Thursday, January 14, 2016

Representation and Embodiment in Virtual Reality

Project Syria
My latest PopMatters article is live, and it discusses the concepts of Representation and Embodiment in Virtual Reality.

Here's a very short summary of my thoughts: I think the third person perspective of a non-white player-character in a video game is far easier to empathize with, embody, and promote representation with than that same character in virtual reality. It is truer to the reality of those people of color who are confronted with their non-whiteness, be it internally or externally. It will take greater vigilance, not less, to promote representation in the virtual reality games to come.

I also briefly mention disaster tourism, but I think that also deserves more attention. If you're unfamiliar with the term, disaster tourism, or its cousin dark tourism, is the act of visiting a place that has suffered some disaster or tragedy, recently or in the distant past, as a tourist or for some form of leisure. It's also closely related to aid tourism, which is the same concept for those traveling to provide aid to others on the ground.

All three forms of tourism can provide some good. Disaster tourism can bring in much needed dollars to local business struggling with a disaster like, say, Hurricane Katrina. Dark tourism can create educational opportunities for those visiting, say, sites of genocide in Cambodia. Likewise, aid tourism can of course bring in much needed relief. All three however can also severely damage, disrespect, and exploit the sites and people.

You can find already a handful of virtual reality games or experiences meant to foster empathy towards others, such as those suffering in Syria. I cannot speak to the quality of the games, but I can say I fear that these experiences, especially in virtual reality, may cross the line into exploitation and othering. Virtual reality can provide a way to visit simulacrums of disaster zones, if done right they could give you an rarely seen perspective on important political and social contexts. If done poorly, they can create biased and inaccurate venues to gawk at the suffering of others.

Again, vigilance on behalf of virtual reality designers is paramount.

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