I am playing a video game.
I am facing a large open window, with glass that would stretch from floor to ceiling if the glass were still intact. Instead, shattered pieces of the pane are scattered around an impossibly white room. A stray bit of curtain moves gently in the wind. I step hesitantly to the edge of the window and look down to the ground far below, unsure of what to do next. I close my eyes – trying to avoid a sickening wave of vertigo.
The prompt pops up on the screen and I freeze. My palms are sweating. My knees shake. “It’s just a game, just a game” I think, and I while I know this to be true I can’t stop my heart from pounding against my chest or my body from seizing up against my will. I sit down on the floor, curl my chest up to my toes and take off the Virtual Reality (VR) headset.
This is how my first time playing SUPERHOT, a vividly pixelated video game and first-person shooter that came out for the PlayStation VR, came to an end. Set in a simple, monochromatic computer world, SUPERHOT asks its players to shatter overwhelming waves of enemies coming from all sides with one catch – time only moves forward if you move. Levels unfold like slow motion puzzles. Playing with two hand-held motion controllers, I found myself contorting my body to interact with the game – dodging a bullet flying overhead or leaning to grab a weapon on the ground. For years, VR technology has been promising dramatic, immersive environments set to revolutionize the way we experience digital media. SUPERHOT was absolutely a memorable experience, but it was not memorable because I felt transported to another reality. Instead, I was struck by how it unquestionably grounded me in this world, in this body, in this reality. This embodied experience reinforced how an understanding of materiality, is essential to understanding VR.
At this point, it would be helpful to take a minute to define some terms. An embodied experience is one that pays particular attention to being literally in a body – in other words, how our physicality affects our experience of the world. Materiality also attends to the physical – drawing our attention to the materials which make up the world around us. Both concepts argue that we pay attention to what is often taken for granted. Tim Ingold has also written about how embodiment and materiality are intrinsically connected: “In the living, dynamically centered body, person and organism are one. The body is the organism-person. As a gathering together of materials in movement, the body is moreover a thing. Thus we should no longer speak of relations between people and things, because people are things too.” (Ingold 2012: 437).
Attending to the embodied reminds us that materiality is important when considering how to define the digital. Matthew Kirschenbaum, in arguing for a closer attention to materiality, makes a distinction between forensic and formal materiality. Forensic materiality states that no two things in the physical world are ever exactly alike if we look close enough. Formal materiality refers to how digital content can only be made visible through formal, material processes (i.e. how an image file can only be read and its information revealed through the appropriate software). The computational process of “reading” digital symbols gives an “illusion of immateriality” through numerous redundant error-checking measures, obscuring the reality that this reading of symbols takes place at a physical level – through interpreting electronic voltages into binary codes (Kirschenbaum 2008: 12).
These concepts of formal and forensic materiality in digital media are also relevant to an embodied understanding of digital technologies. Forensic materiality perhaps has the most obvious connection. Digital media can be accessed on a variety of devices and forms, each with a unique physicality, which unquestionably affect our bodily experiences of them. For example, watching Jurassic Park in theaters completely alters the impact of the water rippling scene as a T-Rex ominously approaches, the thump of the bass from huge speakers physically shaking the chairs and chests of theater-goers. Conversely, as I recently viewed this movie scrunched over a phone squinting at the screen, I resonated more than I ever have with Lex and Tim trapped in a jeep which threatened to crush them into the muddy ground. In the same way, were I to have played SUPERHOT on a computer vs. in VR, my embodied experience would have been entirely different. The materiality of media matters.
Formal materiality also describes the way in which digital technologies can play off of our senses – how both the material and the illusion of the material intersect. The example Kirschenbaum provides is particularly telling:
“Formal materiality is perhaps also the lingering perception of some genuine material residue – however misplaced – which presents, like sensation in a phantom limb when, one cannot quite accept the exclusively formal nature of the digital process; for example, the vague sense of unease that attends me after leaving my desktop music player application on Pause for hours on end, something that would harm a physical tape system because of the tension on the reels.” (Kirschenbaum 2008:13)
VR is both resisting and reinforcing the illusion of immateriality Kirschenbaum discusses. Like other digital media, VR relies upon a host of interconnected hardware to read and interpret the game’s code. Yet at the same time, it is designed to encourage the user to forget these components – the headset, the motion detectors, the controllers – and believe that they are actually physically present within the digital environment the game creates. Without the error-checking methods Kirschenbaum describes, this illusion would fall apart. Yet that is not the materiality of the platform developers want users to notice. Instead, VR is designed to maximize this “perception of genuine material residue” to encourage embodied interactions with gaming.
Considering embodiment within digital media also raises some interesting questions in regards to preservation, particularly in relation to Richard Rinehart’s discussion on new media art. Rinehart emphasizes variability/adaptation as the defining characteristic of the digital, questioning our assumption on the importance of medium in new media artworks (Rinehart 2014). In museum practice, reflexivity is essential when considering the importance of the material. Is an obsession with the material really an obsession with power, authority and control? Do we see the material as minimally important when arguing for the benefits of “digital” over “physical” repatriation to Indigenous communities, for example? Or do we see the material as essential when we are able to capitalize on the commodification of an original artwork, or “authentic” reproduction? Rinehart argues that these qualities of adaptability and reproduce-ability give a flexibility to new media art which should make us question how important the original medium is to the project. Overall, he proposes focusing on the question of integrity over authenticity, and clarifies that all art ” sculptures, installations, new media works, and paintings all change over time. Rather, the question is how much they can vary while retaining their integrity.” (Rinehart 2014: 55)
Yet while Rinehart’s questioning of our obsession with material and its relationship to power is important, attending to the embodied aspects of digital media nevertheless argues that the material always impacts our experience of media – regardless of whether these components are necessary for the integrity of an artwork or not. Should our embodied experiences with digital media be considered when thinking about a work’s “integrity”? What would this look like for a game like SUPERHOT, and how might we go about preserving this game as new media art? Perhaps more importantly, who decides what might be considered the “canonical” way of experiencing this work, and in allowing for variability what do we lose or gain? While it does not provide answers, considering embodiment within both the formal and forensic material components of this work at least show us that these questions are worth asking.
Ingold, Tim. 2012. “Toward an Ecology of Materials.” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (1): 427–42.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. 2008. “Introduction: Awareness of the Mechanism.” In Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge: MIT Press. Pp. 1-23.
Rinehart, Richard. 2014. “Chapter 4: Variability Machines.” In Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, edited by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito. Cambridge: MIT Press.