Messeri conducted fieldwork in with people producing VR content for both entertainment and workforce training. During this period of affordable hardware and accessible tools for creating VR experiences, the community embraced a narrative of VR being an inclusive industry; a counternarrative to the tech and entertainment industries that are traditionally male, white, and deeply hierarchical Messeri In both periods, we found VR entangled in issues of gender and diversity as the industry reimagined itself as a site of care and inclusion.
The ethos of VR as a site of inclusion has its roots in the previous VR wave. Jacki Ford Morie has observed that during the s and s, when most VR efforts and research were geared toward military and industrial application, several artists—herself included—gained affiliation with VR labs to experiment with the technology as a new artistic medium. Whereas engineers working on VR were mostly male, these artists were predominantly white women.
Morie argues that this approach realizes the full power of the medium better than the more closed, pre-scripted, and rational one that she identifies with VR in male-dominated sectors. Today, VR is experienced through an HMD and researchers are working on haptics and feedback systems to make the feeling of being in the virtual space as convincing as possible.
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Others play with subtler neuro-technological mechanisms to achieve a sense of immersion. We consider all of these to be stories about VR because they represent physical and mental interfaces with a computer-generated virtual world. Our analytic focus is not on the VR gadgets in these fictions, but rather on the social relations that VR articulates. Both the dominant narrative and counternarratives presented below imagine VR as an accessible technology that provides access to other worlds where one can fulfill desires that cannot be met in the actual world. Importantly, the depicted users of VR are far more diverse than those appearing in prior waves of VR SF where both makers and consumers of VR were predominantly white men.
We were drawn to this aspect of contemporary VR SF because it reflects the imagined inclusive future the VR industry has for itself. Diversity in casting and narratives things visible to the viewer are also influenced by trends occurring in traditional media production that are less visible to the viewer. The lack of diversity behind the scenes affects the on-screen stories that are told Bielby and Bielby ; Conor, Gill, and Taylor ; Erigha ; Lauzen and Dozier Not only do changes in staffing influence the diversity of stories that are told, but so do different technological and economic production pipelines Christian ; Jenkins ; Maule For example, Netflix and Amazon are structured by a different economic logic than traditional network television.
In most of the shows, there is one white woman in a production role. The diverse socialities on screen do not yet reflect the off-screen reality. We will return to this paradox in the conclusion when asking just how feminist are these media pieces. For now, we shift to analyzing the content itself in which we find casts of diverse ethnicity, genders, sexualities, and ages.
Going beyond the facade of diversity casting, we consider how the stories of VR that are being told might also be more inclusive than those that came before. When the book was published in , fledgling VR companies quickly adopted it as both bible and vision. Vast troubles beset the physical world in the late Anthropocene. Most people live in squalid conditions, making the escape to the Oasis desirable to everyone we encounter.
It provides an alternative habitation from a collapsed society and a devastated planet. The Oasis gives order, meaning, and an endless source of spectacular stimulation to the people of It fulfills many needs for the human inhabitants of a deeply traumatized world.
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Upon his death, the co-creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, ceded his company to whoever could find three keys hidden inside the world. IOI are corporate villains intent on transforming this place of escape into an advertisement-filled reflection of the bleak physical world, fueled by the forced labor of indentured cyber-serfs.
It is a male tale told by and for male industries; the future it imagines for VR is no feminist utopia. Contrast this VR SF imaginary with other recent ones that unfold on the small screen. Our analysis focuses on a sample of four stories that center on female protagonists in speculative futures.
She finds comfort amongst other psychologically hurting peers in the virtual world Azanda, only to find actual healing through connection with these online friends in the physical world. Two years later, an old friend hires her to use an experimental social VR program—and her pain—to connect with other users who refuse to unplug. These stories position VR as an almost everyday tool that people use to cope with pain. In so doing, they recognize that it will not take an ecological and societal collapse to motivate some people to seek an alternative world.
Focusing on the lives of traumatized women who enter VR in search of a sense of home and healing, they ask what role the technology might play in how and where we care for ourselves and one another. But even more consequential than this is that the narrative constructs heroism in a way that unwittingly celebrates exclusionary elements of hardcore fan culture, especially in gaming communities.
To save the Oasis, Wade quests for three keys each clued by a riddle that Halliday has hidden. Though the Oasis has grown exponentially since Halliday created it as a gaming platform, it still bears his mark through the seemingly infinite places and elements he recreated from the white, male, nerd popular culture he loved as a lonely boy in the s. Additionally, they need to develop comparable video game skills as Halliday in order to complete these tasks.
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This vision of heroism foregrounds a narrative of rightful succession based on a meritocratic performance. The person who best demonstrates their identification with Halliday will inherit the Oasis, and potentially save it from corporate greed. The film suggests that Halliday cannot be fully understood—nor the clues deciphered—through the exclusively objective approach to his biography that Wade and others pursue. Like Samantha, these women are written as empathetic and interested in the emotional lives of others.
VR is depicted not as a social world, but as an individualized experience, much as it is in contemporary clinical VR. However, this fusion creates complexity and danger, especially in the ways that the computer interprets human desire and reflects it in the simulation they experience. VR provides a metaphor for drug addiction, as users turn to a technologically mediated escape from reality. The heroic work of these stories is one of care: that of saving users from choosing a world that will destroy them. The work of care is the central drama of these SF imaginaries. These women are not heroic fans and gamers, but rather heroic caregivers: not the soldiers of the virtual world, but the nurses who remedy and sustain its occupants.
The episode follows the story of a policewoman named Sarah in a far future Chicago. When we meet her, she is struggling to move past the massacre of several recruits a year earlier, and still suffering from constant flashbacks and anxiety. But it will be someone based on your own thoughts and dreams, drawn directly from your own subconscious. When she touches the device, its lights up blue, and her pupil dilates.
She wakes up in a world several generations before her own time a near future for the viewers. In her avatar body, the blond midswhite woman becomes George Miller, a black male tech billionaire in his late 40s. Like Sarah, George wants justice for a murder, that of his wife—who looks exactly like Kate—who was killed on a viral video. When he puts on his near-future headset he awakens as Sarah in the far future. In a story that draws on central themes from Philip K. My murdered wife. I mean, think about it. I literally have a flying car. You have been wracked with guilt over the massacre for over a year and the last thing you said before you started the program was that your wife is too good for you.
George, too, is struggling to choose a reality to commit to.
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He is also struggling with memory, and shocked when his friend Paula tells him they were having an affair when his wife was killed. Paula asks George which is more plausible: that he is actually a guilty, grieving widower or a married lesbian supercop? In this dark vision of VR, we are asked to consider how VR, as an escape from trauma, could instead become a trap.
Heroic efforts to care are undermined by broken channels of communication. Reverie takes places in a near future tech company called Onira-Tech, which makes a VR program called Reverie that allows users to live inside of neuro-cyborg dreams. The chief of security, Charlie is black, while his contact at the Department of Defense an investor , Monica, is a white woman in her mid-thirties.
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Its hero, however, does not save virtual worlds, but rather saves people from them. When we meet Mara, she is teaching a course on interpersonal communication and concerned about the role of technology in undermining the skills she values so dearly, especially empathy.
In order to save them, Mara joins them using an experimental social version of the program 2. The first three users are white and relatively unmarked, but later episodes include a black woman, an elderly Latina, a Syrian boy, a woman in a wheelchair, and a white man with OCD. The third user Mara helps, for example, is a white suburban man, Nate, who has spent the past two weeks as a bank robber, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Just when Nate seems ready to talk, he is captured by a beastly biker with a scarred face. Mara researches what this might mean to Nate, and learns that his home had been robbed some months earlier.
Reverie , Mara realizes, provides Nate a toxic masculine fantasy of empowerment, allowing him to become what he fears—a violent thief—but fails to help him face the true object of this fear. Both programs suggest that the therapeutic potential of VR must be safeguarded against those who would use it to escape from reality rather than to heal. Its answer to this problem is a revaluation of the empathic caregiver who becomes an SF hero by recognizing the power of VR to harm as well as heal.
VR counternarratives scale down drama from the world to the individual and recast the hero from male savior to female empath. In the counternarratives, home is recast from a site of regret and regression to a site of healing and progress if one is willing to face fear and pain directly. Consequently, the home, and labor done in the home are devalued. The home be it virtual or physical is the locus of the female hero and a site where a chosen family can be constituted Weston In this future, the virtual world of San Junipero is a place for those who are old or dying to revisit past selves and past eras.
We learn that users can visit for 5 hours a week—a safeguard Onira-Tech could use—and, upon bodily death, can opt to remain in San Junipero for their afterlife. We initially meet Kelly and Yorkie as their younger selves, but find out that Kelly, a black woman, is dying of cancer and Yorkie, a white woman, has been in a coma all of her adult life. Kelly and Yorkie nonetheless are both dealing with the lasting effects of having come of age in s America, before living an openly gay life was fully accepted.
Yorkie, we learn when she finally confides in Kelly, is in a coma because when she came out to her family in her 20s they kicked her out and as she drove away from her home, upset and in tears, she had a catastrophic car accident. She never got to live as an openly gay woman. But in San Junipero, old, dying, and incapacitated bodies do not get in the way of living a full, embodied life.
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Kelly and Yorkie first meet in the public space of a s bar. Kelly is an outgoing regular, Yorkie is new and shy. Their love story unfolds as Yorkie finds the courage to experience the things she never got to in life and Kelly struggles to keep her relationship with Yorkie casual despite a powerful connection. Whereas Yorkie is planning to stay in San Junipero after she dies, Kelly had promised her Christian husband that she would join him in his afterlife. Kelly visits Yorkie in the hospital and learns that a nurse, Greg, has agreed to marry Yorkie so that, as kin, he can allow for her to be euthanized.
After learning this, the next time they are together in San Junipero, Kelly proposes to Yorkie outside of her home. In post-nuptial bliss, Yorkie once more asks Kelly to stay with her in San Junipero for eternity. Kelly is struggling, both with this decision and with her health.