Where Is Interaction Heading?

By: Steve Zachmann, Contributor

When I play games, it’s typically been to escape the real world.  I think this holds true for most of us, and I think it holds true for more forms of entertainment than just games.  When we watch TV or movies, read books, listen to music; it’s all an escape to one degree or another.  Given that assertion, I’d like to pose an interesting question to you; would you like to play games if the interface were like that of the on in The Matrix?

In my scenario, things would work like this…  You’d jack into a game system by interfacing with a device that would completely take over your nervous system (without the annoying hole-in-the-head, thing).  It would completely immerse you in the game as a complete sensory experience.  You would see, hear, smell, taste, and feel everything in the game world as though it were completely real.

At first blush, my thought is always that this would be the most incredible way to experience a game.  The primary idea presented in The Matrix is one that has fascinated me since I first saw the original film, and the concept that we may could completely exchange our reality for a different on is something I’ve often been drawn to.  That said, there are some fundamental problems with the idea of full-immersion gaming.

First, and probably most significant, is the problem of pain.  Almost every game ever involves some form of physical pain for the character.  Even Super Mario Bros. seems kind of terrifying when considered from Mario’s position.  I’d rather not experiences death repeatedly; especially via falling, being burned alive, impaled on spikes, or mauled by all manner of strange creature.  But if you’re going to play a game that’s fully immersive, how do you ignore the feedback created by pain?

Games like Call of DutyDark Souls and even Madden become scary experiences when pain is considered part of the game.  Even if the pain were removed though, wouldn’t there still be the possibility of deep psychological scarring from fully immersive gaming?  Imagine living in Silent Hill.  While playing the current versions of the game sound appealing, the idea of being fully immersed in that world seems utterly awful.  There are many scenarios in gaming that feel this way, too.  Fully immersive gaming seems wrought with terrifying experiences.  The thing is, that’s where we’re headed.

I’m not sure that we’ll ever get truly 100% immersive experiences, but the current VR tech is certainly getting closer to that.  After all, the term VR does stand for virtual reality.  As we get closer to being fully immersed the games that we play, I wonder more and more about what the psychological effects of those games might be.  Again, I’m not sure that we’ll ever reach the level of immersion I described above, but even with the current level of technology, VR is too much for some people.

There are many who find the roller coaster demo on the Oculus Rift to be so disorienting that they can’t handle using the device.  That’s pretty incredible, when you think about it.  It’s both really cool, and really scary, because with just some earphones and a TV strapped to your face you’re already immersed enough that your physical body can revolt against the sensory input.  What happens when we take it further (because you know we weill).  What happens when someone creates a VR rape and torture simulator.  Even without the pain, will the experience be damaging?  Will this be the new way to thrill-seek?

These questions are obviously kind of out-there, but what’s interesting is that they become slightly less so with each passing year.  5 years ago we thought VR was dead, now it’s the future.  5 years from now, what will the nature of our interactive experiences be?  Will they be as immersive as The Matrix?  Do we even want that?  To be honest, I’m not sure, but I think that we’re bound to find out sooner or later.