Sunday, July 30, 2006

Virtual Reality and Gaming 

On a recent trip to the library, I'd happened to pick up a book called Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castronova on "the business and culture of online games." I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but it has a fascinating appendix called A Digression on Virtual Reality.
In that essay, Castronova talks about how he feels most early virtual reality researchers and theorists were on the wrong track. The focus has been generally on achieving a sensory experience as close to reality as possible. Goggles to beam light directly into your eyes, full-body suits to control your virtual self and give feedback to your body. There was a feeling in the 90s that Virtual Reality was around the corner, but it didn't happen. In fact the term even feels a bit antiquated now after the dot com boom.

However, Castronova points out that virtual reality is alive and well in a completely different form, in online gaming worlds. Instead of trying to make a perfect sensory experience like the Holodeck or Dream Park (a great book), gaming pioneers focused on what the users do and how they interact with other people. From text MUDs to Ultima Online to present day games like Everquest, people are immersed by interaction and story, not by photorealism. And this immersion came from people a world away from VR researchers, using regular monitors, keyboards and mice.

Also, even with a perfect sensory immersion, if the subject isn't engaging, your suspension of disbelief probably won't kick in. You might be standing in a perfect virtual room, but still aware of the fact that you're really standing in an offline room wearing a bunch of gear.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. You can look at a perfectly rendered painting, but if it doesn't really capture your mind, you're still be aware that you're standing in a gallery looking at a wall. At the same time, a novel you're wrapped up in can take you to a far-off world, making you lose track of the hours. Text on a page is about as unrealistic a display technology as it gets.

There's so much going on nowadays that I'm frankly a bit frightened to go too deeply involved into any of them. I know from playing MUDs years ago how much time can get sucked into massive multiplayer online games. Even from my somewhat distant perch, I can see massive things like Second Life rising up. Even Golf is getting pretty interesting lately.

For me, a lot of my virtual world now, has to do with the yo-yo community. There's a lot of chatting in IRC and IM, reading and posting to message boards, watching and creating videos. But it comes back to real physical skills and real offline people, and one of highlights is going to the local club or a contest somewhere. This sort of virtual experience grounded in reality has actually brought me closer to the world.

Talking to someone in Quatar or the Czech Republic, finding out about the Hyphy movement from across the US, discussing the American version of Shonen Jump with people from Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan (happened at the World Yo-yo Contest last year), having a simple gettogethers and sleep-overs with groups of people of different ages and backgrounds. All that and much more has happened to me because of a hobby and the internet.

I find it interesting that for someone who grew up with BBSs and then the Internet, instead of going off into more and more fantasy, I ended up pulling back a bit and exploring further into the real world instead. Then again, I do think "reality" is subjective and some people are able to delude themselves in much more destructive ways offline than being a hero of an MMORPG.

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