VR is NOT About Games or Movies…It’s About Worlds

April 29, 2016

All the current excitement about VR, post-Oculus, seems to be in games. Here are a few examples.

But all the excitement about games misses the real point of VR: building gamelike worlds.

VR Isn’t a Console Game

But wait, isn’t playing games the purpose of VR? Aren’t the most interesting aspects of VR related to games?

The answer is yes…but not the way many hardcore gamers think.

The way to understand this is to think about how games are different from reality, and when reality benefits (and does not benefit) from being “gamelike”.

This intersection of games and reality was covered at length by Jane Mcgonigal in her book, “Reality is Broken” which is a must-read if you really profess to be interested in the future of games.

In the book, the author describes reality as random and ungoverned. In contrast a game is a social construct where things like rules, scores and levels organize everything in a (usually) pleasing way. According to McGonigal, this is the prefered state of most people. We want the world to have rules, scores and levels. When they’re not present, we aren’t as happy as before.

The prescription McGonnigal gives to improve our quality of life is to make the world more “gamelike”. In other words, the most interesting features of games emerge when we transfer them to “real – life” experiences, or use them as training for real life.

If this seems strange, consider how some societies provide a very complex set of rules for behavior, rewards, scores (for piety), and levels (initiated vs. uninitiated). In the modern world, some pooh-pooh these rules, and feel they are in conflict with their “freedom”.

But…consider those very same “free-thinking” scoffers regularly entering online games for hours on ends with the lots of well-defined rules – a gamer catechism. The passionately desire to spend their time in a rule-based game.

One way to look at it is to say they’ve substituted one religion for another.

But the other way is that everyone wants to live in a “gamelike” world. In this sense the computer isn’t much different than peyote in a religious experience, trances, mediation, and other spiritual methods.

Now, making an experience with the features of games embedded is called “gamification”. You make an experience gamelike, rather than create an explicit game. The rules, levels, awards, avatars, quests and the like all contribute to a positive experience – one you don’t get when you are, say, stuck in traffic. These gamelike experiences create a world with the quality of games.

Thinking this way, we can see the problem with current reports on the future of VR. Excitement is about adapting an old medium (console games) to a new medium (VR) better suited to gamelike world building. While gamers riding the vomit comet in their Oculus headsets are attention-grabbing, the real direction of VR is building worlds.

Jane McGonigal has suggested that we alter reality to make it more like a game. In this light, making gamelike worlds in VR is a natural evolutionary transition.

VR is not a Movie

Filmmakers have also shown a lot of interest (not all of it positive) in VR. Recent VR events ave features the first attempts to tell movielike stories in virtual reality. And the results are not always good.

Consider this article posted by Megan Neal on Vice’s Motherboard, reporting from the Tribeca film festival. The upshot? Traditional filmmakers are ruining virtual reality.

Apparently, there were a lot of filmmakers trying their hand at VR. There’s support directly from Oculus via their Oculus Story Studio.

Despite these efforts, the results were mostly ungood, at least according to Neal.

Even borrowing the term “film” to describe immersive storytelling isn’t an entirely accurate description, and we don’t yet have a word to replace it with.

This is a direct attack on the idea that VR is the new cinema. The techniques writers and directors have created over the last 100 years just don’t work.

Neal puts the blame squarely on the most basic feature of cinema – the director and screenplay wresting control from the audience, and “forcing” them to experience their vision. The notion of writer and director vision are sacred in film, and the idea that the “creatives” need to absolutely control their audience is so firmly ingrained it is hard to recognize.

But VR shows the problem right away.

Again, to quote Neal:

Good immersive content doesn’t just deviate from this pattern, it flips it on its head. Instead of plotting moments on a timeline, it builds a world for the viewer to experience on their own. Instead of trying to control what the viewer sees or feels, the filmmaker is sculpting a time in space, where everything that happens in between the beats is part of the story too.

The author goes on to examine attempts to reassert control in VR. In cinema, the director can change your point of view anytime they want. But in VR, the user has to be cued to even pay attention to events in the storytelling. Some groups have tried putting explicit guides in the film – arrows pointing to important action. But these seem half-measures designed to salvage a bit of directorship at the expense of user exploration.

The successes? VR “film” that encouraged exploration. Films like Allumette6×9, and Notes on Blindness. The fails? content that works best as a traditional, director-controlled movie.

What works? Less cinema, more VR, and a focus on empathy at the expense of director control. Te best works created “worlds with rules”, following the lead of BeAnotherLab’sThe Machine To Be Another” whose purpose is to let you swap bodies. No director, just you in a strange new world with different parts. The goal? It’s not to tell a story, at least in the classic cinematic sense. Instead, this VR experience uses gamelike features to leverage the powerful feature of VR – empathy.

So, if you are planning to get into VR ask yourself? Is this really a console game that doesn’t benefit from making the game more “real”? Is this content better served by providing a highly controlled cinematic experience? If not, drop in and begin storytelling.





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