the ‘imagination’ in ARGs and improv

In my class on Gender, Sexuality, and the Imagination, we spent this week developing our conception of what “imagination” and “imagining” mean. This concept is also intertwined in our conversations and readings about alternate reality games and improvisation, especially since words like “imagine” seem to come up a lot.

In Haiven and Khasnabish’s writing on the imagination, they provide a sort of history of the concept as well as different theorist’s opinions on it. For philosophers like Kant, imagination is the thing that separates humans from all other life – our ability to “make up” things in our minds and then bring them into reality seems really unique to us (vi). (As an aside, Yuval Noah Harari also discusses this idea in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which I really recommend especially in thinking about the environment and climate change.) Their article goes on to discuss how other theorists and disciplines have included different conceptions of the imagination in their thinking, from Marxists to radical feminism. Interestingly, imagination becomes both a source of exploitation – in that the systems that perpetuate oppression are often thought of as imaginary – but also a source of revolution and change (vii). Picking that thread up, Haiven and Khasnabish question how we can mobilize the imagination and create social movements. That’s why, in their piece, they call it the “radical imagination.” Certainly the role of art is clear here, as art is often thought of as both radical and a manifestation of our imagination.

A key part of this is also that any radical imagination includes using the past, present, and visions of the future. This brings up important questions of how we can use the existing tools and conventions around us to create new things, or whether it’s possible to “use the master’s tools” to create a revolution. While that in itself is a worthwhile debate to pursue, I’m going to focus on how the idea of using the past and present relates to our reading on improv and our discussions of ARG cases.

As we talked about in class, the Sawyer reading contains a section on the role of “ready-mades” and cliches in improvised performance (157). To me, this part maps really well onto Haiven and Khasnabish’s conception of the imagination: imagining new things and inventing skits involves using what we currently have. As Sawyer notes, all art includes ready-mades in some way. Even though some may say that cliches might limit or dampen creativity, I think that using these shared icons, symbols, situations, genres, and characters actually allows for a lot of space to play with these things in new ways. In my film classes, we often talk about how genre films use their own conventions to create interesting narratives based on the subversion of tropes. I think we could make the same case for ARGs and cliches in general.

In things like ARGs and improv, cliches and genre become an opportunity for clever subversion as well as a way to seek connection with the audience. Using those things that are familiar to people might foster a kind of shared experience between the players and designers or audience and performers. They become part of a shared language, something that people can easily tap into. When we see certain actions – like the pantomime of lighting something – we can already start to guess that it’s a “cigarette.” While Sawyer’s questions about originality still stand – as pieces can pull more or less from these cliches – I do think they afford the players, audience, performers and designers a lot of room to experiment.

As for the “radical” part of the imagination, I think this fits well in many of the cases we read about and ARGs that deal with public health issues. I’m thinking here about the cases in Reality is Broken – Quest to Learn, Superbetter, etc. Using our imagination, we’re able to come up with narratives and puzzles that invent new ways of doing chores, taking care of our health, or pursuing education. Using both what we had, have, and want in the future, we’re able to create new roles within these games. As players, we can take these roles on and imagine how we can help with problems that we normally feel unable to intervene in. Our capability to imagine, in this case, seems central to ARGs, especially with how improvisation on both the player and designer’s part comes into the experience. It would be interesting to think further about how the imagination figures into the design process but also encourages the player to use theirs, as well.

Works Cited

Haiven, Max and Alex Khasnabish. “What is the radical imagination? A Special Issue.” Affinities: A Journal of Radical Theory, Culture, and Action, vol. 4, no. 2, 2010.

Sawyer, R. Keith. “Improvisation and the Creative Process: Dewey, Collingwood, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity.”