I first got a chance to play around with virtual reality at my old studio when the boss set up a rig and we started throwing around ideas for what, if anything, we would makdse in it. We weren’t a 3D-games-focussed studio, for a start. I remember “playing” some of the Oculus demo scenes, and particularly enjoying sensations of vertigo, of staring down a T-Rex and the phantom-limb oddness of having objects appear to pass through where my body should have been.

Later on we got both an Oculus and HTC Vive rig for one of the teaching computers at my university and I got a chance to play properly, but not much. I did enjoy playing Robo Recall for sweaty half-hour full-body-workout sessions. It also showed (when compared to something like the fantasy swordfighting title Blade & Sorcery) that up-close-and-personal VR combat can only work for most audiences without being icky if the game developer isn’t presenting us with too-human characters. But, overall, the technology is not something I care for enough to want to bring home, and I think this is because – for the most part – my engagement with videogames is about wanting to dissociate from my body as much as possible with an activity entirely about brain, eyes and hands.

Robo Recall (2017) remains one of the better “flail around shooting things” VR experiences.

So, I can admit that even as someone who practices and teaches game design, I am not massively versed in VR as a gaming platform. I don’t think it’s bad. I would like to see games lean into some weirder uses of it, though. I don’t necessarily want to be embodied as a character with limbs. Give me god games in VR. Give me Populus VR. Give me Sid Meier’s Civilisation with a big rotatable orb of a planet to poke, prod, and populate.

There’s also the socioeconomic element: I don’t have a great deal of interest in developing for something which is financially inaccessible to most people. I have “senior” in my job title and I am unable to afford the current generation of consoles, letalone additional peripherals.

I’d rather spend my time trying to address the dearth of couch co-op videogames than to make something which is, to my mind, an example of extreme narrowcasting; a piece of media which can only be consumed by one person at a time.

Honorable shout out to Keep Talking And Nobody’s Explodes for being a game which directly addresses and designs around the “only one person in your friendship group has VR kit” problem. The players not using the VR headset are made to give the VR-enabled player instructions from a printed document. It’s genius and (for those of you who are British and aged enough to get the reference) has a lot of Crystal Maze vibes.

All of that personal context aside, I now have a series of questions for my friends in the field, fellow designers, colleagues etc. who feel drawn toward this technology for their projects.

  1. How many different VR experiences have you had? Have you had enough to have a real sense for what makes good VR stand out from bad VR? Consumption leads to taste, taste informs how you use a skill well. How many albums do you think most msuicians have consumed before writing one?
  2. Do you want a smaller potential user base? Some of the most impactful phenomena in gaming over the past two decades have been the product of users not requiring a dedicated gaming computer; Minecraft and casual mobile games being two examples.
  3. This is particularly relevant for non-games uses; but how does the tendency toward first-person-embodiment in VR work with or against the goals of your project? Are you trying to give people a “feet on the ground” experience? Do you want them to be able to whoosh around (if so, please revisit point 1 until you know what does and doesn’t make people sick on an instinctive, gut level)? Does either form of first person experience actually hit the goals of your project better than being able to more easily manipulate something on a desktop screen with a mouse?

In Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (2010) Ian Bogost argues that what makes videogames special is their ability to explain – through interaction – how systems work. This is a quality which is arguably more salient in genres which give us a gods’ eye view of a situation. Building a model of a place and giving a user some means by which to navigate its floors is only one use for the technology. It’s an easy option, and one which barely scrapes the surface of what we might be able to do with VR if we think a bit more laterally about experience design in ways which move away from the bodily metaphor entirely.

I think the last point is particularly important for those of us in academia who would like to use VR for research project, whether to make them more accessible or to present information in a new and innovative way. While it might be cool to be able to project a user into a physical location and allow them to move around, this only provides one type of experience, and it’s an experience which really mimics the limitations of being a singularly-embodied human entity in the real world. (I, for one, tire of being a singularly-embodied human entity at the best of times).

Different technologies enable different perspectives for game designers. It may be that VR is simply “better” at doing first-person embodiment, but this might be an assumption based on what we assume will have the widest appeal. For example, it used to be a bit of a game development truism that “simulations and tycoon games don’t work on console”, but this attitude has diminshed in recent generations.

I think we also need to be honest about our personal reasons for wanting to do a project with a specific technology. It’s totally fine to start a project with a new technology just to learn how to use it. But most developers are not going to produce something worthy of an audience’s attention on their first, third, or perhaps even thirtieth foray into a new area. Even then, if they’re not critically engaging with the work already out there, their best efforts are likely to produce a dull version of something which was already achieved years ago.

Just as many middle-aged men learn the expensive way that owning a Stratocaster does not make one Hendrix, technology fetishism can often obscure the amount of work it takes to bridge the gap between making something and making something good

This is why any education in technology needs to do more than drill languages and software. It should also give students the conceptual tools to be able to make things which are innovative and useful rather than just functional. Those of us who can access and harness these technologies on academic institutional budgets are a lucky few, but whether we are able to do anything interesting with them is a matter of thoughtful design, not simply learning to use hardware and software kit.