When looking at immersive narratives whose stories are tied to our physicality, how do the confines of a space of play impact the visceral links we are capable of making? Games and virtual-reality experiences that address the social politics surrounding the body often teeter the line that separates the possibility to develop empathic connections and the capacity of the medium to be seen as a form of identity tourism or appropriation. Particularly in virtual-reality or role-playing experiences that attempt to raise awareness about sexual violence, does the participant’s ability to escape the space of play impact the medium’s capacity to generate empathy and awareness?
A few different virtual-reality pieces have attempted to develop connections between new technology and social consciousness. The virtual-reality experience Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party puts the viewer into both perspectives of a sexual assault occurring on a college campus, first from the male perspective and then the female. Most recently, the Tribeca Film Institute’s New Media Fund provided support to Roll Red Roll, an augmented live-action role-playing game examining the roles played in the Steubenville rape case. Both projects provide access to the participant, the former by switching points of view and the latter by a biased entry point. However, the distinctive use of perspective is what most importantly distinguishes the narratives and the voices that they try to account for. While Perspective uses two different points of view, the victim and the rapist, Roll Red Roll only allows the participant to become immersed in the identity of one of the secondhand perspectives, taking on tropes like “The Jock” and “The Friend,” for example.
It is this use of perspective, however, that is pivotal to some of the central ethical questions of virtual reality. Being able to escape the space of exploration, knowingly aware of the freedom to escape feelings of discomfort or vulnerability, whether acted upon or not, changes your capacity to feel and the detrimental magnitude of the situation. So much of digital technology now relies on the assumption that our bodies are vessels that come second to the experiences and the contents of the mind. The merits of digital storytelling have been championed for the ways in which they are opening up new perspectives through multi-perspective narratives, getting into the mind of another, and offering a privileged view into a world not conventionally open to exploration. However, when talking specifically about an act as brutal as rape, grounded by its definition to the visceral nature of the body, this kind of externalization of the mind almost works counter to the act of violence trying to be represented. If sexual assault comes to be defined, then, as the sum of multiple disembodied perspectives, attainable through a simple virtual experience, then doesn’t this negate and ignore the root of the issue, the experience of the body? Implying that all of these perspectives lie outside of the physical self breaks apart the mental and bodily bonds, decontextualizing the trauma and forgetting the site of its production.
What’s the answer, then, when it comes to these kinds of virtual-reality experiences? Surely there is an answer beyond neo-luddism, as technology’s capacity to create narratives that generate new kinds of empathy and bring to light oppressed voices is rich. I think in the case of the two immersive storytelling projects mentioned, the answer comes in the form of collective storytelling that provides the viewer with a knowledge of its limitations from its construction. In the case of <em>Roll Red Roll</em>, while a viewer takes on a fictional role that could be seen as a simplified trope, this nonetheless forces the role-player into an awareness of their own limitations, as well as the boundaries of the minds and bodies that other viewers are able to explore. Rather than seeing virtual reality as the opportunity to have an “authentic” firsthand experience and alternatively exposing the space of play as a summation of subversive performances filled with obfuscations, empathic connections and external awareness have the capacity to be generated.