Virtual reality: the grey pound verdict
Let me explain the thought process that led me to interview my own mother about Sony’s newly announced Morpheus VR headset.
I promise I haven’t gone mad and confused this article with some German homework I had to do in Year 9.
It all started with a single slide that Sony presented during Morpheus’ unveiling at GDC 2014.
‘Virtual Reality Awaits’, it said. I’m excited by every one of those six carefully written maxims (below). They make VR sound momentous and bursting with potential. They also remind me a bit of the Nintendo Wii.
Points 3 and 6 in particular seem penned with a pin-sharp awareness of who made the Wii a success: my mum.
Not single-handedly, you understand. My mum is part of the ladies-over-35 demographic, who are traditionally unreachable by the games industry; who weren’t given the slightest thought when the money men gave Titanfall the OK; whose curiosity for Wii bowling grew into a bona fide gaming habit; and who bought extra peripherals to turn their games console – yes, theirs – into a personal trainer.
It was settled then. I had to consult the ‘grey pound’ – the section of society that proved so instrumental in the ground-breaking success of living room tech – to assess the Morpheus headset’s chances of achieving maxim 6: It Is For Everyone.
Mum’s the word
“I think it’s a really fantastic idea,” she begins. “It reminds me of the original incarnation of Star Trek – you know, all the futuristic gadgets they have.”
Are you thinking of the holodeck, I ask?
“Yeah. It would transport them to another place. Wherever they wanted. Perhaps they’d go back in time and try to change history.”
Tell me, in all honesty, that this isn’t exactly what you think of when anyone mentions VR. Go on.
But the fact that my own mother brings it up is striking. We both want the same thing from this technology, even if it means hoping for too much.
Fitted with accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors, Sony’s 5-inch 1920×1080 LCD screen isn’t yet capable of delivering an environment indistinguishable from reality, but surely that’s the goal of VR.
And my mum wants that too! This is great, because her generation’s rate of spending in the retail market is growing quicker than any other. Just think: she could fund the future holodeck.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKYGql4ThY4
Next stop, holodeck?
The only problem is, we’re not quite there yet. Is it that totally immersive experience she’s after, I ask?
“Yes. I actually felt a bit disappointed when I watched the video and the first thing they showed was the act of lopping off a man’s arm. I don’t just want a closer experience of mutilating people.”
I feel silly for not even considering this prior to our chat. As a gamer, I think: why not show the possibilities of accurate melee combat in an all-encompassing first-person environment? It’s such standard fare that I’m blind to how off-putting it must be to someone who doesn’t routinely dismember virtual men.
It’s not that Mum doesn’t play games. Her prowess at Peggle is really quite humbling. I won’t even play Wii Sports with her any more, there’s just no point.
Her thirst for immersive interactive experiences and competition is as strong as anyone’s. But she won’t play Half Life 2 no matter how believable the physics model is for 2004. Is the association of violence and video games something she finds off-putting, I ask?
“Definitely. When you reach a certain age, you realise violence doesn’t solve anything. It serves no useful purpose.”
I’ve asked many developers if they feel a responsibility to tone down violent content as visual fidelity increases in games, and most are in agreement that photorealistic viscera isn’t a desirable goal in game design. If VR really does hit the mainstream, it may have a profound effect on violent content.
It’s not just about shooty shooty games
PG Virtual Reality
But I digress. The important point to note is that if Sony wants to include ‘everyone’ in the Morpheus VR experience, traditional marketing isn’t going to work.
Show a shooter running in a VR array to a gamer, and they’ll appreciate a new way to do that thing they like to do. Show it to someone outside the bubble, however, and they’ll see content they were previously uncomfortable with, presented in an even more grating, under-the-skin medium.
The ‘Saga generation’ needs to know that there are games like The Witness out there; games like Ether One (which releases today). They have to be made aware that opportunities for experiences with puzzle elements also exist which aren’t violently adversarial.
These aren’t household title names of course, and that’s a problem. Does Morpheus encourage the grey pound contingent to investigate deeper into the current games market? And what does this powerful demographic hope to find there?
“The kind of fantasy that would appeal to us – women in my demographic aren’t going to be drawn in by mutilating zombies and things – is a peaceful quiet place full of beautiful things, beautiful music.
“We’re generally very busy. When we do have time for ourselves, we just want to escape. We want to switch off completely from the real world.”
She pauses momentarily to chide me for pressing the buttons on the keyboard too hard as I type over speaker phone: “You’ll get arthritis.”
Again, our aspirations for the tech match up: like many gamers, I want something more than Battlefield 5: Tilty Headcam Edition. The idea of a beautiful place I can escape to sounds great. An all-encompassing Proteus. So does it have to be a game we’re experiencing inside Morpheus, I ask, or just a place?
“I’m drawn to both. Sometimes you want something to grab you, so you can really forget your problems. Something with a sense of competition or discovery. I’ve played the Enchantia titles a lot lately on Big Fish Games. You have to find hidden objects and piece things together. That’s very absorbing.”
To attract the Saga generation, Morpheus needs to put violence in the backseat and create experiences foremost, games second. We’ve learned that much from this highly scientific research study. But can Morpheus truly have the impact on the Great British living room that the Wii once had?
I wonder what attracted my dear mother to the strange new world of Nintendo when its magic white box first appeared.
“Firstly, [using the Wii controller] is more immersive. If you’re just controlling a mouse, you don’t feel like you’re actually participating, it’s more like you’re just observing.
“But it also personalises your game. It’s controlled by your body movements, and you’re represented by your Mii. It’s transporting you to a different place and an idealised form of you.”
None of what my mum tells me during our ultra-professional phone interview is massively out of whack with the views I’ve heard from people who have worked in the games media for a decade or more. Apart from the ‘typing too hard gives you arthritis’ thing.
It’s especially chilling to hear my colleagues’ sentiments mirrored almost word-for-word when the issue of pricing is raised:
“I can see that it’s quite an advanced piece of gaming gear, so it’s tricky. But to be honest, in the real world I don’t think you’d want to pay more than £100 for it.
“It would depend on how many games were available for it. If there were tonnes of games available, you’d be more inclined to invest in it. It’d be more like buying a television or something.”
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=igXpRGH6YY0
What does it all mean, though? Why have I forced you to read through a chat with my old ma?
Because it revealed that the impossible-to-harness, gaming grey pound feels a lot like the hardcore gamer does towards Morpheus.
For example, almost exactly ten years ago, former PC Gamer writer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun co-founder Kieron Gillen wrote a manifesto called The New Games Journalism. In it, he demanded that games writing should be “travel journalism to an imaginary place”.
More recently, games writer Andy Kelly (Ultrabrilliant) created Other Places (see the video of DayZ’s Chernarus above), a blog featuring videos that stripped away all the systems, actions and inhabitants of video game worlds and in the newfound space, let you appreciate the geography of the environment. It’s been featured by Buzzfeed, the BBC and others.
These two experienced games analysts and my Wii-Fit-addict mother are all in agreement – the really exciting thing about video games is the possibility of exploring an imaginary place, and VR’s killer feature – as Sony states – is the chance to be present in it as never before.
What my esteemed interviewee is really calling for is a radically different approach to game design, one that’s bespoke for VR. With so many publishers sweating about return on investment in the VR marketplace, it’s unlikely we’ll see that for some years yet. But it’s at least encouraging that many of us are on the same page.
Phil Iwaniuk is games editor at Official PlayStation Magazine. After giving a voice to an oft-ignored gaming demographic, he’s already done his Mother’s Day bit and can ditch the card-giving stuff. Er, right?
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