Golden Days, Silver Nights: Locating Utopia through Diminished Reality

This talk introduces Golden Days, Silver Nights, a new steampunk-themed, alternate-history locative adventure game designed to provoke critical thinking about political history and social progress. The game is designed around the life and writings of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925), celebrated orator, infamous crusader against commercial monopolies, and the alleged inspiration for L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. Bryan first ran for U.S. President in 1896 as the candidate for the fused Democratic and Populist parties, inspired in part by the socialist vision of Edward Bellamy's fabulously popular utopian fiction, Looking Backward (1888). But if Bryan began his career a progressive, he ended it a militant reactionary and notorious anti-Darwinian. By some accounts, his campaign permanently derailed the American progressive movement, and with it, the hopes and dreams of utopian socialists. Taking its cue from alternate histories by Robert Heinlein and others, Golden Days, Silver Nights begins with the counter-factual premise that Bryan won the 1896 election and went on to reshape America's destiny, though not in the image of Bellamy's technologically utopian socialist future. The game is built with our proprietary StoryTrek locative authorware, which allows authors to build location-specific narratives by layering multimedia assets over Google maps. As players explore the real space around them with a mobile device in hand, the story provides text, images, audio and video that gradually reveal the mysterious back-story of the game world. By unearthing a series of verbal and visual rebuses strewn about their physical landscape, players gradually sketch the hidden contours of a future-past based in the contradictions of Bryan's politics: an avowedly anti-plutocratic, anti-imperialist America that has in fact sacrificed racial and class equality for a false populism couched in xenophobic jingoism, idyllic pieties, and millenarian warnings against the transhumanist dangers of evolutionary science. While researchers at Carleton's Hyperlab have used StoryTrek to create everything from open-air museum exhibits to zombie survival horror games, the system's novel form of spatial play lends itself particularly well to the authoring of utopian and dystopian narratives. Utopia has traditionally been understood as the "good place" that is "no place." But where conventional literary utopias depict fictional elsewheres far removed from the world, Golden Days, Silver Nights unfolds only as readers navigate through the real world, continually forcing them to toggle attention between their actual and fictional contexts. A "diminished reality" interface, a.k.a. the "genoscope," strips away the user's actual surroundings to reveal the fin-de-siècle intolerances at work behind the facade of present-day reality, alongside lingering traces of utopian dreamworlds that never came to be. By providing a dialectical interface that taps into new embodied understandings of literary space, Golden Days, Silver Nights enables critical thinking around the legacies of American industrialism and imperialism in order to hint that the world not only could have been otherwise, but might still be so.

Conference_year: 
2013