When I was a kid I thought virtual reality was among the most exciting possibilities that technology had to offer the human race. I remember there was a game show on Nickelodeon in the early ’90s where contestants got to enter a video game, and I would have done anything to try it out. I didn’t realize that it was probably only a green screen–that the person didn’t actually have the sensation of being in a virtual world.
Then the Internet created the potential for networked video games like the Sims and online worlds like Second Life. Some people spent more time (and even money) in those virtual realms than they did in “real life.” Obviously there’s an aspect of escapism at work in these cases–but in Second Life people were still sitting in front of a computer, not actually participating in a 3-dimensional simulation of the physical universe.
I know that more advanced virtual reality systems have existed for quite some time, but they’re always super-expensive–only available in catalogs for stores like the Sharper Image. In a way, it seemed like people just stopped caring about the concept itself, much in the same way that people have lost track of the Space Age feeling of cosmic exploration that persisted at least until the end of the 1980s.
But now I’m starting to think our ideas about virtual reality have been really rudimentary so far. When I imagine such a game or system, it inevitably looks and feels like “reality.” More specifically, the laws of physics would be set much as they are in the actual physical world–especially gravity. It’s not that people are against the concept of lower gravity; it’s more that we haven’t considered our other options.
Then last week I found a video game called “And Yet It Moves” (AYIM) for the Nintendo Wii. It’s a small WiiWare game (meaning it’s stored on the system hard drive), and yet it’s one of the most innovative gameplaying experiences I’ve seen on any system–even compared to the more advanced graphics of the PS3 and XBOX 360. AYIM is a 2.5-D game, meaning you move on a 2D surface, but there is texture in the background and foreground for visual effect. It’s a style first developed in games like Super Mario World, on the SNES system of the early ’90s. (I posted two videos of the AYIM gameplay below, synched with songs by Bibio and Toro Y Moi; I listened to them while I played and filmed.)
In the game, you control a character who can run and jump around a course. The first surprise is that, by pressing a button, you can freeze the motion. Then, by tilting the controller left and right (and keeping the button pressed), you rotate the screen around the character. Gravity always pulls down, so whenever you release the freeze button, the character falls in the direction his feet are pointing. With gravity a turned down a bit (so the jumps are sort of graceful), it makes for a pretty remarkable gaming experience!
And after a few days of playing this game, I’ve begun to rethink the possibilities of what virtual reality could actually be like. Can you imagine how it would feel to be fully immersed in an environment like the one in AYIM? We wouldn’t be able to take for granted which direction is “up” or “down,” if that was something we could change with a button (or better yet, with our mind). It reminded me of Escher’s drawings with staircases going in every direction (and even the film Labyrinth, in which David Bowie, playing the Gnome King, navigates such a maze of stairs).
I imagine they’ll have body suits with digital sensors, and some kind of mask with a peripheral screen. My point is that the kind of augmented reality we see on iPhone apps is only the beginning. Think of how awesome it would be to be able to walk through a field of bioluminescent flowers, and then turn gravity around, stand on a tree branch, and watch the flowers swaying on the ceiling!
Another thing I noticed while playing this game is that the anxiety I used to feel playing games where you can “die”–like the old school Super Mario Bros games–was absent from the AYIM experience. If you fall too great a distance in AYIM, your character explodes into little bits of paper (everything in the game is designed to look like ripped paper)–but you simply start again at the last checkpoint without even any jolting sound effects. No punishment whatsoever. Even if you fall into one of the “black holes” at the edge of the screen, it’s kind of fun to watch the character spin off into oblivion.
Usually we consider escapism a bad thing, and some kinds definitely cause more harm than good. But this is our world to build. I think the human mind has an unquenchable thirst for wonder and amazement. What we do with our spare time is indicative of our overall priorities, individually and collectively. The way I look at it, many people waste a good portion of their life energy between a job they hate and a bar “where everyone knows your name.” If I am productive every day, I think I deserve a reward of spending some time in a mental place that’s a little more extraordinary than my immediate physical surroundings.
The first thing I tell people about AYIM is that it’s like a dream (I guess it would be a lucid dream). A lot of our “entertainment” is more like a nightmare. Perhaps this is an example of how we’ve approached all technology up until this point. It’s not the technology in itself that is diminishing the quality of human life. It’s how we use the technology, as consumers and as a society.
I think video games are undergoing a gradual evolution with parallels to the current changes in human society. Currently war video games make the most money by far. It’s sad, but like Julian Assange commented in a recent Guardian Q&A, the first thing the Apache helicopter video demonstrates is that killing people is fun. Eventually we’re going to see that those war games are promoting territorial primate behavior and Stone Age mental patterns.
Personally I’d rather float around a dreamscape of trees and mossy background, as in AYIM. Or swing from neon plants and vines collecting pollen, like in the PS3 game Eden. Or soar around picturesque meadows and canyons from the POV of some flower petals (PS3′s Flower).
For the past few years I’ve limited my video game usage while I spent some necessary time reading and self-reflecting. But I can’t ignore that the possibilities are endless for the technologies of video games and virtual reality. I look forward to seeing what fantastic worlds we choose to create.