For the past two years there has been one invention grabbing the attention of game developers everywhere: The Oculus Rift. The Kickstarter-funded virtual reality headset is being touted by many as the next big thing in interactive entertainment. Everyone from Cliffy B to Masahiro Sakurai have endorsed the product, which should be making its way into the consumer market sometime in the next two years.
So far, though, most of the uses I’ve seen of the Oculus Rift have been…less than thrilling. First person shooters are the obvious go-to, and Doom 3 was the first AAA title with Oculus Rift support announced. It’s a no-brainer, after all FPS games are already built on the idea that you are looking through your avatar’s eyes. But all this time, as someone who’s not much into shooters, I’ve been left wondering “what else can it do?”
Recently a group known as BeAnotherLab have begun to answer that question by exploring the possibility of experiencing what it’s like to be other genders via Oculus Rift. (Note: video contains nudity)
“Gender Swap is an experiment that uses The Machine to Be Another system as a platform for embodiment experience (a neuroscience technique in which users can feel themselves like if they were in a different body).
In order to create the brain illusion we use the immersive Head Mounted Display Oculus Rift, and first-person cameras. To create this perception, both users have to synchronize their movements. If one does not correspond to the movement of the other, the embodiment experience does not work. It means that both users have to constantly agree on every movement they make. Through out this experiment, we aim to investigate issues like Gender Identity, Queer Theory, feminist technoscience, Intimacy and Mutual Respect.”
While the experiment is still in very early stages, the notion of being able to experience (at least virtually) what it is like to be another gender holds loads of potential for queer gaming and gaming narrative.
Think about what games such as Dys4ia or Mainichi, titles that ask the player to step into the lives of their creators, in which empathy acts as the primary game mechanic, would be like with this technology. By breaking down the barrier between avatar and player, a plethora of new possibilities are born that extend well beyond just shooting things more realistically.
Take a game like Gone Home, our gayest game of the 2013, and imagine taking those first ominous steps into the mysterious Greenbriar mansion. Actually taking those steps. Looking down at your own body to discover that you are Kaitlin Greenbriar. Not merely controlling her, you are her. For a male player this could be a new experience, and one that many non cis-male gamers have been having for years.
In my interview with games critic Samantha Allen, Allen noted how playing as straight white men always felt foreign to her. I wonder, then, how the Machine To Be Another experiment would effect the gaming community at large. For years the straight white male protagonist archetype has dominated games, alienating large segments of gamers on a regular basis. With this technology could the virtual shoe be put on the other foot? Would the straight white male demographic experience the adventures of, say, Lara Croft differently if they were Lara Croft, rather than dictating her every move? How would gamers perceive the events of a title like Heavy Rain if they were experiencing scenes of abuse rather than simply watching and reacting to them? What would it mean for iconic silent avatars like Link? Are you still playing Link or are you yourself or are you something in between?
Would we see more diverse protagonists due to a rising empathy in gamers or would the notion of ‘being’ anything other than male scare away that demographic and thereby scare away publishers? At the same time would this new technology attract different kinds of gamers hoping for non-traditional gaming experiences, and thereby create new markets for publishers to go after?
The experiment is still in very early stages but it’s an experiment well worth tracking. For myself this is the first application of the Oculus Rift that truly excites me as it offers genuinely new possibilities for gaming and narrative, rather than just a more advanced version of this thing:
For more on The Machine to be Another, be sure to visit their official website.