An interactive VR painting provided underrepresented communities with a meditative space to share thoughts on identity.
50 years ago, in the early morning of June 28th, 1969, violent demonstrations ignited in the streets of Manhattan. Police officers had just raided a Greenwich Village gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Homosexuality was illegal at the time, as was wearing fewer than three pieces of clothing that didn’t “belong” to your biological sex. That night, police had just started their usual routine of beating and arresting offending individuals when the community finally reached its boiling point. Bar patrons flooded out of the doors and began to fight back.
The rioting became so intense that the police officers were forced to barricade themselves inside of the very bar they had just raided. It took just over two hours for the rioting to end, with police reinforcements having also been fended off by the mobs. The following days would see similar protests staged in the same location. Pride Month commemorates these events as some of the most pivotal moments of the modern LGBTQ+ rights movement.
As a gay man with an intersectional identity (Latinx and Jewish), this month has always been a time when I reflect on the struggles of my forebears and consider how that history will inform the present. Perhaps it’s the heightened awareness of Pride that drew me so magnetically to the story of the VR Confessionals experience at this year’s E3 conference.
This experience, in which people spent roughly ten minutes in at a time, invited conference-goers to interact with a beautiful VR world painted in Tilt Brush by artist Estella Tse. We Are, who organized the booth that included VR Confessionals, is an initiative created by the ESA Foundation in partnership with Red Bull. Their mission is to connect diverse women in the gaming industry, leveraging their collective voices to encourage inclusion and representation.
With the goal of creating a safe space for underrepresented groups, especially female, non-binary, and trans folx, We Are contacted Estella to bring their vision to life. “I describe it as a graffiti wall community board,” Estella told me. “They wanted it to be a safe, creative space.” With that idea in mind, Estella created a peaceful garden sanctuary with bioluminescent trees and cobblestone walkways. This calm, tiny world allowed participants to meditate and explore, while also leading them to glowing questions that were placed throughout the piece.
These prompts, created by We Are, were designed to help participants reflect on topics related to identity and self-image. With questions ranging from advice your video game heroine self would give the real you, to more open-ended prompts like “In a few words, how would you define change,” people responded with everything from art to deeply personal statements.
Though the experience was clearly a popular one, everyone was surprised to find a virtual autograph from Kahlid nestled in among the responses.
E3, which was attended by just under 70,000 people this year, is a physically and emotionally exhausting experience. For people belonging to underrepresented groups in gaming and entertainment, that exhaustion can be amplified by anxiety and a feeling of ‘otherness.’ Many games and studios still lack a visibly inclusive voice. Almost to illustrate that point during Pride Month, Cyberpunk 2077 creators caught flak for what many viewed as transphobic content in their game art, made all the more unseemly by the fact that this is not the first time they received backlash for that very issue.
VR, through its very nature of transporting people to new worlds, became a powerful tool for providing a safe space amidst that chaos. When asked about how We Are envisioned this piece being used, Estella said, “In speaking more to the team about it, they wanted to make something that was magical and colorful, using virtual reality as an imaginary, fictional space to think about how you want reality to be.”
Estella continued, “Hearing about peoples’ visions of what they could do with this technology, and hearing about how they’re inspired by it and how they want to give back to their own communities…that’s what I live for. I know I can’t do all the work myself in the community, and it’s incredible that I can impact people on this level where then they feel like they have the power to give back to their communities.”
There’s no question that there’s a lot of work to be done. Representation is still not widely reflected in games or the companies that produce them. Gatekeeping, discrimination, and harassment are still common. But VR, in its capacity to create new worlds and provide empathy-driven experiences, is quickly becoming a transformative voice for the industry. In her own journey as an artist, VR has presented Estella with a uniquely freeing niche.
“I used to work in the industry as a web designer, and then I was trained to go work in the animation field. I [chose not to continue] in either of those fields because those either don’t treat women fairly or they don’t treat artists fairly.” Not wanting to lessen herself or her expression for her job, Estella told me that she was fortunate to have the right training, opportunities, and (frankly) faith to go into the field of VR.
I was personally moved to hear how VR played a central role in the impact We Are’s booth had for E3 attendees. Creators like Estella are harnessing the power of immersive technologies to move the needle forward for inclusion and equality, and in doing so pushing adjacent industries to do the same. Despite being made up of myriad virtual worlds, VR is shaping the physical world in remarkable ways.
Featured Image Credit: Estella Tse