What's happening to video games? Where are they taking us? In the short time since they showed up they've skipped ahead from blocky icons through CD-ROM and digitized audio into real-time 3D and physics simulation.
Growing up alongside video games, we see the change every year. There's some dream or fantasy or primal urge pushing technological innovation forward at a breakneck pace toward…what? Picture it on a graph and where does it lead, five, ten, twenty years?
Where else but the ultimate game, the sci fi super ultra virtual reality, a totally simulated environment where you can have adventures, live out your favorite stories, travel to another world, get lost in it.
As a novelist, game designer, and science fiction reader it's an idea that has a particular hold on me. I used to savor the stories of made-up game systems and simulations, the idea of an endless world of experiences you could plunge into.
We're asymptotically approaching it, but what is "it"? What does it look like when we get there? But what does it look like? How does it get built? And why on earth are we trying so hard to get there? Amusement? Art? Learning about ourselves? Or just getting the fuck out of here?
Answering questions like these is why we have science fiction. In Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the realm of Dream contains a library of all the books that were thought of but never put into writing. I pictured a corresponding room with all the games that were never built, laid out in an infinite 1970s wood-paneled den – elaborate fantastical sequels to Candyland and Mouse Trap; Azad from Iain Banks's Player of Games; a boxed set of Mazes and Monsters rules, 2nd edition.
And in my personal Virtual Reality annex, the top four most-played games would be these:
1. "THE NURSERY"
from "The Veldt" – Ray Bradbury (1950).
"The walls were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in color reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling above them became a deep sky with a hot yellow sun.
George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow.
'Let's get out of this sun,' he said. "This is a little too real. But I don't see anything wrong.'"
What It Is:
The Nursery sits at the center of a sinister, paranoid fairy tale of technology, media and children. It's a room-sized VR environment their indulgent, overspending suburban parents bought for them. It reads their kids' moods and wants and gradually gets stuck on a way too real simulation of a sub-Saharan African landscape. The parents try to shut it down and it doesn't end well.
What I Learned:
Nobody really wants a VR platform that can eat their parents, do they? But wasn't that part of the thrill of the arcade? That video games were almost physically repellent to parents – too fast, too loud, too alien. They were practically built to induce headaches and nausea and banish oldsters to the parking lot, and maybe we needed that.
A new media technology can mean the generation gap is about media consumption, and when it truly arrives virtual reality may be one of the most radical examples. (At least that was how it read to a teenager in the 1980s – let's face it, Bradbury probably thought he was writing an allegory of colonialism.)
Alternate moral: If you're going to name your two children "Peter" and "Wendy," maybe don't be surprised if they turn out as neurotic escapists with violent tendencies.
Wall- and ceiling-sized screens; "odorophonic" olfactory effects; machine telepathy; magic, basically.
2. "DREAM PARK"
from Dream Park – Larry Niven and Steven Barnes (1981)
"The Gamers spilled downhill. Griffin felt vaguely surprised to find that the incline was real. Curiously, he was more disoriented than he would have been if everything had been illusion. He looked above himself, at the mountains they had just crossed, and wondered: How much of that was real? And didn't know."
What It Is:
In the year 2051, grownups go on multi-day live-action role-playing adventures staged at site-based installations at super-high-end amusement parks. The adventures have hugely elaborate implementations – they build a massive illusory world out of actors, sets, sealed domes with artificial skies and practical weather effects, and tons of animated holograms(!) (only in the 1981 book – in later sequels these are retconned into augmented-reality goggles).
The world building is top-notch. They pay a great deal of attention to the limits of 2051 technology, how all the illusions are managed and where exactly they break down. The authors put in their time with the LARPing community and paid close attention, and it shows – they have a sharp eye for the mechanics and the social conventions, the fun and the awkwardness. How players challenge the rules and narrative expectations and mechanics, and the game masters scramble to keep up.
The plot involves a murder, I think? I barely remember because I truly don't care how many people have to die for this to become a real thing.
What I Learned:
Grownups want to play too. And they show up to play for different reasons. To meet other people, or to beat the opponent, or try to lose themselves in the fantasy, or a hundred other reasons. Just like in online games people mix and match their play experience, role-play when they want to or step of character.
Also that when you play in the world, implementation is complicated. Illusions aren't complete, even with 2051 technology, virtual reality gaming requires a little suspension of disbelief. Site-based augmented reality extravaganzas are big business and big money.
Wearable augmented reality reality goggles. Actors, real estate, surveillance systems, infrastructure. Ludicrous amounts of money.
3. "CONSUMER RECREATION SERVICES"
from The Game – David Fincher (dir) John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris (writers) (1997)
Tailored specifically to each participant. Think of it as a great vacation, except you don't go to it, it comes to you.
What kind of vacation?
It's different every time.
Humor me with specifics.
We provide whatever's lacking.
What it is:
A sketchy company called Consumer Recreation Services is hired by super-rich people to set up what is either a massively elaborate live-action role-playing game or a long con. Someone buys one for Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) and his world is then infiltrated by actors and props pulling him into a combined scavenger hunt and action thriller.
It's a film every would-be game designer should watch for how well it portrays a cranky, recalcitrant player (Michael Douglas) who doesn't know the game rules and is reluctant to play in the first place. We watch as the game masters hook him into the game play, moment by moment intriguing, provoking, seducing, terrorizing him into participation.
As games go, this is a pretty mean, roughhousing one. You've paid these people to form a conspiracy against you and they don't stop for for asking, they'll crash straight into your personal and professional life, commandeer home and office as play spaces with no out-of-bound, or time out, or save-games allowed.
What I Learned:
It can be hard to let yourself go and play – full-immersion games demand a little more participation. When you do there's an anarchic thrill to accepting that you've pulled the ripcord on reality. If your life sucks hard enough maybe it's better to be chased through alleyways than to sit at home feeling sorry for yourself.
A couple hundred actors, researchers, psychologists, game designers; a small country's worth of surveillance devices.
4. "THE YOUNG LADY'S ILLUSTRATED PRIMER"
from The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson (1995)
"As soon as a little girl picks it up and opens the front cover for the first time, it will imprint that child's face and voice into its memory-"
"Bonding with her. Yes, I see."
"And thenceforth it will see all events and persons in relation to that girl, using her as a datum from which to chart a psychological terrain, as it were. Maintenance of that terrain is one of the book's primary processes. Whenever the child uses the book, then, it will perform a sort of dynamic mapping from the database onto her particular terrain."
"You mean the database of folklore."
What It Is:
A nanotechnological construct which is in effect a magic book. It bonds to a young girl, scans her environment and invents stories, pictures, interactive simulations on the fly, everything needed to fascinate and educate its pupil in any subject whatsoever- self-defense, computer programming, how to comport oneself in an upper-middle class Victorian home.
What I Learned:
This is the game I'd play if I had a choice even though from the point of view of spectacle it's the least of the bunch. It has no virtual-reality display, no surround-sound, no odorophonics. It's just a book-shaped display device, an iPad+++.
Why? The virtual space of the Primer isn't sensory, it's narrative. Its power is that it tells stories – endless improvised, looping nested narratives. And not just any stories, stories about you and your world. There are three copies and they each do totally different things depending on the person who finds them It figures out the story that explains how to deal with what's in your life right now. How many hours have I spent in bookstores, picking up books, flipping pages, setting them down because it wasn't telling me the story I needed, the one that cracks open the problem I'm living in that day, that I can't quite process, I just need the thread that leads me out of the labyrinth. That story.
Extremely advanced nanotechnology; super-nice artificial intelligence; at least one copy of Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folktale.