Virtual reality (VR) experiences are often described as being either film-like or game-like.
This may be a useful heuristic for consumers, but it is counterproductive when looking to understand the idiosyncrasies of the medium.
The film–game distinction betrays two related misconceptions. Firstly, the distinction implies a reductive media genealogy; the tacit assumption that moving image media are necessarily the offspring of cinema, and therefore conducive to film formalist approaches. Extending this faulty logic, whenever interaction and algorithmic behaviour are added, we're dealing with digital games, which lend to ludological analyses.
Secondly, the film–game distinction echoes a deterministic view of “immersive media” production techniques. 360° video, referred to by many as VR, is live-captured using omnidirectional cameras and binaural microphones. Yet it shares little with conventional film.
Interactive VR experiences are assembled in real-time 3D (“game”) engines, in which computer-generated art assets (such as avatars, objects, and audio) are controlled using scripted behaviours. Yet not everything made in a game engine is prototypically game-like in the sociocultural sense of the word.
The most illustrative cases are ambiguous ones which, like most films and games, are explicitly designed for entertainment, yet which seemingly defy both categorisations equally. Virtual Virtual Reality (2017) runs at the duration of a standard feature film and abides by a familiar narrative structure. But, of course, it possesses neither cinematography nor editing. The experience shares much with digital games, but likewise resists design concepts such as core gameplay loop, fail states, rewards, and even challenge.
It would be folly to flatly refuse imports from film and game studies, yet we must be mindful not to garb VR in outdated or ill-fitting clothes.
In seeking to understand VR's uniqueness, we might consider refashioning theoretical approaches from film and game studies to the extent that they foreground cognitive universals that structure experience regardless of media(tion): Attention, perception, affordances, goals, intentions, (inter)action, causality, appraisals, and emotion, to name but a few constants across media.
Human factors are the most stable dimension of our experience of audiovisual technologies. Let's leverage our understanding of them in both theoretical and practical endeavours.