The thing about the holodeck is that it's not a game anymore.
It's the elephant in the room whenever people talk about VR, but in order to really get into what it means, let's go back a couple decades, to early on in gaming's modern history. It's 1979, and Atari is releasing Asteroids. The cabinet is pretty similar to its contemporaries'- the monitor is recessed into the unit, with walls on either side to block off the sights and sounds of the arcade around you. The control panel is designed to look like the controls of an imaginary spaceship. It's not just a facsimile of the ship's cockpit, designed to be a cute amusement. It's deliberately put together to make you focus in on the game and immerse yourself. Even from what is ostensibly the beginning of modern interactive media, the desire for immersion is present. Games aren't necessarily where the idea of virtual reality was invented- Pygmalion's Spectacles, a short story from 1935 was the first science fiction story to theorize on the subject- but they certainly awakened something in people. Video games held (and still do, to a certain extent) held promises of entire virtual worlds waiting to be escaped to.
Think of art as a machine. Books, games, movies, music, it's all a bunch of machines that are static, unmoving until we interact with them in some way. Specifically, imagination is the fuel, the force that turns their gears and makes the worlds they want to create pop out at us. Some machines, like books, need more imagination to draw the worlds out of them. Some, like movies, have more engaging visuals and sounds that build the world with very little imagination necessary. Not to say that these mediums are more or less creative than the other, but in order to get the most out of a book's world, you really do have to work your imagination harder than you would with a film. Games though, are a bit unique as an "art machine", they occupy both the high and low ends of that spectrum. Like a movie, all the visuals and sounds present the world to you automatically, without much need for the fuel of imagination to make it reveal itself. But like a book, the more imagination you pour in, the more detailed and deeper that world becomes.
Unlike a film, games allow you to poke around the world and discover things, to use your imagination to flesh out what is left unexplained. Sure, you can put more thought into a movie than just what it presents on the surface, but that doesn't build a deeper world so much as deepens your understanding of one already there. So games rely on that imagination to breathe as much as they don't. It's a weird thing to say, but if you've stuck with me this far, your reward is that we're finally getting back to that Holodeck thing. See, the promise of the holodeck is an amped-up version of the promise of today's VR. It's absolute and total immersion. It's pure simulation. You aren't controlling Gordon Freeman, you ARE Gordon Freeman. Star Trek presents the Holodeck as a near-perfect simulation. The goal of its programs are that the user is never able to discern that it's not reality. In fact, that's the only real difference between the Holodeck and the Oculus Rift. The Rift, due to technological limitations, can't create a visual environment of the resolution it would take to be thoroughly convincing without using a headset. But above that, the Holodeck also has the benefit of impossibly (for now at least) clever computers.
The Holodeck is smart. Smarter than any computer that's out there right now. On a dime, it's able to react to anything its user does, within the confines of the simulation programmed into it. It uses Star Trek's fictional replication and force field technologies to create physical objects for the user to interact with as if they were real. In that sense, the Holodeck is not a virtual reality, but a virtually-made reality, rather than the realities made virtual that we experience via the Oculus Rift. The first writer to theorize about a holodeck-like system was Ray Bradbury, in his 1950 short story The Veldt. There, the playroom in a family's new automated home has the ability to generate any object or environment that its occupants imagine. Without going into the story itself too much, it's interesting that Bradbury, the first person to write about the concept, already singled out the virtual-reality space as a "playroom". Even from the very moment it was theorized, the Holodeck was always, at its very best, an entertainment space despite its boundless possibilities.
A virtual reality room that can be programmed to have little-to-no consequence would be unimaginably influential on entertainment sure, but imagine what it would in other places. On-site job training, practice for surgery, driving lessons, education, sex work- it'd be just as revolutionary outside of the entertainment world as it would be in it. So what's this obsession with entertainment, and games specifically? It's possible that because games have, for the last few decades, been the entertainment medium most closely linked with technology, but I have another theory, and it comes back to all that "art machine" nonsense I wrote up a few paragraphs ago. If games are a machine of potential then the more of yourself you put in, the more you get out of them. Now imagine if you had to put all of yourself into the experience every time. Imagine being plopped down in a world you can see and touch and affect in ways that become more detailed the more imagination you put in. All of a sudden, it's not about putting more imagination into a world to get more out of it, it's a very tactile exchange of using more imagination to explore the world in an even deeper way. You touch an object, and all of a sudden it's real, as opposed to finding that object and thinking of what it would be like if it were.
So why isn't it a game then? Well, because there aren't really mechanics. The way Star Trek presents Holodeck simulations (and I apologize if i'm not 100% accurate, I'm not the biggest Star Trek guy and like many non-fans, I'm drawing off of my generally osmosed pop culture knowledge) is as just that, simulations. Sure, they're simulations of what it would be like to be in a scenario, much like games are, but games can't react in every single way. You could definitely play games in a holodeck scenario- if I'm not mistaken, there's a scene where Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton play cards with Data, but its express purpose is always a form of interactive entertainment that lacks the abstractions of game mechanics. When you die, you die, there are no health meters, no quests, and, well, no "goal". Games are often defined by that whole goal thing. They have a defined loss state. We've discussed this before, but it's interesting to think how VR is probably the space for all the stuff currently roped into games that defy a lot of the traditional definitions of games. Those games focused on creating immersive worlds to pour ourselves into, worlds designed around the player as an explorer poking around, they're the perfect fit for the eventual virtual veldt of Bradbury's imagination. Microsoft is showing off how they can use projectors in tandem with Kinect to display a game all around the room you're in. But it's not a reality. You're looking over an army marching across your coffee table. It's a virtually made reality, but not a reality you can only access virtually.
Does it really matter that it's not a game anymore? No, not really. Our definition expands and gets broader all the time. But all the people designing games around mechanics and goals are going to be left in the dust when the holodeck takes over and makes environmental design and storytelling king. Nothing we know about traditional game design will carry over, to the point where “videogames” and “holdeck games” might just be two totally dissimilar mediums. The Gone Homes, the Dear Esthers of the world, those are the beginnings of the "holonovel", those are the games that are taking us into gaming's potential future, and I for one welcome our virtually-crafted overlords.