jane mcgonigal

Tolkien and the Electro-Imaginary: the 2013 Inklings Conference

Last week I attended the 2013 CS Lewis and Inklings Conference, my first time actually presenting an essay academically. I was only able to stay for the first day, but the people I met and lectures I heard were intriguing to say the least. Positions on New Media varied, from scathing critiques of Peter Jackson's the Hobbit to the promise of new art forms, like digital story-telling. Others were cautious, advisory, informing us listeners on how to avoid getting "poked" by the Dark Lord. I've got a copy of the schedule, but I'll try to upload or link to it later (once the Inklings page uploads it). I'm also hoping some bits and pieces were recorded. In a few days, I'll post a recording of my own lecture and the first day's plenary lecture by Ralph C. Wood.

Ralph is a captivating lecturer, widely read and articulate, so I enjoyed his presentations very much. The first lecture was on Tolkien's distinction between the Quest and the Adventure. While an Adventure is a "there and back again" kind of story, a Quest is more like a pilgrimage. A Quest requires lifelong dedication, even in the face of defeat or minor victory. A Quest is taking the "little victories" as your small part to play in a larger story.

I took this plenary discussion and reflected on how it might alter my view of video-game culture. RPG's and adventure games are often just that – adventures – or "there and back again" stories.

Ralph suggested that an Adventure is often something done out of boredom. Seeking excitement. A break from the norm. But too often we are merely pleasure-seeking. Life sucks, so let's log-out for a while. A Quest is far more difficult, but I'd like to suggest with books like "Reality is Broken" by Jane McGonigal, video-gamers are getting the "calling" – not merely to adventure, but to change the world. A process that is multi-generational, and where each of us must play our little parts. In McGonigal's book, she suggests that video-gamers are equipped with unique problem-solving tools, and can use games to help change the world. Spending hundreds of thousands of hours in simulated reality – like a deep dream or altered state of consciousness – brings us back down into the "real world" with new ideas, and new expectations. We can use the tools we gained in the Otherworld to change our reality. Yep, sounds like a Quest to me!

Plenty more thoughts ruminating in my head. Like the role of machines in nature. Two presenters suggested the dark side of technology to be its obsessive quality – the iPhone 5 being like the ring, "my precious," one phone to rule them all! And yes, obsession is a reality we must face. Yes, there are dark sides to technology, but it would seem that our tools, like magic, are ubiquitous, and here to stay.

Whether or not we will become corrupted sorcerers, like Saruman, or retain our responsible use of our powers is yet to be seen. I for one believe that the technological extensions of self-and-society are here to stay. It is more of a matter of how we might humanize them, and let them extend our greatest qualities rather than amplify our darkest. Easier said than done.

I was also left wondering if we might consider technology a new "force of nature," as Kevin Kelly suggests in his books What Technology Wants and Out of Control. That further complicates things, forcing us to re-consider both what it means to be an organic, fleshy human and how we define life. And I wonder what Tolkien might think of that, if he saw the "net" crawling over towns and cities like an electronic forest. But I'll leave those questions up in the air for now. More posts to come.