A discussion about games, VR and Esther Fox’s work on genetic screening

Person Wearing Vr Goggles

Image credit: Pexels.com

By Diane Carr and Esther Fox.

Introduction: Esther Fox is a visual artist, Head of Accentuate and a Community Co-Investigator on the D4D project as well as project manager.  Diane Carr is a media and games researcher based at UCL. Diane is leading the Playful Bodies work-stream. What follows is an edited transcription of one of our working-discussions from summer 2018 . The discussion was structured a bit like an interview. Esther shared some notes prior to the meeting, and Diane used these as the basis for a series of questions. The recording was transcribed in January 2019. Diane edited the transcription, which Esther checked and approved. This transcription documents a particular stage in Esther’s work on VR and games as a way to support public engagement in debates about genetic screening.

Diane:  I thought we could start off by talking about the meetings you’ve been having with game developers, and where you are now.

Esther: We had the meetings with various developers (including Route Interactive, Ixxy and Circa 69) and that was really just to get the first ideas of what the themes of the game might be. Originally the idea was just to develop two kinds of storyboards from that meeting. But, actually three ideas came from that. So – how can I best describe it? We think it… We want it to be a VR experience. Because when I tried VR I was really blown away by how it emotionally affected me.

Diane: Like…?

Esther: I felt like…because you feel like you’re in another dimension. It’s not like you’re just looking at a screen. And, also, you can easily just like look away from a screen but when you have like the head set on, you can’t remove it and you feel quite claustrophobic.

So it feels as if it potentially gets under your skin more, somehow, as an experience… and that made me think ‘well, actually is that a really good way to discuss something like genetic screening’ – which also has a highly charged emotional content to it. So that was really why I wanted to see if VR was something that we could look at in the context of my work with D4D.

The downside is that VR is more expensive. It’s more complicated. So now we’ve got to think about what can we actually, feasibly do. What we wanted to do at this stage was just come up with some ideas and then not worry about the budget or the practical aspects – and just think about what are the ideas that are the most compelling ones.

Diane: Can you speak a bit about those ideas now?

Esther: Well, we always said that we wanted to do something around like flowers and breeding plants because of kind of the context of Mendel discovering genetics through his pea breeding. But, as we were talking about that, we said the problems with that are um, will people necessarily realise that we’re talking about people, not environmental issues?

Diane: Right, and asking how didactic you want or need to be.

Esther: Yes, so that’s when we also thought let’s explore some other ways of telling the same story.

Uma Thurman, Jude Law, Ethan Hawke, Gattaca HD Wallpaper posted in Movie Wallpapers

Then we came discussed a sort-of Gattaca idea (the science fiction film) where there’s a system kind of controls what you can and can’t do. What you’re allowed to access and what you’re not allowed to access, where that access is determined by your genetic profile.

But…the idea was that you’d kind of play a different role at any time. So at one point you might be the baby, the unborn baby. Where you have literally no control and you do nothing for the whole game. You’re just kind of passive but you can hear the decisions that are being made around you. And the way people are kind of discussing your fate. Then you might be the parent that’s having to make the choices about whether or not they terminate the pregnancy. Or, then – you might be the system. And the system is, you know, they provide you with the, um, diagnosis and they provide you with what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do with that diagnosis. So what your future life, or your baby’s future life might look like if you went ahead with the pregnancy. So that’s, that’s probably the most hard hitting of all three of the ideas and the closest to the themes around genetic screening.

And then, for the other two ideas, we went in a more poetic direction. One was about plants again, but this time thinking about seed or weed and this idea of you have to make a choice about what you discard and what you keep. And the notion of making selections based on values…So one plant might be really easy to grow. Really robust…fast-growing. But it has no real nutritional value, no real medicinal value, and no value in the form of seed, whereas another plant could be something that’s really difficult to nurture. It takes a long time, it’s expensive. But has a really high nutritional value.

So, you know…Obviously, we’re making those parallels between what choices, values and we’re saying about people. And I quite like that idea because I think it’s still playful enough not to be too confrontational, allowing people to explore the subtleties of the argument a bit more.

Then the third idea was my… This is my obsession about Victorian egg collecting that I’ve got from this exhibition called Natural Selection and it was all about nest building and egg collecting. I’ve written a blog about the nest building side of it, but I’ve written a blog about the egg collecting.

But really, it just struck me that this desire to categorise, label, conform, collect, own…In Victorian times when they wanted to classify and categorise everything.  So this game would be like a Victoriana game where you have to go and collect your egg specimens. And, again, it plays around with the idea of value, because you’re told which ones are the most valuable at the beginning. So you set out to try and collect those. And you can be devious because you might want to mis-label them and mis-categorise them. Or other people might not categorise them in a correct way. So you might not collect the ones that you thought you would because they all look quite similar. But, in the end, you might find out that your guide was actually wrong and you should have been collecting the more ugly ones that you thought weren’t the valuable ones. So, again, it’s kind of… It’s a more poetic way of thinking about the decisions we make about what we value and how we categorise.

Diane: For a bit of context, are you seeing these as games that are played in public?

Esther: Yes

Diane: You’re seeing these as games that someone can walk up to and start using and have an experience that lasts maybe three minutes, maybe five minutes?

Esther: Yes. Certainly it wouldn’t be a long experience because we’re thinking of doing it in public spaces like a shopping centre or something like that. Or a museum. Or a gallery. So somewhere where you’re not really expecting to come across it. So you probably wouldn’t have a lot of time to give to it as well.

Diane: So you might have… if we’re trying to imagine what this looks like, you might have a row of VR headsets. A museum would be a great space for this. And somebody walks in and people plug in and they have an experience that lasts three minutes. Is it something like that?

Esther: Hmm, maybe, although to be meaningful it might need to be more like five to ten I would have thought. And we’re also interested in considering if we can develop it as a multi-player thing too. So that all three of those ideas you can play against each other or with each other, or you get a different viewpoint if you play it from a different perspective. Then we were thinking about that as well, to be able to kind of collect data as to how different people react in different roles and how multi-players play.

Diane: Are you imagining that you would be framing the experience in some way? Would there be an introduction and some kind of debriefing at the end?

Esther: Yeah, we thought we would need to do that and I think, particularly if we did go down the first route, which is very close to the whole genetic screening experience, we’d have to be really careful how we handled that. Because you don’t know what people are coming, you know, and their previous experiences. Or what they might be about to experience.

Diane: So, yes – ethical considerations, and in a public space…

Esther: Yes – we’re thinking about that and about the times that our conversations have overlapped with other peoples’ perspectives – There’s so much scope for complication, misunderstanding.

Diane: I can imagine. OK. Next – would it be helpful for me to say something, first thoughts and maybe ask some questions about the ideas you’ve shared and issues you’ve raised in your notes?

Esther: Yeah, ah ha.

Diane: There’s what you said first of all about the emotional experience of VR. That seemed important. The idea that…I’m going back to your own notes here! You want an experience that has the following attributes: accessible, engaging, memorable, awareness and impactful.

From what you said about your experience, VR could help you to cover the ‘memorable’ and ‘engaging’…and, that’s part of your rationale for using VR, right?

Esther: Exactly.

Diane:  One of the things I’m wondering about, the kind of experience you’re taking about, the contexts of that experience, and the timing…sometimes three minutes is a really short time. Five minutes? But then…Ten minutes is getting to be quite a long time to be sitting there…

And then I was thinking about the kinds of games you were talking about.

On your notes, the first one, the Gattaca themed game sounds a bit like a game about identity processing – Papers, Please – it mixes or it combines decisions with role and with information. I’m thinking in terms of the experience itself, if you are talking about maybe four minutes, five minutes. I’m wondering how role and information you would want to try and fit into that kind of scale.

On the other hand, it strikes me that the Victorian collecting game, potentially, connects with the emotions that you were talking about more intuitively or immediately perhaps…the emotions of being… because, I mean… imagine if it was actually, instead of just being a cabinet of curiosities that you approached, it was actually like a stuffed closet.., Because in your weeds and seeds idea, one of the things that sounded really strong about that was the idea of having to discard things. I’m thinking about that, about the emotions you mentioned, in combination with the potentials of VR as you described them…and imagining if you had the sort of claustrophobic sense of being in this confined space. And you have to make this… if you also made it a shared closet, so there are other people in there, bumping into you, stuff like that. Um, maybe that could be…interesting. If it’s got the right feelings…

Esther: Yeah.

Diane:…and that way you’d not be expecting people to be actually reading menus or understanding the relationship between this and that. The implication or the ramification of the decisions being made is kind of self-evident. And if the other person is also making those same decisions, you could put something very carefully to one side and you turn around and somebody else has discarded it…

Esther: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Diane: Um, I’m just thinking about the emotions that you’ve described. And a way, a simple mechanic that you can hang the idea of collecting and discarding on, and how there’s potential for conflict if two or three people are all in the cupboard at the same time making different decisions. Um…

Esther: …yes – and that’s really interesting to include, isn’t it, because what’s valuable for one person won’t be valuable to another.

I think you’re right. I think the um first, the Gattaca style game, that would be quite a lot of information to process. And, in the context of a very public space, short time… It doesn’t give that time, maybe, to reflect on what are very serious issues. Whereas if it is more playful in the form of a kind of collecting game or a discarding game, you know you’re still making those key points and asking people to question a little bit. And I think if we had like a kind of debrief at the end where we say, actually this is kind of a commentary on genetic screening and why that is.

Diane: Yes, so it ties it together a bit. I like the potential for conflict and surprise…What if there were three of you shoving eggs or whatever it is in there [laughing]. So, um, perhaps it lends itself to VR, and to the time requirements that you have. As for debriefing, perhaps we can find some simulation research literature, or games and education research, helping to explain how people might manage – It’s this idea of critical framing, and the idea that it’s actually hard to get people to critically reflect on something that they’re in the middle of.

But this raises questions about how much… How determining or directing do you want to be about the experience that people are having?  Which is another thing I like about the collecting game – there’s space for it to be quite emotional and conflicted and competitive and, and that’s nice in a way [laughs] because once you get people talking about those feelings, it might give you something richer than if you were to come at it from a more ‘teacher’ kind of stand point. Um…

Esther: Yeah, because people might be freer in what they would say about their feelings when they feel it’s more playful than if they feel that this is a very serious issue that I might say the wrong thing.

Diane: The weeds and seeds game I thought was lovely. It actually really reminds me of a frantic little casual mobile game that you’d play.  I quite liked the idea of discarding… or exploring the idea of sacrifice, or I quite like the idea of exploring the plants’ revenge [laughing]. But, again, it would be… It might be quite a lot of different kinds of activities to try and get somebody to start doing in a short period of time.

Although, like we were saying, it’s about what you can explain in the time that you have…When you talk about collecting and discarding, as soon as you said that to me, I knew what you meant…You’re an egg collector? Grab the eggs. You’ve got two locations. You’ve got the woods and the closet. Grab the eggs. Stash the eggs. Make more space, sacrifice some eggs while trying to make decisions about value or something – So, it’s kind of an easy pick up and play straight away thing. Whereas explaining to somebody, okay this is a garden. You can do this. You can do this. You can make these decisions, and these have ramifications over time. More like a nurture thing. Or perhaps like a game that you’d play over a couple of levels. Like a casual game…have you seen Plants vs Zombies? It’s fairly self-explanatory, right? You have zombies in lanes marching their way up the garden. And plants that are bouncing up and down like this that can shoot stuff at the zombies. So… I can’t remember but I think you have to plant specific plants, they have certain defensive capabilities [laughs]. But anyway, but that’s the kind of rhythm and timing that it was reminding me of. Something simple, immediate – that you could escalate over a few levels, with some changes or ramifications only becoming apparent later one.

Anyway – if we go back to where you started where you were talking about the emotions that you got from VR.  The thing about the closet, it almost sounds like an installation…

Esther: Yes, because you can imagine that more as a kind of 3D modelled space, can’t you I guess? In a way that the others are way more complex, and when you talk about complexity, there’s your surroundings and how that…

Diane: and your surroundings have to communicate something about the kind of activity right?

Esther: Yes

Diane: Then you have to give them certain levels of information about the activity. So people understand the decisions that they’re making. Um,  and you can see how that would start… I mean there are short-cuts you could take by using something very familiar…Like, if you call a game Hide and Seek it doesn’t matter where you set it. You already know it’s going to involve somebody hiding, waiting and somebody seeking. I don’t know. It’s just…the emotions that you talked about, and something that you can communicate very easily…Is there an option of developing Seeds vs Weeds as another kind of game? As a mobile game or something like that?

Esther: Um, well at this stage what we thought we’d do next is we’ll do a workshop probably in Bristol – this is something I’m discussing with Praminda (Caleb-Solly). If we might do it at a VR centre, working through these ideas with disabled people as participants. So we’ll present all three ideas and then ask them which are their preferred routes. And then kind of really try and develop them a bit more. And from that, come away with one that we want to take forward.  But I think that workshop would give us scope to put a lot more flesh into all of those ideas anyway. So maybe another time we could do something with the other idea, or…?

Diane: They are all worth exploring. Maybe it will end up that different ideas work for different games, that would fit into difference spaces and circumstances, so a different game might be for…
Esther: Something else, yeah.

Diane: Yeah.

Esther: I am working on a different project at the moment too, as an artist working in collaboration with Felicity Boardman at Warwick University.  She’s based I think in the Medical School. Her research is all about how lived experience of genetic conditions potentially changes the way you approach the reproduction choices. So, you know, would you make a different decision if you’d already had an experience? As to opposed to somebody who’d never had an experience of disability before.

Felicity and I worked together on the Pandora’s Box piece in the Science Museum. But we’ve now got some more funding from the Wellcome Trust to do another piece, and it’s going to be a sound installation. And it’s meant to be like a cacophony of kind of voices so that you can’t decipher people’s statements about how they feel about those choices and decisions. Until you kind of get moments of clarity when you just get one voice that then you can hear it.

And I want to do some film where I use BSL as well. So that the film can be like really indistinctive and then clear. So that people can kind of get moments when they can hear or see what’s happening but others where they don’t. And, for me, that seemed to fit and that is hopefully going to tour Science Festivals. And that seemed like it might be a fit the first idea…better in a way.

And also if people are already coming to something about genetic screening, they’re already primed. They’re already interested or… So we could be maybe a bit more, um, risky in that sense.

Diane: So what’s next…You’ll be recruiting people for your next workshop?

Esther: Yes, hopefully for the end of June.

Diane: … If we go back to some of the other criteria you’ll be using in the decision about what game you can take forward, one of the key attributes, is that it is accessible. Which you can define in all sorts of ways I guess…so I guess that’s something we can discuss further, maybe after the workshop – the ways that different kinds of games, might be made accessible in different ways, played on phones, or PCs, or using VR or in different places.


Esther’s work with games and ‘vaporisation’ is continuing. Meanwhile, in March 2019 we co-convened an event on the topic of Troubled Legacies/Fractured futures where Esther spoke about the omission of disabled people in archives (see also the Accentuate project, Histories of Place) and connected this idea of absence in accounts of the past, to her ongoing work on genetics and erasure from possible futures.

Diane’s presentation connected contemporary games, with issues of assessment and disability, to related ‘game like’ phenomena (self-measurement, self-tracking movements, gamification) drawing a line back to Victorian sciences, and the anthropometrics of Victorian eugenicists including Francis Galton. The curator of the Galton Collection at UCL, Dr Subhadra Das, joined us as special guest and shared some of Galton’s devices and their stories and histories with the seminar participants in a deeply inspiring, deeply disturbing show and tell.

For more information on that event, and the Galton Collection, visit Diane Carr’s website at https://playhouse.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/troubled-legacies-fractured-futures/

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