James Tiptree Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is a dismal depiction of the relationship of one woman with her body, and the relationship between that body and the world. The story, first published in 1973, presents a dystopic future where revered celebrities referred to as “gods” are elevated by mega-corporations, most notably GTX, to do their bidding.
Burke is a lonely, traffic figure in this macabre new world. She is a “tall monument to pituitary dystrophy,” (Tiptree, 2). She has no hope or prospects here, until a figure from GTX intervenes and offers her a chance to act as the operator of a beautiful body that can live among the gods.
Plugged in, thrust into a sauna-like closet underground and miles away from where her avatar, the beautiful Delphi, lives out her charmed life, P. Burke withers away. She becomes less and less inclined to maintain her real, human body, absorbed by the beauty that is Delphi’s existence.
As Melisssa Colleen Stevenson writes, “When P. Burke is cybernetically re-embodied in the perfect-girl form of Delphi, she cedes her power and agency to others but, for the first time in her life, is able to connect and interact with the human beings around her,” (95).
As a figure who had little power in her former position, how much agency did she actually cede in her decision to transform? Does P. Burke ever have true agency even in this decision? Does she have any more freedom in her life as Delphi? I attempted to translate these questions of choice, freedom, and body from a physical space to a cyberspace.
Delphi is not the result of a transformation in a traditional sense. P. Burke is not made over or reshaped. She still exists as an operator or user. I likened this to the construction of an avatar, a figure that can be formed and controlled at a distance while the user remains physically unchanged.
All of the people depicted in the game are avatars, and are largely stills from Sims and Second Life because these games allow users to create manifestations and extensions of themselves that then act in the real world. I also use Miquela, an Instagram celebrity whose authenticity and humanity is the subject of fan debate as one character (see: Brennan).
Delphi is operating in a kind of Second Life, where, as Simon Gottschalk writes, “one can adorn one’s avatar/self with perfect physical features, clothes, and objects, and spend time in one’s vision of a perfect dwelling located in a perfect landscape where one can even control the time of day in which it appears,” (507). With the aid of GTX, her appearance, her life and her surroundings are polished and perfected.
However, lurking behind the elegant and graceful Delphi, P. Burke, and the game’s player remain. And this embodied self must learn to operate Delphi in the world, in accordance with GTX’s, and the general public’s expectations.
Yet, how can someone who has never before been afforded the opportunity to forge social bonds learn to interact naturally and seamlessly in an alien world?
Gottschalk writes, “The avatar paradox is that while we can create multiple avatars that look different from each other and nothing like ourselves, they essentially always communicate in the same way. Our way,” (514).
Delphi’s choices and actions are imperfect, and P. Burke and the user struggle to operate according to the societal norms and values Delphi is somehow expected to uphold.
II. A Love Story
In Tiptree’s original story, Paul, the rebellious son of a GTX official, falls in love with Delphi. P. Burke, in turn, falls in love with Paul. He believes that Delphi is within her own body, but that she is being controlled remotely with an electrode, and wishes to free her. When he finds P. Burke, he inadvertently kills her in the pursuit of this goal.
For my proposal, I initially focused upon this relationship between Paul and P. Burke through Delphi. I intended to show the development of the relationship and allow the game player to act as the person behind an avatar, and illustrate the complexities and problems involved in this game of “catfishing.” I drew upon OKCupid because online dating is a current form of the construction of an image, where “the true self” can be doctored and manipulated to varying degrees.
As I developed this aspect of the game, it proved to be limiting in terms of a cohesive and interesting narrative, and the amount of real possible interaction on the part of the user. The choices and results did not seem to adequately address the issues of agency, the body, and transformation in a meaningful way, or with enough variety of choice.
Therefore, I elected to make the pursuit of the relationship with Paul one possible motivation Delphi can pursue in the game. This is an abortive path. As in the story, its conclusion is Paul’s discovery of the plugged in, damaged body, and its destruction. For P. Burke, her transformation in Delphi is what allows her to pursue relationships, but as she continues to be bound by her body, she is unable to fully realize them.
As Melissa Colleen Stevenson writes, “Her cyborg identity as Delphi is for her both freedom and cage. It allows her to be human for the first time in her life, but it simultaneously blocks her away from the consummation of her now fledging human desire,” (99).
I offer an alternative track in my game. The player can survive the pursuit of love if they abandon it, and elect to not allow Paul to see their true form. The motivation of love is no longer offered as an option, and the user must then select the other offered motivation: fame.
Pursuing fame, users are given the opportunity to work towards keeping their popularity level up through their actions and interactions. However, public sentiment is volatile, and subject to chance, resulting in fluctuating popularity levels. Depending upon the previous actions of the user, the same choice may yield different results. For instance, if the user elects to buy a puppy, this may significantly elevate their score if it dropped because of an ill-fated night of partying. On the other hand, if the user spent money frivolously and taunted a homeless man, buying a puppy might decrease their score further.
This allows the game to address the original story’s underlying leitmotifs of capitalism and the corporate deification of individuals, highlighting these so-called gods’ dependence upon public sentiment in order to maintain their elevated positions.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” is a novella of just over 30 pages, so these themes were established, but not fully realized, expounded upon and developed, in order to focus on the narrative of Paul and Delphi’s relationship.
As modern celebrities are taste-makers and sometimes unwitting brand ambassadors, Delphi is employed as such in the story. Stevenson writes, “Delphi is not only the ideal form of femininity, but she also participates in the production of cultural norms and ideals by demonstrating the “best” clothing to wear, activities to pursue, and products to use,” (97).
Tiptree alludes to a PR Index briefly, writing “And a symbol goes into Delphi’s tank matrix, one that means roughly Balance unit resistance against PR index. This means that Delphi’s complaints will be endured as long as her Pop Response stays above a certain level. (What happens when it sinks need not concern us.)” (p.17). I translated this into graphs and a popularity scale of 1-10 that changes based on the user’s actions. If the user’s score drops to 1, they are disconnected, and the game ends. I based the score model upon the rating system employed in the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” in which all people are scored based on their popularity and social media following.
If a user manages to navigate this cycle of popularity, there is still an element of a chance. As public sentiment and the judgement of celebrities are volatile and precarious, I employed a coin flip that wildly impacts the player’s score.
The judgement of celebrities’ private lives and the spectacle of the celebrity body in the public sphere are not new to our era. These inclinations were very much present at the time of Tiptree’s writing, though the cult of celebrity has changed and developed because of the proliferation of new mediums.
In 1952, Robert Harrison founded Confidential, which Erin Meyers writes, paraphrasing Anthony Slide, “rejected the fan magazine mode of fawning over celebrities and instead offered readers the purported ‘truth’ about stars ‘in all their scandalous modes, without apology and without restraint.’ No longer primarily a space of aspiration, celebrity media now also offered audiences a space to police and reject social norms embodied by celebrities through gossip talk,” ( 74).
Even in the 1950s, we began to see celebrities not only as individuals, but as personifications of ideals, on which we can pass judgement. Today, countless tabloids, blogs, and columns are dedicated to the dissection of celebrity’s private acts, and are able to report on them in essentially real-time.
”For example,” Meyers writes, “ when Britney Spears shaved her head on the night of February 16, 2008, JustJared.com (as with many other blogs) was able to post the story (notably sourced from a Los Angeles ABC affiliate) and paparazzi pictures of the newly bald Spears in the wee hours of February 17 with updates on her condition following throughout the day,” (76). The game employs names and imagery from iconic celebrity gossip blogs TMZ and Page Six in mock articles to highlight the fast-paced, often biting, nature of this coverage.
I began to think of Delphi in this context, and in the context of many young women who have been thrust into the public eye, and repeatedly shamed for mistakes and actions that can often be attributed to their youth, their naïveté, and their ill preparation for the more negative aspects of fame. Delphi—lacking prior socialization, guidance, and friendship—would find herself in a particularly vulnerable position.
Delphi is not only owned by GTX, but is also owned by the public in a sense. A celebrity body is subject to dissection. These bodies are sites of conflict that are picked apart, politicized, and constantly commented upon. As Levine writes, “the participatory nature of blogs invite female readers to take up the contradictory fantasies of postfeminist culture in which women have the freedom to make their own choices and achieve success in a range of venues, but only through the proper and constantly policed expression of femininity ,” (78). Delphi as celebrity is aspirational and worthy of adoration, in so far as she makes the correct decisions.
IV. The Body
As I began to work on my prototype from the proposal, I realized that the body behind the avatar was unaddressed and forgotten in my original conception. P. Burke, or the idea of the user’s own body loomed only in the background, an ignored ugly duckling we wish to forget, that we do forget about at times while we live the artificial fantasy.
This is not the case in the novella. Scott Bukatman writes, “The reader is always aware of P.Burke’s flesh hovering just out of view,” (319).
We are constantly drawn back and forth between the idyllic life of Delphi and the dark room where P. Burke lives out her days, and must be coerced into maintaining her own livelihood. She is forced to sleep, eat and exercise while Delphi “sleeps” after her human body is endangered by her abject neglect.
“The diurnal pattern of waking and sleeping does not, in her case, signify that her body is refreshing itself,” writes N. Katherine Hayles. “Rather, the pattern reflects and enacts the distribution of agency, consciousness, and subjectivity between the two bodies according to a strict law of conservation,” (81)
As such, I integrated times when the user must reckon with the corporeal self into the game. At points throughout the game, they are reminded to maintain their bodies through food and exercise, in order to address the “real” biological needs of the forgotten body. Vital sign indicators show the state of this body, and if the user elects to ignore this, the game is ended, because Delphi depends upon the body in order to live.
V. Notes on Aesthetics, Narration, and Medium
The narration of “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is rough and unbeautiful. It speaks of P. Burke as inhuman, and of 15-year-old Delphi almost pornographically. Our narrator addresses the reader as “Zombie,” in the first line (Tiptree, 1). Using lines from the story, and trying to match the narration proved to be quite difficult, and often resulted in clunky and awkward language. This drove me to become more visual in my story-telling.
Just as many aspects of the narrative changed and grew and developed as I delved deeper into the project, the medium itself also changed. I planned to use Twine for the “choose-your-own-adventure” aspects of interactive fiction, but once I realized that PowerPoint allows hyperlinking between slides, I decided to continue using it after producing my first draft with it. It worked well for the collage-like visual work I wanted to do, and for some of the effects I wanted to use, like type-writer text and animation, without the added troubles of uploading images to a server.
Scenes and slides that depict and refer to the true body operating Delphi are dark and gray, reminders of the grim reality for both P. Burke and of this future world. In stark contrast, Delphi’s world is pastel-hued, pixelated, and pink. It is full of hearts and stars and rainbows.
This pink future world is where I imagined a troubled and impoverished young world would wish to be transported to in her wildest fantasies. I relied heavily upon the Cybertwee aesthetic to achieve this.
“The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” is recognized as a proto-cyberpunk story, evoking all of the main tropes and signifiers of the genre some years before it came into existence, (See: “The Story That Was Plugged In). The gray future world of the more realistic slides is a nod to this vision.
Cybertwee is in many ways the inverse of the cyberpunk aesthetic. It is the hyper-feminization of common images, tools, and methods employed in an often very masculine field of computer science and programming. It is the embrace and reclamation of the somewhat sophomoric Myspace-esque imagery and symbols teen girls have been derided for. It is described by its founders as, “If cyberpunk had a cute kid sister that was secretly better at hacking,” (Cybertwee). It seemed fitting that Delphi would exist in this highly gendered fantasy space.
VI. Game Goals/Winning
If the user is able to properly navigate or ignore the love story arc, maintain both their popularity and their vital signs, they are brought back to the choice between love and fame. The game is then, of course, only cyclical. All that can be achieved by “winning” is being granted the continued ability to play.
There is no happy ending to this story. In “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” P. Burke is never fully autonomous, and is never recognized or treated as a fully-fledged human, worthy of respect and compassion—either by those around her, or the narrator.
Heather Hicks writes, “Tiptree’s novella serves up perhaps the most despairing rendering to date of the woman’s body in the technosphere,” (69).
Even if she had been able to continue her half-life as Delphi, she would be physically bound, and emotionally policed, subject to the constant control and surveillance of GTX, in addition to a public audience.
Burke remains constrained in both incarnations of self that we observe, and is never really afforded any real degree of agency.
Veronica Hollinger writes, “P. Burke’s performance-at-a-distance of femininity is a consumer-driven masquerade in which such performance provides her only opportunity, within the constraints of an ugly and abjected female body, to mimic acceptable femininity-and thus to qualify for the kind of fairy-tale ending, marriage to a handsome prince, which is (almost) P. Burke’s reward for successfully performing the masquerade.” (32)
Life as Delphi is initially seen as the magical solution to life as P. Burke, but the realities of this arrangement are bleak. This not a fairy-tale, P. Burke is not a princess, and life as Delphi is riddled with a new host of constraints.
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