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International conference series in games and literary studies

Montreal, Canada, 20-22 October 2017


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Lost in a Game, Lost in a Book

In August 2015, Time magazine declared that virtual reality is about to change the world. Its infamous cover featured Oculus founder Palmer Luckey floating on a beach wearing his VR headset. In March 2016, the respected Kill Screen magazine launched a side project dedicated entirely to VR coverage: Versions. In a lengthy article entitled “The Purpose of Pokémon Go”, Gareth Damian Martin proposes a different reading of the current VR situation. According to him, Niantic and Nintendo’s application – one of the most popular ever created – can be seen as the “the most significant piece of virtual reality software we have ever seen”. As Martin points out, “1:1 is the ultimate goal of any virtual reality experience. Whether that means matching the movements of a player’s head and body to their corresponding digital avatar in headset VR, or matching a world map to the map of our own world as in Pokémon Go.” From this perspective, VR has already taken over the world.

The novelty of Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality entertainment currently draws a lot of attention from journalists. Moreover, many creative endeavours are trying to integrate these new technologies with some critical success and have been showcased in contemporary arts venues. For instance, the PHI Center in Montreal has programmed two exhibitions curated by “The Future of Storytelling” group over the past year and a half; famous VR installations such as Birdly (SOMNIACS, 2014) and Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (Arnaud Colinart, Amaury La Burthe, Peter Middleton and James Spinney, 2016) have attracted significant audiences for this venue. In Montreal still, the Satosphère (with its 18 meters wide projection dome) is also attracting crowds. However, the commercial success of such experiments is not assured at this point in time. VR devices such as the Oculus rift, PlayStation VR and HTC Vive have a hard time convincing a broad public besides the typical early adopters. Respected media scholar Dmitri Williams recently penned a short article predicting that these technologies might become a niche market, both in the realm of cinema and video game (2017). Such a point of view is informed by the knowledge of previous episodes in media history, where the same fascination for VR or natural interfaces have led to mixed results at best – and commercial / aesthetic failure at worst.

How can media creators navigate this new episode of the VR fascination without facing the same dead ends? As researchers in the various fields of media studies, how can we account for the progressive integration – or lack thereof – of technologies associated with VR in media practices such as video games and movies? What are the concerns of the general public about the current implementation of VR technology? As the conference “Lost in a game / Lost in a book” intends to demonstrate, an exchange between these three poles will be beneficial in order to move forward in the current VR conundrum. Through a better understanding of the VR lineage in media history (previous pitfalls and unrealized promises), the contemporary wave of VR creation can be informed and engage with audiences more effectively.

Professor Janet H. Murray is an internationally recognized interaction designer, specializing in digital narrative and digital humanities. She graduated from the Bronx High School of Science and SUNY Binghamton, and was trained by IBM as a systems programmer before earning a PhD in English Literature from Harvard, where she specialized in the English novel. In the early 1980s she was teaching humanities at MIT when her students showed her Eliza and Zork, and she recognized the possibilities for storytelling in the new digital medium. Building on these explorations and on early Media Lab experiments with interactive video, Murray led humanities educational projects at MIT in the 1980s and 1990s and established the first university course in interactive narrative.
Since 1999 she has been at Georgia Tech, where she founded the eTV Lab which creates prototypes of new narrative genres at the intersection of television and computation, and where as Director of the Graduate Program in Digital Media (2000-2010), she led curriculum and laboratory development for the MS degree, and the establishment of one of the world's first PhD programs in the field (2004).
Janet Murray is an emerita trustee of the American Film Institute (active 2000-2009) and the board of directors of the George Foster Peabody Award (active 2006-2013), and a frequent consultant on digital media trends and curricular programs. In 2010 Prospect Magazine named her one of the "Top Ten Brains for the Digital Future."
Murray is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997; MIT Press 1998), which has been translated into 5 languages, and is widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments,and Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2011) which has been hailed by Henry Jenkins as "an epic accomplishment, one which we will all be mining for years to come." Her projects have been funded by IBM, Apple Computer, Intel Corporation, Motorola Research, Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco/Scientific Atlanta, the Annenberg-CPB Project, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Science Foundation.

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