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Speculative fiction about a future VR society

For one of my classes I wrote an academic paper analyzing a fictional society in the future which revolves around fully immersive virtual reality. Thought it might make a good blog post for anyone who is interested in the subject.

Matias Franco

May 6, 2015

15 Min Read

Field of View: 2095

A cultural analysis of a fictional VR society

          The world of 2095 is not unlike our own: cities grow, nature recedes, and humanity advances. The sun shines brighter, the nights are colder, and the sky is grayer. Harsh storms batter the world everyday, but technology allows us to cope with this new world. The internet dominates this new age, and digital entertainment is at an all time high. At the forefront of the technological revolution of the 90s is the NerVR, a “full-dive” virtual reality entertainment system. The NerVR interfaces directly with the human nervous system and intercepts the brain’s signals, allowing complete immersion in the simulated world without physical movement. There are many experiences available on NerVR but the most popular by far is Pandora Online, a VR MMORPG where players can live out their favorite medieval fantasies in a connected world of swords and sorcery. Players fight each other in duels and tournaments for status and wealth. To create the most authentic virtual experience, any injury and its proceeding pain sustained while using the NerVR triggers the appropriate nerves to cause actual pain. Any injury sustained in the virtual world is also felt in the real world, albeit with the pain slightly reduced. Built-in safeguards stop the user from taking fatal damage and instead eject the player from the virtual world. However, users have become more wary  after a hacker bypassed the NerVR security system and assassinated a number of government officials. Despite the dangers, the NerVR is the most popular pastime of most people’s lives. It is a huge economic force in the real world as it has a direct exchange with global currencies and the economy is entirely player-driven. 

          NerVR and the world of Pandora Online introduces high stakes play with consequences reaching beyond the game and into the player's physical, emotional, and financial well-being. Thus, game designers shoulder a great level of social responsibility as they not only shape the communities in the game, but also the outcomes the game produces in real life. 

          NerVR introduces incredibly high stakes play which can have profound impact on player psychology and society as a whole. Players fight in the game for the same reason that people skydive or ride motorcycles: danger engages the fight-or-flight response and releases heavy doses of dopamine and adrenaline which make players feel exhilarating pleasure. The significance of the blood-sport goes beyond the fighter’s feelings, however, as the community is deeply involved if not directly participating. To help us understand the phenomenon better, we can refer to  Clifford Geertz theory of “deep play” from his study “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”. Deep play is the idea that the higher the stakes and/or competition of play, the deeper it becomes. The deeper play becomes, the greater emotion is involved, the more risk will be involved, the less economic and more status-driven gaming becomes. The concept was derived from studying cock-fighting in Indonesia. Geertz found that the more a “match is between near equals…[or] high status individuals, the deeper the match. The deeper the match is, the closer the identification of cock and man”(Geertz, 1972).The most obvious effect of this is that players are much more reluctant and cautious when approaching situations where sustaining injury is an option. Combat, either among players or with computer generated creatures, is not the only attraction of the simulation. Those who choose to avoid combat are still presented with nearly infinite choice: trading, working, socializing, or fulfilling any other role that comes about in the virtual society. For the players that do pursue a combat in the game, player versus player combat becomes the most popular and controversial option. Even though battles can bring out heart-wrenching pain as players stab, smash, and eviscerate each other, participants learn to enjoy the fight. In Pandora, the more a fight is between high ranking players, the higher the intensity is of the match. The higher the intensity, the more a player starts to identify with his/her in-game avatar. Cock-fighting and sports like it have existed for thousands of years. Even in 2095 the tradition of high-intensity community-driven sport continues. Geertz argues that when a match is very deep, “the greater emotion will be involved and the more general absorption there will be in the match from the audience…and the more betting there will be over-all” (Geertz, 1972). In other words,  the more dramatic a fight is, the more it differs from the regular affairs of life. In Pandora, the best fighters are held in high regard in both the virtual and real worlds. This can be attributed to the high crossover in real-life and virtual status/wealth of the modern world: a champion fighter in Pandora’s arenas can become just as famous and rich as professional athletes in the real world. The roots of this culture can be traced back to the rise of E-sports in the early 2000’s. Rivalries also exist among the best fighters, which leads to deep matches where status is primarily at stake. Pandora combat is lucrative not only due to intense rivalries and status, but also because of the high health risks involved. While no external physical damage is inflicted after an in-game injury, the emotional and psychological scars can to life outside the game. Cases of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and nerve damage are not uncommon among high-frequency fighters in the game. Deep play exists outside of combat too: even non-combat players can be assaulted and robbed while traveling or harvesting resources from the game world. Real-world value can be stolen, leading to high-risk situations. Similar mechanics can be found in the ancient game, Eve Online, a player-driven sci-fi space game where losing a big ship could cost you hundreds of man-hours and thousands of dollars. This amount cross-over between value in the real and virtual worlds has steadily increased in parallel with the realism of digital games.   

          The line between virtual reality space and reality space is blurred once a game becomes deeply integrated with daily life, economics, and politics. In Pandora, events in-game permeate journalism outside the game. If a legendary monster is defeated, or a war between two factions is won, or thieves pull off a big heist, news makes its way outside the game-world. Proponents of the game are so numerous that they are the political majority on matters related to gaming. Presidential candidates informed about VR have a notably higher chance of being elected. The economics of Pandora is so closely tied to non-virtual markets that players can make a wealthy living by being successful in the game. Market crashes in Pandora are mirrored on the global stock exchange. Real world companies come to represent value that is purely virtual: there’s companies that deal solely in virtual lumber and ores. The theory that can be used to best describe this phenomenon is that of “The Magic Circle”. The term, first coined by Johan Huizinga, was adapted by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salem to describe the “special place in time and space created by a game” (Zimmerman Salem, 2003). The magic circle is the fantasy we create when we want to think of our objectives and motivations only in terms of the game we are playing. However, when reality is so connected to the virtual world, the mindset of a magic circle becomes a blur between the insistent reality and virtual reality. The magic circle is very useful for thinking about the “magical” feeling players experience when they are deeply immersed in a game. This means that, since players are so connected to their avatars in Pandora, the player in the game and the “player” in real life carry the same emotions, which differs from previous games where a player might not care about what happens to his/her in-game avatar. The player-driven economy as its connected to the real world contributes to the difficulty in differentiating modern reality from virtual reality. If a player builds a large castle in the game over the course of many years and it is destroyed he/she could lose a real fortune. The line between virtual and real integration is becoming so thin that rivals in the game can come to truly hate each other. Conversely, many players have found deep friendships and romantic relationships through interactions in the game. The most active users begin to confuse the real world with the virtual world. It is only natural that, if one spends more time in the virtual world than the real world, they may believe  that the virtual world is real. 

          With this new playing field, game designers must create and balance game mechanics that not only affect gameplay, but also influence the economic, physical and mental health of billions of players. The process used to create these incredibly precise and thought out experiences is named MDA after three stages of design used to achieve a particular player experience: Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics. The Mechanics are the rules a designer creates which leads to the dynamics of the game (the run-time behavior of the game between the player and the mechanics). The feelings and values the player gets when playing are called   the Aesthetics. Designers can use this framework to think about a particular set of aesthetics or experiences (fellowship, fantasy, etc.), and then derive what dynamics would lead to that experience and what mechanics lead to those dynamics. MDA can be thought of as a conversation between the player and the designer, the designer on the side of mechanics, the player on the side of aesthetics, and the dynamics are the result of both interacting. MDA “allows [designers] to reason explicitly about particular design goals, and to anticipate how changes will impact each aspect of the framework and the resulting designs/implementations “ (HLZ, 2004). In Pandora Online, designers must not only master this method, but also be highly educated in human physiology due to the game's high health risks. This methodology allows great foresight into the end user experience which is crucial for an experience as impactful as Pandora. Since the world of Pandora is so open, designers have to be cautious about certain behaviors that are technically possible in the game, but are undesirable for the experience. Examples are sexual assault, rape, and torture. While these actions would technically be possible in the game, designers had to implement “hard-stops” on these behaviors to maintain the game’s integrity. Conversely, a small blunder on the part of the designer could lead to millions of players deriving health problems or even dying. For this reason, game developers go through an intense screening and receive a comprehensive education that covers any areas that may be relevant for the player experience. As a result, designers are now compensated more handsomely than ever for their increasing social responsibility. In designing for such a large population of players, designers need to take into account each and every personality players might possess. Designers can also make changes categoricall y by identifying common trends in player behavior.

          Players can be filtered into a few main categories that defines their primary in-game behaviors, which in the hyper-realistic world of NerVR could be aligned to real-world behaviors. In his study Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs,Bartle categorizes MUD players into Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers. Achievers are “completionists” who attempt to optimize their gameplay and achieve the maximum value output. as Bartle puts it,  “Achievers regard points-gathering and rising in levels as their main goal” (Bartle, 1996). In Pandora, an achiever might look like a ruthless trader or businessman whose only aim is to ascend in power. Achievers are prevalent in Pandora because the value they extract from the game is convertible to real world money. Explorers on the other hand pursue the feeling of discovery and extract emotional value from experiencing wonder from the most interesting depths of the game. In Pandora explorers might sacrifice quantifiable value creation in favor of discovering new experiences in the world. Socializers view the game as merely a backdrop for interaction with others. They derive the most pleasure by interacting with other players. In Pandora socializers are abundant as the game is the most popular place for groups of friends to meet and socialize. Perhaps the most controversial of the four, “Killers are interested in… [demonstrating] their superiority over fellow humans, preferably in a world which serves to legitimize actions that could mean imprisonment in real life” (Bartle, 1996). In Pandora, Killers are the most malicious of players. They prey on the weak and live for the thrill of harming other players. In Pandora they take the form of bandits, assassins, and  front-line soldiers. These same player archetypes could be identified in open-world MMOs ever since MUDs, and they are still relevant today in understanding the communities of Pandora Online. According to Bartle, “A stable MUD is one in which the four principal styles of player are in equilibrium.” (Bartle, 1996). This doesn’t mean that there are the same amount of players; instead, it means that there are the right proportions of players such that the amount of players in each respective community is balanced. This is the designer's most difficult task in Pandora since the amount of players is so high. Bartle discovered the dynamic relationship between the four archetypes that allows them to be balanced, a huge boon for designers of any MMO. With Pandora, unique difference is that player archetypes aren’t contained to the game. Pandora’s characters are so reflective of their players’ personalities that one can draw parallels between their in-game archetype and their real-life habits. It is likely, for example, that a merciless killer in the game has experienced abuse in real life that causes them to act out. The New World Order, the ruling government in 2095, has used Pandora to track specific terrorist suspects raising great controversy. This is not the first time such a thing has happened; in the early 2000’s The United States government tracked known terrorist groups as they communicated through MMO’s. The social psychological theory of Self-Categorization describes the idea that a person may categorize themselves as part of a group, and that their actions will begin to reflect the categorization rather than their “natural” actions. Thus, a player who is a murderer in the game could become a real life killer because they identify with the label. In the past critics struck down the idea that violence in games directly affects violence in the real world, but as the boundaries of the magic circle continue to fade, there is doubt that the precedent will hold. 

          While immersive virtual reality has been a long time coming, but NerVR has transformed human interaction on the same scale as the internet. Pandora Online created a universal melting pot of digital culture. NerVR and the world of Pandora Online have introduced high stakes play with consequences reaching beyond gaming and into the player's physical, emotional, and economic health. As a result,  game designers carry immense pressure and responsibility as they not only shape the communities in the game, but also the outcomes the game produces in real life. High stakes play is core to the experience, which can have profound impact on player psychology, causing the player to deeply identify with his/her avatar. The line between virtual reality space and reality space continues to blur as Pandora becomes deeply integrated with daily life, economics, and politics. As a result of such a universal experience, the role of the modern game designer expands immensely because it involves creating and balancing game mechanics that touch the economic, physical, and mental health of billions of people. Players typically come in one of four main archetypes that represent the population of Pandora: over time players are becoming their characters psychologically, as opposed to vice-versa. No one could have predicted the enormous impact VR has had on society, but the answer is clear now: VR has fundamentally changed the nature of our species. What could come next? will we live out most of our lives in a simulation as we ignore the the perils of the natural world? Will virtual reality work to enhance our global connectivity, or will be it become a negative drain on society? 

Works Cited

Katie Salen, Eric Zimmerman (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Retrieved from https://gamifique.files.wordpress.com/2011/11/1-rules-of-play-game-design-fundamentals.pdf.

Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Retrieved from http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf.

Clifford Geertz (1972). Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight. Retrieved from http://itu.dk/~miguel/ddp/Deep%20play%20Notes%20on%20the%20Balinese%20cockfight.pdf

Richard Bartle (1996). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players who suit MUDs. Retrieved from http://mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm

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