Detour to the Magic Kingdom (rules of the text 6)

I haven’t had the opportunity to move forward in my thinking about Mass Effect enough to feel that I can write a good post about the central issues I to which referred in my last one, but in the intervening period my attention was grabbed by something very much worth an excursus: Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, which may be the best example of the great chain of practomime I’ve ever seen.

Sorcerers is a hybrid Alternate-Reality, Collectible Card, Live-Action Role-Playing, Tabletop, and Video Game. It’s very hard to describe because of its thoroughly blended nature. The Disney Wiki does a good job here, I think, but until you watch the game being played it seems, well, monstrous. It is in fact monstrous in a way, but it’s also a brilliant transformation of Disney narrative performance materials, created in older rulesets, into a new ruleset that allows players to perform using those materials in ways that invest old stories with new, personal meanings. That transformation, by the designers of Sorcerers, is itself a performance of the ruleset of the Disney canon: a transmedia performance that crosses genres, eras, works, and even the bounds of the physical world to supply practomimetic occasions for the Sorcerer.

Any visitor to the Magic Kingdom may, free of additional charge, play the game, becoming a Sorcerer in a clever ARG in which he or she is recruited by Merlin to defend the Magic Kingdom by battling classic Disney villians at video portals throughout the park. The mode of battle involves an RFID key-card to swipe and collectible cards with spells, recognized by cameras at the portals: the story unfolds partly on the screen, with divertingly acted and animated pieces of story featuring settings and characters from Disney’s extraordinary set of heritage performance materials, and partly in the player’s journey from portal to portal.

The ruleset as it would be defined by a game-designer is very simple and I would guess entirely uninteresting (recall that my definition of ruleset is much broader than theirs): nothing I saw over the weekend made me think there were any mechanics involved in the video game and collectible card portions that weren’t borrowed from early DVD games and collectible card games of fifteen years ago; the live-action portion is simply a jejune treasure-hunt with symbols on a map.

Tell that to the people in the backroom of the Tortuga Tavern in Adventureland poring with ultimate seriousness over their cards, trying to make a crucial trade.

Tell that to the group of seniors who meet every night for a drink at the Contemporary to discuss their days’ results in saving Walt Disney World.

Tell that to the teen-aged girl clad head to toe in Stitch gear who efficiently held up the smaller of her two stuffed binders to play three spells at once and produce a massive explosion that sent Scar packing.

Tell that to the many, many people of all ages who wait in the (short) lines comparing notes and marvelling at how the game brings the park to life for them in a way they had never expected, or experienced before.

In this practomime, a huge range of transmedia discourses (films, above all, but also books, games, and the Magic Kingdom itself) are made part of a ruleset that the designers (whom Disney, never more appropriately, of course calls “imagineers”) have literally mapped onto the theme park and coded onto cards that fragment the Disney narratives and let players recompose them in delightful juxtapositions–for example assaulting Yzma of The Emperor’s New Groove with Maurice’s (of Beauty and the Beast) woodchopper.

Disney has been accused with justice of shaping for the benefit of its shareholders a version of world-culture that manipulates the players of its many practomimes into becoming faithful followers of Disney, which functions in nearly all respects as a religion, with canonical texts, pilgrimage-sites, relics, vestments, and sacraments. A reading of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom as a ruleset that transforms previous practomimetic performance materials into new ones by playing within the broader ruleset of the Disney canon, and affords players the opportunity to shape their own performances at the Magic Kingdom, does nothing to acquit Disney of these charges; in fact, it reinforces them–except perhaps to the extent that in Sorcerers there is a certain loosening of doctrine and canon to encompass the performances of the game’s players, though as I’ve often noted a practomimetic ruleset ensures that performance-variation is always both infinite and strictly bounded.

Such a reading, though, certainly also reveals the incredible potential of designers’ taking the broadest view of digital performance affordances for creating new rulesets, and the pressing need for humanists to read them.

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