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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

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Op-Ed: The Thing About the Holodeck...

The thing about the holodeck is that it's not a game anymore.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

All spaceships will have patriotically red white and blue-themed control consoles. It's only American.

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.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

Project Holodeck used motion tracking cameras with the Oculus Rift to try to simulate a Holodeck-like enviroment.

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.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

Project Holodeck became Survios, which is developing a full-body motion tracking unit that eliminates the need for too much camera tracking. The trade-off is that for now, you look insane wearing it.

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.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

Wesley, pictures here either pondering old sci-fi, or generally being a twat. Hard to say.

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.

Microsoft's RoomAlive might be our first step into a functioning Holodeck, but the fact that it isn't means we have a long way to go before we get to Holonovels.

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.

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

Well, that's not quite it, but nice try?

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.

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Reviews From a VR Future

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Reviews From a VR Future

This VR theme month has really got us here at Built to Play thinking about the future. We were promised hovercars and cool robots by now, and the future has yet to deliver. But, in a mystifying coincidence, while we were sitting around complaining about our lame present, we got a missive from the future through one of the many pneumatic tubes set up in the recording booth. It told of a terrifying but wondrous future, mostly similar to our own, but where virtual reality technology had taken over video games, ushering in the anaglyphic age of gaming. As part of the time capsule, we also got a set of reviews set to go up the week of September 22nd, 2034. We’re pretty sure we can’t break embargo on games that don’t exist yet, and stable time loops are for wussies, so we’re gonna post them today. Unfortunately, as we have no photos of these future games, you'll have to make due to terrifying Google search results and atrocious artist's representations.

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

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When is an Apple Like a Video Game? - Why it Just Doesn't Matter

Hey, you.

You, sitting in front of the computer, or on your phone, or reading this in the sky due to one of the many sky writers we have strategically placed around the continental United States to advertise the site.

I promise this is the last one.

I promise this is the last one.

You probably don’t agree with every single article we’ve published this month, that’s only natural. We think that any interactive entertainment is a video game. We published an article arguing the difference between "videogame" and "video game". We posted like, fifty screenshots of Animal Crossing.

But there’s something we feel pretty strongly about, that we need to address right here. We don’t think we really need to argue about defining video games anymore. We think interactive entertainment is good enough, but even if it isn’t, is the fight worth having?

Definitions exist because language runs on them, that’s simple enough. When I say apple, you know I’m referring to a very specific fruit because years ago, someone decided that fruit was called apple. That definition-word link is entirely arbitrary, and in fact, all definitions are. If we’re being honest here, there’s no logical reason that an apple is called and apple. It just is. Sure, apple comes from the old English “appel”, which just referred to any kind of fruit, and that term came from the Germanic “aplaz”, but all these words are just arbitrary sounds associated with a physical object. There’s no inherent logic to any definition.

We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

We'll call it...a redfruit bush!

If all human life was to disappear tomorrow, an apple would not be an apple anymore, would it? It would still exist, but no one would be asking anyone else for an apple. Or a pomme, or a яблоко, or a mazana. Apples would still exist, a round fruit would still grow from a tree we’ve called mallus domestica, but no one would be there to call it that. No one would call the fruit an apple. It wouldn’t be an apple, it would just exist.

Of course, we won’t all disappear tomorrow, and we’ll continue calling them apples until the Apple corporation successfully trademarks the term and sues the fruit. And we should, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to communicate the fact that we want to buy an apple at the supermarket. Definitions are important because they help us communicate.

So it’s only logical that we, as human beings that constantly desire better ways to communicate our stupidly complicated inner thoughts, want to have more definitions. We want tighter definitions with less room for error so communication is easier. That all makes a certain amount of sense.

Arguing about defining a video game really does not.

Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's  "Pyst".

Not be confused with Peter Bergman and John Goodman's "Pyst".

See, blanket definitions tend to be loose, because policing every single thing that attempts to fall under that definition is a futile effort. You’ll always miss something, it will always end up being too complicated, and it essentially defeats the purpose of having a definition in the first place. If you need to analyze everything anyway, just put the definition of video games as being on a case-by-case basis. An airtight definition can only exist once you start working in loopholes for individual titles. This is a game, this isn’t. And at that point, who are you to even say? If the definition isn’t meant to be personal, we need a governing body to determine it, something everyone trusts to take each case and examine it thoroughly. And who pays them to do this? The ESA? Some eccentric billionaire with a grudge against Myst? Eventually, they’ll end up with a loose, blanket definition anyway, just to make their job easier for them, it’s only reasonable.

So the loose definition works. We can have sub-definitions under those, for granularity’s sake, like the distinction between films and short films. Both fall under the larger definition of film, but are distinct in their own way. Sure, that’s an easier call to make, but to someone with no knowledge of movies, they’d be ostensibly similar enough to call the same thing. The distinction exists for ease of conversation.

Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Touching Dr. Kawashima is like touching the monolith, but it reveals to you the secrets of non-games.

Similarly, we divide up games into genres. There are first person shooters, role playing games, platformers, racers, rhythm games, even newer genres like endless runners and minecraft knockoffs. Heck, even non-games exist, to define video games that aren’t necessarily games. They’re all subcategories of video games, and though there’s a lot of blurring between them, they’re distinct enough that they’re used in regular conversation to distinguish between different games. Those distinctions are small, and less important in the grand scheme of things, but they exist because gaming, as a community, wants to have the words to discuss things on an even ground. If we all know what an RPG is, we can discuss it better, since we operate on the same basic assumptions.

Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

Though no one could ever explain why those platforms were even there in he first place...

But that’s all they are, basic assumptions. A first person shooter is pretty self-explanatory. It is a genre defined by shooting from a first person perspective. Racers are game where you race. Platformers refer to the platforms you jump on in games like Mario and Sonic. They are simple, loose definitions used to make the conversation easier. Technically, Mirror’s Edge is a first-person platformer, but that genre is so small (Jumping Flash and portions of Metroid Prime round out the genre in its entirety) that the distinction is almost meaningless in casual conversation. In fact, trying to initiate a conversation about the first-person platforming genre would be ridiculous, because next to no one would know what you’re talking about.

Similarly, trying to argue about how a game needs to have a win state, or be about shooting, or needs to have a certain budget size, or must be fun, or have to be called “videogames” is just esoteric. The conversation going on about video games isn’t about that.

It’s about a larger community. It’s about the folks that work every day to make games, think, write and talk about games, or play games. It’s about accepting these people and discussing this strange, ever-growing hobby we all share. Or maybe it’s not a hobby. Maybe it’s a craft, or an obsession, or a love. Maybe it’s a passing interest. Maybe you want to have a five-minute conversation, maybe you want to have a conversation for the rest of your life. Either way, why would you lock out people who don’t fit your heavily-policed, narrow definition of what a “game” is?

Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Inside the book are the secrets of video game definition, and how to pull of neon sweaters.

Refusing to accept, say, Gone Home as a game doesn’t just hurt the developers, or the people who love it. It doesn’t just frustrate the people who want to have an honest conversation about an interesting, important piece of media and now have to deal with a flamewar about defining it. It also hurts you. You aren’t participating in a grander conversation about something you like, you’re just reiterating the same points again and again, locking more and more people out of your definition- your conversation.

I lied! This one's for real though.

I lied! This one's for real though.

Definitions are important. We need them to communicate. But we don’t need to get ridiculous about them. Video games are an interactive piece of entertainment, usually with a clear win or a loss condition, but that’s increasingly less important. There is no threshold for interactivity, there is no point in arguing that something is or isn’t a game when the game is presented to you. Even a video game that lacks traditional game elements, like Animal Crossing, is still called a video game in conversation. And when someone comes up to you, wanting to talk about video games because they love Animal Crossing, telling them that they’re wrong because it’s not really a game is as ridiculous to them as telling them they can’t talk about apples because they only had an apple pie.

They’d think you’re crazy, and maybe shy away from talking or engaging with video games in the first place. Because it’s not about your definition, or my definition, or anyone else’s. It’s about how when the subject comes up, all that happens is the same argument, again and again Nothing new is said, and more and more people are left out, because what they wanted to talk about has been subsumed by the same talking points that have been reiterated for years.

My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

My personal definition of video games? Things less delicious than an apple pie.

People have personal definitions about dozens of things. Once you start strictly enforcing those definitions on others you limit their ability to converse. Apple vs. apple pie seems more arbitrary than win/lose vs. interactivity to you, the seasoned apple and video games expert, but to the gaming newcomer, it’s all the same. Games might be a little more complicated than apples, sure, but not by much. At the end of the day, we don’t want to wring our hands about whether they’re games or not. All we want to do is talk about why we like them, why they’re important to us, and how they get so delicious.


 

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