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Body of Mine, a virtual reality experience about what it’s like to be a trans person, has won the XR for Change award at the Games for Change Awards.
Developed by solo creator Cameron Kostopoulos, Body of Mine is a powerful experience that focuses on “body dysphoria,” or the feeling people can get when they feel misalignment between the body they were born with and their gender identity, Kostopoulos said in an interview with GamesBeat.
The honor is a recognition of the empathy that the app can create when people experience it. Kostopoulos, a former USC master’s student, said it’s been gratifying to receive the recognition for Body of Mine.
Kostopoulos said he came out of the closet as gay and it was difficult for the family as well as himself.
“I was raised in a Baptist household in Texas, a very unaccepting environment. I was kind of forced out of the closet and lost contact with my parents. At the same time, a lot of my trans friends were going through the stages of transition. My roommate — she got top surgery. One of my friends — he got pregnant. And so all these really interesting stories were around me,” Kostopoulos said.
Kostopoulos said he was thinking of the isolation such people can feel when they come out.
“I was wondering how we can use VR to build safe spaces when such spaces in the real world can be hard to find,” Kostopoulos said.
Kostopoulos spent the next year learning how to make a game, teaching himself Unreal Engine.
“Basically just spending a lot of all-nighters and a lot of passion on Body of Mine,” Kostopoulos said. “Then, a year later, it premiered at South by Southwest and won the Special Jury Prize and it’s just been on the upswing ever since,” he said.
More festivals are coming. The experience came out on the HTC Vive platform, and it makes use of the Vive Pro eye trackers and body sensors for full body and face and eye tracking.
Body of Mine is a full-body VR exploration of gender dysphoria, he said. It lets you inhabit the body of the opposite gender of what you were born with. You can interact with your faux body. And then it plays videos of trans people, who tell their stories in interviews.
“It combines all this immersive technology with real interviews of trans people to let you get a glimpse into gender dysphoria and trans identity and what it means to be a human being,” Kostopooulos said.
Kostopoulos added, “Gender dysphoria is the misalignment between your gender identity and body that you have. So someone who identifies as a woman and who is born as a male would have gender dysphoria around their male presenting body. So gender dysphoria is the reason people will get gender-affirming surgery, or go on hormones, or it’s the reason that a lot of LGBT youth or trans youth struggle. So it’s a really intense feeling of not being one with your body.”
You put on the VR headset and motion trackers. Then you step into the body of someone else, like you’re inside a giant human rib cage. You look up and there is a beating heart, lungs, and a chest cavity. Looking at it, if you’re a Cis male, a woman’s body moves exactly the way you move, as if you are looking in a mirror.
“It blinks when you blink, and touching different parts of the body will play different stories,” Kostopoulos said. “If you touch your chest, you’ll hear an interview about top surgery. Or if you touch your hair, you’ll hear someone discussing their wigs or a haircut, or shaving their head. Different parts of your body have different stories and so you can interact with them and discover them.”
The body also moves into a garden-like experience, where the heart becomes a strawberry and such.
“It has the message that we come in all these different forms and bodies and expressions and colors, but we’re all still human and we also glow with the same spirit,” Kostopoulos said.
Science fiction feeling
I happened to have read about this kind of experience in Ready Player Two, the science fiction book by Ernest Cline. In that novel, Cline describes a kind of future YouTube where people upload their experiences from sophisticated body suits. Those VR-like experiences enable people in the future to understand what’s it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes. That’s exactly what Kostopoulos was after.
“Gender dysphoria is one of those experiences that you can’t really communicate with film, or traditional games. There’s no other medium better able to explain for an artist than a full-bodied VR experience. Because by literally inhabiting, someone else, you can get a very visceral reaction,” Kostopoulos said. “By looking down and seeing tattoos that you don’t have. And so that’s like the best environment that we can talk about these really sensitive issues.”
With the attention the app has gotten, Kostopoulos is now creating a non-profit company dubbed Kosto, which will own Body of Mine. With this XR production studio, he aims to bring the experience to more platforms. There are more projects under way. Kostopoulos thinks that, in this case, there was no other way to tell this story without using VR.
“It will be the beginning of a very long journey,” Kostopoulos said.
Ultimately, the goal is to help people who don’t understand what gender dysphoria is to be able to get a better understanding of it.
“We spend a lot of time in politics discussing trans bathrooms, or sports, and we don’t actually talk about gender dysphoria and what being trans means. And so this experience tries to give people a safe space where they can connect to these stories on a much more visceral level by embodying a gender that they don’t identify with. So for Cis people, it allows a much more intimate and deep understanding of dysphoria and being trans,” Kostopoulos said. “You literally stepped into someone’s shoes and get the identity that way. And then, on the other hand, we also want to design it in a way for trans people, who are in a very homophobic household. We wanted to design the way that the experience could bring out gender euphoria.”
Kostopoulos said it was interesting to show it to people in Oklahoma at an event. Kostopoulos hopes it can be a way to convey to people who aren’t as open minded what it’s like to be trans.
“So this puts you in a really special place where you’re more free to explore without judgment and ask questions and try to understand away from kind of the politics and bigotry of the outside world,” Kostopoulos said.
During his acceptance speech, Kostopoulos said he hoped the award would bring more understanding to gender dysphoria.
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