Video games and robots want to teach us a surprising lesson. We just have to listen

Never Alone Exhibition Entrance Banner

Banner at the entrance to the Never Alone exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Credit: Shinmin/ZDNET

As I stared at the screen of the Pac-Man machine, part of the ‘Never Alone: ​​Video Games and Other Interactive Design’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I was greeted by fast, colorful ghosts wandering through the maze. York City.

Using the smallest amount of RAM and code, each ghost is programmed with its own specific behavior to create a masterpiece, according to Paul Galloway, Collections Specialist in the Architecture and Design Department.

This was the first time I had ever seen video games in a museum, and I came to this exhibit to see if I could gain some insight into technology through the lens of art.

This exhibition is more timely than ever, as technology has absorbed almost every aspect of our lives, both at work and at home. What I’ve learned is that our empathy for technology leads to new kinds of relationships between people. Ourself and our robot friends.

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According to MoMA, the exhibit seeks to show how interactive design “informs the way we move through life and thinks about space, time and connection beyond the game screen.” The interfaces we use to access the digital world are “visual and tactile representations of the codes that connect and separate us and shape the way we behave and perceive life,” the show said when it was announced.

While touring the exhibit, I kept passing by many more masterpiece video games, including Minecraft, Tempest, SimCity 2000, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), and more.

Many games seemed simple at first, limited to one joystick and two buttons or a keyboard. But when I tried to play, it took me a while to learn how to play. Some of them, especially Minecraft, didn’t make any sense at all, and I had to watch a child play with them to understand the game’s complex world-building.

Other museumgoers wandered around playing games while waiting for their seats to open. One immediately fixed his eyes on the screen as he jumped into a new world with new rules.

Two people browsing the Never Alone exhibition

Two people browsing the Never Alone exhibition.

Credit: Shinmin/ZDNET

I was most drawn to the robots and gadgets, including the EyeWriter, eye-tracking technology created by designers for graffiti artists with a 1984 version of the Macintosh SE home computer, iPod, and ALS. building from his bed.

According to Galloway, the Never Alone exhibit is connected to the Iñupiaq video game included in the exhibit called Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna). The idea comes from the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, which represents Alaska Native people, and was created as part of an effort to preserve cultural heritage and connect with young communities.

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“They created a video game, and the core idea of ​​the game is that it is through our shared culture and our connection to each other that we can find wisdom and peace, especially as we face the challenges of our changing world. The perfect metaphor,” Galloway said.

So, according to Galloway, there are two meanings of the Never Alone exhibition here. The first is that when we’re in video games, we’re technically never alone. Because inputs, players, and designers are all parts that need to work together for technical design to work.

As players of the game, we are constantly interacting with inputs created by designers to navigate these interfaces. In this sense, it is impossible to truly be alone when we utilize interactive design.

The second thread is that thanks to technology, even in the most challenging times like a pandemic, we are never alone. Whether it’s connecting communities and cultures or simply keeping in touch with each other online, technology is constantly connecting us.

This exhibit is a way to explore humanity and how our relationship with technology can reassert empathy instead of making humans less human with robots.

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Galloway said the exhibit is divided into three parts: Inputs, Designers and Players.

“We thought about three different parts of that exchange: there’s the actual machine, there’s the person using the machine (user or player), and there’s the person designing all the experiences,” Galloway said.

Pac-Man game on the wall of the Never Alone exhibit

The Pac-Man game on the wall in Never Alone.

Credit: Shinmin/ZDNET

“One of the reasons this exhibit is happening after the pandemic is because we’ve been glued to our screens and interacting with each other for two years through the medium of various programs, including Zoom calls, Fortnite Battle Royale, and the game Among Us.” Galloway said. “Our interactions with each other are orchestrated by these tools and that makes us all very expert at interaction design.”

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For some time now, many of us have had to communicate each other’s interactions through our devices and screens. And the Never Alone exhibit also unexpectedly asks how far we can extend our empathy, not just through our devices, but into the devices themselves.

One way to investigate such interactions is in Technological Dream Series: no. 1, a robot project installed in a corner of the exhibition hall by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby.

A red circle, something that looks like a large shower head, a bent wooden rectangular prism, and something that looks like a lamp are all spread out on the floor.

An object representing a robot that is part of the Never Alone exhibition

An object that symbolizes the robots of Never Alone.

Credit: Shinmin/ZDNET

In the accompanying video, a woman stands next to these objects, periodically picking them up and examining them, and hearing them whine as if they crave her attention.

Should this object be a robot?

“Robots can take any shape, and again [we’re] We are examining our ability to extend empathy to these things that seem completely foreign and inhuman,” said Galloway.

“It’s not like the Roomba will clean the floor for you. Instead, it’s a dumb robot that can’t move. All it can do is cry,” Galloway said. “How can we look at ourselves and extend our humanity in that way?

“In my opinion [the pandemic] It’s been mediated and informed so much by screens, digital devices, and interactive software that you can’t consider everything the same after that experience,” he said.

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This exhibit is the perfect opportunity to examine our newfound empathy and perhaps realize that our empathy for these devices has in fact always been there.

Consider Tweenbot for example.

Tweenbot comes from a project in 2009 when Kacie Kinzer made this tiny, smiling cardboard robot roam around Washington Square Park in New York City with only the help of passers-by and a flag that said “Help me” pointing in a certain direction. Help them get to their destination.

Surprisingly, New Yorkers, who walk briskly with their New York gait, stop to help the Twinbots get on the right track whenever they encounter obstacles.

Tweenbot succeeded in reaching its destination and surprisingly did not mess up in a ditch somewhere in the trenches of the city.

Tweenbot would not have been able to complete its mission without the help of humans guiding it.

So maybe we humans have something to do with walking the busy city streets every day without making eye contact with anyone. Pause and take your time to get the little robot back on track.

It seems counterintuitive for humans to help robots (or any technology) achieve their goals. After all, robots are supposed to make our lives a little bit easier. They can do jobs from simple to complex, from cleaning, delivery and even cooking.

But Kinzer’s project showed that humans can extend empathy when roles are reversed and robots rely on humans to do something. Maybe that’s a positive sign for all of us. Our interactions through technology not only allow us to stay connected to those we care about, but also make it easier to extend our empathy for the world around us.


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