The Bastard, the Mouse and the Rift
What should frighten all of us about Game of Thrones, Disney and the Future of our Fantasies.
Horses collide. Swords meet flesh. Arrows pierce eye sockets. Heads fly.
Typical fare for any Game of Thrones viewer, but last week’s episode took even this now mundane level of violence to new heights in its depiction of the Battle of the Bastards.
This scene was more Saving Private Ryan than Lord of the Rings, right down to the explosions of turf and orchestral movement of limbs and gore.
As I watched the credits roll, stunned not only by the dramatic escalation of violence but moreso its realism, one even more frightening thought occurred to me:
“What if I had just watched this in virtual reality?”
Sure it would have been a “thrill-ride”, but I was more concerned of the more subtle effects this might have on my psyche if I had watched it via an Oculus Rift or some such.
Indeed, one thing that kept me somewhat grounded in watching such a realistic depiction of humans dismembering other humans was the fact that I was watching it on a 13 inch screen.
But what if… What if I had not watched it, but experienced it. Standing in the battlefield, seeing the chaos explode around me just as the initial scene begins with one of our key protagonists (no spoilers) standing amidst the battlefield?
I wonder what the long term impact will be to our culture when, just as we have become somewhat desensitized to the violence we see in tv, movies and games, when these images cease being images that can easily be decoupled from reality and begin to become memories, cognitively inseparable from our actual experiences and sensations in daily life?
Try as we might to separate the two and tell ourselves one is fantasy and the other is reality, it will be almost as if we had just woke up from a feverish nightmare, soothing ourselves by repeating “It was only a dream, it was only a dream.”
But over time, will we be able to continue to correctly recalibrate ourselves? After we watch the Battle of the Bastards? After we experience it? After we live it? Or will we slowly find ourselves in a world where the horror that was Orlando is no less tragic, but, perhaps even more frighteningly, somehow understandable.
Particularly given the tragic events in weeks past, the fact that I watched this episode while overlooking the beautifully broad expanse of Tokyo Disneyland created a distinct degree of cognitive dissonance that I couldn’t ignore.
As I looked upon this beautiful horizon with its augmented spatial effects (things in Disneyland are closer than they actually appear), heard all-encompassing musical triggers drift through my window (beautifully haunting orchestral versions of your childhood soundtrack are audible everywhere) and recalled the saccharine smiles of each highly modulated cast member I met, I could not help but think that perhaps there was something not so different between the Bastard and the Mouse.
They are both fantasies that threaten to eat our realities alive.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my time at Disney. And my four year old absolutely adored it.
In my opinion what Disney achieved and continues to achieve makes it worthy of its prolonged success and placement in our mind’s eye of a universally known “happy place”, regardless of what corner of the Earth you come from.
Can the sheer awesomeness of this achievement be overstated? Think about it. What are Disney’s most valuable assets? Lines on paper, doodles, words on the page, musical notes played in order.
These are all ethereal in nature and yet they live on. They will live on longer than any of us reading these words. As long as the saccharine smiles hold and the dream is maintained with the utter precision of each sweep of the tiniest litter from the Disneyland grounds, these smatterings of ink on paper will be immortal.
So, even as I was, on some level, warily watching myself, making sure not to get too caught up in the fantasy that is Disney, I also could not help but admire the legacy that Walt Disney has left behind.
But I still don’t trust him.
Not because Walt and his progeny are bad people per se. The same way that the makers of GoT are decidedly not homicidal maniacs.
Perhaps, the more accurate way to describe my feeling is that, like a chocolate addict in a Ben and Jerry’s, I don’t trust myself around them.
And my fear is, as both Virtual and Augmented Realities take off (they are legitimately a threat to become the next big thing in home entertainment, leaving behind the lost hope that was “3d-enabled home televisions” and their awkward and cumbersome headgear which looks like we will now ironically trade in for even more awkward and cumbersome headgear), all of us will need to temper ourselves more acutely than ever before to separate fact from fiction, reality from fantasy, memories from entertainment.
You see, the Future of Fantasy is that Game of Thrones and Disneyland are not so dissimilar at all. They will both be easily accessible, completely immersive and cognitively inseparable from our actual real-world experiences.
The fact that one partakes in a “little bit of the old ultra-violence” and the other in “dreams come true” is but a minor detail, mere flavors that will be meticulously designed and sharpened to attract different profiles in our population.
So where does this leave us?
Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of options. One clearly is to swear off of the incoming tide of VR offerings like some sort of Luddite hermit. This stands about as good a chance as avoiding targeted advertising in today’s sea of data.
Or, alternatively, we can be vigilant. We can consciously seek to build up our own internal compasses so that we can stay centered even as we are bombarded with experiences of someone else’s creation. We can remind ourselves that what we observe and what we experience is not what we are.
We can choose to create instead of consume. Not just for our own gratification, but for our own well-being and mental health.
Brace yourselves, Disney is coming.