A Dying Matters Community Grant has enabled people in Brighton to start conversations about death in a virtual videogame world.
Described as ‘one of the most notable names in VR’, Myra Appannah and Simon Wilkinson of artist duo BRiGHTBLACK have turned their attention to death in creating the experience.
The project explores how video game technology can create a welcoming and casual space to explore people’s feelings about death and grief.
BRiGHTBLACK were recipients of a Dying Matters Community Grant in 2022 for their proposal to create the unique video game. Researching death positive cultures, they discovered critical academic research which showed that people who regularly consider their own mortality experience better wellbeing and mental health.
They explained, “since our work is centred on creating experiences that reach and build new audiences and where participants have a meaningful role, we saw this as a great opportunity to open up the conversation about death.”
Opening up community access
The Spire is an arts venue and charity working in lower income neighbourhoods in East Brighton. In partnership with The Spire, BRiGHTBLACK used their Dying Matters Community Grant to open up community access to the ‘beautiful’ game world – in which users could talk with the characters about their last day on earth.
"I ended up alone in a church singing at the top of my voice with two virtual aliens! Extremely thought provoking, presented in a sweet, gentle and moving way."
~ Project participant
Visitors arriving at the venue – The Spire’s beautiful Grade II-listed former chapel – were greeted by the ‘cavernous’, historic building, lit only by candles. They then proceeded up an aisle onto the altar, where the setup featured a gaming chair, large screen, set of headphones and games controller.
Sitting down, participants put on the headphones and entered a beautiful virtual world.
The virtual world
Participants inhabited a virtual environment which features a gushing river and a sun slowly setting. They meet two interactive virtual characters who reveal it is one of their last days before dying.
The characters open up a conversation about death with participants, who are free to talk and explore their thoughts and feelings.
They can also affect the world, by playing their favourite song on the record player, talking to an ‘other-worldly’ bird of paradise, turning night to day, and even floating up into the sky to see the whole world from above.
Contemporary video game technology was a key element of this project – and a powerful medium in which to facilitate these conversations.
Video games reach large and diverse audiences – worth over $182 billion, they have become the biggest cultural medium in the world.
BRiGHTBLACK’s use of a popular and widely adopted medium supercharged the project’s capacity to reach people in familiar, comfortable spaces.
They believe that this new experience can provide huge benefits to people’s mental health through the ability to have more casual conversations about death outside the usual clinical settings, instead taking place in games, leisure and other imaginative spaces.
They add, “stories allow us to create a more detailed picture of our inner worlds. So we draw on this and other research to create works that can invite and build new audiences, enable long-lasting participation and meaningful interaction and dialogue.”
“If culture is a conversation about who we are and why we are standing on a ball floating through space then as many people as possible should be part of the conversation.”
BRiGHTBLACK intend to keep working in this area, with plans not only to re-stage the work in multiple locations, but also to perform it as a live, audio-visual experience in venues and streamed over Twitch for larger scale audiences.
The first part of the project is inspiring them now to explore the potential of collective and radical empathy to enhance human’s existence – whilst we have one.
BRiGHTBLACK’s recommended reading
From Here to Eternity - Caitlin Doughty
Recapture the Rapture - Jamie Wheal
Reality is Broken - Jane McGonigal
Faith, Hope and Carnage - Nick Cave
Listen - Kathryn Mannix
The Escape Artist - Jonathan Freedland
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