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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

The Virtual

An essay about VR gaming technology, what it can do and what does it mean.

The first time I ever experienced VR (virtual reality) was—I believe–in the liminal space of just pre or just post pubescence. I was in a museum, but I cannot recall which museum nor even what the museum showcased, beyond that it was general and science related. The VR was one of the interactive experiences, a fad for museums at the time. Indeed, the only other thing I recall of the place with any detail is another such exhibit, where you interact with animals (fish, perhaps) on a screen, breeding them with each other so that you can see the consequences of breeding certain types (fat or thin, large or small, etc.) with each other. Invariably you would couple fish within a certain extreme, to create a strange species of skeleton tiny fish, or bulbous massive ones.

The VR involved, if I recall correctly (and I likely do not, at least not fully) two headsets that could be warn, replete with headphones. And the experience was a preset tour of a sea-based oil rig that was experiencing a fire, whereby the perspective would navigate the interior and climb up to a helipad where escape would be provided. It was extremely basic, even by the standards of computer games at the time. You could not look around, as it essentially amounted to a graphically generated film that played through the goggles of the headset. And yet it was still quite enrapturing. You felt absorbed into that other world, its dangers. And I recall it was a popular exhibit.

Much more recently I purchased the Valve Index for my computer. Having built a gaming machine of some power, I took to asking what it could in fact do. The answer was clear, VR. And the possibility took me back to that distant experience at the science museum. I was intrigued how it would match up. I had heard over the years that VR technology, even for private use, had been advancing considerably (even if it remained clunky relative to general gaming experiences). And I had also heard that there were vast online social experiences provided by VR, which, having recently elected to quit myself of social media, I found amusingly interesting if less enticing.

The experience of VR today is not comparable to my childhood one. With two hubs (positioned in two opposite high spots in my room), two hand controllers, and a headset (I have not yet decided to get the body sensors needed for an even more immersive experience) the level of interaction that is facilitated is incredible and so immersive you must seriously prep both yourself and your environment less you damage the one or the other. It is invariably quite an intense immersion, too; so much so that it is hard to take for long periods. I do not mean by this the feelings of vertigo and disorientation it is possible to experience (positioning a fan on yourself can do a lot to mitigate such problems), but the sense of being out of sync with reality.

That sense is exasperated when many VR experiences are themselves inherently intense. The games I have chosen to play so far are Half Life: Alyx, No Man’s Sky, Hellblade, PLAYNE and VR Chat. The last of these is, as expected, not for me. I recall when the simulated reality Second Life was popular, albeit mostly with people the generation above mine. It was a place for building dream architecture and indulging sexual fantasies on monitors. VR Chat reminds me a lot of Second Life, only now shaped by the generation below mine. The preoccupations are the same, strange environments and strange sex, only the details are altered as generations tastes have changed. From the porn styles of the Boomers, rooted in Playboy, we have the porn of Gen Z, with anime women featuring more prominently. It is monotonous, as you might expect. It is also the main arena in which full body sensors are applied, which is a reason I do not feel much compelled to purchase them.

PLAYNE is a different experience entirely to VR Chat. Essentially an elaborate meditation app more than a game, it situates you on an island where trees grow as you build up a meditation routine. There are all kinds of weathers, and the world is serene and stunning. Even distractingly so. A talking fox follows you about, and will offer various tips for meditating, but also an elaborate back mythology for this world that ties back into the importance of meditating. PLAYNE is something I tried without VR, but it was clearly made with this technology in mind and while it has plenty to recommend it either way, VR contributes substantively to the experience.

In Hellblade you play as Sensua; she is a Pict warrior travelling to Helheim to recover the soul of her dead lover from the goddess Hela, but she is also someone suffering psychosis, which manifests in the form of moments of irreality and various conflicting voices constantly whispering in your ears. It is part hack and slash, part puzzle solving, and part psychological horror, but the emphasis on narrative and the ease of the game play itself gives it more the feel of a walking simulator (a genre I highly enjoy, as I have previously noted). However, it is grueling, as you come to identify with Sensua and her often horrific slog through a swampy world of violence. The hyperrealism of even her psychosis makes it especially wearing.

Like PLAYNE, No Man’s Sky is a game I have enjoyed (and reviewed) before, I will not go over it here in too much detail, but I will stress one facet of it that provided by far the most interesting VR experience I have had. This game includes quite detailed space flight, and I cannot think of many other experiences quite like looking up to see two planets hanging in the bleak vastness of space overhead, or spinning around asteroids, or leaving and entering atmospheres in VR. While being so immersed in horror is certainly emotively effective, the same is true for experiences rooted in wonderment. This technology is powerfully suited to rendering such games.

Half Life: Alyx is far more sophisticated than the other games; more fully interactive and immersive, just the feel of picking up objects and interacting with the environment, which is magisterial in scope and conception, is unlike anything else. Half Life is a long running series of games, it has been involved in previous innovations of gaming. A science fiction, trans-dimensional alien invasion dystopia, it has a rich history to draw on and apply to the capabilities of VR.

One drawback for VR is that the gaming market for it releases titles much slower than the regular gaming market, but having had a good period to build up a back catalogue, now is an advantageous time to get involved. I have four more games I am still curious to try, and will continue to play out Hellblade, PLAYNE, Half Life: Alyx and No Man’s Sky. VR technology is becoming more accessible with every year; computer VR remains prohibitively pricey, standalone headsets offer users the chance to participate at a far cheaper price providing your internet connectivity is sufficient. The technology is only likely to improve, and over the next decade the current VR is likely to look as outmoded as what I experienced as a child in that museum.

There are various controversies related to VR. Some are practical: cybersickness is essentially a form of motion sickness unique to the medium, and eye fatigue as well as other more acute problems compound this issue. These problems can be offset, but it seems likely that VR will always be more taxing on users than mere screens, making a healthy attitude of occasional, time-controlled sessions necessary. Unfortunately, the corporations pushing this technology are incentivized to hold your attention for long sessions, to push an unhealthy use of the technology. Moreover, the potential exists for grievous privacy breaches, especially as the equipment is increasingly designed to track data; Facebook’s involvement, given their history with data, should be of some concern.

VR is coming whether we like it or not. It offers a new range of experiences. Uptake and retention are only going to continue to climb. Those of us anxious about the social implications cannot ignore the coming of the virtual, but must have constructive demands to make on the shaping of this technology. Including and ultimately, wresting it from the control of those who care only for the demands and needs of the market, and not at all for human flourishing. Those who make VR as an expression of their human creativity should instead be entrusted with shaping it, not with some censorious moralistic overseer limiting the artform, but towards creative ends that do not require manipulation and coercion as is dictated by capitalism.

While techno utopianism insists that the potential benefits of technology are somehow spontaneously inevitable, even in far from utopian social contexts, techno dystopianism merely lazily inverts this diagnosis. Nonetheless, the broader context in which VR is situated will shape it, just as it has shaped the internet. The context of the free association of free produces would shape a VR experience along human lines. Unfortunately, our existing context is one where privacy and wellbeing are undermined and ignored, where imagination is partially shackled to profit. Both because it aids our overall wellbeing, and because today it better serves such flights of innovation, the time has come to liberate technology such as this one from the limiting dictates of capital. Or, in the meanwhile, to at least resist those dictates.


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