bodily responses as if they were real if this has a negative psychological effect on moderns who get queasy unless the line I've talked about is clear? Or should be back down and make games and movies and books a little more hokey or obviously melodramatic so that this line is maintained? Maybe the move toward nostalgia is partly driven by the disorientation that decrease in the size of the line I've been talking about produces.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPhil West
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