Media Design at Art, Media & Technology (Parsons School of Design)
9:30 am to 10:30 am
Subjective/Objective: Versions of Reality
360 surround cinema and news, entertainment and advertising
Colleen Macklin is a game designer, an Associate Professor in the school of Art, Media and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design and founder and co-director of PETLab (Prototyping Education and Technology Lab), a lab that develops games for experimental learning and social engagement. PETLab projects include disaster preparedness games and sports with the Red Cross, the urban activist game Re:Activism and the physical/fiscal sport Budgetball. PETLab has also published game design curricula for the Boys and Girls Club. She is a member of the game design collective Local No. 12, best known for their social card game, the Metagame. Her work has been shown at Come Out and Play, UCLA Art|Sci Center, The Whitney Museum for American Art and Creative Time.
Being in Virtual Reality, or Now I’m a BelieVR.
– Colleen Macklin
I admit, I was very skeptical of the recent resurgence of VR. For one, I’ve been around long enough to see it go in and out of fashion. In addition, it made me sick. Literally. Finally, much of my work—social and physical games often played without any technology at all—focus on reality, not virtuality. In light of my interest in connecting people through play, VR seemed isolationist, cutting us off from the people and world around us with goggles, gloves and headphones. Ever hang out with someone while they are VR-ing? It’s awkward.
But as I considered the topic for this essay, a story came across my feed—a set of suggestions for game designers in an article titled “Rethinking the player avatar in VR.” It looks at the conundrum of avatar representation in VR, where your sense of who you are is, well, complicated. To grossly simplify, you are who you play. It got me thinking… what if instead of thinking about VR as simply a more immersive form of storytelling or games, we think of VR as an entirely new way of b eing?
To get there, let’s talk about videogames and fee ling. Not f eelings (which videogames certainly evoke) but the actual “feel” of videogames. As a game designer, I make little systems (games) that generate play. And those systems come to life through actions—what the player gets to do based on the rules of the game and who they are (both in the game and outside of it). Something that all videogames have is “game feel.” Game feel is the tactile sensation we get when we manipulate a virtual object. Game designer and game feel expert Steve Swink describes it as “the real-time control of virtual objects in a simulated space, with interactions emphasized by polish.” Or, in the words of sociology professor and pianist David Sudnow,
“The full sequencing, calibrating, caressing potentials of human hands now create sights, sounds, and movements. […] “All the customary boundaries get blurred when you’re painting paragraphs, performing etchings, sketching movies, and graphing music.
I was hooked.”This passage from the poetic ode to the videogame Pilgrim in the Microworld, describes Sudnow’s thoughts as he plays his first videogame. These were early impressions of a new medium, written before we really had the words to describe them. The “feel” of playing videogames, of that responsively addictive eye-hand-controller-screen loop is what brings us back for more. Now, what about VR? What happens when we combine game feel and audiovisual immersion? Is there a “VR game feel”?
For me and many many others, VR game feel is nauseating. Then I tried a different platform and I felt fine—great, even. I loved the feel of the new clumsy cartoon hands I had in Job Simulator, knocking over my coffee and slamming the lid on the xerox machine. It felt like these were my cool new hands! The feel was as physical when I switched to a game that dropped me on a precarious platform in the sky, but with a heavy dose of panic. “Fear of heights feel.” Sweaty palms, quickened pulse, a strong desire to pull off the headset (I did). In VR, game feel finds its way beyond the tips of fingers on the controller to stomachs, hearts, skin and inner ears. Of course, videogames can quicken the pulse and make us sweat, but with VR it feels different—more embodied.
It seems it really is. This has to do with the science of how our brains and bodies work together to adjust to new representations of our bodies, or to use the fancy terminology coined by VR 1.0 pioneer Jaron Lanier, “homuncular flexibility.” Homuncular flexibility is how our brain adjusts to inhabiting a virtual body that is different from our own. The homunculus is a concept used since the 1930s to describe the “map” our brains use of our bodies. Through experiments, scientists have discovered that this map is incredibly flexible. You might have seen this in action through that fun neuroscientific party trick, wherein a person is optically tricked into adopting a rubber hand as their own, and jump when it is hit with a hammer. Studies have shown that our brain’s flexibility in adopting new limbs extends to adapting to entirely different human and nonhuman bodies, with abilities such as flying. Studies using VR demonstrate the “Proteus Effect”—taking on the psychology of inhabiting a different body and unconsciously changing our behavior to conform to it.
If we can inhabit other bodies and adapt to new ways of acting and being, can we learn what it’s like to be an other, whether that other is a differently embodied human, or not human at all? The science seems promising, and the art has begun to explore these ideas in VR projects from Nonny de la Peña’s vivid simulation of police brutality in U se of Force to the eerie disorientation of David O’Reilly’s C haracter Mirror.
Rather than provide answers at a time when we are still trying to understand it, I’ll restate my earlier question with a slight shift: Is VR a first step towards posthuman being, letting us not only experience the effects of different bodies, but to actually inhabit different beings—if temporarily? Like the cyborg in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, could VR enable us to surpass the rigidity of our own bodies and identities and in her words, f ulfill “the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender?” Perhaps it’s an opportunity to queer our sense of self, to escape the boundaries we inhabit both physically and psychologically. Game designer Robert Yang has the rallying call: “Artists and queers and weirdos need to hit VR now, and hit hard, before VR culture ends up as conservative as the worst of gamer culture.” Seeking explorers—pilgrims in this microworld—to push the boundaries of experience
 See http://metaga.me and http://.colleenmacklin.com
 With the exception of playing the multiplayer VR+ Physical game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (http://www.keeptalkinggame.com/)
 By Phill Cameron on Gamasutra: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/288515/Rethinking_the_player_avatar_in_VR.php%20?elqTrackId=b 63712c0f2224d74983507eadeb2fe43&elq=e802c324978f426e8fd3d76c68639975&elqaid=75872&elqat=1& elqCampaignId=25003
 To explore the full rainbow spectrum of “game feel” and how to design them, read the well-named Game Feel, by Steven Swink.
 David Sudnow (1983) Pilgrim in the Microworld. Warner Books.
 That horrifying experience was provided by Fantastic Contraption, from what I understand a wonderful game. But not for me.
 “Homuncular Flexibility in Virtual Reality” (Lanier is a co-author) https://andreastevensonwondotcom.files.wordpress.com/2015/10/won-jcmc-homuncular.pdf
 Penfield, W. & Boldrey, E. (1937). Somatic motor and sensory representation in the cerebral cortex of man as studied by electrical stimulation. Brain, 60, 389–443.
 Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus effect: The effect of transformed self-representation on behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271–290.
 http://venuspatrol.com/2014/02/fully-enter-external-world-david-oreillys-oculus-rift-experience-character-mir ror/
 Depending on who you consult, posthuman means different things. But here’s what Wikipedia says about it today(1/19/17): “ …a concept originating in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy that literally means a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human.”
 Unless, as Elon Musk and some scientists would claim, we are living in the matrix (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/06/03/we-are-almost-definitely-living-in-a-matrix-style-simulatio n-cla/)
 Haraway, Donna Jeanne, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” (1991). Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge.
 By queer, I mean any embodiment that challenges the norm, such as non-binary genders, alternative bodies and ways of being human.