GameScenes is conducting a series of interviews with artists, critics, curators, and gallery owners operating in the field of Game Art, as part of an ongoing investigation of the social history of this fascinating artworld. Our goal is to illustrate the genesis and evolution of a phenomenon that changed the way game-based art is being created, experienced, and discussed today. The interview between Xuan "Sean" Li and Matteo Bittanti took place via email during the month of June 2013.
Xuan "Sean" Li is a game and interaction designer and a graduate of the Interactive Media division at USC. His latest project is an innovative health game titled Blowing Blues. As Li explains:
"This is an unique experience where player's uses their breath as the controller to physically "blow" away in-game objects that represent one's negative emotions away. Unlike other games using sensors, it uses microphones in a typically laptop or mobile device to sense breath. Combined with some signal processing in the game code, it creates a subtle yet powerful mechanic. The idea is inspired by mindfulness meditation to create a therapeutic experience. It's also VR enabled with head tracking technology so player can immerse themselves in an interactive world. The challenge of this project is to integrate artistic interaction design with serious health applications. What is also interesting about this project, is that I'm using creative coding platforms like cinder, openFrameworks, and Processing that are widely used in the art community to create a "game" rather than a tech-intensive art installation. Likewise, it is also interesting that more and more "artists" are using Unity3D to create works of "play." (Xuan "Sean" Li)
Here's a gameplay video:
GameScenes: Could you provide some background information about yourself and your latest project, Blowing Blues? What led you to create such an interesting game? What were your major influences, both in terms of artworks (traditional and digital) and games? Were indie titles like Electroplankton, flOw and/or Everyday Shoot among these?
Xuan "Sean" Li: I grew up with an interest in computational aesthetics and art. I still remember staying up nights teaching myself web design and coding when I was twelve, with the interest not so much in making websites but viewing that field as an aesthetic medium for exploring virtual worlds. Later on, I was exposed to the media art field and eventually, the potential of play and interactivity unconstrained by established game mechanics.
Developed as part of an MFA thesis in the Interactive Media and Games Division at USC, the game allows players to use their breath to physically “blow” away in-game objects that represent one's negative emotions. Players can personalize their experience by entering words describing their negative emotions. The game takes these words and turns them into targets to blow away with one's breath.
The long beach art-scene and especially its expressive graffiti art made an impact on me when I saw the energy of those works as an emotional outlet for the artist. Additionally, I was curious about various eastern traditional medicine practices relating to QiGong, mindfulness meditation, etc. My grandparents are also really into practicing QiGong. I've been interested in data driven aesthetics and computational art for a long time and this manifested itself in the visual design.
GameScenes: The idea of using the player's breath as an interface is very ingenuous - was this design choice inspired by early DS games, like Phantom Hourglass, Nintendogs, and the aforementioned Elektroplankton, by any chance?
Xuan "Sean" Li: Breath was essential aspect of the interface from the very first prototypes but I was not basing it off any previous game or interface. I think everyone has experience with reflexively sighing at some unpleasant thought and actually this was a major influence. I was also directly inspired by meditation and the health aspects of controlled breathing.
GameScenes: What kind of research did you conduct to create a game about brain states?
Xuan "Sean" Li: I looked at emerging fields like positive psychology, art therapy, the studies done by Kabat-Zinn on mindfulness meditation, as well as Eastern medical theories. Procedural graphics and simulations like the Noble Ape project have always interested me. This has influenced the procedural visual nature of the graphics. I'm also very interested on topics relating to the mind and perception and was inspired by having read Phantoms in the Brain by Ramachandran and Oliver Sacks interesting medical stories.
GameScenes: Blowing Blues provides "calm understanding and non-violent agency" and is therefore radically different from the vast majority of commercial productions which emphasize destruction, aggression, and mindless violence. What led you to create such a soothing experience? A rejection of the dominant logic of game design or a personal desire to investigate neurological phenomena through interactivity?
Xuan "Sean" Li: It was not so much a rejection or reaction to existing game design but something that arose organically from an experience of imagining meditative breathing and visualizing stressful thoughts leaving the mind. It gradually evolved from there into digital prototypes and experiments playing with breath sensing.
GameScenes: The first thing that struck me about Blowing Blues is its charming, delicate aesthetics. Very zen. This makes your work particularly unique, especially if compared to other "serious/health games" in circulation. How do you intend to showcase and eventually market Blowing Blues? What distribution channels are you considering at this point, i.e. art galleries/museums, mobile platforms, tablets, pc and/or home consoles? All/none of the above.
Xuan "Sean" Li: I'm definitely considering mobile platforms particularly because it allows for a context of use that suits the goals of the game. Being able to lean back and play in a relaxed posture really influences the overall experience. It's also important that the platform allows play in a private environment. The game can be an autobiographical experience and players should be able engage with that personalized content without distractions.
The project was also shown at the MeaningfulPlay and Games for Health conference exhibitions. And this year, it won a top software demo award at the Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society (ESCoNS).
GameScenes: How long did it take to complete Blowing Blues? How was it received by your committee? Is the project complete or are you planning additional features? if so, what is the project's ETA?
Xuan "Sean" Li: Blowing Blues has been in development since 2011 and was well received. I've told by some play-testers that it really helps them change their view. I call it a work in progress because I am adding new features and it is a framework with lots of space for further additions.
GameScenes: I found your previous projects i.e. Junction Point (2011) and Herzian Ride, truly inspiring. Are you considering the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade as possible venues for this kind of applications? What about the iPad? I think there is a huge potential for this kind of ludic software - Scott Snibbe is among the major players of this new genre and your work reminded me of his early experiments, subsequently adapted for tablets and smartphones...
Xuan "Sean" Li: I have not considered those platforms yet. I think it will be exciting to see how ludic and “creative” software that are usually not considered games interact with game design in general. The line between the two is increasingly blurred but each area has it own set of creative freedoms and constraints. Then again, there are some works that just demand actual physical scale to be really effective.
Hertzian Ride came out of an earlier installation project about visualizing invisible wireless signals in our environment as another world within the world. There are also tools in the IT realm for inspecting wireless signals and generating heat maps of the world based on signal intensity. It would be interesting if players can carry their tablet around and actually see and interact with an artistically visualized hertzian environment. It's might be like augmented reality only with actual physically phenomenon to re-present digitally. Maybe something on Google Glass too?
Created with Unity3D, Junction Point explores the use of generative algorithms in world design. Explore a vast undersea oceanic world filled with spherical cellular automata in 3D space. Cellular automata shift from one ruleset to another based on how close the player is to the surface of the ocean.
GameScenes: DragonFly is an experimental real time 3D educational computer game that aims to integrate physics in the gameplay. How can players can learn from games? That is, where does the potential of games as teaching tools lie, exactly?
Xuan "Sean" Li: I think all games as interactive systems are educational in some sense. As teaching tools, they have the power to engage one's long-term interest through their visuals, content, and interactivity. Marvin Minsky once said that you don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way. As systems or representation and simulation, games can provide alternative perspectives that complements traditional teaching material. Games can attract learners in a way that books and traditional media can't and keep them engaged through content and mechanics that are tailored to the subject matter.
GameScenes: What happens, next, for Xuan Sean Li? Where next = after USC?
Xuan "Sean" Li: I recently exhibited the project at the 2013 Games for Health Conference in Boston and read an article by G4H founder, Ben Sawyer mentioning the idea of “Health Games for Everyone.” The basic idea is about making games for improving everyday wellness rather than on focusing on a specific disease or condition. This opens up many new opportunities in this space, and I plan to work further in this direction. I think through interactive media, people have the potential to be their own best doctors.
LINK: Xuan "Sean" Li
Text and editing: Matteo Bittanti
All images and videos courtesy of the artist
Archive: Interviews I, Interviews II