If we are to believe popular press, then the technology for affordable virtual reality experiences, long thought “just around the corner,” may have finally arrived with the Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard. But excitement over these and a spattering of similar devices has prompted proponents of virtual reality (VR) videogames to confront a longstanding stumbling block: the need to somehow harness VR’s vague futurism and redirect it to the task of designing actual games in the present.
The August 2015 Time Magazine VR cover story demonstrates how this redirection implicates more than just games; the many industry voices represented there struggle to stay ahead of the complex ramifications of VR’s expected disruption of the western visuospatial regime. But the problem with games is also unique. While VR mania has generally waned since the 1990s, swept aside by the radical changes in Internet and Web 2.0, a now-dated splinter rhetoric about virtual worlds has stubbornly clung (unchanging) to videogames. Even today, the virtual world paradigm exerts a subtle influence on both games academia and popular press.
For decades, the fact that VR tech was not quite there yet—and likely wouldn’t be for three to five years—acted as cover for hyperbolic proclamations about an imminent future when we would spend more time in cyberspace than in the “real world,” when everyone would simply dwell inside a virtual world where anything was possible. Take a representative print article early in 1990s VR craze:
Lanier and a companion donned helmets, goggles and body suits, switched on and were instantly transported to their newly hatched universe. They experienced the illusion of being in a solid, three-dimensional world…. Other users have described the experience as like being a character inside an animated cartoon. Some have tried just that—being Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny; in virtual reality you can be anyone or anything you like. “You might choose to become a cat,” suggests Jaron Lanier. “You might very well be a mountain range, or a galaxy or a pebble on the floor. Or a piano … I’ve considered being a piano. I’m interested in being musical instruments quite a lot.” (Frith, 1990)
This article demonstrates the common slippage between the novel experience of three-dimensional graphics and the fantasy of immersive virtual reality. There is an important difference between “immersion” in the general sense of any engaging or engrossing activity—certainly many or most games fall into this category—and “immersion” as a narrative “mode of address,” which occludes the space of spectatorships (hidden behind a “fourth wall”) and offers a window onto diegesis, the world of the story.Videogames, of course, have never been virtual reality. Click To Tweet
They have never generated spaces where one can be or do anything. Their spaces and the actions possible there are constrained by rules and affordances that have been designed and programmed in advance. This fact is never acknowledged in writings about VR, which tend to view all games as “temporarily embarrassed” VR experiences. This teleological attitude is supported by the simultaneous assumption that the point of all games is to offer virtual worlds, or self-contained secondary realities—“cyberspaces.”
While most commercial games do contain fictional settings or characters of some kind, very few games are organized strictly around a make-believe fantasy of dwelling within a separate, virtual world. Videogames offer varied pleasures far in excess of this goal, and sometimes in direct contradiction of it. Games can at times best be understood through the kinetic, embodied, and multisensory action of play. Virtual world discourses construe games as disembodying departures to virtual spaces, leaving our bodies behind. Some games are better understood as puzzles, which have nothing to do with virtual worlds. Even games predicated on the pleasure of exotic transport, as Fuller and Jenkins once argued of Mario games (“Nintendo and New World Travel Writing”), which have a virtual world component (visiting a world apart from your own), do not for that reason rely on textual or diegetic fullness or coherence. These games, I would argue, productively frustrate this desire. Often, games are built around complex reward systems including level-ups, accruing “loot,” or advancing to more difficult stages. Games are just as likely to self-referentially poke fun at their own lack of narrative coherence as they are to try and flesh out every conceivable diegetic detail. Many games tout their narrow scope of meaning: “this is a game about collecting Garfield trading cards” (Garfield Collections).
People who play a lot of games, or who study games, already understand that the point of most games is not to provide a virtual world experience. Even though some games do try to do this, and many games have some virtual world component, which is rarely the sole focus of play. For example, the Dragon Age series presents an immersive story world filled with diegetic characters where players act out the role of a customized avatar. And yet the series is also structured by the extended processes of accruing power, dwelling on player statistics, sorting item and equipment menus, leveling up, the tension of spatial exploration, and agonistic conflict and bodily combat. The discontinuities to immersive, 3-D optical perspective entailed by these other elements of gameplay complicate and exceed the virtual worlds paradigm.
And yet for many scholarly and cultural commentators gaming is a monolith of virtual worlds. This is especially evident in game studies’ over-emphasis on the few fully fledged virtual worlds games out there (Second Life, The Sims) as if these were somehow representative of games in general. But it is also there in games scholarships’ obsession with the social aspects of hybrid games with a virtual world component, especially MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. The virtual world view is popular across a variety of academic fields, from economics (Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds) and psychoanalysis (Turkle’s Second Selves and Alone Together) to sociology (Taylor’s Play Between Worlds) and, of course, theater and performance studies (Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck). And the virtual world is a stock image in the pop-cultural imaginary, which represents games as separate worlds where anything is possible and players retain full bodily articulation and control. This can be seen as early as the 1982 movie, Tron (or 1984 novel, Neuromancer and its progeny), and more recently with The Matrix (1999) or Gamer (2009), as well as with popular television like American Dad (“Virtual In-Stanity,” 2010), Adventure Time (“Guardians of Sunshine,” 2011), and Community (“Digital Estate Planning,” 2012).While imagining cyberspace futures may be necessary, the prevalence of this conception of videogames has drawbacks. Click To Tweet
First, it tends to force a teleological view onto the history of videogames—that, as virtual worlds, all games are assumed to be VR in the making. In this sense, game studies seems to be echoing film studies, which for decades viewed early silent cinema as “pre”-narrative. The earliest films were considered “primitive” and failed attempts at storytelling when studied mid-century, after the establishment of Hollywood’s narrative-continuity system. In 1986, Tom Gunning disrupted film studies by identifying a distinct mode of audience address in those early, pre-1915 films. This was the “cinema of attractions,” which addressed its audience directly through a series of perceptual shocks and thrills, much like vaudeville or the carnival midway, and quite distinct from narrative immersion. A decades-long narrative teleology had masked this other mode of address.
Today a VR teleology pulls videogames into its frustration over the technological limitations of the present—games can only be made sense of as failed virtual worlds. The description of current high-definition VR games as “Pong,” which was recently offered by Valve’s Ken Birdwell (“You’re seeing the Pong version. These are early, early days”), is not just an example of VR’s perpetual futurism (Stein, 2015: 45). It also represents a historical teleology which denies Pong (and any other non-VR, non-virtual world game) any meaning of its own. Pick up Sudnow’s Pilgrim in the Microworld if you find yourself somehow imputing the notion that 1970s videogames only mattered for the subsequent game development they fostered.
The wishful notion that videogames, as a medium, hail to us from the near future—i.e., are interesting only for what comes next—has perhaps covered over sustained consideration of gaming’s actual address to the player. This seems to be the case for at least a segment of the VR community focusing more on new tech than anything in an actual game. The Time piece says (quoting “a senior researcher at Sony”) of Sony’s VR research “that in the past few months it has gotten the hardware far enough along that the software will now matter more”. The same article suggests that software designers, despite decades to mull over the problem, “are still trying to figure out which types of 3-D games translate well into virtual reality” (Stein, 2015: 44-45). Now that the rubber has hit the road, there seems to be a paucity of wisdom about what games are, what makes them compelling, and what role they should play in the design of VR technology.
A second problem with the virtual world paradigm seems far subtler, but it has serious ramifications. While videogame console manufacturers carefully consider how their console and controllers will fit in the living room, VR proponents recommend emptying a sizeable room of all furniture to free up space for virtual-reality gaming. The erasure of the living room reflects the virtual worlds paradigm’s tendency to ignore the situated context of play. Assuming that games are always only there to immerse us in a separate reality blinds us to how games are “tangled up” with the rest of our lives, how they might even help us make sense of our social and interpersonal selves through play. Approaching games ethnographically as part of a broader project on games ecology—the relation between games and the world around them— Stevens et al (2008) identify and counteract what they call the “separate worlds view” in game studies. This is roughly the idea that videogame play (which is very often “framed in technocentric terms like ‘immersion in virtual worlds’”) “is a world apart from people’s other activities in everyday life” (2008: 43). While these authors only seek to expand the narrow scope of the “separate worlds” view by supplementing it with ethnographic data, I recommend a more direct challenge. Something central to gaming-as-we-know-it actually includes our experiences of the spaces where we play games. The interaction between game spaces and the spaces where we play games is an important part of any game.
But this leads to a final pitfall of the virtual world paradigm—seeing games as “separate,” “virtual” worlds often reveals a moral judgment. Psychoanalytic articles questioning the moral value of videogames, like Lemma (2010), often view a game’s complete separateness from this world as a reason to interpret play as a way to avoid confronting problems in real life—especially as concerns one’s body, which is assumed to be supplanted by the (player-designed) idealized avatar substitute. But seeing gameplay as a waste of time better spent outside the fantasy (in “real life”) reveals a broader moral complaint. Zoya Street (2014) puts it this way: “The ‘real’ in ‘real life’ is not phenomenological, but normative. When someone tries to tell me to ‘join the real world’, I suspect that her concern is not that I am delusional, but that I am failing to live within the proper moral constraints” (2014: 20).Over-indulgence in videogames is time spent in an inadequate copy of the world we already live in Click To Tweet
Just like seeing games as storytelling devices tends to put them at a disadvantage against principally narrative media—a move that films and television shows are more than happy to make—viewing them as virtual worlds tends to set them up as inferior, a-priori. It also masks what is unique and interesting about them, the very things most likely to help their cause for legitimacy.
So far, I have framed the VR and virtual world problem as a kind of refusal to recognize games: VR is a perpetual deflection toward the future, virtual world is a misrecognition of the present and the past. But the problem could also be stated as a matter of emphasis on hardware, or a conflation of software with hardware. VR is an emphasis on interface at the expense of everything else, and virtual world a slippage that begins with the presentation of three-dimensional computer graphics, but ends with the full articulation of a technologically-mediated fantasy world (the Holodeck). A recent VR article on Pacific Standard ponders: “Sure, these bulky helmets give us a simulation of three-dimensional space directly to our eyeballs. But then what?”:
What virtual reality needs to make it feel, well, real at this point is not new helmets, new screens, and higher resolution. Rather, the medium needs compelling experiences that make a case for why it’s unique and important. The people who are going to make the first acclaimed works of virtual reality aren’t Google engineers, but novelists, artists, and designers ready to work in multimedia. (Chayka 2015)
This is true—except artists and designers have already been working with this “multimedia” technology, and their videogames have proven entertaining, surprising, sometimes inspired. Game designers have had, from the very beginning, to think hardware and software together, and to find something interesting to do within severe constraint.
Sudnow’s text is well known in game studies for its thorough documentation of the author’s obsession with mastering the Atari game, Breakout (1976), a Pong-like game involving bricks that break when a small ball bounces off them, and which he played at home as a port for the Atari 2600. Sudnow describes the fine-tuning of his muscle memory, the way the game fit in with everyday activities, and the exhilarating emotions stemming from slowly overcoming its challenges. What may today seem like an archaic entry in the history books, or perhaps a simple smartphone game to kill a few idle minutes, was for Sudnow not only an exciting cultural phenomenon but also a matter of prime-time, full-body engagement, like a favorite sport both played and spectated. It was what he looked forward to doing after work, not just on his way home. And it was treated as a nearly inexhaustible text despite not having a diegesis, and being one of the earliest and visually simplistic commercial videogames:
Now I told myself, ‘Concentrate’. I did a little seat squirm, as when entering a freeway on-ramp and you have to hit sixty in a real hurry, peeked up to the band to get the jump on when it was coming, stiffened up and sat on the edge of the chair, and handled one. I missed the follow-up but had returned my first slam. Actually, I got myself in its way.
In a half hour of just ‘concentrating’ I’d refined the instruction. I discovered if I told myself to ‘glue my eye to the ball’ I could start fielding first slams much better and get some of the follow ups as well. For about twenty minutes I sat there mesmerized, tracking the ball like my life depended on it, my entire being invested in the hypnotic pursuit of that pea sized light. Kneading my eyeballs into the guts of its movement like following a guy in a fast crowd where a momentary diversion would lose him, I soon got to a four or five round volley of fast ones. (Sudnow, 1983: 35)