Happy Go Lucky - A Smile and Run Game
The interactive installation Happy Go Lucky is intended to stimulate reflection on how media manipulate people. It demonstrates how specific, immediate and intimate medial manipulation can be, by influencing how people feel. The installation asks participants to smile, and the assumption is that feeling and (facial) expression are linked in a two-way relationship. Does smiling make people happy, too? The work goes beyond the everyday educational game; it is biological propaganda, emotional conditioning, mood drill. The focus is on the participant being automatically, predictably and repeatably manipulated by the technical mechanism. The piece algorithmically works on and modifies not data but participants. An ideal outcome is achieved, guaranteed: 'Shiny Happy People' [R.E.M. 1991].
By demonstrating how a basic feature of a participant's subject position is shaped by the media encounter, the installation indicates that truth is partly speculative, both in the epistemic and Debordian senses (cf. Oswald Wiener's  'bio-adapter', a cybernetic 'joy suit' which anticipates and fulfills all needs, wishes and dreams of its wearer, leading her to withdraw from social touch).
In the past ten years, no subfield of human-computer interaction has generated so much interest as social signal processing (SSP), with its promise of automated, error-free inference of human intentions from cues like facial expression and vocal style [Vinciarelli et al. 2009]. But as the shortcomings of models of 'facial expressions of basic emotions' become apparent [Barrett 2014] and with a leading exponent of facial recognition technology expressing reservations about its unregulated use [Singer 2014], now feels like the time for a critical take on SSP. Are there such things as universal basic emotions? Can we reliably pick them out on the basis of 'thin slices' of behavior such as photographs and short videos? What effects will the universal deployment of SSP have on how we act? Will we start smiling for the cameras so as not to get flagged as discontented? Happy Go Lucky asks us to reflect on these questions.
The work is a single-player 2D platform game. It employs the usual jump n' run mechanics and settings as seen e.g. in Rainbow Islands, Wonderboy, Giana Sisters and Ghosts n' Goblins. But the player's face expression indirectly influences the game outcome substantially, i.e. the more the player smiles, the better the chance that something good happens in the game, e.g. when the game randomly selects the types and amount of enemies and bonus items to appear. The game gets very hard without smiling, but with smiling, a self-reinforcing feedback loop is instantiated.
The installation uses a wall-sized projection showing the platform game, and (as an inset) a stream of the participant's facial musculature tensors without obscuring the gameplay. An off-the-shelf input device is used to control the game. A Kinect is employed to scan the player's face.
With the Happy installation, the effects of media on their users is not an abstract question, but a real-time, participatory, on-location experiment with immediate and tangible effects. Does the installation work or prove anything? We believe participants' interactions with the work produces positive and verifiable results. But it is a provocative piece. What happens within the installation is complemented by what happens without it. It works when people discuss and question media's role in their lives.
Barrett L 2014 What faces can't tell us. New York Times, 28 February.
R.E.M. 1991 Shiny Happy People. Song from the album Out of Time (May 18, 2014).
Singer N 2014 Never forgetting a face. New York Times, 17 May.
Vinciarelli A, Pantic M, Bourlard H 2009 Social signal processing: survey of an emerging domain. Image and Vision Computing 27: 1743-1759.
Wiener O 1965 Der bio-adapter. (May 18, 2014).
ISEA 2014, Dubai, UAE, Oct 30-Nov 8, 2014
Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath. Happy Go Lucky - A Smile and Run Game, Student Project, ITU, Copenhagen, Autumn 2013.
Josh Berson, Daniel Cermak-Sassenrath, Jacob Ringbo. Happy Go Lucky. Installation. 20th International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA) 2014, Dubai, UAE, Oct 30-Nov 8, 2014.