Simulated factuality

Arguments by documentary theorist John Corner that we might be moving into a post-documentary period echo concerns raised earlier by Brian Winston that the documentary is facing some type of crisis (Corner 2000b; Winston 1995, 1999). These concerns are often placed in relation to the impact of new media technologies such as Web TV, Internet spycams, and interactive voting games. Richard Kilborn is one commentator who has argued that their use in contemporary forms of television such as reality TV and the docusoap have reconfigured notions of the 'real' away from the authentic towards the voyeuristic or fabricated (1994).

At the heart of these hybrid documentary forms is a playfulness that Corner casts as entertainment, diversion and a lightness of topic or treatment (2000b). Such a response reinforces a general belief that playfulness and the game-like challenge the purity of the serious documentary form and perhaps reveals an underlying Griersonian suspicion of pleasure.2 This paper argues that, rather than signalling an unravelling or a dumbing down of documentary's purpose, emerging forms of factuality point towards more localised and participatory forms of communication that have been effaced in 'discourses of sobriety', with their distrust of the popular (Nichols 1991). Such 'gamedocs', rather than being an entirely new phenomenon, belong to the lineage of nineteenth-centuryfin de siècle experiments with their mix of the exotic, the factual and the illusionistic, as illustrated by the films of Méliès, early motion simulators and pre-cinematic games. Along with the panoramas, dioramas and mutoscopes, these phenomena contained elements of popular education and gaming that are now re-emerging in new forms of popular factual entertainment through computer visualization and simulation models.


My aim here is to frame these more interactive and playful types of factuality as a shift towards a new logic of simulation associated with the aesthetics of primarily symbolic or simulated actuality generated by computer systems and game engines. Such an aesthetics is most apparent in documentary's borrowing of game scenarios and play elements and the adoption in computer games of a type of factuality through AI (artificial intelligence) and the rules of emergence.3 In applying the i intervention of creative strategies, the simulated image moves beyond evidence and witness in a manner that evokes Grierson's notion of 'a creative treatment of actuality' (Nichols 1991). Rather than being inferior representations of actuality, cd

simulation models instead provide sophisticated ways of modelling social behaviour and articulating real world conditions.

My focus is on the reality television program Big Brother (Australian Big Brother 3, 2003) and the computer simulation game The Sims (2000) as examples of convergence across interactive gameplay and documentary that express a similar self-conscious, playful, sometimes critical exploration of the authentic-seeming. In Big Brother, the housemates' playful mimicry and mastery of the rules of the house and audience involvement through telephone voting and SMS messaging function to extend the show from television event into gaming session. In The Sims, there is an extensive borrowing of the visualisation codes and observational documentary techniques used in Big Brother. These techniques are married with the rules of AI emergence in order for the player to observe and play with human-like behaviours.

Such an assemblage of appropriated documentary material and game techniques can be seen as a type of docobricolage or media poaching (from the French term bricolage for tinkering). The bricoleur (producer and to some extent audience/player) crafts and tinkers with materials lying around in the media landscape. Patched-up strategies from observational documentary, bits and pieces from network gaming, and re-worked models from medical and military simulations are incorporated into the hybrid projects of Big Brother and The Sims. In such examples of simulated factuality, documentary's cultural cache as the site of the real is combined with the instability and turbulence of emergent systems. These experiences move beyond simple notions of authenticity or representations of factuality to explore normalized models of sociality and in this sense model a more complex and responsive analogy of lived experience.

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