Deepening Story-Telling with Conscious Virtual Reality Design
In 2015 I commenced a Rudolf Steiner Teaching Course, interested in expanding my repertoire of ‘productive stuff to do with children’. I looked forward to being immersed in a variety of art experiences- which DID happen.
Despite my resistance to taking on a specialised discourse, I was required to use a freaky -sounding word in assignments, a word educators love: Pedagogy.
Pedagogy means a ‘method and practice of teaching’, and acknowledges that teaching is an art or science.
A pedagogue is Greek for ‘the tutor of a child’; though I’m skeptical that today we use it to sound important and esoteriacally scholarly.
Teaching can occur in subtle ways, and that’s where it’s an art. We’re mostly happy to embrace life-long learning, so this implies you don’t have to give your consent to be taught something- education can be anywhere and all around you.
The way ideas and experiences are introduced to you, whether in formal, or informal settings, are expressions of pedagogy.
In Aboriginal cultures children have stories and ideas pointed out to them that are embodied in the landscape itself. The shapes of hills, rivers beds, standing stones, stars and mountain ranges represent ancestral and magical characters who both form Country, and continue to embody narrative ( a story) that teaches. We hear myths that Aboriginal people didn’t have writing, it isn’t true- the landscape itself can be read, and there are additional accenting symbols laid onto the landscape through various media (carved, incised, painted, ochred, scratched, stenciled, etc. (sand drawings are usually rubbed out when the lesson is done- they are more like a teaching blackboard.)
Recently it’s been realised by the newcomers that there are Aboriginal stone star maps created about 25,000 years earlier than ‘our’ vaunted Egyptian cultures. (The book ‘The Dark Emu’ by Bruce Pascoe is well worth a read, it features accounts by early European explorers of the very advanced Aboriginal civilisations they observed on arrival, a people rapidly smashed by settler-entitlement, their knowledge guiltily hidden behind myths of primitivism.)
Colonisation and conquest disrupted highly complex first languages and societies all over the world.
For my ‘mainstream’ teaching degree I’ve been reading about ‘Multiliteracies’. In one textbook, authors Kalantzis, Cope, Chan and Dalley-Trim (2016) tell the compelling story of how different technologies of writing (kicked off by the printing press) gradually homogenised the planet’s languages and cultures, occuring in three historic waves of globalisation.
Under modern industrialisation and global trade, the trend may have peaked. The digital world is now rebirthing a complex, multimodal world of communication somewhat like what First Peoples worldwide always excelled at. Once more ‘we’ are seeing diversity valued, adaptation becoming dynamic, and locality lending flavour, to emphasize relationships to Place.
Multimodal expression means: not just writing, not just music- it means many modes simultaneously: sound, light, setting, language, gesture, text, costume, shape, pattern and whatever else communicates meaning.
Now think about virtual reality; how the designer can co-ordinate many elements. VR is definitely multimodal.
Choosing a combination of elements to effect people emotionally and intellectually, in a VR ‘experience’, is also pedagogy. People may be playing, but they are also receptive, so a lot of power can be exercised by a VR experience-maker.
The world of commerce will suggest enterprise is all about making profit, but there are more ways to positively benefit human populations, than merely ensuring a few ‘lucky’ individuals make a lot of money.
Going back to the Steiner training; there’s a theory in the pedagogy that having stories told aloud, without pictures, helps a young child develop the powers of their imagination. Me veering off to study VR Design on weekends is therefore a pretty strong about-face!
It was my 6 year old, non-Steiner educated Grandson, and his immersion in the non-online version of Minecraft- offering him a repertoire of gestures, concepts, and storylines, that got me interested in designing more complex and beautiful worlds for children to explore- and ultimately, have them help design them.
The majority of children these days don’t have the luxury of rich stories being read to them, of time without the screened projections that fill their heads with other people’s imagery, and due to an exaggerated fear of strangers, many parents keep children in the confines of home.
It’s a big ask, but I want to know if intuitive and expansive-minded designers can bring more fantasy and beauty back into the world of children? And adults too?
The most exciting thing about VR as the medium of the moment, is it’s accessible, but not yet rigid, privatised or commercialised. So many designs and even purposes, are possible.
Another Greek/Latin word is going to be relevant to this project, and that’s the word Archetype.
Definition 2: (in Jungian psychology) ‘a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.’
The most enduring stories humans tell present archetypes to us- symbols that represent things so deeply important to us, we almost can’t describe them otherwise. Dreams too do this.
A few examples are The Forest, said to represents the potential of our wilder nature, a place that makes us fearful, but where the treasure of transformation lies (usually after trials)- or the Divine Feminine which can be portrayed as a Witch, Old Grandmother, or even a non-human symbol like The Well, these being symbols one of my Steiner teachers says stands for ‘The Original Clairvoyance’. Pathways, bridges, beasts, various people, all have their archetypal meanings.
I’m sure you can see how such objects or characters might feature in virtual worlds.
So while we can engage people with playfulness, humour and gameful interaction, let’s also give them spaces to psychologically evolve and develop. Help them visualise other realities and intentional futures, rather than just entertain them.
VR allows us to employ many of the elements that have been used from the ‘beginning of time’ (whenever humans first started perceiving it!)to make powerful cultural practice, ceremony, and initiation experiences. Within a dream world that is superficially random, designers can make choices about underlying architecture, and consciously underpin this ‘latest’ technology with meaningful features.
Quite soon we may look back at deep and satisfying VR creations, balancing elements of mystery, fine-tuned components and subtle pedagogy, and say: ‘Ahhh, that one’s a classic!’
Kalantzis, M, Cope, B, Chan, E, Dalley-Trim, L, (2016) Literacies, Cambridge University Press, Victoria, Australia
Pascoe, Bruce, Dark Emu Black Seeds, Agriculture or Accident? (2014) Magabala Books, Broome, Australia