Phoenix Perry is a self-confessed ‘lunatic extraordinaire’ on a mission to meld digital gaming experiences with our bodies. A game designer, programmer, professor and advocate for women in gaming, she’s also a personal inspiration to our guest editor Cindy Gallop. We listen in as they discuss how brands can tear down the barriers between the physical and digital worlds to unlock The New Creativity.
You’re in a neon-lit room. Through your headphones, you hear a simple, steady, bass line. As you interact with others in the space, your fellow ‘players’, the beat changes, becoming more complex. You sync your motions to theirs and are rewarded with more lines of audio. Motion trackers sense where you are and as you engage with different objects they light up. The space around you fills with an erratic rhythm and flickering lights as the collective network comes together. This is NightGames. An installation (and a sound/puzzle mobile app for solo players) which looks to bring an awareness that individuals can impact and form the environment around them.
Created by Phoenix Perry – a self-described punk, gamer, academic, programmer, artist, activist and “lunatic extrordinaire” – this game is just one example of her exploration into the intersection between the body and digital experience.
Perry, with an eclectic career which has led her to a senior lecture post at HKU, is guest editor Cindy Gallop’s personal source of inspiration but also an example to the wider marketing community of what The New Creativity looks like.
Born in Colorado, Perry recalls herself as a weak and nerdy kid with curiosity issues. “If I could take something apart, stand on it, flip it open, bust it up I would,” she laughs.
Her parents, at a loss, bought their seven-year old daughter a subscription to a game developer magazine, a robotics kit and a Casio keyboard – three things Perry says formed who she is now.
“I got really into technology, not just a little bit but I was one of those cyber-punk, upload me now, Donna Haraway is my hero women,” she tells Gallop. Both laugh hysterically as Perry reveals her first steps into that cyber world were as a fetish model, working in a drag club, while making cable films about gender and identity in her spare time.
“Have you ever been to Manchester?” – Perry asks. “You know Affleck’s Palace [a vintage warehouse]? It was me in full latex on the sign above the door for many years.”
Jobless, “because I look like I’m from a dystopian future”, she spent most of the 90s on the internet – much to the dismay of her mother – talking to other people about her ideas, coding games, and making films about the nature of creativity in a digital world.
Against the odds, she landed a position as an art director at Artist Television Access – a nonprofit organisation that cultivates and promotes underground media and experimental art – before joining social planning website Evite as employee number eight.
Unbeknown to Perry, she was putting an immense physical strain on her body as she worked round the clock on various projects and it ultimately led to a “cataclysmic disaster” in 2000.
Out of work for four years suffering 20 per cent nerve damage to her hands and crippling repetitive strain injury, she says it was one of the darkest periods in her life.
However, what she had done to her body through her use of technology left her fascinated by the ways in which humans physically interact with digital experiences. Exploring the intersection, and how gaming fits in that space, Perry ended up teaching at NYU before moving to the Netherlands, where she currently resides studying a PHD on the ways to bring sound and haptics into the digital world.
“I really want to help unlock new forms of interaction and I went back to the body as the primary modality in which this occurs. If we’re typing we’re using the body, if we look at a screen we’re using our bodies. I want to see the ways we could suggest new interaction though the bodies.”
Projects like NightGames, Yamove – an augmented face-to-face dancing game – and Game Over – where a user’s entire skeleton is mapped into the game, creating an in-game body double – are all part of Perry’s ongoing experiments and just a few ideas that have come into fruition. It’s abundantly clear as she excitedly bounces off Gallop that plenty more are locked away.
Gallop – unconventional by any standard but nonetheless from a traditional advertising pedigree – proclaims: “I bloody love this.”
Perry admits that how it could be harnessed commercially is still a mystery but believes the most engaging brand projects aren’t the ones based on just throwing print, TV or banner ads out to the world.
“Brands do well when they get behind something and help innovation emerge. That’s when they look the most interesting, that’s when they build the social contract and facilitate trust,” she explains.
“But this is exactly what I mean by The New Creativity,” says Gallop. “Historically for brands, advertising and communications have been anchored to media channels. And this is still true in the digital realm. But what you’re talking about is removing brands from being anchored in media channels and creating opportunities in the physical world where they could be responsible for positive interactions that have very little to do with any other media channels.
“It’s about the real world, and making things happen that enhance people’s experiences and lives. That’s enormously interesting for brands that deal in the every day.”
Perry, through her own gaming company, Dozen Eyes, is currently working with the Center of Applied Linguistics to create a simulation game that increases refugees’ understanding of life in the United States to prepare them for real-world situations.
She explains: “If the player makes less optimal decisions they can simply replay, learning as they improve at the game. Hopefully, this will make real world problems more manageable as refugees encounter them outside of the game.”
This feature was first published in The Drum's 1 October issue, guest-edited by Cindy Gallop and focused on the theme of The New Creativity.