Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Volitional Mobility of Chatroulette: Live Action FPS games [core post 5]

Due to what is either incredible coincidence, or more likely a rather timely and self-evident proof of the value of Tara’s arguments about the ontology of the web, I happened to watch the perfect YouTube video just before reading her article. With an impressive 10 million views, it’s a recorded video of several once-live events mashed together: random individuals on Chatroulette who found themselves faced with the option to play a “live action first person shooter” (FPS) game instead of, well, chat (or whatever it is folks get up to on Chatroulette). The invitation to read the entirety of Tara’s article in light of this serendipitous piece of web media is too tempting for me to resist.

As Tara pointed out, the web itself is about liveness: both ideologically and ontologically, whether illusory or not. Her argument that choice and mobility (volitional mobility) work with this sense of liveness to produce the defining web experience is echoed by both Parks and Lotz, but in neither is it articulated so clearly as here: “Thus, unlike television which parades its presence before us, the Web structures a sense of causality in relation to liveness, a liveness which we navigate and move through, often structuring a feeling that our own desire drives the movement” (202).

Currently, the desire for liveness is most evident in the popularity of sites of live streaming (like Twitch), but the sense of autonomy is typically more limited--hence the caveat about the largely illusory nature of choice. Viewers can navigate to whatever live streaming video game they choose on Twitch, but it is the streamer who makes all in-game choices. The viewer is still more a viewer than a participant, despite the limited interactivity of the chat box.

Sites like Chatroulette that offer two-way simulcasting seem more promising in terms of offering choice on both sides: you can choose your stream, choose what you’ll stream, and interact with the other streamer if you like. Though the creative potential of this model is not often pushed to its boundaries, rare occurrences like the above-mentioned live streaming FPS do happen. This case is a perfect example of volitional mobility taken to the furthest boundaries allowed by the medium. Players control the “character” (a live human cosplaying as a FPS character) through verbal and text commands given in real time. They watch the “character” move through the physical world according to their commands, navigating elaborately decorated dungeonesque spaces and firing prop weapons at costumed monsters. The “character” actually talks back to the players, offering limited guidance to help players confused by the novelty of this experience. The volitional mobility of this experience is remarkable, and about as open to possibility as is physically allowable, given that players can give any verbal command they wish and are not limited in any way by the interface itself. Ordinary FPS games give similar illusions of choice, but because players interact with computers instead of humans, choice must stay within the boundaries of the programming.

That’s not to say this event is entirely open--players are restricted to commands that are logically and physically possible, of course (no use asking the character to jump 6 feet high, for example. You *can*, but the character will be unable to fulfill the request). Furthermore, no matter how expansive the environment and narrative, there are still boundaries between the “in game” world and the ordinary world. Should players try to leave the confines of the game, they would surely be redirected toward the pre-planned narrative options. However, because this game is based on human-human interaction instead of human-computer, there seems to be significantly more flexibility in terms of such narrative containment, and each iteration is necessarily improvised.

Of course, only a few lucky folks had the opportunity to play this game live. Most experience it in dead, pre-recorded form on YouTube, where none of the choices belong to the viewer, making it more like the standard experience of web television. Perhaps due to the obviousness of the choice available to the original players that are unavailable to most viewers, a sense of scan-and-search anxiety seems pervasive throughout. Like with both VR and 360 degree videos (in which viewers must use their cursors to move the camera around the pre-recorded video) a willingness to tolerate (or perhaps even a desire for) this anxiety around potentially missing information--the narrative branch not taken, the corner left unexamined--is a prerequisite for participation.    


  1. ChatRoulette is such an interesting case study in the promise and perils of internet liveness and temporality. In theory, the idea of connecting random people who both have the power to end the conversation seems like the ultimate controlled experience. In practice, it became mostly a haven for internet flashers. What went wrong?

  2. Great post, Danielle. The inherent "liveness," choice, and mobility of an event like the Chatroulette one you mention, seem to be compellingly combined with the limitations of the event's natural chaos. The Chatroulette user has an unusual amount of live agency in their human-to-human interaction, but also a provocative lack of control over with whom they are interacting. I am fascinated by your idea that somehow the anxiety of potentially missing information might drive some of the suspense and pleasure of the proxy-users.

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  4. Hi Danielle! You outline several interesting trends within the video-gaming industry and its utilization of volitional mobility, from FPS-style games to Chatroulette and Twitch, which are increasingly mobilizing the viewer or player's experience to appear choice-driven. As Tara mentions in her article, the experience of navigating Internet and web-connected spaces is structured by a sense of causality, and I agree that (the illusion of) navigation and causality are key especially to gaming platforms. Sadly I've watched my boyfriend play hours of League of Legends, interacting with other "humans" via their avatars and I can confirm that it is the game controlling him and not the other way around. Looking at the video you posted, the subjects seem to go from very surprised to immediately anxious, as they attempt to figure out how to navigate an unexpected experiment -- in actuality it seems like the limitations of the game ("what choices can/should I make? how do I learn/use this medium?") and the participants' "scan and search anxiety" may overwhelm or cripple choice? Interesting to think that new (and old) outlets for volitional mobility may come with a learning curve.