Friday, May 7, 2010

Hansen, Virtual Reality and Video Games

During our discussion on Wednesday one of the major shortcomings we found in Mark B. N. Hansen's New Philosophy for New Media (2006) was the absence of any engagement with video games. This struck us as especially problematic since his whole project seemed to be a consideration of the ways that qualitatively new media allow us to engage with them in an affective, embodied manner, and this certainly sounds like the kind of experience we have whenever we play a video game, be it an old coin-operated Pacman arcade game or a brand new Wii game at home or World of Warcraft on a computer. Surely Hansen would not be able to liken this activity to the so-called "enforced passivity" of the cinema that he seems so resolved to criticize. But then how would he be able to maintain a distance (as he would presumably want to do) between the work of Jeffrey Shaw that he is so committed to, and something like Second Life, Halo, or even Tetris? I think we might extract and extrapolate some (relatively positive) evaluation of video games from Hansen's critique of Liev Manovich's The Language of the New Media (2001), and the treatment of virtual reality (VR) therein, near the end of chapter one of New Philosophy for New Media.

In this passage Hansen criticizes Manovich's evaluation of VR for failing to fully take into account the embodied experience of the user during and despite the experience of being also virtually embodied, or virtualized. He asks: "Can the reality effect of telepresence be understood without an account of the physicality of the virtualized body?" (40-41) He suggests, in other words, that new media such as VR enable the user to be doubly embodied, both in the "original" space of the virtualizing interface or console and within the virtual world, in a digitized body. While Manovich suggests that the latter nullifies the former for the duration of the VR experience, Hansen argues that both must be partial and simultaneous, leading him to propose what seems a very radical (and very Deleuzian) realignment of the conventional opposition between representation and simulation, one that can be useful for constructing a Hansenian theory of the video game. He writes of Manovich: "the example of telepresence underscores the limitations of his general distinction between representation and simulation and suggests the necessity of triangulating this binary with a third term, namely, hallucination (by which I mean... that the embodied mind actually creates what it sees)" (41, emphasis original). One final quotation (in which we might substitute "video game" for "VR" to fully understand how these comments apply to the former medium): "that explains the capacity for the VR interface to couple our bodies with (almost) any arbitrary space, and not just spaces that are contiguous with the physical space we happen to occupy or even spaces like those we typically occupy" (41). This triangulating, hallucinatory property that Hansen invests in VR can very easily be seen as the starting point for his (perhaps surprisingly positive) evaluation of video games.

Video games, like VR, must then trigger this phenomenon of being in a doubly embodied, hallucinatory state, activating a virtualized world while still remaining an affective body within the world of the gaming interface. Certainly the increasingly frequent appearance of artist-designed video games in art spaces corroborates this characterization. In the exhibition The Generational: Younger Than Jesus at the New Museum last year, video game artist Mark Essen presented a game of his called Flywrench (2007), in which the player uses a controller to navigate a flying wrench through a series of increasingly labyrinthine spaces while trying to keep the fragile object from shattering. The unique telepresence of this game takes us to an environment that is certainly not "like those we typically occupy," requiring us to assume the position of a typically inanimate object (a wrench) endowed with the superhuman ability of flight. Playing the game, however, also meant standing in a museum gallery (there was no seating, perhaps to discourage visitors for hogging the one controller for too long) surrounded by other visitors, some of whom might be watching you play, hearing sounds from nearby installations and videos. Perhaps not an ideal gaming environment, the Flywrench installation illustrated Hansen's phenomena of triangulation and hallucination in a decidedly active, rather than passive, setting.

An installation at last spring's Offf Festival by the Spanish design firm Multitouch Barcelona pushed this capacity for simultaneous, multiple embodiments to the extreme, creating a wall-sized projection of the vintage arcade game Space Invaders (see video at the end of this post). Gallery-goers played the game not by pushing buttons on a controller or joystick, but by throwing projectiles like tennis balls at the projected images on the wall, where a sensory surface detected the hit, destroying the enemy ship, if there was one, in that spot. Anything but passive, this throwing game has the further advantage of being a multi-player experience, adding a sense of temporary, communal embodiment very different from the solitary VR experience that Hansen describes.

Another video game artist, Erik Svedang, has created a very immersive, but just as graphically simple gaming environment called Pixel Cave Adventure (2007, pictured at top), in which gamers play within a small cube surrounded by four screens, directing a small human figure who moves around the panoramic maze surrounding the player. Parallels to the work of Jeffrey Shaw, as discussed by Hansen, are inevitable, though here the simultaneity of embodiments is perhaps more extreme, allowing the gamer to control a solitary humanoid character while at the same time having to move and turn around in the claustrophobic space of the gaming cube.

These examples of how we might imagine Hansen's hallucinatory theory of VR being applied to video games all involve site-specific installations, but a simpler game that exists online for free might demonstrates the VR-video game analogy as well. First-Person Tetris begins much like the original game, presenting the gamer with a vertical, rectangular space and falling blocks that must be arranged to create solid lines. The space of the game is surrounded by a conventional living room setting with television, carpeting, a houseplant and video game console. But as the pieces move downwards so does the entire screen. Rotating pieces to fit them into the increasingly complex geometric gaps makes the entire screen rotate. As the game's title suggests, we are challenged to assume the point of view of these abstract blocks of forms and color, a perspective that stands in sharp contrast to our embodied presence in front of a computer screen. Aside from provoking a surprisingly acute sense of Hansen's hallucinatory double embodiment, First-Person Tetris is liable to provoke nausea, pushing our capacity to inhabit both the virtualized and physical spaces at once nearly to its breaking point. Such innovative video games offer extremely interesting and promising activations of Hansen's concept of multiple embodiments and the hallucinatory relation between representation and the virtual in VR. Though he never addresses the potential of video games for triggering qualitatively new experiences and embodiments, we can surmise of his engagement with VR that he may have identified a surprisingly optimistic potential in this new medium.

-Ben Sutton

Here is a short video of the interactive, wall-sized Space Invaders projection by Multitouch Barcelona at the 2009 Offf Festival:


  1. People who are interested in this kind of video game art should check out this show at NYU:
    Mark has a new game there.

    -Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

  2. Virtual reality integrates daily life and activity. It influences human behavior, interpersonal communication, and cognition (i.e., virtual genetics).

    VR Ottawa