An Interview with Dylan Paré, Director of the Queer Code Collective, by Dover Horesh, a Social Impact student in the Creative Technology and Design graduate program at CU Boulder.
Dylan was recently contacted by Dover Horesh, a student in the Creative Technology and Design graduate program at CU Boulder with a request to do an interview for their creative coding class. Dover asked lots of interesting questions and so we thought we’d share the conversation publicly. Includes links to resources for aspiring and emerging LGBTQ+ virtual reality developers.
Dover Horesh (they/them) is a Social Impact student in the Creative Technology and Design graduate program at CU Boulder. Dover graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Industrial Design from Wentworth Institute of Technology in 2021. They were involved in leadership roles with the Wentworth Jewish Club and the Equity and Community Union at Wentworth, as well as the JCCC Gender and Sexuality Alliance at Johnson County Community College.
Dylan Paré (they/them) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Learning Sciences at the University of Calgary, Werklund School of Education. They are also the Founder and Director of the Queer Code Collective. Dylan co-designs virtual, immersive, and interactive computational environments for learning about complex systems, computational thinking, and technology design. Their primary research project reimagines computational and technoscientific literacies by interweaving complexity studies, scholarship on embodiment, and queer and trans phenomenology.
Dover: My name is Dover and I’m a student at CU Boulder. I’m taking a creative coding class and one of my assignments is to research a creative coder. I saw your work as part of Queer Coding and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions and present your work?
Dover: I really enjoyed the Creative Futures film, and I was wondering what your specific role was in that?
Dylan: As a small research and design studio, members of the Queer Code Collective wear many hats on each project. For our film, Creative Futures, I was a co-director and co-producer. Additionally, I did research and facilitation with the youth artists, post-production sound, and marketing. I also did the film editing and mixed reality compositing in Adobe Premiere, and the virtual environment setup and animation in Unity for the 360° portion of the project.
Dover: What brought you to VR and Queer Code?
Dylan: I previously worked as an educational consultant in gender and sexual diversity for workplace and community settings and post-secondary student services for gender and sexual diversity, healthy relationships, and sexual health education. I started a Ph. D. in the Learning Sciences to research how to improve the design of learning environments to better support learning about gender and sexuality that leverage technology, critical perspectives and that center the experiences of queer and trans people across the spectrum.
I first tried VR in 2017 and was immediately interested in leveraging VR to design learning environments about gender and sexuality. I tried as many immersive, social issues experiences as I could by going to festivals and small VR gallery shows because there was not a lot available in the VR gaming stores. I also read as much of the academic research on immersive, social issues VR as I could find. Early research and creative work on VR and social issues suggested that VR is an “empathy machine.” While there is some small truth in this statement, I have since found that virtual reality can be leveraged as a perspectival technology and that eliciting empathy has much more to do with how we tell stories in VR.
A perspectival technology is one that helps us to take on new or different perspectives from our own. In virtual reality environments, we can influence people’s perspectives through, for instance, the scale of the environment, the avatars people can become, who they are with inside the environment both through virtual representations (like the art the youth created in the film Creative Futures) and through multiplayer interactions, to name a few. However, when people learn, they do not simply take on new perspectives and forget their previous experiences. This belief that we can simply put someone in another person’s shoes and have them experience a day in their life is where the “empathy machine” claim falls short. Instead, people bring their prior beliefs about a social issue into the learning environment. We cannot elicit their empathy if those prior beliefs stand in the way of reflecting upon and integrating a new or different perspective.
My research on designing technologies that integrate storytelling and insights into sociopolitical learning processes aims to address these challenges. I started Queer Code after designing and developing a couple of immersive projects and seeing that the potential of VR and other computer simulation-supported learning environments is not only in the technology. By researching how people interact with queer and trans technologies and how their previous knowledge shapes their learning experiences in these environments, I am discovering how sociopolitical learning happens, how it is tied to identities and histories, and how to iteratively design technologies to support critical learning about gender and sexuality.
Dover: That’s really interesting. I completely agree with you on the limitations of the “empathy machine.” How recently did you finish Mementorium?
Dylan: We finished the initial development of Mementorium in December 2020, and its world premiere was at the 2021 ACM SIGGRAPH conference — the premier conference & exhibition in computer graphics & interactive techniques. We were also just awarded a 2021 Rosie Award from the Alberta Media Production Industries Association (AMPIA) for Best Narrative Game or Interactive Project. We are currently conducting research with Mementorium for my Ph. D. Dissertation project on learning about gender and sexuality with virtual reality. We are very pleased with the reception of Mementorium at all stages of our development, from our initial funding support from Oculus Launch Pad, to our positive juror reviews and acceptance into SIGGRAPH, our latest Rosie Award, and the initial findings from Dylan’s Ph. D. research. We expect to have a public release sometime in late 2022.
Dover: What kind of programming languages/platforms do you use to do your work?
Dover: Did you have any programming experience before working in VR?
Dylan: I had a small amount of self-taught coding experience prior to working in VR, and everything I’ve learned since has been through online tutorials and working on projects with my team.
Dover: What would you say to trans youth who are interested in VR as a tool for growth? When I was watching Creative Futures what struck me was how each person had built an entirely different experience with the same tools, and I was wondering if there had been any struggle in helping them learn to use the tools as their own medium instead of what they might’ve thought was expected of them?
Dylan: That’s a great insight and gets at some of the behind-the-scenes work that is not shown in the film due to time.
Although each of the youth artists in the film is transgender and/or nonbinary, we wanted to show a diversity of trans youth experiences to show viewers that being transgender does not have a single meaning or experience. Unfortunately, as a short film, we could only have three trans youth artists participate, which limited the diversity we could show. But the youth artists were all fantastic and eager to tell their stories in ways that expressed something close to their hearts.
The youth artists were amazing and learned to use the VR art tools and produce their art in about two days, including interruptions from the directors for interviews. I facilitated three short workshops with them – one was in VR art tools training, another was in world-building and speculative fiction, and the other was in storytelling. We brainstormed topics that were important to their identities and experiences, and the directors (myself and Scout) were available to answer quick questions about how to use the VR art tools. However, the workshops were only a small part of the process, and each of them quickly iterated on their VR art and found ways to translate their non-VR art skills to VR painting.
I’ve found that people with little to no experience with VR quickly find themselves playing, experimenting, and making art with relative ease across situations where another team member or I have facilitated VR art workshops. The freedom of working inside the 3D space with digital tools that allow for easily iterating and changing the art makes VR art a fun and playful tool. I see my role as a facilitator to provide encouragement and help people find and tell their stories, particularly queer and trans people.
VR offers a way to tell stories in new spatial and immersive ways that can reach people differently. In my research so far, I have found that VR storytelling and story-listening offer an embodied, immersive experience that encourages us to think about who we are and who we are with (narratively and digitally) in the virtual world, and by extension, in our everyday lives.
Lastly, I would say to trans youth interested in VR as a tool for growth that, like any art form, creating in VR can be transformative and healing for oneself and one’s communities, which is valuable in and of itself. Creating art to transform others and help others learn about your perspective will always be a challenge as a marginalized artist. Although we cannot compel people to grow just by entering a VR experience, for those who accept the invitation, we might find ways to forge connections across differences using VR as a new medium for immersive storytelling.
Dover: Could I ask you for some background information? Where are you from, what were your original career plans (if they changed) and what kind of effect did this have on your career?
Dylan: I am Canadian and have lived in both Calgary, Alberta and Hamilton, Ontario. I grew up in both areas and consider both to be home. I currently live in Calgary, which is the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.
I have always been interested in social issues, education, and technology, but my path into designing interactive computer simulations and VR was a bit of a pivot. I was working in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) for workplaces and postsecondary, as well as doing community organizing and education to support LGBTQ+ communities. Although I had wanted to go into some kind of computer science or technology field since I was very young and was a quick learner with computers, I was not formally supported to grow in these areas and was primarily self-taught. Eventually, in my Ph. D., I found the support necessary to take everything I have learned from my previous work in DEI and community organizing and to bring it into new forms of research and design with technologies.
Resources For Aspiring And Emerging LGBTQ+ Virtual Reality Developers
Trans Game Dev
Trans Game Dev is a rapidly growing community of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals who are passionate about game development. We provide a safe and engaging space for our members to discuss their work, find new team members, and network with others in the industry.
QGCON – Queerness in Games Conference
The Queerness and Games Conference (QGCon) is a community-oriented, internationally-recognized event dedicated to exploring the intersection of LGBTQ issues and games founded in 2013. The overall goal of QGCon is to bring together a community of academic researchers, game industry workers, artists and practitioners, students, and players to share and disseminate knowledge, to engage in critical conversations, and to build relationships with each other.
Gay Gaming Professionals
GGP is a leading organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender game industry professionals and enthusiasts from around the world.
Games and Online Harassment Hotline
The Games and Online Harassment Hotline is a free, text message-based, confidential emotional support hotline. We created the Hotline specifically for the gaming community. Whether you’re a player, a developer, a streamer, a competitor — any part of this community —we’re here for you, whether that means offering emotional support or finding the referrals and resources that you need.
Also, check out their Resources page. https://gameshotline.org/resources
Unity Engine XR Learning
Search the listings of Unity Engine learning resources for XR development.
Unreal Engine Course – Oculus VR Production for Unreal Engine
Oculus VR Production for Unreal Engine is a wide-ranging Learning Path consisting of 12 courses each focused on providing comprehensive instruction for developing VR experiences in Unreal Engine.
Oculus Launch Pad is a program designed to support promising VR content creators from diverse backgrounds as they iterate on their unique ideas and bring them to market. Each year, this program helps up to 100 professionals grow as emerging leaders in the field. Those selected to participate (subject to verification) receive hardware support and admission to our kickoff Boot Camp event. This event is designed to build and foster your understanding and passion for VR development through hands-on training with industry leaders.
Oculus Start is a program created for developers who have either launched a VR application – or are close to releasing a VR application. It provides qualifying developers with access to hardware, developer support, a community of like-minded VR developers as well as software-related savings so you can focus on what’s really important – creating inspired VR applications.
VRChat World and Avatar Development
VRChat is a free-to-play massively multiplayer online virtual reality social platform. VRChat lets you create, publish, and explore virtual worlds with other people from around the world.
VRC Prefabs – A welcoming developer community in VRChat
VRC Prefabs is a VRChat community that focuses on helping and sharing with others. Our goal is to create a source of good content that is legal and free.