Posted by: Stenros | June 29, 2010

Pervasive Books: Pattern Recognition

I have been reading fiction. I rarely have time for that; usually I only muddle through academic stuff and when I need to relax I want something clearly different, like comic book, not prose. But I’m on vacation now and just completed William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. It’s from 2003 and deals with what is, essentially, a pervasive game.

Reading this book has been strange. It is like a historical novel about all the stuff I was immersed in two years ago. It is all about pervasive games, pronoia, paranoia, the line between real and fiction, authenticity and advertising. It deals with a community, a hive mind, trying to solve a web mystery, much like the early ARGs. The protagonist’s mother is a believer in EVP, something that Momentum and Där vi föll were based around. It discusses apophenia, something Neil Dansey wrote about on his way from ambient games to internal validation. The book was published in 2003, after The Beast had concluded and The Majestic aborted, but before ARGs were something that people really knew about outside the hard core followers.

I quite enjoyed the book and found myself nodding and smiling a number of times while reading it. However, I only marked one passage in the book. In it the protagonist, a coolhunter (of course, it being 2003) named Cayce, is talking with a beautiful young woman who does subliminal, viral marketing in London:

“[Y]ou are in a bar, having a drink, and someone beside you starts a conversation. Someone you might fancy the look of. All very pleasant, and then you are chatting along, and she, or he, we have men as well, mentions this great new streetware label, or this brillinat little film they’ve seen. nothing like a pitch, you understand, just a brief favorable mention. And you know what you do? This is what I can’t bloody stand about it: Do you know what you do?
“No,” Cayce says.
“You say you like it too! You lie! At first I thought it was only men who’d do that, but women do it as well! They lie!”
Cayce has heard about this kind of advertising, in New York, but has never run across anyone who’s actually been involved in it. “And then they take it away with them,” she suggests, “this favorable mention, associated with an attractive member of the opposite sex. One who’s shown some slight degree of interest inthem, whom they’ve lied to in an attempt to favorably impress.”
“But it is starting to do something to me. I’ll be out on my own, with friends, say, not working, and I’ll meet someone, and we’ll be talking, and they’ll mention something.”
“Something they like. A film. A designer. And something in me stops.” She looks at Cayce. “Do you se what I mean?”
“I think so.”
“I’m devaluing something. In others. In myself. And I’m starting to distrust the most casual exchange.”

(William Gibson, 2003, Pattern Recognition, 86-87)

This shard of dialogue addresses the ethics of pervasive play. It reminds me of what larpwright, artist and journalist Juhana Pettersson said about the mock demonstration at the end of Momentum. Pettersson, who is usually a very progressive and anything-goes kind of guy, found himself being critical of staging demonstartions as part of a game. If people were to find out that it was staged just for fun, it may start to undermine street demonstartions as a form of protest. If people can think of them as possibly play, they can then not take them seriously – and an important channel for societal dialogue is devalued.

All of this ties into the blurring of the line between fact and fiction. It is interesting to note that even Gibson longs for the real. The mystery in the book, once solved, turns out to be something real and authentic, not just a game, play or – which would be worst – marketing.

I have not read as much fiction that deals with pervasive play as I should. It just doesn’t seem as important as research articles, white papers and the like – even if it sometimes communicates ideas much more clearly and eloquently.

Any suggestions for further light summer reading?


  1. Ahh, the good old days of ARGs. Time for a rant.

    I see on the news today that some people have been arrested on suspicion of being Russian spies, although it seems to have been suggested that due to some fairly amateurish slip-ups they might have been an indie spy organisation, trying to upset the recently strengthened bond between the US and Russia. When they mentioned the fact they used steganography to communicate, you know what I thought? “I hope this isn’t an innocent bunch of puppetmasters”. But then it also reminded me of the fascination I used to have with the numbers stations alleged to be used by spies (check out the Conet Project for examples), and THEN I thought “how epic would an ARG be if it managed to leave a trailhead about a secret spy ring on BBC news?” I thought this, knowing it would probably never happen, because I believe ARGs have had their day.

    Part of the reason for the success of The Beast, ILoveBees and the Heist was that people didn’t expect them to pervade their lives in the way that they did. People only found out it was a game during the process, after they were hooked, because ARGs were a cool new thing in 2001. Nowadays, you can’t release a film, computer game or album without having some sort of viral marketing to go with it – it is almost expected. Doesn’t this contradict the whole ethos of TINAG, or does it just require a stronger suspension of disbelief?

    It’s like finding out how a magic trick is done, then realising that the magic is gone because now you understand. Nowadays you see a cryptic piece of multimedia you think “Oh, it’s an ARG – probably halfway through – probably massive player base, no thanks”. Does knowing how ARGs work ruin the fun?

    Slightly more on the topic of ARG-themed novels, in addition to that Personal Effects book, for which I did that not-review (I still haven’t finished the book by the way – it was just too cheesy), I also bought a novel called “This Is Not A Game”, which I thought contained a hidden game, as you can see from my little adventure on the following Unfiction thread:

    Didn’t end up reading that, either: it’s a bit difficult when half of the pages are falling out.

  2. Neil, you really don’t sell these books very well. :)

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Laurel Papworth. Laurel Papworth said: RT @GaryPHayes: Williams Gibson @greatdismal Pattern Recognition & the ethics of pervasive play PGames Theory & Design […]

  4. lol I enjoyed reading your unfiction-adventure very much, Neil. I myself refrained from ripping the pages out and enjoyed the read quite much, so I´d definitely recommend it to you, Jaakko. Funny twists with the TINAG-theme.
    Another great summer read: The Magus by John Fowles.
    I just got “Heat Wave” by “Richard Castle” (or rather ABC) but that one I´d recommend only to dedicated Castle fans of the TV show (first few pages are awfully written).

  5. Jaakko, – Pattern Recognition, is a great book and *at the time* (2002) it was a great inspiration for me…but that was long before “The Project” ;-).

    I think you should read his next book after that, “Spook Nation” it is even closer to our line of work, but…….after having contributed to your book, and doing the work we do…I cannot enjoy William Gibson any more!

    I found Spook Nation a book that I *should* enjoy, but instead found it to be a bit..passé…

    ..but that says more about me – and I think you to Jaakko, than about William Gibson….It is strange that your work can destroy your experience of literature..

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