Recently, Gamechurch editors Drew Dixon and Richard Clark attended the Game Developers Convention in San Francisco, CA with one thought on their mind: they wanted to find signs of God’s grace in the game industry. For a long time, Christians have been skeptical if not outright dismissive of videogames as anything that could be beneficial to relationships and general human thriving. Clearly, Gamechurch has known better, but we thought a trip to GDC would be a good time to investigate further, from within.
We should probably talk about virtual reality. It’s everywhere at GDC and most people are talking about it as if it is undoubtedly the next big thing in videogames. Still, I have had a hard time getting super excited about the Oculus Rift, mostly because I feel like it confirms one of the greatest fears people have about videogames: that they keep us from acknowledging reality. Playing a game with Oculus literally requires shutting out the world around me. It would require me to close my eyes and ears to my wife and daughters every time I play it in my home.
But here at GDC, with my wife and daughters at home, I decided it was time for me to give the Oculus Rift a try. My first experience with the Rift was with a first person horror adventure called Among the Sleep in which you play as a two year old boy exploring a haunted dream world. While the game had some clever mechanics that played off of the idea of controlling a toddler, I didn’t find it particularly frightening, and I felt like I was being emotionally manipulated by adopting the persona of a small child. I decided to widen my palate.
My next experience was with Buffalo Vision’s Irrational Exuberance. In less than a minute walking around on meteors, I wanted to take that Oculus strapped on my face home with me. I stood over the edge of meteors and looked down at the vast expanse of space below me. I have never felt so intimately connected to a digital space. While I could certainly see some people spending a little too much time playing videogames with goggles and headphones, blind to the world around them, I was very happy with the time I spent playing Irrational Exuberance. My ten minutes felt like I had been playing for an hour, and the experience was so intense that I couldn’t have spent much more time with it.
So I guess I am sold on the Oculus as something that provides an emotionally powerful experience. Far from making me want to escape reality, Irrational Exuberance forced me to recognize my human limitations and encouraged me to be more mindful of the world I am in, something I think games are starting to do more and more.
What about you Rich? Did you get a chance to experience virtual reality at GDC? What effect do you think it will have on the industry? Do you think we will have more or less thoughtful and valuable experiences with games because of VR?
The only bit of VR I had the chance to play was Irrational Exuberance, the same game that sold you on the whole deal. And yeah, it was one of those system-selling experiences for sure. In fact, I was surprised to find that my experience with the Oculus Rift seemed like something beyond an excellent videogame. It was more like a sublime artistic experience.
One thing you didn’t mention is the fact that in Irrational Exuberance there’s not much to do. You just wander around, explore, and take it all in. But that was enough for me. I was totally obsessed with the experience in that moment, immersed in the idea of walking around in space. I looked over the side of a meteor, jumped off, and nearly fell out of the couch I was sitting on as I started to fall in the game world. Once I reappeared on the giant space rock, I twisted around and looked behind me . The light on my in-game helmet illuminated a pathway that, once followed, led to nowhere in particular. I didn’t mind. I kept walking, back and forth, from space-rock to space-rock. It took a lot to snap out of it and join the party.
This, though, is my real concern. Theoretically, all things in moderation should be a mantra we’re able to apply within every circumstance. But at one point does this virtual reality stuff become the videogame equivalent of crack-cocaine? What if it’s impossible to enjoy it on a moderate level?
Ultimately, that’s my (admittedly grave) concern about all of this. When it comes to the future potential of videogames, this is not what I had in mind. I wanted to see games flower into something more accessible, more communal, more artistic.
I guess virtual reality provides a real possibility for games to become more artistic. Unfortunately, the potential here is for a kind of artistic experience that leaves us utterly without one another, at least for those moments we’re indulging in them. It’s like walking through a museum after hours in the dark.
Actually, that sounds kind of nice.