A Lesson in Virtual Play

Up until this year, my experience with virtual reality was mostly limited to the old CircleVision 360 exhibit at Disney World in Orlando Florida. I remember standing in a large black room surrounded by 9 huge projection screens.  When the movie played, it appeared all around you and it was up to you to decide what angle you wanted to experience.  The scene I most vividly remember was one where we were riding a sled or toboggan down a bright white mountainside. As we travelled at great speed, I could look forward, back, left, right… it was an amazing, thrilling, and thoroughly dizzying experience. Luckily the designers provided banisters to keep us all upright.

When I heard that Disney World removed that exhibit, I assumed that I’d never again experience anything else like it. Then came Christmas 2016 when a Samsung Gear VR headset was under my tree.

When used in conjunction with a compatible Galaxy smartphone, the Gear VR headset is an economical gateway into the virtual reality hobby. Since I have only owned the device for a few days as of this writing, I’ve only scratched the surface to what it can do. But even in this limited amount of time, I’ve flown over the surface of the moon, experienced a filmmaker’s perspective while shooting a scene from Star Wars: Rogue One, and have had an unnervingly close encounter with two photorealistic great white sharks.

Since 1976, I have been a fan of, and deathly afraid of, great white sharks (thank you very much Mr. Spielberg).  Given that a major cable network dedicates a week of programming to them each year, I’m not alone. Sharks interest me, inspire me, and scare the pants off of me. So it’s not surprising that one of the first VR experiences I sought out was a virtual swim with great whites.

Billed as an educational adventure, the Great White Sharks 360 Video from Curiscope was a free download included with the Gear VR. When the video starts, you see a logo and what appears to be the inside of an enormous blue ball made up of triangles. Soon the triangles disappear and you immediately feel like you’re submerged twenty feet down in open ocean.

The video first attempts a little bit of sleight of hand redirect by commenting on a school of small fish swimming just in front of you. Nice try. I came to see sharks so I looked around and hidden behind and below me was the profile of a large female. She glided there, aloof and silent with only a strip of white from her belly giving her away against the dark blue depths.

Then she turned toward me.

And with a single flick of her tail, she was just inches in front of me. My face to her jaws. Decades of nightmares displayed there in full color 4K resolution. Mercifully, she cut right and swam past me. After all, this was intended to be an educational experience, not a horror movie. Still, it made my blood run cold.

Truth be told, the first time through I ripped the VR goggles from my face before this first shark got close to me. The experience was just too intense. Since then I’ve watched the movie several more times. Not only can I now make it all the way through, but my initial terror has been reduced to only a slight visceral thrill, with the balance being filled with scientific curiosity.

It didn’t take me long to realize that as photorealistic as this was, it was still just a movie. The sharks would start in the same place, travel the same path, and refuse to eat me each time. The part of the equation that was different and unpredictable was me – the player, if you will.

I was suddenly struck by how much this reminded me of the board games that I most often gravitate toward. I am a huge fan of Matt Leacock’s work. His masterpiece Pandemic, and its simpler but no less fun sibling Forbidden Island, create living worlds in which we play. By that I mean that they are not only settings in which we function, but they are virtual characters themselves that ebb and flow throughout the game.

In Forbidden Island, 2 to 4 players land on a sinking island and attempt to acquire its four treasures before time and the land runs out. Note that parts of the island are already sinking as the game begins. Players can spend their turns building sections of the island back up, but in spite of their efforts to delay the inevitable, nothing will ultimately stop the island from sinking.

This is a completely different environment than what is found in a classic board game. It feels like this island would be sinking if we were there or not – just like those sharks feel as if they would be swimming there if I was wearing my VR Gear or not. Each world has a sense of permanence and while I’m experiencing an amazing situation, it is mostly beyond my control.

Compare the sinking island of Forbidden Island with the environment of Monopoly. If we do nothing, the island still sinks. In Monopoly, if we do nothing, the spaces remain undeveloped.  Oh well. There’s no sense of urgency beyond player competition. And without this independent driving dynamic tension, classic board games just feel old fashioned.

I am considering this lesson in virtual play to be a real epiphany.  I used to cling to Sid Meier’s definition of a game, where “A game is a series of interesting choices”. But virtual reality has shown me that everything in my game design doesn’t have to be a direct result of the choices made by the players. Perhaps the best mix is a series of interesting choices built upon a shifting foundation that is not entirely within the player’s control. If the balance is done correctly, like how Matt Leacock’s best games work, the resulting game could be virtually amazing.

© 2017 Robert S. Moyer, All Rights Reserved