Immersion, VR, & Where We Draw The Line

In recent years virtual reality became a reality, and it might be too much for us. In this article I’ll detail VR’s role in immersion, arguing VR has both helped and hurt immersion.

Virtual reality (hereafter “VR”) gaming enjoys a prominent place in the gaming community these days. The rise of VR has led to some interesting questions concerning the scope, limits, and implication of its presence in the video game industry. One such question is the question of immersion. By ‘immersion’, I mean the moment when an onlooker becomes a participant. It is when one comes to be something else if only for a time.

VR Headset Revolutionizes Immersion

Undeniably, VR has brought gamers to a new level of immersion. We can now experience the action, drama, and overall world of our games as an agent rather than a player. The world we experience is no longer limited to the screen; our eyes are the screen. For some, this is wonderful; for others, not so. Some preach the educational benefits of VR. Some also proclaim the negative psychological impact of VR’s immersive properties. Players of VR can now experience the action, drama, and overall world of building blocks and bullying as an agent rather than a player.

Some folks talk of progress, but few ask whether they’re progressing in the right direction. Doubtless, VR is an advancement, but is it an advancement in the right direction? In 2005 Frank Lantz delivered a rant in which he asserted that the popular emphasis on detail and realism in contemporary video games would be ruinous if taken too far. Taken too far, game developers commit the immersive fallacy—the mistake that video games would be better if it were exactly like the real world.

VR Too Immersive?

This is fallacious because immersion alone is insufficient for improving games. Imagine a world in which every detail was exquisite. The sunrise and sunset were just the right colors, time passed exactly as it should, animals behaved like animals, seasons came and went, and so on. There are no obligations, no goals, no duties—just a carefully crafted space. This would be a boring world. A beautiful world with no obligations, goals, or duties is no world worth living in. A player must have some sense of direction and distraction for there to be any excitement in a game.

“True,” some might say, “but we’re only just beginning. Right now, VR games are simple: shooting arrows and moving stuff around. Give us enough time and VR games will evolve into something complex and exciting.” Hopefully, VR games will become more complex and exciting. But I doubt they can achieve this without maddening us.  If we experienced complete immersion, we would either go mad or get bored. The magic, says Lantz, lies in the divide between reality and simulation. There must be some distance between a player and the game. It helps to be in the game, it hurts to be of it.

VR Immersion Too Much

In this respect, VR might be too much for us. If taken too far, it will close the gap between reality and fiction too well. The worry is not whether reality will become virtual or virtual reality the new reality, but whether we’ll be able to tell the difference between them.

Ryan Shields

Ryan Shields

A young, thoughtful, amateur ludologist, who enjoys philosophy and what philosophy can teach us about gaming. Whether it's Aristotle and the latest RPG release or Lyotard and the future of VR, I'm eager to see how and what video games today assist us into living well together.

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