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It would be folly to flatly refuse imports from film and game studies, yet we must be mindful not to garb VR in outdated or ill-fitting clothes.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.
Lots of stuff to think about and I wonder what kinds of new approaches VR might inspire. I often find myself using terms or concepts relating to film/gaming when describing VR to people who have never tried it. What are your thoughts about regarding VR from a media archaeological perspective, or necessarily embedded into cultures and practices of other mediums?
Also r.e. the 'humanness' of VR as its most stable dimension - I wonder what you think about the idea that VR might allude to a kind of posthuman form of seeing/sensing? Now I really want to try virtual virtual reality!
I don't know enough about film and game design to add to your critique of the false binary between them. I am, however, sympathetic to your argument and (as a philosopher) love the idea of virtual virtual reality. So thanks for bringing this to my attention! Certainly, the Oculus site description of the app as a "narrative driven comedy adventure game" also suggests that it intends to breach the film/game distinction. It is interesting in this regard (and resounds perhaps with your emphasis on cognitive universals) that what is sold here is "experiences."
I would tentatively conjecture (not having engaged the experience yet) that the fundamental experience being sold to the consumer of virtual virtual reality is the experience of being a self-aware, self-reflective consumer/gamer/agent. Both the intriguing name of the app and the short description (e.g. "In an AI transformed future, can humans still find purpose? . . .") suggest a marketing strategy that gives an open wink and nod to the very ways in which Oculus and its consumers are jointly "in the know" regarding the project of transcending old media and their ways of documenting or navigating reality--and the distinction between the virtual and the real itself. By making a VR app that takes VR (itself) as its topic of exploration, Oculus utilizes a metadiscursive strategy that seems strikingly similar to film and television's "breaking of the fourth wall" in the late 20th century. This is both philosophically fascinating and a savvy marketing strategy!
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