John Sharp (Panelist)

John Sharp
Associate Professor
Games and Learning at Art, Media & Tehcnology (Parsons School of Design)

12:30 am to 1:30 am
Exploration Narrative: Agency and VR experience
VR/AR/MR effects on experience in theater, advertising and games

John Sharp is a designer, art historian, curator and educator with over twenty five years of involvement in the creation and study of art and design. John’s design work focuses on cultural games, artgames and non-digital games. His current research addresses  game aesthetics, the history of play, and the early history of computer and videogames.

He is the Associate Professor of Games and Learning at Parsons The New School for Design. Along with Colleen Macklin, Johnco-directs PETLab (Prototyping, Education and Technology Lab), a research group focused on games and their design as a form of social discourse. John is also a member of the game design collective Local No. 12 along with Colleen Macklin (Associate Professor, Design & Technology, Parsons School of Design at The New School) and Eric Zimmerman (Arts Professor, New York University Game Center), a company focused on finding play in cultural practices.

Reflective Essay:
I am not a storyteller. I am, though, someone who has spent a good part of the last 25 years thinking about storytelling in my practice and scholarship. As a result, I can’t help but approach immersion from an art historical perspective that connects the Italian Renaissance to photography to contemporary videogames. I see immersion as the logical conclusion of visuality. By this I mean the 600 year long trend in western art toward representational images as the dominant form of understanding our world. Visuality is a framing for the human experience that privileges seeing over hearing, touching, smelling and tasting.

Visuality becomes the lens for how we interpret and respond to the world. What started in early modern Western Europe as a tool to share Christian belief through image making transformed into the primary way we come to understand stories. One of the driving assumptions of visuality was the primacy of the real—accurate portrayals of the visible world. This was one way to give thanks to God by showing reverence for the reality he had created. The representation of lush details also created a parlor game of sorts during the Renaissance—every detail was there for a reason, often a symbolic reference that provided deeper meaning for those who knew how to read it. Over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, visual realism developed into a given accompanying a variety of other uses of the image and representation: propaganda, storytelling, adulation, and so on.

We enter the 19th century, and along comes the camera. Now that there are machines that can record the visible world, do we still need to faithfully recreate it through paint, ink, stone or clay? The camera rocked the sacred tenant of visuality—the importance of representational realism. The second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century was a period of experimentation and questioning seeking out a plethora of answers to one basic question: what else can we do when accurate representation is no longer a necessary goal of image-making? Painting and sculpture explored new potentials for their mediums, leading to abstraction, minimalism and so on. This also forced a path beyond mediums to conceptual art, performance art and the like.

From the beginning, visuality went hand-in-hand with technology, whether it was information on how to procure and grind pigments or the use of geometry to create realistic depth, tools and processes factored into the pursuit of realism. Technology provided efficiencies, structures for understanding, and much more to the pursuit of realism in the age of visuality. The greater the emphasis on image-making technologies, the more likely the focus is on visual realism. The same can be said around the current pursuits of immersion—we are still operating under the expectations of visuality, and we still find technology at the heart of things. In many ways, the illusion of depth using game engines and animation tools has breathed new life into visuality by bringing whole new communities into the quest for realism.

Realistic paintings provide us a “window” onto a world, limiting us to a particular vantage point on that world. 3D game engines expand on this by allowing us to move an implied camera around in the space. AR allows us to overlay another transparent window onto the real world. And VR allows us to forgo the window altogether, and move around within this fictive world. This all seems like progress, doesn’t it? If your primary aesthetic goal is a realist visuality, then yes, I suppose it is. But if your aesthetic objective is storytelling, then this is less progress than red herring. Where the camera forced a reassessment of painting and sculpture, I see VR and AR as potential turning points for computationally-driven immersion through reality.

What we are going to realize is that by making the way we engage with a representational space is not the heart of immersion, but instead of visuality. When I see the now-cliche image of someone looking around while wearing a VR headset, I think about Chris Hecker’s dig on the Wii as “two Gamecubes duct-taped together.” Instead, though, I imagine the headset to be a hacked up game controller with a screen strapped across the user’s eyes. VR is the apotheosis of visually immersing the player or audience in a storyworld.

But once they are there, then what?