"Marshall's Theory": What do Trump and Holograms Have in Common?


::{ The following is a combined template of parts I-III of a story on Looking Glass’s official blog located here . }::


Marshall’s Theory | 2017 from Benjamin Poynter on Vimeo.

Looking Glass was kind enough to let me write some words about a recent interactive game I had made with their latest prototype —HoloPlayer One. Before beginning, I’d like to take the time to thank them for their support, the technology they’ve been inventing in the lab, and how grand it was to see out a project that was gnawing at my lobes in midst of timeliness and that chased a nuanced visual that wandered in my thoughts. The dream of the hologram comes closer every day and I’m glad to be a part of it. With that said, I think I have created a project that may seem outside of what you would expect from a mainstream tech motif.

The project is Marshall’s Theory, a game with the central theme of paranoia. In Marshall’s Theory, you as player assume the role of our nation’s Commander-in-Chief. Your character falls asleep, but only to dream of the reality which comes from lies spread in the waking world. “Alternative facts”, if you will. The characters in your dream — fabricated in form of distinctive protesters, a picture of surrealist Washington D.C. streets — want your head. However, the Commander-in-Chief (i.e. you) has something at his arsenal: his image. For the image or his projected image of himself will be more powerful than his politics will ever be. He will battle to the death in his nightmare with images that he used to perforate the institution of democracy. Whether that be Putin slamming down a shockwave from the skies, the press secretary as a disposable human shield, or a weaponized tweet, the Commander-in-Chief will use what he simply does in real life to rescue himself — avoid reality and run.

It all sounds like a nightmare; but one not so distant where we stand. It is a representation of what the namesake Marshall McLuhan said 45 years ago that leads us to where the titular namesake comes in — Marshall, and of course, his theory.

The Inception

I feel it is important to elaborate on where the initial inspiration and meaning of the work plays out before speaking on the technical details of the game’s development. The idea was fermented by a couple of key ingredients: (1) A visit my wife and I did to Washington D.C. the weekend of the travel ban’s creation and (2) a re-visitation of my old library book after considering another “serious game”. What is a “serious game”? For me, serious games are ones that address a social or political concern, one where fun is not the immediate gesture in lieu of morals or education. Of course, “serious games” should still be fun as to initiate the type of vanguard they seek in this writer’s opinion.

As my wife and I were set to depart on a Sunday after a nice weekend visit and lunch at Old Ebbitt Grill back towards NYC, we were swept up in an impromptu protest in the streets leading up to the footsteps of the White House. It was unexpected and also quite the spectacle. Since I spent the last 18 months prior living in Beijing, China, I forgot what it meant to have that kind of voice.

At the time, I had just begun to revisit a book titled ‘Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy’ by Stephen Duncombe. Duncombe fashioned this concept of the ‘Dreampolitik’: where Western culture as a whole, even unrelated to social or political topics, has this way of inadvertently clashing with the possible dream of better constituent representation. Such as how the simulated world of a game is a depiction of utopia/dystopia that the real world could try emulating itself given the right guidance. Artists I find inspiring me in this light include The Yes Men, Molleindustria, Joseph DeLappe, and far more.

In ‘Dream’, I came across the titular quote from Marshall McLuhan — well- renowned Canadian mass media writer and critic who may as well predicted several elements of the current American atmosphere. Along with some very poignant technological notes, including predicting the internet, linking the coming motion of technology into art, and the idea of the ‘global tribe’, McLuhan writes:
“The successor to politics will be propaganda, not in the sense of a message or ideology, but the impact of the whole technology of the times. Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will only be too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.”

In a time where facts or words lose their impact, the image is next in line to communicate. Lies need the projected image to survive. The blood of a lie is image (read: propaganda). It is a time where artistic representation comes into the limelight: an image, artwork, visual coding, or creation as distinct as it may be has as good an opportunity at depicting an social issue as the static carving or etching.
The barriers that once regulated ‘what artworks should achieve normalcy and what should appease the lighter senses’ have long since denigrated. Thus, the ‘game’ is apt to address politics. It is a simulated world talking about another simulated world. I have a history of creating this type of game: including In a Permanent Save State that addressed labor and death issues in Asia to be subsequently nominated for ‘Best Serious Game’ at the 2013 International Mobile Gaming Awards and The Dreamer which was a political experiment situated in Debordian philosophy developed far back as 2011 that placed the previous Commander-in-Chief as the protagonist in a similar plot device to Marshall’s Theory.



Given the open frontier of what interactive works are capable of, I have few regulations on what content or methods I use. I do however, have a cardinal rule: The Work Must Be Visual.

It must be visual in the sense that it triggers a feeling or memory from the body and can be understood as a cohesive style that differentiates itself from the zeitgeist. This rule can be considered a strong preference or as a bias from my visual arts background. Now, visual does not necessarily mean the visual image itself but also encompasses the assets, the animation, and especially the coding. In the case for Marshall’s Theory: C-Sharp.

Since I have experience in developing with different programs and methods — at times a clear 50–50 split workflow between the ‘visual’ and the ‘scripting’ — I tend to think of interactive works as a gesamkunstwerk, the German word for ‘the whole piece’.

The Animation

To take an example, knowing computation allows me to know that a 3D mesh will fail under certain circumstances of pressure from a called function. I’ll always be asking myself questions like, Is the poly count too high? Are the normals correct and do they display properly? If I add physics, will it crash everything I’ve already set up? Animation draws from computation much the same and vice versa.

As a professor, I’ve always wanted to gamify or add interactive elements to animation-based lectures because they have everything to teach about proper timing and when to call a certain action. In coding, what may be referred to as transform.position[ing] or Delta.Time may be alluded to as ‘blocking’ on flat tangents. The more I work between the disciplines, the more I analyze similarities. Developing therefore becomes less about ‘art’, or ‘animation’, or ‘coding’, or ‘texturing’, or ‘rigging’; it just becomes a ‘thing’. My days become much more serene when I work with ‘things’.

For Marshall’s Theory, I followed the 50–50 trace of development. While I had a subject matter that could have easily served as a pure aesthetic portraiture, I wanted to focus on a fun, bizarre, and original experience that would have the player come for the visual shock and stay for the hidden nuances and user experience. On the art and animation side, I found myself bouncing rapidly between Maya and Unity-Visual Studio.

From direct memory, the animation sequences for Mr. President himself excluding the title pages are: IDLE-WALKING, WORD SHOUT, HERO SUMMON, SHIELD RUSH, PAUSE DANCE, FETAL POSITION (GAME OVER), VICTORY YELLING, and of course the BOMB EVERYTHING AROUND YOU AND LOSE ONLY ONE LIFE.

The technical process of bringing these animation sequences from Maya to Unity involves rigging the characters with bones, constraint-curves, and IK handles. Then, I had to animate with that rig (which takes time in and of itself), bake the keyframes to last the full timeline (Unity dislikes it if you do not do this), and import as an FBX to be situated in the virtual world. From there, I adjusted in Unity.

If the animation settings are set and well, and not often if you were my NPC protesters, then they could be added to an animation controller and manipulated by the Mechanim system. I would share parameters between the Mechanim system and my various C-Sharp scripts and call certain functions of the script through animation events set on Unity’s own timeline system. The more I became comfortable with this system over the last years, the more I began to utilize what nuances the system had. For segments in Marshall’s Theory as well, I relied less on the animation I did in Maya and even built elements of it in Unity. For example, in the winning cutscene after successfully completing the 2 minute survival in Washington D.C. where Abraham Lincoln impales himself on the George Washington monument, I animated the general appendage motions and spinal twists in Maya but positioned the ‘whole’ body and weight in Unity to save time that would have undoubtedly gone towards calculating precise positioning.

The Aesthetics

I wanted the aesthetic style for Marshall’s Theory to be a hybrid between a modern infographic—reliant on color theory and low-poly virtual icons and elements — and maximalist composition chaos. Our current political landscape is full of noise, uncertainty, and enough visual images crossing the corneas of our eyes to make even the deepest cave dweller see light.
In this day and age, there is a natural human instinct to control this hysteria by limiting visual motifs to simple expressions; cubic, solid, or low in density (read: minimalism). However, these attempts falter because an expression, no matter how simple, always adds to the bigger pile that is the ‘superbrain of visual overload’. Additionally, I always have a micro-aneurysm when a product or situation that is not simple is advertised as such. The aesthetic of our times is based on maximalism. To ask someone to describe the current American debacle in a sentence or two is to murder them by inciting a stroke. To be an artist today is to beat the spectator over the head on multiple occasions with the overloaded canvas and ask them to like it.

From a technical standpoint, creating the visuals were an immensely fun and not particularly laborious despite the fact that I modeled every single asset, character, UV-texture alone, and composed them in the various game scenes which all of their own technical gaffes and issues between file formats and shaders. Another cardinal rule I have for myself: work fast. The longer the wait between initial idea and brush stroke, the more dull the stroke gets.



Looking Glass seeks the dream of the hologram. Created more recently, in addition to the existing Volume and Toy Volume devices and recently the Aerial 2D, is the HoloPlayer One. This technology a very clever and calculatively traditional way of approaching the floating image and light. I know the lab and hardware developers have spent quite an ordeal making it into the shape it is at today; such as CTO Shawn Frayne and CEO Alex Hornstein. The HoloPlayer is beam of reflected lights floating in the air above the appartus which shines it. The screen itself is rotated towards the viewer of the player-interactor. The magic of transferring a Unity game to the HoloPlayer display is achievable through the SDK provided by computer engineers such as Kyle at Looking Glass who now manages the lab as a whole. Several different views of a digital, 3D object at one (22+) will enable a camera to project to the HoloPlayer those multiple instances for floating, 3D view.

Along the way in my trials with Looking Glass, the hardware has made leaps and bounds to updgrade as well. For instance, a brightly lit environment will not destroy the impact of the viewable screen (though a dark area is still very much preferable). There is still the difficulty of calibrating nearly everytime for every system I need to test the game on, but that comes with the territory of developing for avant garde tech. For Marshall’s Theory, there is certainly a PC-2D version and a HoloPlayer One version. I found myself in the challenge of developing both at once. At first glance, one may think a tall glass of order is being asked for by creating for the HoloPlayer. However, in my particular case, there is a direct cohesion between the languages I speak in my working style and what the HoloPlayer is. A very enjoyable case if I say so myself.

This is not a particular concern anyone has had for me yet, but because I feel like addressing it I will speak on it through this forum: is there a conceptual purpose a game such as Marshall’s Theory would have being displayed exclusively on the HoloPlayer? In other words, why does it need to be on the device and not any other device such as a pad or PC? For one, I certainly would like to put the game out for PC. Android may be a possibility too. Yet, due to philosophies elaborated on by a past work in my life, I may have difficulty having it out for an Apple device; but that is another life indeed. Then still, why on the HoloPlayer? Marshall also had something else to say and it is a most notable banner he has come to be known by: “the medium is the message.” There was a period around when McLuhan and a modern understanding of politics came to be where hundreds of artists discovered filmic technology for the first time. If this writing is not mistaken, that is the Sony Portapak (est. 1967). The purpose of ‘medium is the message’ is that usage of the technology came inherit with purpose. Any artist using film and video technologies at that time are historically looked upon as radical beings who used it to express identity, race, gender, or other issues that would not have been evident had they not been supplied with the technology. As soon as performance or video artists gained usage of the video camera and subsequently television set, the paradigm shifted. Nam June Paik became one of the period’s saviors. Simply by using, the technology held an established meaning. Now, reverberating back on an area where I mentioned the over-saturation of imagery and information, such banner has little meaning when anyone has access to it. Except, perhaps, if it is unseen technology. The newer technology is and the lesser access the main market has to it, the more aura it has (re: Walter Benjamin) and the more it will establish an inherit meaning as video cameras did circa middle of 20th century. Beyond that, aesthetically, when I look at a turned on Aerial system in the lab, it reminds me of a vibrating television set from the 70s where-in McLuhan could be speaking on various subjects himself while around a chain smoking panel. It is the way I envisioned the HoloPlayer when developing the game.

The coding experience for the game is quite similar to the established tone from the ‘ANIMATION. ARTWORK’ section. While I enjoy coding very much, I feel as though the methods in which I do are in direct relationship to the visual experience. From a purely structural standpoint, I am learning more and I enjoy learning. Nothing is certain with art and technology. Its a fascinating thing about this field that keeps it interesting. Often times I wish I could go back in time and inform my early 20s self not to do silly things such as call everything from ‘void update()’ or make better usage of particular features a software or tool had. I had several of those moments while developing Marshall’s Theory. Though, admittedly, I feel as though I got lucky several times during development where as many of what I thought to be trials to errors eventually made the final product. For instance, my very first script for the project is labeled ‘Scr_RotateMouse’ as I planned on rehearsing some different commands related out before setting on a more formally named script such as ‘Scr_MainCharacter’. The more I kept running with development, in the visual sense and computation sense, I just did not look back and went with what I had as it managed to work out. In subsequent sketches and demos I have begun developing for Looking Glass, I assure the experience has been more on par with the usual ‘it blows up in my face’ routine. Though it is nice to hit most of the green lights for once.

From a game and level design perspective: very fun. Funny enough, sculpting the environment was in the latter stages of development. I wanted to get a good tune in on the core gameplay before attempting anything immersive. In had in my mind what type of stage I wanted; or rather stage’s’. On my drawing board, I had it in mind to go from Washington D.C. to Congress to Mar-A-Lago to the Mexican Wall to a dark surreal finishing stage. I wanted to have a golfing sniper battle with Uncle Sam. I wanted to start a West Side Story style turf war between all the countries offended by America. Though, I feel the current stage encompasses the core feeling at this moment. That, and I can only do so much on a certain schedule. When I develop a stage or 3D space, I always believe a simple turn or pause will allow one member of the audience to have a completely different interpretation or feeling as the other. There is something procedural about how a player acts in virtual space. Level design is about controlling that. When I developed the Washington D.C. stage, I thought about it as a racing game as much as a survival horror game. Hence, the D.C. traffic bridges allowing access and disallowing access. I wanted that element of chance among the other possible random generations involving different velocity speeds of the protestors and the way they will turn in front of you if you try to edge the play area too much. I visualize how the player will proceed in the virtual space and try to imagine the most fun that would come out of it. Incase bashing an enemy’s head in with a Sean Spicer human shield wouldn’t do that.

  • — -+

The future of Marshall’s Theory. Very funny: I wrote this initially months ago predicting it had potential to go in venues where it fit most. As of now, it is to be demoed on stage at the 2017 Games for Change Festival, the PixelPop festival for a jury showcase, and the Play NYC festival. In addition to where it has been already. The game, in part, is a way of retracing footsteps I made 3–4 years ago with a similar title in its social stance. There are still a lot of hypotheses that are to be tested in the coming months for the project. In the mean time, I will just keep making and keep the cycle going. In the words of Jean Luc Godard, “the best way to critique a film is to make another film.”

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Marshall’s Theory Out and About

Ongoing Updates About the HoloPlayer One Game in the Public Eye


Games for Change Festival 2017, NYC

Award: Best Use of Emerging Media, Pitch Event

My last memory of the Games for Change festival was in 2014 when I gave a presentation about In a Permanent Save State: a mobile game hastily banned from the Apple App Store for its political targets. Namely, that of Apple and Foxconn for enabling the tragic deaths of workers while they assembled the world’s electronics. History sort of repeated itself here. In 2017, I gave a talk in the same fashion but on the main stage for G4C’s Pitch Event. This time, for Marshall’s Theory. I participated in the event alongside two brilliant young men who talked about immigration struggles through their board game and who also, along their dedicated mother, spoke on their own immigration struggles. Quickly humbled, I realized in the green room before stepping on that I was also presenting with Mary Flannigan: pioneer in the area of serious games and author of 'Critical Play’ (the name of a game course I even taught in university). On stage, I let it loose and gave the talk entitled Dreampolitik which chronicled the inception, development, art, animation, and technology of the game that is the HoloPlayer One. It was a spectacular event and the first public demonstration of not just Marshall’s Theory but for me personally the HoloPlayer. Quite a spectacle that had a nice ending.


PixelPop Festival 2017, St. Louis

Press: Nerdy Bits (link) Level 2 Gaming (link)

By birth and raised, I’m a midwestern boy. Marshall’s Theory, the same week of Games for Change, showed in St. Louis for the PixelPop festival. For this event, I showcased parallel for public demonstration the Windows version of Marshall’s Theory and the HoloPlayer One. This was both to showcase the intricate visuals of the project, playability, and test various hypotheses between the two versions while highlighting the best qualities of the HoloPlayer One. The reception ranged from the ‘huh’, to the ‘wow’, and the ‘why’. Above all else, many people had never seen anything like the HoloPlayer One. The best moments of my trip: eating BBQ at Pappy’s after the event hours, getting three free drinks every night from my hotel, beating Somber Dawn Studio’s game Intrusion Protocol in a single sitting/speed race, and getting a wayward father to claim at me upon beating Marshall’s Theory that the AHCA should have been Obamacare.


Play NYC, Parts Unknown

Press: Geek.Com (link)

For full article, please read on the forum here .

(to be continued)…

[An addendum to the original ‘three’ part series.]


Written following the events of IndieCade 2017/10. [full article]

A caveat of developing Marshall’s Theory is that there has always been two visualizations of the project : a standalone-PC executable and the Aerial/HoloPlayer version. By this point, it may not be realized but the game started out in a prototype system in the lab called the 2D Aerial that utilized AIRBAR controls which captured only X and Y values and performed interaction based on mouse touch when the air above the airbar was touched. This was the very initial state of the project. At this point, I began to generate distinct differences between a floating light display and standard screen display for this piece and others which could have followed. Here’s the main comparison which prevails to this date in time-


-Interaction based on touch.*
-Hard to film and visualize through documentation. Intensive visuals left unseen.
-More intriguing and takes the ‘dream’ narrative to a different angle.
-A version that clearly helps the brand.
-SDK camera is immersive. Though, game requires overhauling to fit camera capture.


-Interaction based on keys-controller.
-Easier to capture and document screen. Intensive visuals are seen.
-Not as intriguing as light display. Dream narrative could be just cosmetic.
-A version that alludes to the brand, but indirectly.
-Regular camera is standard, but with post-processing wide lens, and can see further.

*Even for some instances of HoloPlayer life, keystroke-controller persisted.

In the end, both versions needed to exist. The game served as a work that would expose positive qualities of the HoloPlayer and Aerial 2D. However, without the documentation in full effect, the title may not have properly shown the game’s own qualities and what it could offer the HoloPlayer. The dual documentation and versions of the game served to display potential discourse for those in a similar situation. As well, a focal point of the game’s appeal is its minimalistic yet erratic visual style that could be best realized in clear and full view.

The current day version of Marshall’s Theory on the HoloPlayer, latest showing being at IndieCade West in LA as of this last weekend, made strides to optimizing the game directly for the system; RealSense interaction in tow. Another caveat, this being related to the clipping distances of the camera, is that is the far clip is too far into the distance, the 3D ‘effect’ becomes more of a blurry array of blinded views more than depth. This created an issue for standard immersion in the HoloPlayer SDK the way the PC standalone version is capable of. Features needed to be sacrificed.


-Beginning and ending cutscenes. Instead of a single camera capturing the nightmare Washington D.C. in full view, video files of both cutscenes needed to be captured and then transposed onto a modeled TV set (in the spirit to the 70s/Watergate) that showed it on a 2D plane. The TV set was concealed of an object to be 3D enough without stressing the clipping distances of the SDK camera.

-The instructions page now features a vignette of the nightmare Washington D.C. floating beneath the commands you may have in the game once you enter. This is added for the environment makes less of an appearance in the main game stage as it does in the Standalone PC version. In the standalone, there are three bodies of characters: the president, the protesters, and the world. In the HoloPlayer version, there are two: the president and the protesters with the environment taking a backseat. The information lost in the main scene is hopefully recovered via other placements of the world.

-The main scene’s overworld itself is altered tremendously. The backdrop of flashing buildings, motions, and Uncle Sam playing golf has been dissolved into a skybox that is in best focus in the backdrop. Buildings are more scattered in the main gameplay area while there is only one cone of light that helps makes the clipping plane coming into view more bearable. This is the most significant change. In the end, it is sacrificing the surreal backdrop for immersive, 3D floating graphics. A trade which hopefully benefits the player.

The last addition was RealSense controls. Which work very, very effectively with piece and harkens it back to its initial Aerial 2D version. The programming commands I am giving are something of this sort with the needed math in C#.


The missing link that will truly make all complete- interactive buttons. Right now they are external keyboard or interface. Having the buttons directly on the machine while touch controls are enabled will make the HoloPlayer a console for internal, political war. As well, taking the most recently updated components and reinstating them into the PC version. Final updates will be reflected in an update to the forum/GitHub release in due time.


[Adapted from the ending of the instances talk has been given at G4C, PixelPop, and IndieCade.]

[gifs should be below, if not, mash keypad furiously]



The game follows an array of previous odd-ball titles adopted for avant-garde holographic technology from Sega: Time Traveller and Holosseum. The bizarre and experimental are synonymous with new technology as a means of discovering the social or the self before reaching a more concrete market.

In a strange occurrence where the the ending of a game stage is the colossus version of Abraham Lincoln impaling himself onto the monument of George Washington after the air has been rid of dream-oxygen, this pales in comparison to the fantasy based warfare that exists in the headlines of reality. Detournement is dead. We allowed ourselves to exist in a dreampolitik where comedy comes to tangibility. Now the joke is all around us. And no one is laughing. Reality subsides fantasy in banality. Fantasy subsides reality in reason.

Why did Trump need to be a hologram? Good question.

  1. As mentioned before, artists use new technology as a means of social or personal exploration before the technology becomes marketed.
  2. The aura of a hologram is that of a fluctuating dream.
  3. A hologram reflects. The fact is nothing if not reflected today.
  4. Serious often needs what is ‘fun’ to be taken seriously.
  5. When Michael Jackson died, he was resurrected in a hologram. When Tupac died, he was resurrected in a hologram. Now that democracy has died, it too can be resurrected with a hologram.
  6. Because the people at Looking Glass let me.

Marshall’s Theory: available for HoloPlayer One/SDK now. HoloPlayer One kits release worldwide very soon.


Truly epic piece allaround, but this is just a dunk ^^^ :metal:

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Marshall’s Theory DiGRA 2018 Paper Submission

Downloadable here is a 5000+ word edited revision of the continuous blog posting here, formatted to be an academic paper submission for the 2018 Digital Games Research Association Conference. The theme of the conference happens to be “The Game is the Message” based off the life and research of Marshall McLuhan and his phrase “The Medium is the Message”. http://digra2018.com/

It seems Marshall is still walking among us. Even if he is really not.

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