Exploring the Possibilities of Immersive Environmental Storytelling
January 17, 2020
At PPEH, we've long been curious about how play and games might encourage environmental inquiry. So often environmentalists can seem such insufferable know-it-alls! But what's the role of play in times of crisis? These were questions we brought to conversations with 2019 artist in residence, Rod Coover, seasoned VR filmmaker Peter Decherney, and environmental game designer Dargan Frierson. The more we read about virtual reality and gaming, the more we wanted to explore the potential for extended reality technologies to tell environmental stories, to generate empathy in users, and to catalyze action on climate and other urgent environmental issues.
A year of planning later, on November 21-22, 2019 -- and with generous support from the Office of the Vice Provost for Research, Penn’s Cinema Studies Program, and the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts -- we held a two-day festival, Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality, to do just that!
Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality included two days of talks, screenings, workshops and interactive sessions in Annenberg Center’s black box Prince theatre and the Information Commons in the Van Pelt library. Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett kicked off the gathering and also introduced Jeremy Bailenson, whose Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University sits at the forefront of social psychological research on virtual reality technologies. Empathy is difficult to measure, but Bailenson described findings by researchers suggesting that participation in VR experiences that simulate changes in subject position (race, gender, ability) or that offer virtual visits to remote and endangered environments (otherwise prohibitively expensive or damaging to visit) can elicit significant changes in behavior and motivate political action.
In the panels that followed, Annenberg Communications PhD candidate Zane Cooper, took up the empathy theme, advocating for a move beyond “the paradigm of personal feeling” in VR art toward an understanding of immersion and “visceral truth” as “culturally and politically contextual.” In his own project, Alchemical Infrastructures: Making Blockchain in Iceland, Cooper has worked to harness 360 film’s unique ability to capture both the seer and the seen in the same shots -- offering new possibilities for ethnographic practice and a kind of ethics of positionality. Sarah Cameron Sunde, who joined us by videoconference from Nairobi, described the analogue and embodied immersion of her multi-site performance work with tide cycles. She shared images and video from her seventh and most participatory 36.5 durational performance to date -- completed just over a week prior on the southern Kenyan coast.
We were also treated to a conversation between Peter Decherney and the San Juan based art duo Vientre Compartido -- twin brothers Javier and Jaime Suarez -- with highlights from the 360 film they are making together, “The Heart of Puerto Rico” in the wake of Hurricane Maria. VR has proved a valuable mode for capturing the Suarez brothers’ art practice, which they describe as “multi-species collaboration,” and which unfolds over time and in context, hinging critically on its interaction with nonhuman species and natural processes.
I spoke about the urgent need for more voices from the humanities to speak about climate change, and the unique aspects of the game as a medium, based on my experience with the EarthGames group. Games can let us visualize the invisible or travel in time, to see the consequences of environmental degradation more immediately. Games are deeply immersive, so can have particularly resonant narratives when constructed well. Myles Al Yafei and Caroline Lachanski’s 3D game brought historical periods and environments to life in a way I’ve never seen before.
I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of making games that allow the player to craft better futures, or imagine the world in different ways. Jessica Creane’s brilliant site-specific experiences for groups visiting National Parks opened my eyes to the possibilities of games to help create deep connections with the world around us, and share unique experiences within groups of players.
I love the intensity of the game jam experience, and each year EarthGames co-hosts the Games for Our Future jam, where we task participants to create games on topics like the Green New Deal, or mental health and the environment. In her mini-jam at the workshop, Jessica had us make different elements of board games, like the board, characters or game mechanics, while building off of the work of other teams. I’m very thankful for my team members, who in addition to having wonderfully creative ideas about environmental games, also carried the laptop around the room so I could participate virtually.”