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Interactive virtual art as an aesthetic No Man's Sky Andrei Isakov

Interactive Virtual Art As An Aesthetic Experience Of The Future, Between Accessibility And Gamification

Scope of the Problem

When considering interactive virtual experiences, especially video games, I would like to pinpoint major research topics or goals, which, in my opinion, are neglected to some degree in a cultural discourse in Poland, especially in the academic environment. These are:

●  The study of the interactive medium as an artistic and social expression and a didactic tool.
●  Analysis of sensory and semantic experiences resulting from communication between the user and the virtual world.
●  Exploring and revealing the relationship of interactive technologies with contemporary cultural processes.
●  Finding and applying accessibility measures in virtual projects on three levels: aesthetic, anthropological and social.
●  Research, expansion and dissemination of the concept of “gamification” as a mechanism of interaction with art and the world, caused by the spread of this concept in a society on the verge of a crisis (democratic, pandemic, economic and others).

The importance of these topics lies in:

●  Giving interactive virtual experiences an aesthetic value and saturating them with important assumptions and contexts that are valuable in contemporary art.
●  Expanding the accessibility of virtual experiences towards individuals excluded by narrative structures and norms of other media.
●  Identifying the concept of gamification in the context of recent events (political and social) and translating this concept into contemporary art practices.

The entirety of the proposed research is based on three basic elements:

● Artistic (aesthetics)
● Non-uniformity (anthropology)
● Community (sociology)

Each of these elements is part of the analysis related to interactive virtual experiences, such as: performance VR, 6DoF experiences, visual installations, computer and video games, interactive movies and series, narrative-educational applications and others.

In this article I would like to distinguish virtual experiences broadly into interactive and non-interactive, with a focus on the latter, as I find them the most under researched and labeled as “entertainment” than “art” by most artistic academic structures in Poland, which in order dismisses them as a research subject. Let’s divide the interactivity in virtual experiences and games into:

● Active – physical input of changes in the experience that interfere with the perceptual layer (visual, auditory, tactile and others). Also guiding the viewer / recipient directly to the experience through technological interface elements unrelated to the experience itself.
● Passive – interaction that does not require the viewer to participate in anything other than mental activity. It can be a passive perception of a narrative that is placed in the visual (or other) structures of experience.

This divide will help us establish practical methods that can be applied to virtual experiences and games to achieve our three goals: finding the path towards virtual experience of the future, eliminate exclusivity and fight exclusion and finally understand the influence of games and gamification on communities.

Interactive Virtual Art as an Aesthetic Experience of the Future

“We live in an age of simultaneity, an age of displacement and juxtaposition, an age of closeness and distance, approximation and distraction. I believe we are at a point where we experience the world less as a life development over time and more as a network connecting points and crossing its own strands.” [1]

Virtual experience is at the intersection of the most current problems of modern technological culture. It combines traditional and modern issues of artistic activities based on knowledge of the humanities and social sciences.

Interactive virtual space can be considered as a new technique of visual representation that will define the aesthetic experience of a person experiencing art in the near future. Already today virtual reality affects the palette of our everyday experiences – and thus also our behavior in the real world. How do our feelings and ideas relate to our surroundings? Where is the line between real and virtual? Virtual space offers its own epistemological model – transmitting knowledge about the world through the prism of human perception. Virtual space cultivates the value of individual experience and serves first of all for self-knowledge, and then knowledge and interpretation of the surrounding world.

Intermedia – As Method of Creating New Eesthetics

“Art imitates life” [2] – is an essentially interdisciplinary assumption. We as artists have a lot of responsibility for what images and concepts we generate. For example, we shape VR experiences here and now. In this case, we do not refer to concepts already created by someone else, but we are looking for new meanings and imagery. Concepts and esthetics defined now will evolve and shape the virtual experiences of the future, but not only in a way of developing artistic tools and creating concepts, which are valid now. At this exact point in time we can only put our own concerns, ideas and visions into virtual experiences, which are relevant at the moment, but maybe not so in the coming years. What we can do to shape the virtual medium is to find means to communicate universally with others, to translate our ideas into language of equality, which will enrich the experiencing of art in other individuals. I see this as an ultimate goal for any artist who is working with virtual environments. The scope of known esthetic methods are only limiting the potential of virtual experiences. We can observe how VR applications and games are gravitating towards film and animation esthetics, instead of embracing the intermedia nature of the medium. Interaction, immersion and immersion are the key to achieve our goal.

The same applies to video games. Intermedia is the basic feature of this type of activity. How we interact with audiences, with other artists or with phenomena in a society, is in itself a product of art. This type of interaction is the most important in a virtual environment. By introducing input, we encounter unique experiences in the virtual world. Artists creating the environment and assuming the rules of interaction (interface) allow us to experience new interdisciplinary worlds. Based on existing audiovisual techniques, they create a different, specific narrative, often in a non-linear arrangement.

Spatiality As a New Narrative

In the article “Allegories of Space. The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games” Espen Aarseth points out that the problem of spatial representation is a key problem for the aesthetics of computer games and any virtual environment. “Games are ultimately an allegory of space: they pretend to be the most realistic representation of reality, but they really rely more on reality deviations to make the space illusion more playable.” [3]

Thus, the difference between the construction of space in traditional arts and virtual reality is manifested in the fact that virtual reality enables the viewer to control her/his position in space and the duration of each shot. In virtual reality, the player herself/himself becomes the director and operator who controls the camera. This control allows the viewer not to watch, but to experience the virtual environment. The geometric perspective is replaced by the sensual perception of space, because in the virtual world there is nothing that could be known to the player, except her/his own senses. The player’s “eyes” in virtual reality treats space sensually, not as abstract knowledge. The ability to change your point of view becomes a way to learn something new about space around you.

Alexander Galloway explains the fundamental difference between a film image and an image of a computer game: “The image of games requires a full simulated space to act. The traditional film image almost never includes a complete reconstruction of the space. Set designers and decorators only create part of the scene that then goes into film.”[4]

Film and television set camera movements in the scene. Not only objects can move in front of the camera, but the camera itself can also move. However, this move is determined by the director and editor. Only in virtual environments can the viewer have much more control over the scene, over what she/he sees. Video games can draw the user into their environment, which is really just pixels on the computer screen. The key to engaging is being able to control your own point of view and the direction of movement “inside” the image.

Computer graphics simulate the “eyes” of a human thanks to camera movements and special filters. Also the modeled environment (the scene on which the action takes place) with the help of computer graphics and interaction strengthens the sense of presence (immersion).

The player does not passively experience a virtual scene, but “visits” it, explores it, moving around it, selecting different views. The virtual traveler defines what he knows by what he sees and therefore what he can interact with. When the scene contains only geometry, artistic representation of form, the viewer’s point of view is just coordinates in space. But one can imagine a more complex environment where several people can share space, such as in MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Game) games. Or even build this space together with other people (Minecraft), or generate space based on mathematical formulas without any interference from the authors (No Man’s Sky). These medium defining solutions help user experience immersion, which is different from the immersion of non interactive arts. The aesthetic language is, maybe less than before, constrained by movies and animation, that’s why we need new visual concepts, which incorporate unique features of interactive medium.

Jesper Juul, the founder of half-real.net, came to the conclusion that the game is made up of rules and artistic fiction. To create an interactive experience, it is equally important to develop the multi-level game mechanics (ludic) and work on the artistic element of the game (narrative). You can not sacrifice the mechanics, nor the artistic side.

FIrewatch Interactive virtual art as an aesthetic Andrei Isakov

(Firewatch – in this game the activities and a narrative are rather mundane, but the dynamic between characters is making the project stand out. It looks like the writing is making it so, but in fact the game mechanics of player choice makes it special and valid for games as medium, making it an interesting interactive virtual art piece.)

In Half-real, Juul writes: “Computer games are two completely different things at the same time: we play by real rules while imagining a fictional world. We win or lose the game in the real world but we slay a dragon only in the world of the game. A game is a set of rules and a fictional world.”[5] According to that statement I see the rules of the interactive virtual world as a unique method of creating new narratives and esthetics, which are exclusive to this type of medium.

To summarise: features of video games can create a new type of artistic expression we never experienced before. Using interactivity as a cornerstone and freedom of viewing the virtual environments using VR goggles, gives us an esthetic experience of the future, which is shaped by artistic decisions we are making at this moment.

 

Accessibility As One of the Most Important Factors in Creating Virtual Interactive Art

The concept of rules (interface) in its implementation requires appropriate accessibility for the recipient. It affects the artist and the viewer on different levels:

● Physical – including people with disabilities, perception defects, mental disorders and others medical conditions.
● Cultural – accessibility in context of social interaction
● Genderal – including non-binary and queer people. Increasing the sensitivity in creating content that takes into account people with different gender and sexual identification.

While the first level is made a standard in such complex structures as interactive virtual experiences, the others are still developing and need to be specified in their theoretical basis. If we assume that the essence of the experience is interaction (any kind of interaction), it is inevitable to include as many audiences as possible. Interaction is also very individual and broadening the possibilities of accessibility will allow for a wider reach for the interactive virtual experience.

Physical Accessibility

For physical accessibility the most important problem is that the most accessible virtual experiences and games are inaccessible to mainstream users. If we present a project which is lacking any visual representation and meant for blind people, the person with sight may find it uninteresting and inaccessible. Eitan Glinert in his article is presenting a solution to this problem in creating video games which include content for both groups of people, but emphasise only one. In a game created with audio as a main component of interactivity, adding visual elements may not be necessary, but important if we want to reach a maximum number of people.

The Last of Us PartII Interactive virtual art as an aesthetic

(The Last Of Us Part II – makes the best accessible game for a people with disabilities, absolutely sacrificing art style and atmosphere for a clear, accessible image for everyone.)

The same principle goes for VR experiences, which in my opinion is the most suitable tool for delivering the virtual experiences to individuals excluded by other interfaces. The main purpose of VR is to see the virtual world as we were in it, and the same goes to sound – we want to hear it as we are in it too. Adding to that, with an aid of haptic response, VR can create a new platform for individuals with visual impairment and other disabilities. VR interfaces are already developing means to transfer the input from the controller to head or gaze controllers, which can be crucial for people with precise movement difficulties. VR audio systems allow you to experience sound in 3D, with the full response to users’ position and direction of viewing. And the effect of presence and wide view angle can create more immersive environments without sound design. What is most important is that this kind of project can also be successful for users without disabilities. A good example of a VR video game, which caters for both people with visual imparity and sighted individuals is “Mine”. It uses the rich audio to help navigate the surroundings, and also has a echolocation type of visuals to represent blindness to nonblind audience. As a statement on a “Mine” developers site, this game is made to provide an “empathy-evoking” experience, which is the best direction you can pick in my opinion, with this kind of projects. Unfortunately this type of virtual experiences and games are rare.

More than often we presented with games which are only simulating the disability and aim the product towards the wider audiences. The projects like “Blind” for Oculus Rift, “Perception” for pc and console and the infamous “The Quiet Man” also for PC and console, show that sometimes representing disability in the last case can even be offensive towards individuals with said disabilities. As stated in the article I mentioned above, to create truly accessible experience we have to take an extra mile to include different types of human perception and tailor the mechanics of the project to allow people with disabilities experience them. And I think that VR is a key to achieve this kind of accessibility.

Dauntless Interactive virtual art as an aesthetic Andrei Isakov

(Dauntless – is a good example of a project taking accessibility seriously. In this game you can create a character with any gender or sexual preferences, making it one of the most flexible so far. Also using a wide variety of body types avoiding stereotypes and as a result – body shaming.)

 

Gamification As a Mechanic of Interaction With the Art and the World

Community

Striving for diversity and accessibility in interactive projects involves contact with various social groups. During the global crisis, the commonly known concept of gamification has exceeded the boundaries of consumer manipulation in the sphere of business and marketing. We are currently seeing an evolution of this concept to induce empathy and quench anxiety in an unstable society. An example of such gamification are, surprisingly, the protests in Belarus that have continued since August 2020. Belarussians in a situation of constant fear, knowing that they cannot rely on basic state structures such as medical aid, police, fire brigades or the military, look for resolution and empathy, calling it game elements. They create a virtual layer of reward for social effort, build systems that allow them to identify oppressors, create simulacra of the state in the neighborhoods and apartment blocks. A variety of mobile applications, Telegram channels, pixel-art animations and miniatures from LEGO figures create a new narrative that allows you to deal with the situation of uncertainty and the failure of the basic functions of the state. The manifestation of gamification also appears in a global situation, such as applications that identify and verify whether a person nearby has COVID-19 symptoms.

Belarusian gamification Interactive virtual art as an aesthetic

(Strategy for Belarusians victory – is a plan which the Coordination council put together to give people a solid strategy and most of all hope that they can make big changes in their country. The whole virtual presentation and an obvious gamification elements makes this an example of a new method of dealing with political and social uncertainty.)

The subject of artistic research in this area is the analysis and identification of the concept of gamification in a crisis situation, observation of the evolution of this concept, and the search for methods of using elements of interactive virtual experiences in art in order to positively exit the state of fear and uncertainty. As I mentioned before, we as artists have a responsibility for concepts and visuals we generate, it becomes more relevant when our view of the world is collided with the political and social uncertainty. Our goal in this case is to create meaning for those who lost it due to this uncertainty.

Summary

I see interactive virtual experiences as an artistic medium that reflects the diverse values and needs of society and the individual. The changes we observe in society or in the consciousness of artists can be expressed in many different ways. But only in such a complex work of art as interactive virtual experience can we experience another person’s experience directly, reject chauvinism and binary oppositions, arouse empathy, convey content that would be impossible in other interdisciplinary media. Therefore, I consider it my goal to explore this structure and help others use it to create new meanings, new aesthetics, and shape what will one day be considered an experience of the future. I hope that this article will be an introduction and a basic guide for artists who want to shape their identity in artistic interactive virtual projects.

[1] From the article of Marta Olszewska http://www.anthropos.us.edu.pl/. M. Foucault, Of other spaces, M. Żakowski, “Kultura Popularna” 2006.
[2] Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying – An Observation, “Penguin Classics” 1996.
[3] Espen J. Aarseth, ”Allegories of Space. The Question of Spatiality in Computer Games”, http://cybertext.hum.jyu.fi/articles/129.pdf.
[4] Alexandre Galloway, “Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture”, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.
[5] Jesper Juul, “Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds”, MIT Press, 2005.

 

Andrei Isakov panopticon

About the author

Andrei Isakov – graduate of Media Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. As a student he conducted research on the status of computer games in contemporary art. He established and headed Animagica student research group, running classes in 3D modelling, rendering and animation using a wide range of tools, e.g. kinect motion capture. He completed the Game Dev School training in Warsaw, gaining computer gaming sector competences, from planning and developing a budget to execution. He is currently assistant and lecturer at the Faculty of Media Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. He runs classes in 3D graphics, modelling, animation and virtual reality.

www.paletizma.com

 

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