Saturday 10 May 2008

Virtual Reality and the First Person Shooter

Ok, so here's the deal with this post. It's a proposal for a research paper that I had to submit for a subject at Uni, and I thought that it had some interesting enough ideas that I'd post it for anyone who would care to read.

Two posts in less than a week - madness, I know.


Research Paper Proposal

Ben Abraham

Throughout the course of researching my presentation topic for week 12’s virtualities I have identified a notion that I wish to explore in my research paper. The intersection of my thesis topic – broadly defined as the First Person Shooter (FPS) category of videogames – and the discussion of virtual reality has lead me to identify certain commonalities between the two areas. Additionally, an inverse relationship between the rise of the FPS as a genre and the decline in media representation of and interest in VR can be loosely correlated, and it is this issue, thinking about First Person Shooter videogames as a kind of virtual reality, that I wish to explore. In this proposal I will give an example of how one particular ‘exemplary’[1] FPS game engages with this issue and I will finish by elucidating a number of the concepts which I plan to employ to talk around this topic. I have also appended a short annotated bibliography to demonstrate the breadth of resources available on the topic but which were not directly referenced in the body of the proposal.

In her article on Immersion and Interactivity in literature, Marie-Laure Ryan sets up a definition of virtual reality saying that VR is “an immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer[2]”. This definition leaves a lot of latitude for interpretation, for any computer based activity that leaves the user with a sense of being immersed in the activity could then be considered ‘virtual reality’, allowing for someone to argue that even incredibly banal activities like word processing and data entry could be considered VR. She does however add further caveats to the definition, such as being able to ‘apprehend a world as real’ and ‘to be able to interact physically with it’[3].

From my own first hand experience growing up in the 1990’s, Virtual Reality seemed to me, as portrayed by the media, as being about donning gloves and a visor and perhaps a body suit, in order to experience a three dimensional world like out own, albeit one that only exists as 1’s and 0’s in a computer and in the imagination of the person. Prime examples of this kind of representation include the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man, in which a Virtual Reality researcher, played by Pierce Brosnan, increases the intelligence of a mentally handicapped man via a mixture of Virtual Reality games and drugs, with the result being the stimulation of his mind, which in turn endows him with telekinetic powers in the ‘real’ world. This idea of VR, one with blocky characters and clumsy interactions based on bodily inputs, it seems to me has dropped below the radar of public consciousness, to be replaces instead by the humble computer monitor and gaming control pad. I will try to explore this in my research paper, examining the notion that they have been replaced by this new and different idea of VR, and one I might say is more promising in terms of expressive potential and narrative possibility.

The main text when talking about videogames and virtual reality is undoubtedly Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck, in which she uses the ‘holodeck’ technology from the Star Trek universe to paint an excellent illustration of some of the issues surrounding virtual reality. Videogames are similar to the holodeck in the sense that they are often visual representations of a physical space. Naturally, virtual reality can encompass non visual representations, and videogames like these, particularly MUD’s and other online games, are discussed by both Ryan and Murray – however I wish to concentrate specifically on graphical representations and the use of an ‘avatar’. By giving the player a representation of themselves, the avatar with which to explore and interact with the space, videogames have developed some rather unique methods of telling stories. While there have been and will continue to be games made that rely solely on text based or spoken word methods of explicating story elements, a number of particularly striking games of recent times have devised alternative methods of explicating a narrative, often integrating them with more traditional techniques.

As an example of this dual layered approach to telling the story, a useful example is the critically lauded game ‘Half Life 2’ by Valve Software[4]. The game is a ‘first person shooter’, a genre of games that give the player a ‘virtual self’ to move and shoot and perform actions in a way unrestrained by the barriers imposed by real life and to tell their story Valve employ both ‘old media’ style narrative exposition as well as some tricks rather more unique to videogames. Much of what they do in this way they describe as ‘training’ the player in the rules of the gameworld, and at the same time they are often weaving in narrative exposition elements that expand the players insight into the world. Robin Walker, a developer with Valve, describes one example from very early on in Half Life 2 when they player is still ‘learning’ how to interact with the world. In this particular example, the players progress is impeded by a police officer who tells the player to pick up an empty soft drink can before they can progress.

…the cop who tells you to pick up the can… we want you to press use, but at the same time you're learning about the relationship between the Metro Cops and the players, and the way they use civilians. But at the same time you're building this animosity between you and this character that eventually you'll be able to deal with when you get a weapon…[5] (emphasis added).

In this way, Half Life 2 combines teaching the player how to play the game with telling the player about the game – in this case that civilians like yourself have to do what they are told by the police, and thus setting up the world the players avatar inhabits with its 1984 style government that strictly controls its citizens.

Another aspect of the issue that I propose to discuss is what Ian Bogost calls ‘simulation fever’. Videogames, despite being simulations and therefore viewed as ‘objective representations’ of what their designers intended, Bogost says, are inherently subjective by virtue of their nature as ‘reductive’[6]. Even when a simulation attempts to render every physical aspect of an environment or situation in detail, it still abstracts concepts like the application and implication of the value of human life, a point which Bogost elucidates by referencing a military simulation of a sarin nerve gas attack modelling simulation. While it represents the progression of the gas on a university campus, showing such useful information as potential evacuation routes, it does not represent other concerns, such who to prioritise for evacuation; the Nobel Prize winning professors or the students with years of possible contribution in their lives still left unrealised[7]. Simulation Fever, Bogost says, occurs when the game player “[struggles] between the omissions and inclusions of a source system and the player’s subjective response to those decisions[8]”. It is a useful concept as it directly engages with the idea of a videogame as a form of virtual reality and reveals an aspect of how videogames manage that relation.

Finally, I want to briefly mention one last resource that I intend to use in my research paper, as it is indicative of my intention to draw upon the large body of writing about the subject, and that is an online blog post discussing the concept of Immersion. Michael Abbot, a professor at a liberal arts college in the United States, also runs a blog called ‘The Brainy Gamer’, and makes a habit of posting his thoughts on games to encourage and solicit intelligent discussion on the subject. One particular post, inspired by a talk given at the Game Developers Conference 2008, was about the concept of immersion in games. His line of reasoning was that, in his experience, many of the games that have been the most immersive to him have been the ones with the least, or the most abstracted level, of graphical representation, for example sports management simulations, which represent players and games as “a spreadsheet[9]”. This idea is interesting because it has very real implications for how videogames make manifest their virtual reality, and while I am choosing to focus in on the FPS genre of videogames, which are often characterised as aiming for photorealism, and are often the driving force behind computer hardware upgrades[10], there are still many unexplored possibilities within the realm of representational styles[11].

In conclusion, I have very briefly touched upon some of the material that I plan to use in discussion of the conception of videogames as a form of virtual reality. Obviously much more could be said about the topic, not least about the implications and implementation of the ideas I propose to cover, but I believe I have provided a concise window into the subject and my rationale for the project.


Abbott, Michael. ‘Immersion - Is it just me?’, The Brainy Gamer., first posted 2 March 2008, accessed 26th March 2008.

Adams, David. ‘Half-Life 2 Sells Millions.’ accessed 6th May 2008

Bogost, Ian. Unit Operations : An Approach to Videogame Criticism. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006.

Bramwell, Tom. ‘Opening the Valve Interview’. accessed 26th April 2008.

Murray, Janet Horowitz. Hamlet on the Holodeck : The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Ryan, Marie-Laure, 1999, ‘Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory’, SubStance - Issue 89 (Volume 28, Number 2), pp. 110-137.

Shim, Richard. ‘'Doom 3' may doom users' current systems’. CNet News. accessed 7th May 2008.

Valve Corporation. ‘Awards and Honours.’ . accessed 7th April 2008.

Annotated Bibliography

Artful Gamer, The. ‘Inviting the Imagination: The Power of Words’. The Artful Gamer. accessed 26th March 2008.

Chris at The Artful Gamer blog discusses Michael Abbott’s blog post on Immersion and Interactivity, discussing the power of words to immerse.

Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games : The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007.

Bogost in his second book argues the case that games possess a 'procedural rhetoric' as well as a number of other concepts useful for Videogame criticism.

Borden, Ed. ‘Gaming is an out of body experience.’ Ed Borden: PWNING 9-5. accessed 26th March 2008.

In this post on his personal blog, Ed Borden riffs on Michael Abbott’s post on immersion, adding his own perspective and addressing some issues not covered in the original.

Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Gee argues in his book for viewing videogames, and learning about videogames, from within their context, or 'semiotic domain'. His also includes a semi-autobiographical tale of how he came to appreciate games, coming from a very non-typical background, and making interesting points about immersion and storytelling.

Hocking, Clint. ‘GDC 2008 i-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Games’. Click Nothing., accessed 7th May 2008.

In this downloadable file, Hocking includes the slides and a PDF transcript of the talk he gave the GDC 2008, the talk which inspired Michael Abbott’s blog post on the same subject.

Rose, John. ‘Fewer Mechanics, Better Game’. Gamasutra – The Art & Business of making games. accessed 22nd April 2008.

In this article for Gamasutra, an games industry publishing website, John Rose talks about how sometimes ‘less is more’ in terms of a games functionality, and talks about the lebel of abstraction present in games like Half-Life.

Travis, Roger. ‘Bungie’s Epic Achievement: Halo and the Aeneid’. The Escapist Magazine. Accessed 2nd May 2008.

In this opinion piece for The Escapist Magazine, Travis talks about how one particular FPS game, Halo 2 for the Xbox, contains within its narrative an allegory of the epic Latin poem ‘The Aeneid’. Both stories focus on an “eponymous hero”, and the author elaborates on the parallels between them.

[1] Exemplary as defined through critical reception, financial success and a certain indefinable presence as part of popular culture. I acknowledge this is a somewhat problematic proposition.

[2] Ryan, Marie-Laure, 1999, ‘Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory’, SubStance - Issue 89 (Volume 28, Number 2), p. 110.

[3] Ibid.

[4] With a score of 96 out of 100 on, a reviews aggregate website, winner of no less than 35 “Game of the Year” awards for the year of 2004 (, accessed 6th May 2008) and according to an IGN news item sold approximately 1.7million copies of the game in the first two months of release (, accessed 6th May 2008), I believe this claim to be largely beyond doubt.

[5] Tom Bramwell, ‘Opening the Valve Interview’, Eurogamer,, accessed 26th April 2008.

[6] Ian Bogost, Unit Operations : An Approach to Videogame Criticism (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006). See Ch. 9, ‘The Simulation Gap’.

[7] Ibid., p.98

[8] Bogost, Unit Operations : An Approach to Videogame Criticism, p.132.

[9] Michael Abbott, ‘Immersion - Is it just me?’, The Brainy Gamer,, first posted 2 March 2008, accessed 26th March 2008.

[10] Richard Shim, ‘'Doom 3' may doom users' current systems’, CNet News,, accessed 7th May 2008.

[11] For one interesting example of an alternative to the photorealism of many ‘bleeding edge’ FPS games, the also Valve Software developed game ‘Team Fortress 2’ released in November of 2007 chooses to represent the players avatars in a cell shaded cartoon style.


Humingway said...

You might take a look at Mark Hansen's work on virtual reality. (He calls it "mixed reality," a term borrowed from a couple of German artists.) So far I've read only the introduction of his 2006 book /Bodies in Code/, but it already had a lot of insight into the way virtual reality works.

Basically he draws a line from Merleau-Ponty (who observed that it's already difficult to say where the body ends and the world begins) to these German artists, Monika Fleischmann and Wolfgang Strauss, who want to invert "the theory that man is losing his body to technology." Virtual reality is better conceived as an extension of reality: "interactive media are supporting the multisensory mechanisms of the body and are thus extending man's space for play and action."

Mark Hansen sums this up: "Bluntly put, the new mixed reality paradigm foregrounds the constitutive or ontological role of the body in giving birth to the world."

Does that make sense? I'm out of my element here, but I thought it was a suggestive line of thought.

Ben Abraham said...

Wow that sounds like some really deep stuff. And quite different to what I talked about in the finished paper (It was due a week from yesterday - or... your today, if it's still Friday in Chicago).

I'll definitely check it out, because it could be quite a nice alternative view to much of Marie-Laure Ryan's work, which was kinda what I ended up leaning quite heavily on...