February 29, 2020

Moral Of The Story

Last week in Madeira, I spoke at the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling about “Some Moral Questions Concerning Story In Immersive Hypertext Narrative” occasioned by the 20th anniversary of Janet Murray’s influential Hamlet On The Holodeck. Murray imagines a future medium in which the player-protagonist is immersed in a realistic simulation, an alternate reality, and her vision has been widely embraced as the end toward which new media naturally strives.

What, on the holodeck, are we to do about Ophelia? She is an enigmatic character, one whom the 19th century found more fascinating than the 21st. Polonius speculates that Hamlet loves her; Laertes views a sexual relationship as a threat. If, as interactor, we have meaningful choice, might some combination of choices lead us to propose to marry Ophelia? To kiss her? To have sex with her?

All these choices are problematic. Can a simulated character marry? Specifically, can she consent? The presentation of meaningful choice within the fictive world leads us to the very threshold of the Turing Test, for the characters must necessarily be sufficiently convincing as to invite suspension of disbelief . The choices, moreover, are ours and the performance is ours as well: it is one thing to witness theatrical events that you cannot affect and that harm no one; it is another thing entirely to perform yourself what might be a crime. In the playhouse, Ophelia drowns every night and twice on Saturday whether we purchase a ticket or not; on the ho- lodeck, Ophelia drowns only if we fail to prevent it. And if tonight we want to see her drown, who have we become?