Monday, December 5, 2016

A progressive future for VR: why VR is already getting worse, and how to make it better

Last time, I wrote about how I think of game culture as too conservative and too product-oriented to truly change or redirect toward more artistic ends -- and I confessed that over the next few years, I'm going to start transitioning out of working in games, and more into"virtual reality." Why? First, let's talk about what's happening in VR right now.

The audience isn't really flocking to VR yet. Only about ~0.21% of Steam users have Vive headsets, which means about ~200,000 users in the entire world. This slow VR adoption makes sense, considering how the Vive is still really expensive at $800.00, and there's still a lot of unpleasantness to using VR, from simulation sickness to judder to obtrusive tethers, but these are all engineering problems that the industry thinks they know how to solve. In 2017, we'll start seeing tetherless third party headsets, and then in 2019-2020 one of the big three (Valve, Oculus, Sony) will presumably sell a technically-refined "VR Jesus" headset that will finally save us all... or maybe it'll just turn out to be another Kinect rotting in your closet.

Until then, even the most embarrassing VR evangelists are preaching patience for 3-5 more years. But it would be a huge mistake to "wait and see" until VR is a success or a total waste of time. Artists and queers and weirdos need to hit VR now, and hit hard, before VR culture ends up as conservative as the worst of gamer culture. Why is it worth saving?

Imagine video games except AAA titles barely exist, and thus no one can pointlessly compare you to them... and that's the current state of VR.

If we get in early enough, we can define the general public's first significant impressions of VR, and influence how people value VR experiences. We need to develop the theory, the language, and the touchstones that others will have to adopt in order to seem fluent -- we need to be the new normal here, and we could possibly do it, because no one else has defined the norms yet.

How much should your VR thing cost? How long should it be? What art style should it have? In video games, these are all leading questions with an embarrassingly narrow range of acceptable answers. But right now in VR, half your players will barely be able to tolerate more than 15 minutes per session -- how can they possibly demand 15 hours of gameplay?

However, this window of opportunity will close within the next few years. Let capitalism and customers wait 3-5 years for VR to mature... meanwhile, we need to act now. We're running out of time to mold and shape this early "VR culture" into something less terrible.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that VR culture is already getting worse.

I've met industrial VR developers who view harassment and internet toxicity as something they can just A/B test away -- as if the perfect user flagging system, or the perfect neural net AI trained against racist speech, will magically fix everything. Even the most well-intentioned VR developers think culture is a generalized case that programmers can "solve" with the right system design.

But a few years ago when the entire video game industry was faced with a deep cultural crisis with an obvious morally correct choice, they basically did nothing because it would've meant much more work and less money. Almost every major game company stayed silent as misogynist internet fascist conspiracy-theorist failsons harassed women out of the game industry. The game industry failed, catastrophically, in moral and cultural leadership; it prioritized short-term stability in exchange for huge apocalyptic long-term losses and losing any semblance of a soul it had left.

Now guess who's leading the charge for VR?...

The very bad news is that the big three VR platform holders (Valve, Oculus, Sony) are led by game industry veterans who want to perpetuate even more of their moral failure. They regard gamer culture as a success, and would be ecstatic if they were able to replicate similar results for VR consumer culture -- gamers obsessed with numbers and fidelity that developers can optimize, and gamers who attack any radical experimentation that companies can't easily commercialize.

The game industry looks at Steam reviews like this, and their eyes light-up like dollar signs:

Just last month, Steam users bombarded Nonny de la Peña's VR documentary "Project Syria" with angry hateful reviews. While I'm not a fan of this type of work and empathy tourism is a dead end, I still think this project deserves to be available on VR without harassment. These toxic conservative factions of gamers are already claiming Steam as their "territory" and attacking experimentation in VR.

If gamers harass you, it's because the gamer consumer-king thinks you deserve it. Your experimental art would be so lucky as to run on that gamer-emperor's titanium graphics card with limited-edition gunmetal finish! Yep, everyone gets what they deserve on Steam... even Valve tacitly buys into this poisonous thinking; their business dev manager proclaimed at Steam Dev Days that "Steam is a meritocracy" and "only the good games rise to the top."... Yeah, tell that to all the creators on Steam who get drowned in hateful bullshit every day. Tell that to the developers at Hello Games, who get death threats every day because these unrestrained emboldened radical conservative gamers think No Man's Sky did not offer enough "value" for their video game dollars.

This cannot, and must not, be the foundation for VR culture.

So in this current political climate, it's up to us to act decisively, and act now. We need comprehensive action on multiple levels, before it's too late. If VR turns out to be successful and vital, then we'll thank ourselves for our foresight to prepare; if VR turns out to be a failure and waste of time, then it's OK because we'll have wasted only a few years on it.

I think the main goal should be to insulate VR culture from conservative gamer culture's "demands" and imposed norms. How do we do it? Here's a few possible ways:

Create, use, and promote, an independent VR content platform.

A less-toxic VR culture requires a less-toxic VR platform where we can distribute new VR experiences without begging for approval.

Steam will always be a hostile environment, but Valve claims that they want to keep their runtime OpenVR "open" and they'll never require VR headsets to route through Steam. In theory, this technically opens up the possibility for an independent VR store that manages your VR library with in-VR dashboard, but with more freedom and accessibility than Valve or Oculus will ever allow artists on their own stores.

As a current user of and the very good itch app, I think would be a wonderful candidate for a progressive VR platform. If you're not familiar, itch is currently the "Bandcamp of video games" -- a permissive online store system that lets anyone upload their stuff, with very creator-friendly systems in-place, like the ability to set what percentage the service takes from each sale, which can even be as low as 0%. When I first made my experimental gay sex video games, no one would let me distribute my games except itch.

What if became known as "THE place to see interesting artistic VR"? (Currently, that place is nowhere. Who will it be?) Then we can just let the zombie shooting galleries have Steam, while the rest of society has etc.

Seek stronger and more sustainable collaborations outside of the game industry.

The film industry is very interested in VR, which could provide a very beneficial influence -- the film industry's baggage is totally different from the game industry's. For instance, women are a huge part of the movie-going audience, so what if the VR industry actually gave a shit about women? What would romantic comedy VR look like? The film industry influence also invokes new business models, like, will big budget VR-film productions have to use unionized crews like the film industry, or would the anti-union game / tech industry take control? Or what if you didn't have to buy and operate all this VR equipment at home, what if you could just go to a VR theater and pay a few dollars to use one, and you just use VR occasionally?

That said, film culture will not automatically fix gamer culture, and we know this because casual game culture already failed stopped giving a shit about us -- ten years ago, when the Facebook games / mobile games market first started growing, hopeful gamer bloggers and critics predicted this "casual revolution" would force society and gamers to normalize their everyday relationship with video games. Finally, young angry male gamers would be forced to share the "gamer" identity with their moms, and video games could now be a great big inclusive space!

... Instead, the casual revolution was cancelled. Mobile game users (i.e. the rest of society) didn't want to be associated with gamers, and this rejection just radicalized the most poisonous strains of gamer culture even further.

So if we want film to help VR, we will have to work to help protect them from reactionary gamers too. I can guarantee you that Nonny de la Peña is much more wary of publishing her documentary work on Steam now. Is that "the price" that she's just supposed to pay for working in VR? If we can't let man-child gamers intimidate experimental game makers, then we can't let them intimidate experimental film makers either... or else the film industry really will lose interest and leave, and we'll be left alone... again.

Experiment with new ways to fund VR artists and creators.

We shouldn't follow the conventional game industry model where you invest years of your life into a big product launch with even bigger marketing support. This is unsustainable practice, and the indie game dev community's transformation into a young businessmen's league is partly to blame -- once you lose any radical artistic agenda, the only thing that differentiates indies from AAA industry is that indies are poorer and have less resources.

This is something I've been talking about for a while -- why are game designers always supposed to sell their work directly in a market? Aren't there other ways of making a living? Why can't we figure out these new ways? Imagine making VR for a wedding, as if you were a wedding planner or a caterer. Imagine public institutions commissioning VR to engage their communities. Why can't we imagine anything outside of Steam?

I mean indie games basically did invent the now common practice of "bundling" old games together to squeeze some last few sales dollars out of them, and all the bundle infrastructure existed independent of Steam. Don't stop with that ingenuity.

We also need to develop new theory about what bundling does for an interactive digital work. For instance, Fantastic Arcade commissioned 5 games for a bundle to support their local games event, Devs with Ferguson was a bundle to support protests against racism and police brutality, and recently A Good Bundle raised $150,000+ for the ACLU and Planned Parenthood. No one is saying bundles are perfect activism, but at least these bundles ask us to re-imagine what the game bundle could symbolize, and what do bundles mean, and how bundles work.

Or better yet, let's stop calling them bundles, and develop a new set of language entirely. What if they were mixtapes? Why not make a VR mixtape, or a VR sketchbook? What can't all of us VR weirdos get together? Will this be a regular thing we all do? What if VR mixtapes came to define VR culture, the way they defined audio cassette culture? etc.


(tldr: I have AAA and VR industry friends who do good work, but as an industry they basically depend on + fear gamers, so these companies can't be trusted to rein-in on toxic gamer behavior; history proves their complicity; so we need to make sure VR culture stays insulated from gamer culture, somehow, or we'll get dragged down with them again too)

Remember, we already failed once. We were way too late. Let's try not failing again.


For the record, I don't hate Oculus or Valve, unchecked tech capitalism is a bigger problem that makes victims of us all, etc.

And despite my criticism, I've only had good interactions with their developer relations people. If you're a poor experimental game developer or artist who wants to get into VR, then I strongly suggest e-mailing Callum Underwood (Oculus) or Chet Faliszek (Valve) about getting some kit. While I don't like how they're willing to throw VR to the gamers, that also means they're willing to give weirdos a chance, just as long as VR gets big and popular somehow, they don't care how. Again, just send them a nice concise e-mail about who you are and what you make, and you never know...