Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What’s up with “VR Experiences?”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 23, 2018

I’m a gamer. I’ve been a gamer for a long time. I had a career making video games. When I first started getting interested in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality (two elements of “cyberpunk” that actually sounded desirable), it was the early 1990s, and there was very little of either technology to be found outside of university labs. Being a gamer, the obvious and most important application for this technology (whenever it would arrive… which I optimistically expected within just a few years) was gaming. I wanted to play VR games. The upcoming crop of 3D games (without hardware acceleration, back in those days…) would be so improved with faster computers and VR.

Now we’re here. Gaming is still important to me. But I’m still finding, even now that I’m getting a tiny bit jaded, that what I want out of the technology isn’t just gaming. It’s experiences. Gaming is a category of experience. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t just seem to be me. I’ve noticed the word “experiences” being slung around a lot in relation to VR. Me from a few years ago sneers at the term, but the me who uses VR almost daily has come to embrace it.

The thing is, VR is so immersive that many gaming conventions actually break it. There were only half-joking comments among the developers about how Skyrim VR would take players twice as long to play because it is just so cool to stand around and look at things. It really is a thing. What’s up with that?

There’s a theory  that “fun” is the brain’s reward for learning or mastering survival techniques, a hardwired reaction. Now, the deep lizard brain in charge of this stuff is still pretty primitive, but adaptable. What excites it and makes it believe we’re improving our chances of survival is a little fuzzy, and is a little different for all of us. In general, however, the closer we get to to basic survival in the physical world, the more likely it is to release a chemical hit of fun. Memorizing our multiplication tables in elementary school is probably a bit further removed from that basic experience to give most of us much of a thrill. Hitting things with other things in a first-person shooter, or identifying patterns and “gathering” or removing pieces from a board in video game, match real-life analogs of primitive survival skills for hunting and gathering, and more easily feel like “fun.”

VR is exponentially more convincing and “real” to that primitive part of the brain, which doesn’t listen to well when the cognitive and reasoning part of the brain tries to tell it, “Hey, this is just an illusion.” I have learned the hard way that it can be dangerous to try out a brand new VR experience right before bed. If I do, I may be tossing and turning for a couple of hours, even if I went to bed dog-tired. That deep part of my brain is too busy trying to process what I just experienced, convinced that it just went to a new place, and is frantically trying to come to grips with what to do and how to adapt.

But that just makes the VR “experiences” so much more compelling for me. Something like Apollo 11 VR – which would be mildly interesting to boring played on even a big-screen monitor – becomes something magical and epic. The attention to detail paid off in spades, and I couldn’t help but spend time just exploring the tiny, cramped cabins and looking over the dizzying array of instruments on the consoles. More than anything else, I came out of that one with a renewed appreciation of what an in incredible feat the moon landing had been.

My friends laugh when I say that sometimes I just like to sit in a virtual theater in BigScreen Beta and watch a show on Netflix. What’s the point? I have a big monitor with much better picture quality than I get in my Vive headset.  I’ve confirmed with other regular VR users that it’s not just me. The experience feels like a much bigger mental “break” than just watching the show by itself on my computer. Maybe it’s the novelty factor. Granted, going upstairs and watching something with my family on our very nice HD flat-screen from the comfort of the couch is even better, so everything is relative. Real reality still trumps virtual reality. I’m more than okay with that. 🙂

Unfortunately, some developers (especially indies) have taken this as a cue to produce pretty low-content “experiences” that aren’t worth the $0.99 they sell these things for.  They are just phoning it in and trying to cash in. That sucks. Usually. There are a couple of surprise gems in there, but a crap experience is just crap.

As a gamer, I still want my games in VR, but they aren’t just an evolutionary step in gaming technology stretching back to the old arcade systems. Virtual Reality is really kind of its own thing, now, along with its cousin, Augmented Reality. We’re barely exploring the surface of the potential of the technology. I’m pretty excited to be able to (finally) do that.

Bring on the cool experiences.


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