Not long ago, I was asked about my thoughts on virtual reality. I’d played EVE: Valkyrie, Elite: Dangerous, and Star Citizen on my Rift DK2, and I was sent a couple of questions. One of them asked if VR actually added anything to the experience, over and above playing them with a standard display. As I grappled with this, I realised there was much more to it than a simple yes/no, or even a ten-words-or-less. Allow me to explain…
Why do we play games? One theory is based around escapism – picturing ourselves as heroes on a fantastical journey, acting out scenarios completely divorced from our daily lives. Beyond books or film, a good game embeds us in the story, shrouding us in an experience where our imagination is encouraged to fill in the gaps. From what I’ve seen and experienced, virtual reality is an extension of this, making that experience – that fantasy – all the more potent.
But what if one person’s fantasy is another’s real-life?
Back in 2004, I collapsed at work. I remember how I felt; I kept swallowing, as if I was trapped on an airplane and couldn’t balance my ears. A high-pitched whine echoed around my skull, and a slow whooshing noise gradually built up, like a washing machine on the slow cycle. I broke out in a cold sweat.
Then, my vision started to break. I couldn’t focus on my laptop screen any more – my eyes seemed to be stuck rolling to the right. All the time, the noises got louder and the pressure grew. I felt like I was going to break.
And then, something gave. I slid off my chair and slumped on the floor. I don’t remember much of what happened next – apparently, I threw up in a bin. All I remember was waking up in the ambulance. Mask, blue lights, sirens, the works. Eyes still broken, so I closed them again. At the hospital, doctors struggled to find a cause; was it diabetes, or could it be epilepsy? But after describing the symptoms, I was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease.
Now, there are some cruddy sides to this: I’m prone to attacks without much warning (although I take medication to control it), and I’ve suffered hearing loss (with a risk of going deaf in later life). That aside, I’m also someone who is barred from driving. I’ll never know the freedom of going on a weekend tour down country lanes, or going on a road trip to unknown places. You see, what might be an impulsive whim to some is a fantasy that remains out of reach to me. Always a passenger, never a pilot.
Which is why virtual reality, and games like EVE: Valkyrie, are tremendously important to me. For a moment in my broken existence, I have that freedom to hit the road, or reach for the stars. I choose the heading, I gun the throttle. It is the closest I’ll ever get to being in control of a vehicle, without putting myself or others in danger. And even better, I can be the hero while doing so – I can be part of the team, learn from others, and be cheered. It sounds so simple it’s almost infantile, but that doesn’t reduce the potency of the dream.
This might be why I’m exuberant when I talk about VR games that I’ve played, as every single one is a new experience that I cannot relate to anything else. It means that I view the headset as some kind of magical device, instead of just a tool that allows me to drive a virtual car instead of a real one.
It’s also why the dismissive attitude around VR also cuts and stings more than it should. When people who have never tried the new generation of headsets start pontificating about how it’s a blind development alley that leads nowhere, it frustrates me. Here is a device which has given me experiences that others take for granted, and yet some want to snatch it away. You can’t have that. It’s a dumb idea, and it will never catch on.
I don’t think virtual reality is without problems. GDC this week has highlighted two of them – the impact of jump scares and dangers of online harassment – that make me think it will be some time before we have the tools to build MMOs using the device. But the potential is incredible, maybe not next year but five years from now, once the technology is ubiquitous.
Ultimately though, VR represents a dream that I’m desperate to see flourish, as it has the opportunity to be life-changing for so many people. Just as communications have brought us closer, virtual reality has the potential to break down barriers that most of us don’t know exist, but that some deal with as a daily part of their lives. To me, that alone makes it worth championing.