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    Swap Genders with Oculus Rift, Get Empathy

    Written by

    Yannick LeJacq


    Video games have always lured their players in with the promise of transformation. But the process of becoming, inherent in virtual gameplay, has reached something of a new dimension thanks to the success of the Oculus Rift. Naturally, the high-tech ski goggles are being used by any number of developers to make piloting giant mechs and shooting hordes of nameless terrorists feel even more badass. But the promise of virtual reality becoming an actual reality has got some people thinking of fresher, weirder directions to take our idea of gameplay than just making yet another generation of games about killing space aliens.

    Take, for instance, the ongoing project The Machine to Be Another from the art and technology collective BeAnotherLab. The organization recently released a short film showing how two people wearing the Oculus Rift could essentially swap bodies in virtual reality.

    Basically, the two people (a man and a woman, in this case) both put on an Oculus Rift headset that is outfitted with additional head-mounted cameras the feed into each other's display. This puts each of them in the other's perspective, so when the man looks down at his body, he instead sees the woman's, and vice versa. While stepping into another person's shoes might initially sound less exciting than many of the other things you can do in a video game, The Machine to Be Another does something far more subversive to these two "players": it swaps their gender.

    "Throughout this experiment, we aim to investigate issues like Gender Identity, Queer Theory, feminist technoscience, Intimacy and Mutual Respect," BeAnotherLab wrote in the description of the video.

    It's more a work of performance art than anything else at this point—BeAnotherLab's description of the project admits that both of the users have to perfectly "synchronize their movements" or else "the embodiment experience does not work."

    The system raises an interesting question about what kinds of experiences we will ultimately seek out in virtual reality—the starkly human ones, or those that are profoundly alien? If you think about it, pressing a bunch of differently colored buttons and twiddling with a joystick to control, say, a gun-wielding robot has no real basis in reality. Reaching down and touching a human body is far more familiar, even if that body isn't yours.

    But maybe the closeness of that similarity is what ultimately freaks people out, and help explains why there is a certain contingent of gamers that always ruffles its feathers when a popular video game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect lets players play as openly gay avatars who can pursue romances with like-minded digital sprites. Watching the Machine to Be Another video, I'm reminded of something the philosopher and queer theorist Jack Halberstam said when I was speaking with him about the uproar over having playable gay characters in Mass Effect—a series that also allows its players (with much less backlash) to have sex with all kinds of space aliens:

    That’s fascinating, though, that in a realm where there can be inter-species, inter-alien kinds of intimacy, you still have the most foundational kind of taboo against intimacy. That points to the fact that videogames promise access to other worlds, but they just don’t always deliver. It’s such a straight, white-guy world. While that has been changing, and there are opportunities for all different genders in the gaming world, there aren’t so many people who are invested in creating these alternate worlds.

    Will the Oculus Rift be the thing to bring us out of the singularly focused "white-guy world?" I don't think we can necessarily put our faith in technological solutions to human problems. And already in 2013, a big buzzword in gaming was the advent of "empathy games" that challenged players with relatable problems like depression, addiction, and family illness. But the thought of being able to use full-blown virtual reality to step into another person's shoes? It's hard not to get excited.

    More on empathy by machine:

    Fembots Have Feelings Too: An Interview with Amy Purdy

    Inside the Empathy Machine: Going Face-in-Face with Megan May Daalder and Her Mirrorbox