Jason Segel and Kirstin Miller on Otherworld: what happens when gaming goes too far

Published on: 20 December 2017 Author: Taran Matharu

Our Writer-in-Residence Taran Matharu is a passionate gamer, as well as the author of a bestselling fantasy series. He caught up with the writers of new book Otherworld, to see what drew them to this cautionary tale about virtual reality.

More about the Writer-in-Residence

Growing up, would you have described yourself as more of a gamer, a reader or both?  

Jason Segel (JS): I was definitely a reader. Obsessed with Roald Dahl. The crossover between reading and gaming for me was the “Choose your own Adventure” series. I devoured them and with each book I would explore every possible solution. The only video game I was really obsessed with was called “Myst.” It is actually one of the inspirations for this book.

Kirstin Miller (KM): My siblings and I loved video games. We had all the early consoles – Atari, Nintendo, PlayStation – and we constantly fought over who got to play. However, it wasn’t until I was in college that I really got hooked. I was a huge fan of Tomb Raider (among other games), and I would often play for 12 hours straight.

That having been said, I was always an avid reader. I’d read pretty much anything I could get my hands on –especially books that focused on cryptozoology, extraterrestrials or the paranormal. I was a rather unusual child. 

Do you think that the books you read growing up had an important impact on your life? 

JS: I do. I think reading was instrumental in developing my imagination. When you read a book it is truly a collaboration between the writer and the reader. Each is doing half the work. I also think that as a writer, reading was essential for learning the underlying structure of storytelling. These ideas became part of my subconscious.

KM: No doubt, whatsoever. The subjects that fascinate me today are those I read about growing up. Every book I’ve written can be traced back to things I read about as a kid or teen. I truly believe that reading as much as you can in your youth is the only way to ensure that you don’t turn into a boring adult. 

What were your favourite childhood reads? 

JS: As I mentioned I was truly obsessed with the Choose Your Own Adventure series. I felt like these books gave me the opportunity to participate in my entertainment.

KM: The Book of Lists (all volumes). These books were huge hits in the 1980s, but no one seems to remember them these days. They were filled with lists on topics like the rarest diseases in the world, the most prolific serial killers, deadliest plants, etc. I would study them for hours. I was also a huge fan of Stephen King’s books, particularly The Shining. I’ve always enjoyed scaring myself senseless. 

Some parents and teachers view gaming as a hindrance to reading. Are the two pastimes mutually exclusive, or do you think that the passion young people feel for video games might actually encourage them to read, if the right book is put in front of them? 

JS: To be perfectly honest, the current generation has access to new forms of technology that simply didn’t exist when I was young. I feel trying to force my childhood experience into this new framework would be missing the point. My guess is the future of all of these forms of education and entertainment will be a multimedia experience.

KM: This is an interesting question, and I’m not sure I have the answer. I will say that time is a zero-sum game. The time you devote to one pastime is time you can’t devote to another. Reading requires imagination and mental effort that aren’t necessary for video games. I would never recommend choosing games over books. However, we need to choose the right battles – and fighting against video games seems like a pointless endeavor. I’d rather find ways to bring the two forms of entertainment together and get kids engaged in both. 

Jason, you're an accomplished script writer, penning hits such as The Muppets and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. What was it like transitioning to novel writing? 

JS: Well I would not be capable of doing any of this without Kirsten Miller. While the essential storytelling is the same across both genres, Kirsten’s artistry with prose is what makes these books work. I’m very lucky to have met her. 

When asked for the inspiration behind Otherworld, you've spoken about a mysterious game you once played a game as a teenager that was never released, but is now being reimagined for VR. Are you able to shed any more light on what this game was about? 

JS: I am not, unfortunately. However, my belief is that this will become more and more clear as Otherworld gets into the hands of readers. We have tried to lay in as many clues into the series as possible. 

You have described Otherworld as being, in part, a cautionary tale about the dangers of allowing technology to rule our lives. Did you find this a tricky balancing act, given your passion for gaming and interest in the arrival of virtual reality? 

JS: I didn’t. I think we lay out the pros and cons of this, and any technology, pretty plainly in the book. Virtual reality can be used for many amazing things, but could also be used to sedate an entire population. It is not so different from the way we use television culturally. There is no other context in which “binge” is an acceptable term. 

With the trailer for the Steven Spielberg-directed adaption of Ready Player One dropping a few months ago, I imagine many readers might draw comparisons between the novel and Otherworld.

Are you a fan of Ready Player One, and did it have any influence on the creation of Otherworld? 

JS: I am very excited for Ready Player One. I haven’t read it yet intentionally as I was in the process of writing this idea but I really look forward to it! 

Virtual reality is a relatively new phenomenon, with the first commercially available headsets arriving late last year.

But it's already made its way into popular culture, with the arrival of Marie Lu's Warcross, Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, the anime Sword Art Online, NBC's new TV Series, Reverie and the rise of a new, VR-inspired literary genre known as LitRPG.

Do you think this is just the beginning, or is the interest in VR a passing trend? 

JS: I think we have been teased by the promise of virtual reality (VR) for decades. From the holodeck in Star Trek to the clunky demonstrations at state fairs when I was a kid. I think finally the technology has caught up with our imaginations.

I do think that VR and augmented reality (AR) are going to change the world. In the same way we can barely remember a world without iPhones, which are scarily only ten years old...

OTHERWORLD is out now and published by Rock the Boat. Discover more about Otherworld on social media, using the tag #visitOtherworld. You can also visit the new site: https://www.visitotherworld.com

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