That's Intertainment

Leigh Raymond guests at Intencity

In the same moment that Luna Park, Sydney’s oldest amusement park apart from Kings Cross, has been threatened with closure, a new entertainment space has opened in a shopping centre in suburban Hurstville, far from the Sydney-defining harbourside spectacle.

Called Intencity, it’s part video arcade, pinball parlour, sideshow alley and simulated amusement park, billed as “intertainment for the new world”.

Perhaps it is no more than egregious inner city snobbery to wonder at the ambition to create a new world in Hurstville. Kogarah at least gave us Clive James and is home to the bank that brings us the cheerfully tinny sound of Julie Anthony.

But Intencity is in Hurstville, in Westfield Shoppingtown, backed by Australia’s leading entertainment companies, Village Roadshow (the movie distributors and exhibitors) and the Nine Network.

If American shopping mall planning strategies are being used in this case, Intencity is in less than intense Hurstville because the demographics are right. In other words, the audience profile in the service area will maximise the number of visits and the size of the spend of what they call, in the trade, ‘guests’.

According to publicity, 212,000 guests visited Intencity in its first three weeks of operation. That’s slightly less than the number of people who visit Sydney’s Hyde Park Barracks Museum in a year. And they expect 20,000 to 30,000 a week. (It was a slow Friday night when I went but maybe that was because it was cold and wet.) It’s principally aimed, according to Gary Berman, the Managing Director of Village Nine Leisure, the company behind Intencity, at 18–39 year olds.

Intencity’s recorded message promo boasts that it is the world’s first indoor interactive intertainment complex — intertainment being a combination of interactivity and entertainment.

So what is Intencity? What happens there? And what does it mean? Is it a menace to society? Is it like the video arcade, to use John Fiske’s phrase, a semiotic brothel of the machine age?

Intencity contains elements of the themed restaurant, the video arcade, the pinball parlour, the funfair, the theme park and the museum. It occupies just over 3,000 square metres and employs a staff of 150 people.

The space is divided into a number of themed areas which offer different kinds of entertainment. There’s Virtual World, a game set somewhere in space, like Mars. Here speed is success and rookie players are advised, “Be a bully. Collisions are big points when done right.”

Groups of participants, up to eight, battle it out, the aim being to win a race. The lengthy introduction to Mars and the rules of the game by video presenters and staff takes up a large part of the 25 minutes the experience lasts. Then you climb into a pod which is designed like the cramped cockpit of a Martian mining vehicle with a big screen up front looking out onto the virtual world. Then the race through the Martian canals begins.

Afterwards there’s a debriefing which tells you how you went. Even virtual reality has a reality check.

The other game in Virtual World is called Battletech. In the 31st century, the promocopy runs, sport is a deadly thing and war has been ritualised into sport. Mechwarriors fight it out like knights of yore in jousting competitions. “In Battletech, you can play as teams, or in a free for all where it’s every man (sic) for himself.”

This is the most expensive attraction at Intencity and bookings are recommended (although seemed entirely unnecessary on a wet Friday night during school term).

The other big attraction is Chameleon, which is similar to Virtual World but with simpler controls — steering wheel, accelerator, brake — rather than the complex and graded control possibilities in Virtual World. And you get to go to some differently designed part of the Hurstville universe, with more vinyl and fewer metal finishes.

For 1–12 year olds there’s Hide and Seek, created by Keith Ohlsen, one of the people responsible for McDonald’s soft-play concept areas for kids, a huge tubular play space area with mazes, slides, tunnels and obstacle courses.

There’s also a Wide World of Sports Centre where you can play virtual reality boxing (this is certainly not a spectator sport) in which you put on virtual reality head gear and have a boxing match with an opponent whom you don’t actually touch. As well there are mechanised basketball hoops, computer golf and baseball batting cages.

Other areas relate to music and include a booth where you can singalong, karaoke style, to an extensive playlist of pop songs, record the result and take the cassette home. It also includes DiMMMensions (Village owns radio network Triple M) which I missed. (Intencity is structured like a simple enclosed maze and it’s easy to get lost or distracted.)

Intencity’s front of house staff are all young people. Apart from security, waiters and sales people, they are mostly integrators, because their role, according to the media kit, is to ‘integrate guests into the Intencity experience’. More on this later.

So does Intencity offer a new kind of interactive entertainment?

The term interactive has had two principle applications both of which find their way into the Intencity experience.

Interactivity was a concept essential to the science centre movement which began in the United States in the 1960s aiming to educate people, kids mostly, about science, by getting them to participate in experiments or demonstrations of scientific principles.

The role of interactives was as three dimensional ‘permanent’ science experiments, which demonstrated a scientific principle. In San Francisco’s Exploratorium, the first science centre established in 1969, demonstrators — young people, mostly university science students — explained the principles of prisms or magnetic fields. The demonstrators were supposed to interact with visitors, to answer questions, provide help, or explanations if required, like the integrators in Intencity.

Interactive came to be applied more generally to any installation in a museum which got a viewer to do something other than look at it or read a label. At its most elementary, you might push a button and a video would start, or you would, using a computer interactive, make a complex set of choices using either a touch screen or a keypad, to elicit different kinds of information — a video clip, a computer game, or more recently, sending e-mail on the internet.

By extension, there were interactive and non-interactive forms of entertainment. Reading a book involved low levels of interactivity. At one level, it could be argued most book narratives were closed in the sense that you couldn’t change or alter them by your intervention (although fiction with narrative options for different outcomes have recently appeared).

Interactivity’s other history was in computer culture in the 1980s, where it became a buzzword for the message-response relationship that was set up in computer interface design.

It was here that higher levels of interactivity — not simple mechanical button pushing or reading, were seen to be possible. Interactivity in both these processes was seen as the key link, a kind of negotiated performance between the computer, or the machine and the user. This was partly structured by the computer’s hardware and software, in particular its language and design, partly by the user.

In early studies of video arcades in the 1980s, based on Pac men style games, social critics like John Fiske argued that these games constructed a particular kind of subjectivity, a form of resistance to home, school, work and family.

The person in charge of the machine was generally young, in terms of social power in a subordinate position, and from non anglo ethnic background. Fiske argues that the machines give the young man a sense of control, and so of power and pleasure, which he could not otherwise access because of his social position.

Fiske also noted social criticism of the arcades, namely that they were harmful to young people – distracting them from school, worthy consumption and home life – and that they encouraged vandalism, hooliganism and petty crime (young people would become addicted to the machines and need to steal to support their habit).

In Sydney, video arcades were banned from parts of the gay and lesbian Oxford Street precinct, and were not permitted in some shopping centres because they were seen to attract young men who were prone to anti-gay and lesbian violence on the one hand, or vandalism and petty crime on the other.

Intencity’s location in a shopping mall and the involvement of the developer Westfield in its operation is significant because the design and management of Intencity enables some forms of social control. It’s like McDonald’s meets the video arcade.

While some of Intencity’s games can offer the same kind of subjectivity that old video arcade games did, the environment in which they’re placed is far more tightly regulated, and the ‘guests’ or users who might go to a video arcade might not find the Intencity experience that attractive. It’s safe, sterile, (if brightly coloured and shiny), family oriented and heavily staffed, unlike a video arcade.

While the subjectivity offered by those old Pac men machines is still possible at Intencity, the combination with other forms of entertainment and group-operated machines makes that kind of subjectivity relatively marginalised.

The subjectivity that’s created by Chameleon or Virtual World is the subjectivity of the cultural actor, in which pleasure comes from participating in a narrative. A subjectivity of resistance might be built around disruption, or stepping in and out of roles. Stepping in and out of roles, however merely leads back to the social, and one of the principal pleasures of Intencity is to make it a place to meet people. Hence there are lounges where you can talk with the people you played with in Virtual World. It’s another suburban heterosexual public place.

And unlike the arcades, Intencity is not largely a single sex space. It is designed to include young women. In Chameleon, for example, both the video presenters taking you on your mission are experienced, no-nonsense young women.

Symbolically, the central theme of Intencity, its creators argue, is music, movies and sport. But these are marginalised spatially and experientially. Movies are reduced to a series of decorative blow ups of big stars, music to music video, a narrow playlist of hits you can sing along to, and a DJ booth screened off by a thick window, and closed mostly except to integrators. What counts is simulation games and the narratives they present.

In this new goal-oriented world “a man is defined by his actions, not by his memory” as Cuarto the mutant rebel leader says to Arnie in Total Recall, and here we become cultural actors who act and perform action.

“Just do it”, says the Nike ad.

The point is that there is nothing else to do. In the narratives of action, the aim is to score the goal, or win the race; there is pursuit and flight, attack and defence.

The games are designed for an environment which is safe and sterile. Both the games themselves, and their physical and simulated environment, have many of the characteristics that George Ritzer argues, in The McDonaldization of Society, are being built into a fast food world: rationality, efficiency, calculability, standardisation and predictability.

Wherever possible, he argues, this McDonaldization removes the human. Staff become integrators, a role which is at least partly scripted and for which they are trained.

When integrators and actors step outside their roles, things become more engaging. Wandering around the corridors of games we meet up again with the young man who introduced us to the Chameleon. He asks what my score was and I say it’s so pathetically low I couldn’t possibly tell him, he’d just laugh. He laughs anyway.

Did I like it? he asks, and because he wants me to like it because he identifies so strongly with it, I say yes, sure, it was cool. But I’m not used to it. It made me feel, well it made me feel sick, I tell him.

He says he’s had hundreds of goes on it and you get better the more you do it. I want to say that like any reality, it probably looks better after a drink, but then I remember the vomit button in the cockpit pod and I start feeling clammy and nauseous again.

It’s time to get back to the real world.

Jean Baudrillard has argued that the post modern involves the collapse of the real and history into the televisual and the disappearance of aesthetics and values in kitsch. If you take a particle accelerator to be high tech in the way that Last Year at Marienbad is high culture, then the games at Intencity are technokitsch.

So another suburban branch of the postmodern has opened in the decentred city. It’s free to get in, but prices vary depending on when you go. If you go during the week the main attractions are a dollar or two cheaper. At peak times over the weekend, Virtual World is $10.00 and Chameleon is $8.00.

Go with others. The constructed unit of consumption is, except for the sports and sideshow games, not the individual but the couple. Everyone was in groups and many of the games can only be fully played in pairs — there were young couples on a night out, girlfriends out together driving racing cars , buddies from a local gym practising their swing on the simulated golf range.

If you forget to eat before you go, the diner, Intake, serves what promo-language calls incredible edibles, or fast food. Incredibly it’s not that inedible.

Intencity, Westfield Shoppingtown, Cross Street and Park Road Hurstville Sydney. Open 7 days, 9.00 am to 12.00 midnight.

RealTime issue #7 June-July 1995 pg. 7

© Leigh Raymond; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1995