Narrative and Alternatives for Video Game Space

In previous posts, I’ve covered the definition of narrative space, space itself, as well as audience immersion of that space. Now I’d like to talk about alternative uses to the typical game space, such as virtual and augmented reality, as well as educational purposes.

Like many other types of media, video games are not simply limited to genres. Alternative technology can play a major role in the immersive efforts of narrative space. In The emerging geographies of virtual worlds (1997), Jonathan Taylor provides a content analysis that discusses virtual worlds concerning four main themes: art, military, museums, and finance. He postulates that researchers must continue to study virtual reality (VR) in more than the four terms provided, such as medicine, training, architecture, and landscaping. When discussing these themes, he offers the differences between them, but also how they connect. He believes that VR is so vast, however, that there cannot be a simple, overarching theme. This shows that video games involving VR do not have to tell a story in a traditional sense, but may use the virtual space to convey different themes and meanings. His conclusion is that the use of VR deserves much more attention, rather than the negligible and dismissive attitude it has known thus far. Why are people so harsh on virtual reality?

The answer may be seen through the Placeholder project that took place in 1994 (Laurel et al, 1994). The article describing it is a bit unique in that it wanted to conserve each author’s voice, so they wrote their sections separately. The purpose of the paper is simply to describe the elements in the Placeholder research project, which was designed to explore potentials for storytelling through simulated landscapes. The methods behind the project include a qualitative analysis of subjects involved in the making of narratives in virtual environments. They discuss virtual reality for entertainment purposes; capturing a sense of place using VR; creating and interacting with a narrative through space and time; and how VR technology affects the senses. The intent of this project was to bring awareness to the participants about their virtual bodies, and what it is like to be an embodied entity. Their conclusion, however, remains incomplete. The technology at the time was simply too primitive, disallowing proper study. The fact that virtual reality was so poor in its technology and immersion gave it a bad stigma. Today, however, companies like OculusVR are trying to re-imagine the possibilities of virtual space and gaming, with much more support from the community (www.oculusvr.com).

Even so, people are still shy about virtual reality. The technology is still a little too… silly… for some. There are many people, even in younger generations, who refuse to wear anything on their heads in order to game. They immediately dismiss technologies like Google Glass, simply because of the way it looks. Who knew that fashion would affect our efforts to virtually explore another world?

I have to agree on some accounts, however. The Oculus Rift and Google Glass definitely have a long way to go before they’re entirely comfortable. Latency issues are being fixed, but still prevalent. Spatial awareness is definitely skewed, but not always in a good way. Sometimes it’s skewed into total motion sickness.

But I don’t doubt these companies know just how limited their current technology is. If I were to wager a guess, it would be that they’re figuring out this software now so that it can be easily transferred to something like this. Contacts that can augment your very reality. This is technically different from VR, but as the technology advances further, perhaps we’ll learn to use them for more than Twitter and Facebook. Maybe we can morph an empty room into a wonderland?

Augmented reality (AR) has a lot of gaming potential itself. We do not have to create entirely virtual environments. Instead, we could slightly alter the world we see every day. But how would you construct an existing space to tell a story?  Where’s the line between VR and AR? Gunnar Liestøl might be able to tell us in his article, Situated simulations between virtual reality and mobile augmented reality: designing a narrative space (2011), with the issue that augmented reality (AR) has not been clearly defined. He and others have worked on “situated simulations” for mobile devices, which has been challenged as a form of AR. The purpose of his paper is to define, through a literature review, the parameters of AR, describe how/if their situated simulations meet that criteria through deductive reasoning, and then combine the ideas to create narrative space. They conclude that the situated simulations are not considered AR in the strictest of definitions, but in using your mobile device for these programs, Liestøl states that you are in fact, augmenting reality. He further concludes that the use of situated simulations to form narrative space relies solely on the reconstruction of the present, but that it has possibilities to extend reconstructing the past, and even “preconstructing” the future.

Preconstructing the future. Combine all the ideas I’ve presented so far. Where does your imagination take you? Imagine putting on your contacts for the day and literally scuba diving into a virtual Atlantis. Or perhaps you’d like to turn your backyard into a battlefield for paintball. Maybe you’d just like an open, 3D canvas to paint and sculpt whatever you’d like, with your very hands? (Yes please!) You don’t have to simply explore, though. You can also create and enjoy stories within the landscape.

In his textual analysis, Simulation versus narrative (2003), Gonzalo Frasca’s goal is to emphasize the distinction between simulations (video games) and narrative. Traditional research states that video games are simply another form of narrative, like film and theatre, but Frasca argues that while games may express a story, the mechanics are entirely different. Traditional methods of storytelling are extremely representational and are deeply hard-wired cognitive structures. It is hard to accept an alternative method, but the act of simulation, although not entirely representative, is an effective mode of storytelling. Frasca postulates that simulations can express messages that other media cannot. He does not say that simulations are a replacement, but rather an alternative. The biggest difference, he concludes, is that a simulation offers us an unstable future—what might happen. Representational media, however, reflects on what is happening, or what has already happened.

Watch a movie and you’ll see the same story unfold every time. Play Mass Effect, and sometimes it’s hard to even recreate the exact game you just played. Games really do represent an unlimited plethora of possibilities for narrative space. Anything you’ve ever wished to explore will soon be at your fingertips. Perhaps user-generated landscapes will be second nature for our grandchildren. Maybe future generations will enjoy their childhood stories through worlds that they create themselves. If you had this growing up, can you imagine seeing Gohan take out Cell as if they were right in front of you? Talk about jaw-droppingly awesome.

But all of this technology doesn’t have to be just for fun. There are many ways we could educate children and adults alike by combining this technology and the theories behind games themselves.

Through a conceptual analysis, Michele Dickey discusses narratives and problem solving through video games, specifically the adventure game genre. In her paper, Game design narrative for learning: Appropriating adventure game design narrative devices and techniques for the design of interactive learning environments (2006), she explores how important narrative is for motivation, interactivity, and problem solving. She argues that the narrative structure of having players perform quests is intrinsic to motivation in adventure games, and applies mostly to the Hero’s Journey. She continues by laying the framework of adventure game integration in a learning environment, step-by-step. Dickey then concludes, not by stating that adventure quests are the only way to make a didactic game, but that the elements of that design may provide guidance and a pathway for problem-based and project-based learning environments.

Michele Dickey is committed to the idea that we can evolve our learning environments through the influence of video games. She wrote another paper, Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation (2007), in which she critically analyzes the framework of (MMORPGs), applying them toward the design of interactive and didactic games, and especially learning environments. She gives several examples of how an MMORPG fosters intrinsic motivation, through character development, role-playing, compelling narrative, and freedom of choice. Dickey believes that the multimodal environment of MMORPGs reflects the typical multimodal learning environment, especially since neither has an ultimate end, nor a single way to perform. She also states that having a series of small quests in MMORPGs can be emulated in any learning environment by providing scaffolding for problem-solving. She concludes by stating that while the MMORPG may not have a perfect structure for education, its elements may be used as a flexible means to engage students in their education.

What does all of this mean? How can we connect the dots of my posts so far? There are many conclusions we can come to, but I’m not finished researching. Perhaps I never will be, and that’s okay with me. But before we come to any conclusions so far, I’d like to talk more about my research on video game environments. Join me in my next post, and as always, thank you for reading!

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