Recently, the Telegraph published an interesting article about Immersion, photojournalist Robbie Cooper’s artful anthropological project in which his preadolescent subjects are filmed as they play violent videogames.
The children are filmed from the neck up, straight-on and unwaveringly. The effect is startling: the children seem to stare right through you (there is a camera inside the television screen, the Telegraph explains), and you, in turn, are able to search the children’s faces in a distinctly creepy, voyeuristic way.
Some children are hauntingly dead-eyed, while others are more animated and emotive. And then there are the gigglers, those splendid sickos who can’t let themselves witness a head being blown off without tee-heeing to themselves.
It’s no understatement to say that what Cooper has committed to film is altogether disturbing. Cooper himself notes his fascination with people’s “absorption” of the “unreal,” and even at this early stage, his own footage is appropriately engaging and uncanny.
But I was quickly reminded of something I read in Everything Bad Is Good For You, about the horror of seeing your child sitting, slack-jawed and apparently unresponsive, in the television screen’s horrible glow. But what parents or critics are quick to misconstrue as the face of vegetative hypnosis, Steven Johnson countered, is actually the face of fierce concentration, of deliberate and active thought.
I worried, then, that the ultimate goal of Immersion could be one of fearmongering. So it seems valuable to note, for context’s sake, that Cooper identifies himself as a gamer. Maybe more surprisingly, though, the Telegraph article—which I myself read only after watching the video, twice—gets it right.
The Immersion Project is far from over. For the next 18 months, reports the Telegraph, kids’ facial responses to news footage, web videos, and movies will also be filmed and compared. It’s an interesting idea: how will children react, videotaped in the passive act of viewership, to simulated violence, or to news reports of real violence? In a culture of media supersaturation, in which we cope by emotionally disconnecting ‘reality’ from ‘the screen,’ what will our own faces tell?