On my radar: Go to Dismaland and be bemused

A remote-controlled boat by Banksy depicts desperate migrants at the white cliffs of Dover. PHOTO: Getty Images
A remote-controlled boat by Banksy depicts desperate migrants at the white cliffs of Dover. PHOTO: Getty Images

Afew weeks ago, a decidedly different theme park opened in a disused space at a UK seaside resort. It has all the trappings of a traditional theme park – complete with fun fair rides and amusement park stalls – but the mood is anything but cheerful.

Everything looks run-down, broken or abandoned, and even the staff are purposefully grumpy or depressed. Dismaland is a “dystopian” theme park and, as a graffiti message reminds visitors, shows that “life isn’t always a fairy tale”. To ram the message home, the iconic Disneyland palace is replicated here, but as a burnt out, decaying shell of its former self.

Dismaland, the “bemusement park”, is the brainchild of pseudonymous English graffiti artist Banksy. It is part-art installation (there are installations by artists from 17 countries) and part-social commentary of the world as it is now – and it’s not a pretty perspective.

One of the more controversial amusement park “games” is an aquatic version of a bumper car ride, except that it uses boats filled to the brim with figurines of asylum seekers. It is a chilling reminder of the refugee crisis currently playing out in the Mediterranean and elsewhere.

Another installation features Cinderella’s crashed horse-drawn carriage. Hanging halfway out of one carriage window, Cinderella lies unresponsive while a pack of paparazzi captures the moment in a barrage of flashlights. The reference to the death of Princess Diana is obvious.

The park is surreal, unsettling and morbidly fascinating. There is dark humour in every corner – the kind that makes one laugh, but nervously.

However, it is a perfect reinvention of a fun fair, which in the digital era has lost its charm and allure, especially for a digital generation for whom cyberspace is a far more intriguing playground. So it’s not surprising that new types of theme parks, catering specifically to digital natives, are starting to emerge.

Next year, Void, the world’s first virtual reality theme park, will open its doors in America: the first of a global franchise of VECs – virtual entertainment centres – that combine augmented reality, haptic sensory technology and wearable tech to give visitors mind-bending experiences in immersive and interactive virtual reality games.

The park itself has a physical structure, which is transformed into various fantasy landscapes once you enter a game. Visitors will wear a headset, called a Rapture head-mounted display, which provides visual and audio immersion; a Rapture vest, which transmits physical sensations to the body; and Rapture gloves, which allow players to interact physically with virtual environments – including haunted castles, dinosaur safaris and futuristic battlefields.

But while we wait for that futuristic theme park to open, there is another virtual reality concept that is mushrooming around the world: the e-sports arena. If you’re a gamer, this news will get your avatar excited, but for non-gamers, allow me to introduce you to this parallel sporting universe.

Computer games have left the confines of the living room and are now played deep in cyberspace against global opponents. Thanks to virtual and augmented realities, the avatars that gamers assume and the fantasy landscapes they play in have become so sophisticated that cybergames now draw a global audience who watch these games, much like sports fans watch a rugby or soccer match – hence the term e-sports.

One of the main broadcast channels for e-sports is Twitch.tv, which was acquired by Amazon for $970 million (R13 billion). This substantial investment indicates the growing popularity of e-sports. Twitch.tv currently services 55 million unique viewers per month, who view about 155 billion minutes of gaming collectively. Due to its live-streaming nature, it gobbles up bandwidth and has become the fourth-largest user of bandwidth on the planet. In the past few years, e-sports have become so popular that they have spilt out of cyberspace and – in a manner of speaking – have a presence in the offline world.

Last year, America’s first e-sports arena opened its doors in Orange County, California. It accommodates 1 000 fans and features a 95m2 stage, which houses a massive screen, as well as commentary booths for the shoutcasters (who are to e-sports what sports commentators are to live sports matches).

In March this year, London followed suit with its first e-sports venue, the Gfinity Arena. This also accommodates more than 1 000 people over the course of a weekend, and more than 25 000 throughout a season (yes, e-sports have seasons, as well as champions leagues – and the prize money is not insignificant: $500 000 for the inaugural Gfinity Championships this year).

Both these e-sports arenas are following cues from arenas already operating in South Korea, China, Ukraine and Sweden – so the trend is spreading fast.

The theme park as we know it might be an outdated form of family entertainment, but virtual reality is providing a digital generation with a completely new playground.

Let the games begin.

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com. Join him on Metro FM tomorrow at 6.30am, when he unpacks these trends on the First Avenue show

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