Project H.E.A.R.T is a VR-based game/art installation I’ve been following for quite some time. Designed and developed by digital artists Erin Gee and Alex M. Lee, it’s a uniquely provocative twist on military combat games and the very meaning of virtual reality -- because in it, the player controls the action by feeling joyful.
Literally: “The sensor picks up your enthusiasm via your skin conductance levels and heart rate,” Erin Gee tells me. “The skin conductance level will cause a ‘burst’ of song activity from the main character, which will in turn affect power-ups for your team. The area of effect is determined by your heart rate.”
The player’s joy (or lack thereof) influences the morale of a squad of space commandos:
“Haku moves automatically to the soldier on your team ‘most in need of emotional support’, so it is the person in the seat's job to just focus and train their emotional intensity in order to release her singing voice, which inspires the soldiers within an area of effect.” But because this is a simulation of war, keeping up morale comes with unintended consequences.
“For instance,” Erin explains, “If any individual soldier succeeds in killing an enemy, their morale actually goes down… the group also has a morale, so if the ‘home team’ soldier is around someone who is depressed, they will also become more easily depressed. If they become too depressed, they are too traumatized to continue and start saying these very depressing things. It has a downward spiral effect -- you have to produce more enthusiasm if more soldiers are depressed on the field.”
Project H.E.A.R.T (for “Holographic Empathy Attack Robots Team”) is designed to interrogate the emotional toll of real war, and gamers’ desensitized enthusiasm for playing war games, but the game could also be read in the opposite way. After all, you’re trying to keep the soldiers’ fighting spirit up -- think Call of Duty: Bagpiper Edition.
Now touring at various art galleries and multimedia/VR exhibits, user reaction has also been mixed, in often surprising ways:
“Apparently,” Erin recounts, “a woman came in at some point and her reaction to my installation was pure disgust. She said, ‘I hate war, I hate it, I will do nothing but stare blankly at the screen and make my soldiers lose.’ She was really quite insistent about this to the exhibition assistant who helped her with the VR headset.
“Finally when she was playing, she actually must have been very excited.” So guided by the woman’s enthusiasm, Haku kept singing, inspiring her soldiers to keep killing. “She apparently kept exclaiming, ‘NO NO STOP SINGING I HATE WAR. I HATE IT!’ But also kind of laughing at herself.
“So I guess she failed. Or something.”