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6:14pm on Friday, 12th May, 2017:

Not Quite Real


I was in London today at the VRX Europe event, courtesy of USC professor Gordon Bellamy (who came over here to the UK in order to MC it).

OK, so he's also here to watch Manchester United versus Tottenham Hotspur using guest tickets somehow obtained by his third-grade teacher. Yes, that is as strange as it sounds. He could probably have sold them to a tout and retired on the proceeds, given that this will be the very last match to be played at the old White Hart Lane stadium before it's flattened. He's an ardent Man United fan, though, as a result of working on the FIFA games franchise years ago; he's therefore more like the person who would have mortgaged his house to buy the tickets than the one who would have sold them.

Anyway, the VRX event was to do with virtual reality, as in goggles-and-wands, hope-no-one-is-filming-you. I had a go on some of the systems displayed on the exhibition floor, but there wasn't really anything that broke new ground. They were fine if you like non-interactive, sensorially-immersive "experiences", but there's only so many times you can do those before the gee-whillickers novelty wears off and they become as interesting as watching a short 2D movie; it really depends on the movie. They're still gimmicks, in other words. Still, if developers don't start with small steps, they won't develop a common vocabulary of VR design, and they won't be able to work with the new affordances that VR brings. Of course, they could also discover that focusing on the new affordances isn't the way to go anyway, and they should just just stick with what they've got only have it better (which is pretty well what the movie industry did when colour replaced black-and-white).

Gordon is one of those force-of-nature people, and it's very easy to like him. It's also very easy to underestimate him, as he thinks a lot more deeply than his playful demeanour suggests. At one point, for example, we were talking about player types and Pokémon Go: he suggested that the gameplay supported explorers, achievers and socialisers, but not killers. However, because the game takes place in the real world, it's the real world where the killers are — they don't have to play the game to grief it. They can show youtube videos of people walking into trees, they can report them for trespass, they can let their dogs run loose in parks — all without having to play at all. Also, as soon as they got bored of this and moved on, that's when the interest in Pokémon Go itself began to subside, because the killers are what gave players something to talk about and push against. I hadn't thought of the fact that augmented reality means you can have people outside the game griefing the ones in the game (as well as people inside the game doing it), inadvertently or otherwise. It does make a lot of sense. This, from the most enthusiastic games professor you will ever meet.

I'm therefore glad that none of my own students were at the event. If they'd have experienced Gordon, my results from student-assessment-of-teacher exercises would have fallen through the floor.

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Copyright © 2017 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).