MART 702: Portal

Here’s my second post for Media-ART 702. Last week, we played Portal and discussed the game’s themes of self and surveillance. My project response to Portal is a mock webpage for an imagined service that provides a new use for data stored to today’s popular social media platforms. The website is available here: familybook.co.nf

Image

Artist Statement (in case you’re confused, but I think the project speaks for itself):

Portal, a 2007 video game developed by Valve Corporation, shares in common the controls and aesthetics of a traditional first-person shooter. The puzzle-based room navigation as assisted by a portal gun, however, is anything but orthodox. Portal places players in the role of a test subject at the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, a facility that studies the corporation’s experimental (and potentially dangerous) technologies. Throughout a series of tests, players are provided a gun that fires inter-spatial portals that function as doorways. These thresholds are fired onto flat surfaces to provide access to additional areas of the test chambers that cannot otherwise by reached. The game challenges players to become problem solvers as they avoid various obstacles such as turrets, impassable force fields, and poisonous water in order to make their way to the exit area. The creative placement and, at times, carefully timed firing, of portals onto flat surfaces is the main mechanic for play in this game.

In addition to engaging gameplay, Portal also tells a compelling story. As mentioned above, the setting is a testing facility and the portal gun is provided to players in context of a routine laboratory test. When players make progress to new test chambers (i.e. levels), they are encouraged by the melodic, disembodied voice of GLaDOS, an artificial intelligence program, to continue onwards with the promise of “cake” and “grief counseling” upon completion of all test sequences. Each room features several security cameras to signify the all-seeing presence of GLaDOS, who constantly monitors the activity of players to provide instructions and feedback. In this way, GLaDOS serves as the narrator to the game’s events. It is players that move from room to room and advance the plot, but it is GLaDOS who provides the context. Players, as embodied in the character, are entirely mute. All narrative information, including what happened, how it happened, and what will happen, is provided by one character and is, therefore, subject to bias.

Portal is still relevant to gamers and for game critics/scholars years after its release. What has allowed this game to stand out in a saturated market and become a fan favorite in the collective consciousness of gamers is its memorable protagonist and antagonist duo, Chell and GLaDOS.  The player-as-Chell is silent, a common archetype of first-person characterization because it encourages players to suture themselves to the body of the player-character and to become immersed within the gameworld. From the first-person perspective, Chell’s body is not seen until the player encounters their first portal. Looking into a portal, the player is able to see the body of Chell stepping into and exiting from one portal to the other. This allows players to catch brief glimpses of the character’s body. The first appearance of Chell reveals that the player-as-Chell is, in fact, a woman. Chell’s gender plays against the expectations of gamers because many first-person shooter games often, almost ideologically, default to a male character for the player’s control. Chell’s embodiment of the player-as-female is striking not only because it is atypical, but also because she has a counterpart in GLaDOS.

In video games, it is unusual that both the protagonist and antagonist are female, and in this respect, the subtext is worth investigating. GLaDOS is Chell’s antithesis; she lacks a human corporeal form and, for most of the game, remains a disembodied voice. In contrast, Chell has a body but never speaks. Together, but separately, they constitute a “complete” person, or in this case, woman. These characteristics of Chell and GLaDOS conjure to mind the old sexist statement that, “women should be seen and not heard.” Chell, as the seen but not heard woman, ultimately fights against and destroys the woman who is heard but not seen, GLaDOS. The opposition between these two women suggests that Portal might make a statement about the expectations for women in a “man’s world.”

There is also the age-old adage that says that, “actions speak louder than words.” This is also useful for the discussion of these two characters. Players-as-Chell are given the choices/actions that lead to the (apparent) destruction of GLaDOS. Throughout the events of the game, GLaDOS provides a near-constant barrage of commentary. In the beginning, it manifests as lukewarm praise, only to intensify to chiding reprimands, passive-aggressive statements, and, towards the end, snide insults. In Portal, Chell, the index of “action” overcomes the “words” of GLaDOS and escapes almost certain death. This symbolism might allude that it is our choices, not our words, which define who we are and what we become. Words are easily forgotten, but actions rarely are.

Portal may or may not make a statement about sexism or passive and active personalities; the game’s message and characterizations can be interpreted many ways. Regardless of the type of subtext one chooses to read, what I find most interesting about Chell and GLaDOS is that they are both incomplete characterizations. In this respect, gender is a moot point; I place the emphasis on their piecemeal forms. Chell represented as body/action and GLaDOS as voice/words made me consider how “self” is represented (and stored) in the domain of social media, now and in the future. In the relationship between these two characters a variety of symbolic messages may be read; in the context of my project, I view GLaDOS to represent social media and Chell as the user of such a service.

My response to Portal is a commentary on this theme. FamilyBook.com is a mock website and video for an imagined online service that provides users access to data stored on today’s popular social media platforms. I built the webpage using Adobe Dreamweaver and coded it with HTML and CSS; I did not use a template. The video was captured from my laptop using QuickTime and edited using VideoPad freeware. I also provide the voiceover narration. The logo and “family tree” image were created using the freeware graphics-editing program GIMP.

This project envisions that, in the not-to-distant future, popular social media platforms such Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and Instagram will become obsolete and defunct. They will likely be replaced with advances in technologies and changes to social mores and practices that occur over generational shifts and population changes. However, the data stored to a social media platform may continue to exist long after the demise of the actual service. FamilyBook.com suggests that the data saved to social media servers might be used in unexpected ways many years from now. It invites people to reconsider how they use such services and their relationship to the social media/corporate entity.

A service like FamilyBook implies that social media data may be available for new uses in the future. It proposes that personal data saved to social media might become searchable as an online resource for family members, historians, and the general public. This envisioned use is not unlike the contemporary service Ancestry.com, which allows users to browse massive databases of census records, city directories, voting lists, travel logs, military service documents, marriage licenses, birth and death certificates, and other digitized data from the recent past.

In this contemporary moment, information is decreasingly stored on the paper document and increasingly saved to a digital format. I am oddly fascinated that personal Facebook profiles, including statuses and photos, continue to exist after the death of the person to which they belong. My bizarre and cynical theory that data from Facebook might become available as a service similar to Ancestry.com; that is, future people (this generation’s great-great-grand-children) might pay to access Facebook as an archive for the retrieval of data about their ancestors (i.e., people who use Facebook today), is not so implausible when understood in the context of today’s methods of genealogical and historical research. During the research process, information is pulled from a wide array of available sources. This assumes that social media will be an invaluable time capsule for the researchers in future generations.

My response to Portal invites a critique of the practice of habitual photo/status sharing via social media and suggests that such activities might have unforeseen repercussions decades after the time of original posting. I was inspired by Portal‘s theme song, “Still Alive,” as sung by GLaDOS during the end credits. I find that the lines “While you’re dying I’ll be still alive. / And when you’re dead I will be still alive” are particularly relevant to my project. In the context of FamilyBook, I take this to mean that social media profiles will “live on” to represent their users long after they cease to exist in the real world. The gaze remains upon individuals long after the demise of their corporeal form; yet, this idea is rarely something that is considered by the average user of social media.  Most people who use social media share information about their lives with friends and family and think only in terms of the present moment.

The FamilyBook.com project reveals that personal data distributed on social media might be “still alive” and continue to represent individuals long after they die. This project asks its viewers to reconsider the long-term consequences of using social media because these platforms store valuable personal information to databases for a period of time unknown to the user. There is also a large degree of invisible surveillance that monitors user’s activities on services like Facebook. For example, data stored via Facebook exceeds that of what is publicly viewable on the profile timeline. According to Facebook’s Data Use Policy, “We receive data about you whenever you use or are running Facebook, such as when you look at another person’s timeline, send or receive a message, search for a friend or a Page, click on, view or otherwise interact with things, use a Facebook mobile app, or make purchases through Facebook” (https://www.facebook.com/about/privacy/your-info, accessed February 10, 2014).

In this respect, Facebook.com and similar social media services, are akin to GLaDOS because they too are monstrous, all-seeing, all-knowing entities. Everything posted to a social media profile is saved to massive, comprehensive databases. This is not unlike GLaDOS who oversees and analyzes the series of tests performed by Chell. As an AI computer, GLaDOS has her own database for storing and retrieving information. She even imparts this knowledge to the player about Chell’s past and suggests that she has “no friends” and was “adopted.” GLaDOS employs this knowledge to exploit the insecurities of her test subject to signify data/information as power. Here, there is another parallel to Facebook. When personal data such as a status update, photo upload, GPS check-in, or comment is posted, it is certain that an entity like Facebook, as long as its servers are “still alive,” might have access to it for years, decades, even centuries, after the time of the original submission. Data of the magnitude amassed from social media is indeed a powerful tool for a corporation.

The user of social media is not unlike Chell, who, while actively agrees to the terms of use and openly participates according to the rules, is subservient to the system. It is also relevant to consider that Chell is only useful to GLaDOs as a means to an end: to test the portal gun. Once the test is complete and the data is collected, Chell becomes expendable. But, this is also the moment in which the player-as-Chell decides to fight back at GLaDOS. Once the player-as-Chell becomes aware that they have been used and that they will not be promised their freedom (or cake), they take the initiative to destroy GLaDOS. Similar to the self-serving AI, the all-seeing, all-knowing Facebook Inc. amasses data, not for the benefit of the people to which it originally belonged, but to make a profit.

In this regard, users of social media sites such as Facebook are not the recipients of a product, but the product being sold. It is public knowledge that Facebook reaps revenue from advertising space. Users of Facebook, therefore, are the product being sold to the advertisers. To make for effective audience reach, Facebook allows advertisers to cater to their specific demographics; i.e. certain ads will only appear on the newsfeed for specific locations and vary depending on the age, gender, and “likes” of the user who is accessing the site. In order to do this, Facebook pulls the data about a user’s location, interests, and gender. This method of demographic-based advertising encourages companies and services to place their ad on the website because they will reach niche audiences. In this way, Facebook sells its users’ data and eyeballs to companies who purchase the ad-space. Facebook is like GLaDOS; and a user of its service is not unlike Chell, incompletely represented as various points of data, that may or may not be useful.

Portal is a fascinating game to play and interpret. The incomplete characterizations of Chell and GLaDOS as two very different and oppositional women make them a memorable duo.  My response to the game has taken this theme of incomplete forms, and the messages of surveillance and power, and applied them to contemporary social media services and their habitual use. The imagined FamilyBook service is a critique of social media entities and their practices. The project encourages people to look beyond the present moment to envision a future service that offers personal data posted to social media to the public (for a price). The website is an uncomfortably reminder that personal data might be “still alive” to represent the self digitally, long after the time of original submission of data and that this information may reach unanticipated audiences. It also asks people to consider how beneficial the relationship that one has with a social media platform, such as Facebook, may or may not actually be. This is not unlike the relationship that Chell experiences with GLaDOS in Portal. At first, the AI appears helpful, but the façade emerges once she has what she wants: the cold data amassed from a series of tests performed by the human user, who is only useful as a means to an end.

Advertisements

What's your say?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s