VR: Neither Cinematic nor (Necessarily) Ludic

Curator's Note

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It would be folly to flatly refuse imports from film and game studies, yet we must be mindful not to garb VR in outdated or ill-fitting clothes.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! 

Yes indeed, it can be near impossible to capture the essence of certain VR experiences without reference to film or games. Digital games have been described ad nauseum as "the art of simulation", so now it's difficult for VR to claim "[pure] simulation" as its own prerogative. And yet I feel that VR experiences without the express purpose of creating moreish, pick-uppable gameplay loops, high scores, satisfying mechanics, etc. etc. etc. is precisely where the fledgling medium excels. At present, few VR experiences are called upon to justify or explain themelves. Lots of consumers ask, "why does this [video] game exist?", but not with VR experiences. (Yet.) They just exist, largely unfettered by the judgmental Steam reviews of self-proclaimed "hardcore gamers" (a toxic media culture if ever there was one). Certainly, there are lots of digital games (esp. indie games) rejecting tranditional formal features of the medium in favour of humanly-relatable storytelling or abstract affective experiences, but then such titles are frequently lambasted as having "cinema envy", or being pretentious. It's the dull ludology–narratology debate all over again, this time in the public domain.

To cut a long media genealogy (or archeology?) short, I believe that VR is fundamentally a computational medium. For many people, that's a truism. But I read an interesting article last week that highlighted its status as a televisual/cinematograhpic/pre-rendered/raster technology. I can't say I agree that VR is foremost cinematic—I still believe that contemporary consumer VR hardware owes more to early scientfic calculators than, say, cathode-ray tube. Certainly the emergent aesthetic grammar of the medium can, will, and should depart radically from classical continuity editing.

As for posthuman ways of seeing, I believe that as we grow accustomed to VR, we'll develop media schemata that enable us to instinctively and meaningfully discern "real" from "fake", for instance.

To take a famous but probably embellished historic example, when the Lumières' Train Pulling into a Station was first screened in 1896, audiences putatively ran out of the theatre screaming etc. Last week I demo'd Ritchie's Plank Experience for students. Those of them with a considerable number of hours clocked in VR were unfazed. Those who had never tried it before were sweating, shaking, reported vertigo etc. As VR penetrates the mainstream and "novelty effects" reveal themselves and wear off, I think we'll develop a more humble picture of the technology's transformative potential. ("Empathy machine" my eye.)

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!

Thanks for your thoughts, Shelley—I agree with all your observations about VVR, but must politely caution against attributing any kind of subversive or progressive intention (political, aesthetic, or otherwise) to Oculus, a subsidiary of Facebook. Virtual Virtual Reality's description on the Oculus store would have been written by its developers, Tender Claws.

The thrust of a growing number of VR experiences is, as you point out, the "meta-"ness of the experience of experiencing virtual reality. (I also highly recommend Accounting by the studio Crows Crows Crows, which riffs on similar themes.) But this can only be attributed to individual developers or, at a push, publishers—not Oculus' platform. Oculus/Facebook will do anything and everything to monolpolise the VR market, locked in a heated battle as they are with HTC–Valve. One of Oculus' headsets (the Go) is marketed as a personal cinema of sorts; conversely, the Oculus headset that will be released in June (the Quest) is already being framed as primarily a gaming system. Also, in 2017, this happened. They're seemingly covering all of their bases.

Bit I digress. I hope the preceding sentences do not come across as know-it-all.

That's a very interesting point about TV and film's late 20th century postmodern tendencies—if narrative VR's point of thematic departure is self-awareness and/or deconstruction, then were could it possibly lead? I'm intrigued to find out!

A belated, post-semester response/clarification:  I was not suggesting Oculus or Facebook were politically progressive or subversive!  I am well aware of the fact that their goal is the accumulation of money and power.  My point was not that their goals were honorable; simply that their marketing strategy was clever. Sorry if that was somehow unclear. I appreciate your original post for showcasing that cleverness. 

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