Culture, History and VR Development
What has culture and history got to do with VR development? Here I discuss some initial ideas on the topic…
Kress (2003) describes how communication practices arise from changes in technology, social and cultural practices. Geertz (1973) defines culture as: ‘the fabric of meaning in terms of which human beings interpret their experience and guide their actions [while] social structure is the form that action takes, the actually existing network of social relations’ (p. 145). In other words, our very specific cultural and personal backgrounds control our interpretation of experiences. In relation to my own experiences of Japanese location-based VR content this is in relation to both being British, but also having spent my twenties and early thirties living in Japan. As a result my interpretation of several of the Japanese experiences drew directly from this connection to the culture; one as partial insider but also an outsider. For example, on a visit to Hashilus I played with one of their VR experiences called Happy Oshare (Fashionable) Time.
Happy Oshare Time
In this game players take on an avatar in the common manga aesthetic of big eyes, big hair and cute clothing. In the first part of the experience players have the opportunity to choose their hair styles and eye colour, to try out different outfits and accessories. The experience is multiplayer and so you are able to comment on your friends choices and enjoy the dressing up activity together- a social and performative experience.
In the second part of the experience, players compete to sing and dance at a concert by catching stars in time with the music. I attached this experience to a range of other historic and culturally specific practices. Long before smartphones were widespread and taking selfies had appeared on the scene there was Purikura.
The word purikura is a condensed version of printo kurabu, the Japanese rendering of the English words ‘Print Club’. It refers to the Japanese practice of individuals taking selfies usually with friends, in specially designed booths, which provide a range of backgrounds and also the means for adding writing, drawing and assorted emoji and stamps to the photograph. Once completed the photographs are printed quickly as a sheet of stickers to be cut and shared. In the past they were collected in albums or stuck to personal belongings. With the advent of smartphones Purikura also began to be forwarded to mobile phones for dissemination.
Purikura may not have allowed us change our outfits, but it did widen our eyes and allow us to change the colour of our hair, add make up etc. There was a performative aspect too; before beginning to take the images we had to choose if we wanted to be in ‘normal’ mode or ‘sexy’ mode and the machine made recommendations for how to pose for the images and what aesthetic style to use based on our answer. Above you can see us posing in Sexy Mode!
Researchers of Purikuri practices have tended to focus on how it has been taken up by girls and young women in Japan and as a result tend to focus on how their form and creation reflect gender (Chalfen and Murai 2001; Miller 2003; Okabe et al 2006; 2009). However, at the level of the text itself it can be analysed as being part of a wider cultural practice. Just as I am doing in the analysis of this particular VR experience.
The performative aspect of the VR experience reminded me of other cultural practices such as Karaoke, Maid Cafes and Cos Play.
Performance: Karaoke, Maid Cafes and Cosplay
Karoke has been adapted into the English language and so does not need any explanation. The term Cosplay comes from combining and shortening two words ‘Costume’ and ‘Play’, and refers to the practice of dressing up and performing as a specific character usually from Manga or Anime. Off the top of my head such spaces for playing and imagining go back at least as far as the Edo Period (1603–1868) where society was so tightly controlled that on the outskirts of old Tokyo a pleasure district existed called the Floating World. This offered a space away from the rules of the everyday and allowed the chance to play and make believe.
The Floating World: ‘was a realm of the imagination that fostered a kind of aesthetic which cherished the passing moment the temporal flux for their own sake.’
Guth, 1996, p.29
Indeed, dressing up was also a part of this world. In the rule stricken Edo many types of clothing were banned but in the floating world fashion became elaborate. Drawings of the floating world known as Ukiyoe depicted these clothes and when the woodblock prints reached those within Edo also influenced a desire to wear these types of flamboyant fabrics and styles.
In recent years, it could be argued that maid cafes take on this role of providing a space for escapism. Customers, both male and female can be served food and drinks by women dressed as french maids. The cafe itself is designed to feel like a home making the experience all that more personal. The narratives of such spaces exist in the setting of the building and the costumes of the staff (and sometimes the customers). An open-ended space designed to foster imagination and make believe not unlike many of the VR experiences I have tried but particularly similar to Happy Oshare Time.
It would be interesting to compare how Japanese people familiar with associated genres such as anime, cos play, manga and Purikura inhabit this particular VR space. Even with my limited knowledge of these Japanese practices I found myself embodying a persona of a character that has derived from an amalgamation of these earlier practices and genres. Yes that is me dressed up as chocolate with rainbow coloured eyes!
Chalfen, R.and Murui, M. (2001) Print club photography in Japan: Framing social relationships. Visual Studies, Vol. 16, №1, p. 55–73
Geertz, C. (1973) The interpretation of Cultures.
Guth, C. (1996) Japanese Art of the Edo Period. Everyman Art Library.
Kress, G. (2003) Literacy in the New Media Age. London & New York: Routledge.
Miller, L. (2003) Graffiti Photos: Expressive art in Japanese girls; culture. Harvard Asia Quarterly, vol.2, no. 3 summer 2003, p. 31–42.
Okabe, D., Chipchase, J. , Ito, M. & Shimizu, A. (2006) The Social Uses of Purikura: photographing, modding, archiving and sharing. PICS Workshop, Ubicomp 2006: 1–6.