Dave Studies Media

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Road to VR

In my seminar on Monday the 21st, I focused on how the ideas in Remediation apply to contemporary texts such as video games and other software, as well as various hardware. I'm especially interested in the way these contemporary texts seem to be moving toward a state of Virtual Reality, (VR) such as the experiences created by "The Wire" in Strange Days and the concept in The Matrix. Imagine being able to enter an unreal experience of your choosing, where you are fully submerged in the environment and a medium is nowhere to be seen. In my mind, a Matrix-like situation would be the ultimate video game, assuming a certain amount of control is present. This is my major interest, and what I'll be focusing on. I'll also discuss how other video game media, and also some things outside the realm of gaming are all evolving toward this concept of total immersion, albeit in various ways.

Part I - Mass Immersion: the MMO

In the last decade a new genre has been making some major waves in the video game industry. Massively Multiplayer Online Games, (MMOGs, or just MMOs) are unique in that they offer a more social experience in a world that keeps on turning indefinitely, whether you're playing or not. Events in an MMO take place in real time, and servers, (copies of an expansive virtual world) support hundreds of players at a time.

The example I'm going to use is World of Warcraft, (WoW herein) because I have played it myself, and it is currently the leading MMO in North America with its subscriber-base having recently breached the 10 million mark. Players in WoW inhabit a huge fantasy world called Azeroth. At the start they create a customized character where they make important decisions such as what faction they will play for, and what class they will play as. These decisions effect who they will play with and what playing the game is like for them. As characters progress through the game, they become stronger and acquire better treasure. Progress is indicated in terms of levels, so higher level characters are stronger than low level characters, and can attempt more difficult challenges. As they progress, players will interact with many other players constantly. They will have to work cooperatively and strategically to face difficult enemies, and negotiate the distribution of rewards. They will also compete against one another in player versus player combat and, through their actions, develop a reputation with the community.

Bearing these things in mind, perhaps it is beginning to become understandable how games like WoW are an important stepping stone on the road to VR, because they are exceedingly easy to accept as legitimate environments. In The Matrix, Cypher famously remarks that "Ignorance is bliss." In addition to stimulating countless discussions in Grade 12 Philosophy, this broad statement applies to immersive media like WoW. Just like it was easier for Cypher to live in a comfortable but fake "Matrix", it is very inviting to team up with your friends assuming powerful and heroic alter-egos, to do something adventurous like slaying a dragon - instead of attending to the growing pile of paperwork on your desk.

In addition to this explanation, I'd like to present some additional examples that act as immersive qualities in more ways than one. First, I should note that Bolter and Grusin cite the concept of Hypermediacy as a tool that helps achieve immersion. Modern video games, especially MMOs, are wrought with different kinds of media. WoW is recognized for its superbly well-fitted musical soundtrack, for example. On the Macintosh version, WoW even allows the user remote access to iTunes, and thus the opportunity to remediate (and hypermediate) their environment, from right inside the game.

To demonstrate some of the things I'm talking about, I recorded this 2 minute clip of a character I made just for this demonstration, simply running down a road. (Just for fun, I named the character Trombone. I think I saw a picture of one while coming up with a name.) At the beginning of the video, a view of the map shows the starting position of the character; then at the end, the map is shown again, and you can see how far the character has traveled. I also tried to give a sense of the detailed 3D environments and the atmospheric music that makes this game so playable.

If you can wait a few minutes for it to buffer, a higher resolution, much-easier-on-the-eyes version is here! (I highly recommend this, the low-res version embedded below makes the details difficult to make out.)

If you pause the video at around 2:00, you can see the entire zone - the "browned out" areas represent so-far undiscovered territory. Hopefully this gives a sense of how large this particular zone is. Currently, there are 49 other zones like it in the game, as well as other explorable areas that vary in size.

No wonder they call it massive. All one has to do is hearken back to the old days of the first Zelda game on Nintendo 64 to realize how far third person 3D adventure games alone have come.

This interests me so much because of the amount of people who find games like this so consuming that it begins taking priority over their real lives. (And I admit to overindulging myself once in awhile.) One notion touched upon in Remediation is that we may one day
choose to spend a lot of time, (or maybe live permanently) inside such manufactured worlds. Gasp in horror though you may, if you can agree with the Cypher's "ignorance is bliss" principle for some situations, I think that opens up the floor to a lot more discussion and blurred lines on this topic than you might expect.

Part II - Hardware and You

The Nintendo Wii is, by a landslide, the most successful of the current-generation consoles. While it progresses toward the same end as heavy-software titles, it does so in a totally different way. It's no secret that the Wii's graphical capability is vastly inferior to that of its Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (PS3) contemporaries. Instead, Nintendo made a bold move in focusing on fun and revolutionary controls. The naysayers called it gimmicky and predicted failure, but quite the opposite happened. It's become the gateway console for non-gamers to get their start. Even the Queen of England thinks it's jolly good. ("Wii are amused!")

The concept of the Wii-mote is fairly well-known and understood, so I don't think I need to explain as much. The slick white controller's versatility makes an incredibly simplistic game like Warioware: Smooth Moves a lot of fun to play, especially as a replacement for Pictionary and the like at social gatherings. This versatility also lends itself to a very different game like Red Steel or the ultra-controversial Manhunt 2. The latter title received an AO (Adults Only) rating from the ESRB - the kiss of death in the gaming industry, since no consoles will support a game so-rated. There was an especially big uproar of concern around Manhunt 2's placement on the Wii, considering that its over-the-top violence combined with players' physical interaction with the game would have been a huge step in violence simulation for video games.

The dispute around Manhunt 2 is more than enough evidence of a general connection we make: the Wii makes games more real than we're used to.

The other honorable mention goes to the Guitar Hero series, whose immense popularity proves how effective an illusion can be. Like the Wii, Guitar Hero appeals to the mainstream using what's familiar: popular songs and a guitar-playing experience that, for non-guitar players, is often authentic enough. Also like the Wii, the beloved rhythm game has its innovative hardware to thank for its success. For those of you have played Guitar Hero, ask yourself if it would be fun to play using a typical controller, or even the wii-mote. The likely answer is No, which speaks volumes about the power and appeal of immersion.

image from Flickr. see photostream

Part III - Other Examples and The Big Picture

While my main focus for this project was video games, I'd like to take a moment to bring up some examples that fall outside the realm of gaming:

In my post about Apple's new MacBook Air, I explained and provided a video describing its multi-touch features. My theory is that if this trend continues we will likely see the phasing out of the interface in favor of methods of control that are more integrated with the user.

Even the general trends on the web, (the elusive "Web 2.0") favor interaction and a huge amount of personalization. The popularization of RSS and sites like Netvibes and Google IG make web browsing like a catering service. Also the social tools like Facebook and Twitter, which are very good at meandering into a critical role in our lives, carry a lot of responsibility for getting us more and more involved in the ridiculous amount of information that's out there.

For more about spaces, physical and virtual, see Jon's seminar post.

Those of you who made it this far: thanks for taking the time to plough through my obscenely long-winded post! I hope these ideas are tying together for the rest of you as clearly as they are in my own head. If you have questions or want to discuss/challenge anything I've said, that's what the comments are for!

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  • this is great start for your term paper. i think what's most interesting about this post is how you managed to record and capture a clip from your own gaming practices. this raises a number of interesting questions related to remediation; namely: if you have the ability to record (or screen-capture) these moments, do you have even more leverage to edit/re-arrange/reconfigure the game to meet your own specialized needs? if so, this would take remediation into the hands of gamers and would allow them to change the game from the bottom up. this would make for an interesting paper.

    keep writing,

    By Blogger Ian Reilly, At January 28, 2008 at 12:31 PM  

  • Hey Ian, thanks. There actually are a ton of avenues for customization, especially in WoW: everything from interface to music, and even models if the player has enough savvy. I can think of some other interpretations too. Thanks for the feedback.

    By Blogger Dave, At January 28, 2008 at 2:54 PM  

  • the next step, then, might be tease out some of the implications of these customization models that are embedded in games like wow. how are these shifts in user empowerment significant and how are they being taken up by gamers?


    By Blogger Ian Reilly, At January 28, 2008 at 8:32 PM  

  • Hi Dave, this is Danny. I loved your analysis of both Manhunt and Guitar Hero. When reading about the latter I started to think about how it emulates life beyond the controller. I have posted a blog looking at what I've discovered and I 'd love to hear your feedback. djanvier.wordpress.com

    By Blogger djanvier, At February 16, 2008 at 1:58 PM  

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