On Reading, Imagination, and Pokemon Go

Sat Jul 30 2016

Not long ago, I came across this article touting Pokémon Go as a glimpse of the future in which virtual reality and augmented reality merge into some kind of social/techno/gamer uber-paradise. Or something like that.

The article may well be right. I don't know. I do know that the article's lede brought to mind some thoughts which bear not just on this latest catch-'em-all craze, but also on the broader realms of gaming and storytelling and the difference between them:

As every child knows, the world is a place of wonder, magic and adventure.

A walk through the forest becomes a journey into the lair of an ancient dragon or a hunt for ancient treasure. An abandoned house is consumed by dark spirits who must be avoided. An old wardrobe is a portal to another world.

Notwithstanding the Tolkien, Jay Anson, and C.S. Lewis references, let those thoughts roll around in your mind.

What does it mean to play?

When I was a kid, my grandpa gave me a collection of old die-cast cars and trucks from the '40s and '50s. These I augmented with a variety of '70s-era Hot Wheels. When my best friend Brian came over, one of our favorite games was to take the cars out to the front yard, divvy them up, and play cars.

The front yard became a whole world. The cement walk became a freeway. Random areas of yard would be claimed as our respective multi-millionaire estates, where we would keep our fabulous collections of vehicles, drive them around on our private racetracks that we'd scratch into the dirt with sticks.

We weren't kids anymore. We were Bruce Wayne on vacation from being Batman, living it up with our fabulous wealth. Which, as a couple of kids who didn't have two nickels to rub together, made a pretty appealing game.

Childhood is full of games like these. Some are ubiquitous, like cops and robbers, tea party, or the floor is lava. Others are as idiosyncratic as Brian and I living vicariously through my Hot Wheels.

The common point in all such unstructured play is imagination. It is the act of re-interpreting the world in some way that is contrary to reality but which serves as the jumping-off point for wonder, magic, and adventure.

Unstructured play is imaginative play, and it is enabled by the open-ended nature of the world around us. The fact that the world doesn't come with a rule-book that says a stick can only be a stick, but never a sword or a wand or a dinosaur claw.

Books, e-books, augmented e-books, and movies

In the beginning was the book, and you all know how that works: the author specifies many details but far from everything, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks using their imagination. When the author strikes the right balance of specification vs. unfilled-blanks, the reader has a really good time and we get quotes like this:

"A well-written novel is co-authored by the reader’s imagination."

Stephen Parolini

But now we have e-books. Anybody who has been part of the publishing world over the past decade or so will remember the e-book revolution. A lot of nothing, and then the Kindle set everything on fire and suddenly if you didn't have your work out in e-book form, well, what were you even doing with your life?

It wasn't long before people started experimenting with the limits of these new digital platforms to create "augmented e-books." If the book is software, why not make it do what other entertainment software does? Why not add background sounds so that when the reader is on the page where the heroine is walking through the dark, creepy woods, the e-book also plays dark, creepy wood noises? Why not add a soundtrack?

And why stop there? Once you've got the soundtrack in there, why not add some visuals? Why not cast actors for all the characters so we can see their faces and they can voice the dialogue? Why not turn the whole e-book into a movie?

Because books are not movies

It turns out readers weren't interested in augmented ebooks. People tried some of these ideas, but to my knowledge none of them caught on at all.

If they want a movie, there are plenty of actual movies they can go see. If they want the experience of reading a book, they'll read a book. Book reading and movie watching are fundamentally different experiences. Yet, every augmentation to the notion of what a book is pushes the experience towards the movie side.

Reading books is active. You may look like you're just sitting on the couch, but your mind is working furiously to create and maintain the illusion of a whole other world.

Watching movies is passive. You sit on the couch and absorb the sights, sounds, words, and background music as they are presented to you, at a pace dictated not by you but by the film's director and editor.

These are different experiences, and there is no reason they should be made similar. If books are one end of an axis and movies are the other, then augmented e-books create a continuum of taking away the reader's need to use their imagination. Oh what an onerous burden is imagination, that we must augment our e-books to save audiences the trouble!

Ha. No wonder augmented e-books never took off, and thank goodness for it.

Gaming vs storytelling

I promised you a Pokémon Go connection, and here it is.

Gaming can be very active, but within a framework that has been imagined for you. As a player, you become an agent of change; your choices help shape the events within an interactive piece of software. But your choices are always constrained by the framework of the game. Maybe it's one of those mystery detective games, where you're the PI and you talk to other characters in the game to solve the mystery. If the game designer's vision includes that Elaine and Samantha are just friends, then they're friends, period. It's programmed into the game. Regardless of whether you might think Elaine and Samantha are secretly lovers, no actions you can take within the game can make those two characters kiss if the game designers didn't program that in.

Reading is less active than computer gaming in the sense that you don't get to choose anything about what happens in the story. But at the same time, books leave you more to imagine. Writers leave things between the lines. If the writer's portrayal of Elaine and Samantha makes you suspect they're into each other, you're free to believe that this is true. You're free to add it to your conception of the story's world, even if their relationship never shows up on the page.

Maybe the author put in those clues on purpose, as something extra that wasn't related to the main plot but that helps the characters feel more real. Maybe it's all in your head, what you see from bringing your own life experience to the book. A well-written novel is co-authored by the reader's imagination.

In a book, you get to think about that, evaluate the evidence on your own, and establish your own head canon. Outside of the boundaries set by what the author specifies, readers get to decide what's true and imagine the characters into further life after the book is over. Of such imagination is the rich world of fanfiction born.

Games imagine the world for you

Yes, a walk through the forest can become a journey into the lair of an ancient dragon. But Pokémon Go imagines the dragon for you, and it's a Charizard, drawn and shaped and colored by someone else's imagination, handed to you fully-realized and textured.

I'm not saying it isn't fun to hunt augmented-reality monsters in the real world. Evidently, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

But it is not the same kind of imaginative fun that kids experience through open-ended, real-world play. It's not the same kind of imaginative fun readers experience when taking an author's verbal sketches and fleshing out our own personally-horrifying Smaugs.

I applaud Pokémon Go for getting people outside, making them interact with their world in a new way, and providing a lot of entertainment. But I disagree with the author of the article linked at the top of this post. Pokémon Go may be fun, but the basis of that fun is very different from the fun we find in imaginative play or in reading.