UrbanDash – a Virtual Reality game with as goal to get from Amsterdam Central Station to Herengracht in the shortest possible time without arguing with other avatars. The visuals and renderings of textures are supremely realistic – historic buildings, cafes, fast food restaurants – every element of commercial enterprise – even road works clutter the route. Any collision with non-human life forms, i.e. cars, trams, taxis and random bicycles results in immediate suspension of the game or being graded down to a medical level. Any collision with another avatar is likely to result in bad language. The maker(s) have built in extensive crowd scenes with a stroll speed of all crowd avatars at a leisurely 2.5 km/hr. For extra difficulty, my avatar is set at twice this speed, i.e. a walking speed of 5 km/hr, which results in a game of high skill, testing my innate abilities of collision avoidance. Noise level is set at high with frequent bicycle bells, taxi horns, tram clangs, and clips of conversation – spoken content can be adjusted ranging from coarse to refined cultural snippets. Smells are added especially car exhausts, food odours, and pockets of weed smell (for interest see, for example, odour mappers). As for haptics there are no laser sticks to zap other avatars out of the way (ethical decision), but a handheld mobile phone is provided for realistic effect. At any time you can halt your avatar and break out of UrbanDash to check personal email and social network platforms, but stopping too abruptly may result in loss of points due to avatar collisions. Despite the highly realistic effects – the game still left me feeling somewhat alienated from organic life – for example, the maker(s) could add more trees or perhaps cornfields, and reduce number of motorised vehicles.
It was a relief, therefore, to try out some of the other computer games once I arrived at The Culture Arcade, Amsterdam, namely Rangi, my very first real, Virtual Reality experience.
My ‘game’ of UrbanDash, is of course playing with my reality of walking from Amsterdam Central Station, along the crowded Damrak and Kalverstraat to the beautiful old canal houses of the Herengracht, and is real world….or is it?
But first to Rangi – Placing the VR headset on, I experienced the calm, cooling colours, the pristine architectural lines with a flavour of Morocco, and most peaceful of all, no crowds, no vehicles and no constant flow of obstacles to dodge. Just me (at least on the two skill levels I completed) inside this strange world, and one helper on the outside watching that I didn’t trip over the computer cables. After the crowded Amsterdam streets, I could definitely imagine wanting to stay in this world for hours exploring. Rangi is a 3D Tetris-like puzzle that must be solved by joining brightly coloured beams of light correctly to locked doors. Once the correct patterns are found these massive doors open to new worlds. The most noticeable feelings I had was of competence in solving the maze, a feeling of freedom in the ability to fly as I moved myself around this world with a flick of a button on my ‘teleporting’ stick, and some mild anxiety and sense of weirdness when near cliff edges that I knew were just graphics. It was crazy that I had such a strong sense of not being able to place my feet over a cliff edge that I knew was not real. After two levels I decided to take a break, but could still feel the tug to just poke my head into the next world, look up into perfectly blue sky, and imagine what it would be like to walk on the wooden textured boardwalks I saw slung aloft between immense stone towers. Pity to leave.
Back on the streets of Amsterdam after 90 min at the Culture Arcade exhibit I was thinking about how far VR technology will be taken. What if someone lived with one of these VR headsets for long periods of time, days even – say a depressed teenager, a political prisoner, a paraplegic, an actor? I could imagine wanting to stay in a VR world of Shakespeare’s London or visiting underworlds of the Great Barrier Reef – those worlds would be awesome. Just 20 min, it could have been longer or shorter, was enough for me to feel the attraction of staying in a world like Rangi rather than going back outside and facing real traffic. If virtual realities become highly realistic without any physical pain involved in crashing into things (something that might be considered by future designers) or unethical games being built just because they can be built – what would that do to one’s feelings about one’s real reality? If reality is just feeding in of data into the senses of sight, hearing, smell, and touch then maybe a walk through a real Amsterdam can become confused with a virtual Amsterdam.
“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”
In ‘Ethics of Virtual Reality Applications in Computer Game Production’, Daniel Kade examines ethical questions from the point of view of a motion capture actor being put into a highly immersive virtual work environment in order to help designers build realistic games. ‘[A]ctions might be performed which would be morally questionable in the real world’ (76), and possibly result in negative physical and emotional effects. Because of the intense and immersive nature of performance, ‘[a]ctors might experience extreme emotions (“greater than life”)’ (84). Kade proposes that ethical discussions need to take place on issues of stakeholder (i.e. ‘actors, directors, game developers, game publishers and gamers’ (79)) responsibilities in the production of realistic immersive VR environments that may contain, for some or most people, disturbing content and reward unethical actions. When building games, designers should use the fact that gamers make ethical decisions anyway, and also build games that avoid rewarding bad ethical choices. Kade further proposes that an ethical consensus and ethics code (for example, as there are for the film and theatre arts) be developed as a basis for ongoing discussion, and used as ethical guidelines to cope against market pressures.
It seems to me that the (motion capture) actor blends into us all as we play in highly realistic VR technologies.
The Culture Arcade http://value-foundation.org/culture-arcade/ 31 Aug – 12 Oct, 2018, at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery, Amsterdam.
McClean, Kate. ‘The sweet smell of Amsterdam … and it’s not just cannabis, say odour mappers’; in: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/oct/07/smell-amsterdam-cannabis-odour-mappers-kate-mclean
Quote: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players” (Shakespeare, ‘As you like it’ Act 2 Scene 7).
Kade, Daniel. ‘Ethics of Virtual Reality Applications in Computer Game Production’ in: Philosophies Vol. 1/1 (2016) pp 73—86; doi:10.3390/philosophies1010073; http://www.mdpi.com/2409-9287/1/1/73