Fantastic Media Fiction: Cognition, Design, Worldbuilding

Jakob Ion Wille, Rikke Schubart, Angela Ndalianis, Amanda Howell

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“This is pure, limitless magic,” a reviewer wrote about the unusual fantasy film Border (Gräns, 2018), “turning the world we seem to know inside out and giving it an entirely new context” (Carlsen 2018). Border is about Tina, an ugly border guard who can smell guilt on people – an impossible ability. But Tina turns out to be a troll. Not long ago, fantastic fiction was discarded as childish pastime. Today, the fantastic is the most popular genre in the West and East, and generates unusual films like Border as well as blockbuster franchises such as Star Wars and the transmedia superhero universes of DC and Marvel. This panel theorizes the fantastic as a cognitive ability to think the impossible and unreal (Grodal 2009). We ask how to define the transmedia fantastic, how and why it is adaptive, and how and why users – authors, directors, designers, readers, viewers, players – employ its affordances. The panel consists of people from the network “Imagining the Impossible: The Fantastic as Media Entertainment and Play” (2018–2020), with 8 participants from Denmark, and 5 from the UK, US, and Australia. We join media studies with design and production studies, we analyze texts and creative production processes, and we observe and interview users. We use biocultural theory, genre theory, production and design theory, and media ethnography. Our aim is to forge a holistic theory of the fantastic. We define fantastic fiction as stories that break with laws of nature and we use an umbrella definition including all fantastic subgenres. We theorize the fantastic as meta-thinking and as imaginary play. Across our approaches is a view of fiction as play. Play is innate and a constant in every culture (Huizinga 1938). Humans play from birth until old age, and play facilitates vital things like problem solving and to prepare for the unknown (Smith 2019). The panel has three presentations which address areas central in this enterprise of producing a Grand Theory of the fantastic: • cognition, mind, body – thinking beyond the real and possible • design & technology – designing and inventing the fantastic in media • worldbuilding, uses, play – imagining and playing with fantastic worlds Presentation 1: Cognition – Fantastic Bodies and Corporeal Sensations Using Border as point of reference, this presentation addresses the cognitive basis of the fantastic to create corporeal sensations. Grodal argues “the supernatural is interesting precisely because it violates universal common sense” (2009: 103), a “violation” which causes curiosity and a search for explanations. About religion, Pascal Boyer says the phenomenon triggers “the activation of a panoply of systems in the mind . . . [which is] not so much caused as made more likely by the cognitive processes” (2001: 298). This presentation addresses the use of social realism mixed with minimally counterintuitive elements, thus using masks and makeup instead of CGI to design fantastic bodies that stimulate a corporeal sense of a real body. It joins cognitive psychology with media ethnography, using interviews with author Johan Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In) and director Ali Abbasi. Presentation 2: Technology – Virtual Reality and Entering the Fantastic This paper examines how – or whether – our experience of the fantastic alters in the VR environment. Drawing on neuroscience research, this paper will argue that VR experiences introduce new forms of perception and embodiment that transform what Jonathan Crary called the “observer” (1990). While relying on stereoscopic vision, VR engagement demands what Giuliana Bruno in Atlas of Emotions (2002) refers to as “kinesthetic perception” and haptic visuality. To quote Terry Castle (1995), who writes about phantasmagoria of the C19th), VR games like Lone Echo, Resident Evil 7, Skyrim VR and Paranormal Activity: The Lost Soul trigger an “optical explosion of the senses” that ignite the entire body and, in the process, activate a dialogue between two bodies – the real and the virtual. The question this paper addresses is, what does this mean for our engagement with the fantastic in virtual reality? Presentation 3: The fantastic as Worldbuilding and Play This presentation discusses Story World building as media agnostic content design processes in production design and as user interaction with fantastic worlds. It addresses how the fantastic affords Story World building. Worldbuilding is a) traditionally seen as fictional worlds associated with fantastic genres; b) used as method to create content in any media format like games, serial fiction, television series, trans-media creations; and c) can be used in co-creation to extend existing media stories through less hierarchical and more collaborative processes, for example as with fan’s cosplay or in recent fan protest activism as in The Handmaid’s Tale. This presentation examines worldbuilding as, on the one hand, development method for creating media fiction with digital visualization technologies such as game engines Unity and Unreal and, on the other hand, as user activity in story world extensions such as cosplay, fan-art, and fan-fiction.
Original languageDanish-English
Publication date12 Jun 2019
Publication statusPublished - 12 Jun 2019
EventSociety for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image 2019 - Universität Hamburg, Hamburg , Germany
Duration: 12 Jun 201915 Jun 2019


ConferenceSociety for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image 2019
LocationUniversität Hamburg
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