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Some Kind of Wonder: The Work of VR

Posted by Bart

So I finally got to spend a good solid eight hours or so with the HTC Vive at home. My fieldnotes are flowing and that is a good thing and while I have not yet caught up on the literature and commentary on our current VR moment I thought I would sketch a few tension points, which may be old tension points, but they are good tension points. Low hanging fruit first.

1. The first thing is that I “finally” got to spend time with the Vive. That’s the thing with VR. You can only engage with it if you can spend the time (let alone the money). This is not waiting for the update to download kind of time, this is fiddling with this and that until it semi-works kind of time.  Even after the initial set up, the tinkering and putzing and swearing goes on and on. I have written before about the capacity of games to sequester time (in good and bad ways) but with VR this gets serious in one way and laughable in another.  Let me explain.

2. Darren Wershler has a more than modest obsession with getting his old consoles to work in the residual media depot in Milieux. He’s explained it to me… it’s all about the cables and the connectors; standards, translations and conversions. It’s an artifact of the material history (archeology) of those media that condemns the player to a life of constant tinkering and finagling in a way that reminds me of folks who try to keep their VW Vans on the road.  Getting into VR is like that on the other end of history – you are one little connection away from utter disaster.  Move your shit around, set up the base stations, set up the headset, set up the controllers, set up the room, put on the gear, boot up Steam VR, pair the controllers and finally go… sort of.  Oh btw, there is no perfect space for VR unless you live in a gymnasium.  I remember when the Nintendo Wii presented problems for Japanese domestic spaces where there was barely enough room to wave the nunchuks around… how the hell are most people going to get a playable area?  My basement ceiling is too low by the way.

3. Like Darren I think I love this tinkering as a conceptual exercise as well as a limited display of some sort of virtuosity (afterall I did get it to work!). It’s completely frustrating (controller pairing is a total mystery to me) but then the VR playspace is a completely physical and material playground that you have to work at creating (like making an ice rink in your backyard or building a swing set). In a sense you are emptying physical space so that you can fill again with the virtual stuff but crucially you have to actively work to keep the space clear and your body mobile within it. The base station tracking and interference is a problem, the wires are a problem (totally get tangled), the headset is annoying, you need a computer to be close but not too close, and then there is the rest of the family (as I yell at my son to get out of the way) and the ceiling joists which are there but not there (I have the red knuckles to prove it – did i mention that my ceiling is too low).

4. So all this work gives you the playground and “in” you go. The lesson is the same as it was with the Wii and the Kinect… any idea that you will spend hour upon hour of your sequestered time in a state of immersed bliss is utterly foiled by your actual body. Arms get tired, legs get tired, head starts to hurt, eyes go blooey. With VR you feel time in a way that you don’t while staring at a screen even after mashing buttons for 4 or 5 hours along with a sore back from sitting. I wear glasses and the Vive headset is better than the Oculus but still totally shitty for those of us with four eyes. Honestly, I want to believe (take me to the water!) but my body says otherwise and any developer who insists on ignoring actual bodies is in dire trouble. This was my big argument about the Wii from many years ago as the desire to get away from our bodies only brings us back there again in full force… gestural controllers allowed us to talk about bodies in game studies in a way we hadn’t before. VR doubles down on that promise. VR is great for game studies as it totally foregrounds the utter materiality of the disembodied fantasy which games as media pretend to uphold. With bodies comes context, history, difference…it’s a wonderful mess. I now want to see developers get with the program and help us explore that mess.

5. Enough about the materiality. I did this thing so I could experience the spectacle and here I think there is work to be done. I always worry about the “demo” effect in videogames (“just enough zazz to make a buck”). No doubt, there is profit taking in that short lived moment of sensory dysphoria. This is an old Baudrillardian story of course — in an alienated consumer culture besotted by the pleasure principle we’ll pay for any hit that reminds us we are alive. When you stand for the first time on Everest in Google Earth VR and then fly on over to Delhi and see the Taj, it is indeed, epic.  Actually, hitting the balloons with the controller in the tutorial was pretty cool. Its neat when the floor goes away, when you dodge arrows by actually moving, when you pick stuff off the ground, when you peek around corners and in holes… But it’s short lived. We were downloading free and cheap VR stuff from Steam at an insane rate by the end. Taking quick hits of VR and then comparing them like we are all experts now. We had fun with a fireworks one…. lighting off each rocket to see the effect until my son got bored an lit the whole box. Game over. My daughter wants to try some more but I have to cook dinner, its too much work to set it all up again for these quick hits and besides I have to get back to the story in Uncharted 4 and I think there is a new Better Call Saul episode ready.

6. If I am going to park my cynicism about VR profit taking for a little bit then I think this is what I will focus on for the next while – Somewhere past the hard work for the quick hit of pleasurable dysphoria is something I’ll call “wonder” (for the sake of a placeholder). I think there are snippets of this when you experience VR and find yourself thinking about what else might be possible… even if it is how cool it would be if you could pick up the severed head of the monster you just slaughtered and put it on a stick. This is a kind of banal rather than a noble romanticism I guess (its my favorite kind, for noble romanticism read Miguel Sicart :), where the dysphoria induces some level of contemplation and being ill at ease with things such as they are. I am skipping a set of propositions which would lead me to connect this with a sense of wonder but the root is the same since wonder presupposes a notion of being other than what is.  My next blog post on VR will explore this a bit more with some examples and if any of you are with me on this I am taking recommendations.