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Retroactive Continuity and ‘South Park’

Radical Islamic website warns 'South Park' creators that they may end up dead for allegedly depicting Muhammad in a bear suit

I was shocked to see on CNN that a radical Islamic website had issued this message to ‘South Park’ creators:

“We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo van Gogh for airing this show,” the group said. “This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality that will likely happen to them.”

In a subsequent interview with Ayaan Hirsi, Hirsi says, “South Park episode of last week was not just funny… it addressed an essential piece in the times that we are living: [that] there is one group of people, one religion that is claiming to be above criticism.”

When asked whether they were afraid of being bombed, South Park creators said:

We’d be so hypocritical against our own thoughts if we said “ok, well, lets not make fun of them because they might hurt us. That’s messed up… ok, we’ll rip on the Catholics because they won’t hurt us, but we won’t rip on them because they might hurt us.”

[Spoilers ahead!]

The episode that sparked such controversy aired one week ago, and tonight’s episode revealed that, “just kidding,” the children of South Park had Santa Claus in the bear suit “pretending” to be the prophet, Muhammad. What an interesting instance of retroactive continuity.

Ok, so this isn’t the traditional application of “retcon.” Wikipedia describes:

Retroactive continuity (often shortened to retcon) is the deliberate changing of previously established facts in a work of serial fiction. Retconning may be carried out for a variety of reasons, such as to accommodate sequels or further derivative works in the same series, to reintroduce popular characters, to make a reboot of an old series more relevant to modern audiences, or to simplify an excessively complex continuity structure.

And it may not even really be retroactive, but perhaps to the credit of the creator’s foresight of cultural implications and public response, it is. In any case, I felt it is noteworthy in light of the research meeting I had earlier today where my advisor mentions the leverage that retroactive continuity has within the system I’m currently building.

My approach to story generation focuses on implicit character role satisfaction (such as victim or aggressor) as opposed to strictly plot generation. Making the mutability of plot a secondary concern, this system (which we are calling RoleModel) aims to explore the space of ideological models and novel implications of hot cognition in generating stories.

Now, I’m not going to go into all the details of the system (you can read the paper if you really want to know), but the direction I’d like to see my work heading is towards a system that generates novel variations, while maintaining the integrity of the some authored (or partially authored) plot.

The Santa Claus episode has been pulled

For a whole week, we were correct to believe that Muhammad was parodied in a bear suit on South Park. That belief stirred strong emotions and international controversy. Today, it is correct to believe that Santa Claus, not Muhammad, was in that bear suit. The integrity of last week’s episode is maintained; however, a very consequential reality has been retroactively negated. South Park creates an unusually satisfying experience by using conventions of storytelling applied to an unconventional social situation. I hope that RoleModel can leverage these under-explored experiences and (similarly) apply them to immersive and interactive spaces.

The prototype system, “RoleModel,” will premier at this year’s Foundations of Digital Games in Monterey California.

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