VR should not be treated as the next step for video games

Everyone seems to be hailing virtual reality as the next leap forward for video games.  Once again the industry has whipped itself into a fervor (oculus rift, project morpheus, vive) and invested piles of money in a platform that does not yet have an audience, a reasonable price tag, or an artistic movement backing it.

I’m in the camp that thinks we’ve seen this before and it won’t take because the experience simply isn’t as revolutionary as the companies backing it are claiming.  Remember the virtual boy?  HD DVD?  3D TVs?  That’s what happens when you sell people the holodeck and deliver headaches.

That is not why I’m writing this though.  Let’s pretend that these virtual reality technologies do actually offer an immersive interactive experience so real that you can lose yourself in it.  We still shouldn’t treat this amazing new platform as one meant for video games.  Every new artistic medium has to deal with the baggage of the ones that came before it.  Books and plays were adapted into films.  Music and drama filled the radio waves.  Comics inevitably framed themselves in comparison to the other mediums.  Video games suffered that as well.  Just consider the current corporate obsession with making ‘cinematic’ games that no one is asking for.

I think it would be best to treat VR as a new medium in its infancy because that’s what it is.  If we limit ‘video games’ to things played with controllers and keyboards we provide a helpful set of book ends to the platform.  (I am of course aware of the existence of experiences that already use the body as a controller, but these are often shallow experiences based around dancing and don’t amount to anything artistically significant.  They’re a gimmick.)  This would mean that everyone from every field of art would be welcome to take the same stab at VR as people with video game backgrounds.  We don’t want things like high scores, inventories, multiplayer voice chat, pausing, saving, speed running, modding, fail states, permadeath, dialogue and skill trees, and a hundred others to be translated into virtual reality before we’re sure they actually belong there.

I’ve often wondered what the next artistic medium would be; they don’t arise very often.  I’m now confident that true VR is that next medium and whether it is five years away or fifty, I think it would be helpful to not saddle it with certain expectations right out of the gate.  That will encourage artistic biodiversity and ultimately lead to more unique experiences.  Think about it, would you rather have a hundred ambitious failed experiments with a few examples of something completely new or the by-committee train of VR sequels to already established video games?  Assassin’s Creed VR is not the way to do this.

So what is the real next step for video games?  Honestly, I don’t know if there is one.  Sure there will be new genres coming and going, but I think it has been fleshed out to the point where we understand what makes for a good game.  That’s not to say people should stop making video games, just that experimentation is now going to be within the well-defined boundaries of the medium.  There will continue to be positive developments, like Rogue elements livening up traditionally ‘arcadey’ games, and negative developments like 99% of free-to-play culture.

VR will be the first medium where it is possible for the viewer/listener/reader/ participant to interact with the fictional world on a 1:1 scale.  It will need a new definition of the artist and a new definition of art appreciation.  Who is to say that VR won’t be best enjoyed as projects between two people rather than mass produced and sold software?  What if being tossed into a completely random scenario plucked from a cloud of digital or human suggestions is what proves most effective for an engaging experience?  These are the kinds of questions that video game developers won’t be asking while they’re porting their first-person shooter to the platform.

All I’m asking is that you keep an open mind about the possibilities of art.  A million tributaries in the existing mediums have  withered and died because too much attention was given to what was traditional.  There’s no reason choose-your-own-adventure books couldn’t have ascended to intelligent literature instead of fizzling out in the 90’s.  The musical vignette film, like Fantasia, never grew into its own.

Experimentation is what’s most important.  Like I always say, art is not about giving people what they want; it’s about giving people what they don’t know they want.

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