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The rise and demise of virtual reality

by Critical Commons Manager

It is remarkable how repetitive the tropes of virtual reality are when depicted in commercial cinema of the past three decades. And while the technologies driving VR have evolved, the promise of their actualization and the ways they interface with human bodies has remained relatively static, at least in the cinematic imaginary. The possibility of experiencing illicit, dangerous or forbidden actions give rise to repeated extremes of exoticism, adventure, violence and erotics, relentlessly portrayed through a first-person camera point of view. Another way of looking at it is that VR provides an excuse for Hollywood cinema to simultaneously indulge in the excesses of such visual pleasures, while distancing itself from the technology that is diegetically responsible for presenting such content to audiences.

A cursory survey of movies and TV shows since the early 1980s reveals the inscription and reinscription of standard tropes of VR - complex technological apparatuses that deliver "safe" (but never completely safe!) experiences that we may be denied in everyday life: particularly extremes of violence, sexual pleasure and other kinds of exoticism. The apotheosis of these depictions in American entertainment came in 1995, with the release of more than a half-dozen feature films and TV shows within the space of a few months. Among these, Strange Days, Virtuosity and VR5 all delivered a vision of virtual reality that was indistinguishable from real life -- that is complete sensory, emotional immersion in a world that was entirely generated by a computer. In 1995, if TV and movies were to be believed, the coming generation of VR technology was poised to deliver consumer-level virtual reality that was indistinguishable from the real world. Ellen Strain has termed this phenomenon of the cinematic imaginary "virtual virtual reality," noting that the Hollywood fantasies of VR led to impossibly high expectations in comparison with actually existing virtual reality technologies in the 1990s. So by the time Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a 2-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.

Nintendo went on to release a limited number of cartridges based on existing Game Boy titles such as Mario Tennis, Bowling, Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Boxing and Tetris. But the primary sensory response from players was a combination of nausea and headaches and The Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year. A year earlier, Sega also discontinued development of its own visor-based VR system, issuing a tongue-in-cheek public explanation that the virtual reality experience had been so realistic that test subjects were injuring themselves by attempting to walk into virtual spaces while wearing the visor. Put bluntly, we can consider the rampant commercial depictions of VR in 1995 as an instance of the movie industry launching a highly effective attack against the gaming industry, successfully raising consumer expectations to the level of big-budget Hollywood feature films.

Subsequent years saw the rapid decline of commercial viability for Virtual Reality in the decade after 1995; development funds that had been channeled to VR labs at Atari and NASA Ames were eclipsed by the frenzy of speculative investment in the Internet, leading to the dotcom bubble and subsequent collapse just five years later. To overstate the case only slightly, "virtual virtual reality" on TV and in movies *killed* real virtual reality as a medium for commercial entertainment in the mid 1990s.

The Loss of "Technical" Virginity - More than a Screenwriter's Gimmick?

by Juan D'oh

In nearly every movie about virtual reality, "jacking-in" to some place that's more amazing than reality, there is a significant portion of the film in which the main character has her "first time." Neo in The Matrix walked into a white room an marveled that the chair he touched felt real. Jake Sully from Avatar learns how to ride animals and walk in his new body. 

On one hand, this is a screenwriter's way of bringing us into the virtual world - We don't know the Matrix, or how the Avatars work, so we want to be brought in from the beginning. In a broader sense, we share the same sense of wonder as a new entrant, whereas the pro player is used to it. 

But this isn't necessary - There are tons of films in which a professional, an expert in his field, deftly navigates his world to the amazement of his audience (ninjas and special forces soldiers rarely explain flanking or martial arts, for instance.) In the field of VR science fiction, "Snow Crash" starts with an expert hacker that is jumping into his world, and only explains the basics in background descriptions, instead of forcing the character to mimic what the audience is thinking.

It could be argued, then, that the interest in this primary moment from a discomfort with this 'new' world. The audience goes into this world with an expectation that something will go 'wrong,' or that it is, in some way, not as "good" as the real world, following the standard of priveledging the 'real.' In eXistenZ, the main male character actively resists the conversion to a digital self. In most horror or adventure series, the world turns on the character, in a way that was hinted at, or in a way that is unique to the virtual world, and would not be a danger in the real world. Thus, the fascination with the 'first time' is as much a setup for the eventual fear and discomfort as it is a way to integrate the character into the story. WIthout this story feature, the sense of failure will be harder to display, as the user has not had the mental ability to see the transition from 'real' to virtual. 

A focused debate on Virtual Reality

by Loan Verneau

Most films about virtual reality depict an artificial adventure, a “game” designed by a third person, like in eXistenZ where the characters play in an environment created for them. I think the most attractive element about Strange Days is how the entertainment actually comes from “real life”. Obviously it can be scripted, as shown when the hero, a “dealer” in this case, says he can provide with anything the other can think of. But yet, the very appeal pointed out is that the sequence is not an artificial or fictional experience, like Television where you see films based upon scenarios, but a piece of “life”.

In many ways, this presents ourselves with a virtual reality that has nothing to do with gaming as we usually perceive it. In Games and Narrative, by Henry Jenkins, there is a highlight on the conflict between ludologists and hypertext theorists about the true nature of games. On one side fiercely defend the “pure” nature of interactivity where the freedom of the player to take actions remain the main element. On the other side, narrative aspirations of this new media were promoted as a new form a story telling.

But when we look at the experience proposed in that sequence, what is sold to us is neither interactive nor story based. For there is no attempt at fiction, the stress being put on the realistic nature of the “clips”. As for the character, he feels and see the action of another person and cannot make any choice nor change in any way the events unfolding in his mind. Where does the fun come from then? From two very distinct elements, immersion and voyeurism, none of which are about play.

While voyeurism is a very common aspect of nowadays televisual entertainment like in TV reality shows, immersion is a very big subject in game industry that causes many criticism. Going back to eXistenZ for example, or Matrix, the inability to see the difference between reality and the virtual world is a very strong issue. By separating this element of Virtual Reality from the attributes commonly given to video games, Strange Days allows for a far more interesting and focused debate. As a result, the argument of the film targets a branch of game making selling realism and not entire interactive media community like in other films on the subject.

The Male Fantasy an On-Going Problem

by Ryne Hodkowski

Although these two characters are discussing an early concept or vision of VR,  I felt that this could be applied to the culture of video games and the controversy that continues to surround them.  Someone proposed the following question in class: "are video games violent/make people violent, or are people violent and make video games violent?"  In this scene, the VR "dealer" assumes or implies  that humans are inherently violent, and/or want to have forbidden sex without repercussions.  He can offer this service.  The Frasca article agrees with this.  Near the end of the article, Frasca states: "it is almost impossible to create a puppet of a shy, calm nun and pretend that players will behave according to those traits.  If the nun is allowed to control, lets say, a gun, it would be hard that the player doesn't try to kill other people, even if the character was supposed to be a pacifist."  I believe that the part of the quote "if she were allowed to control a gun," is an important distinction in video games today and throughout history.

I do believe that earlier video games gave the option of either not playing the game, or playing the game which then necessitated violent acts.  Mortal Kombat and Doom offer no in-game alternative other than to fight or shoot.  There is no peace option.  The only option is not to play.  Therefore, choosing to play the game was fulfilling the player's violent tendencies, (and it should be noted that both those games were extremely popular, and the whole first person shooter genre became popular as a result).  

More recently, Grand Theft Auto III and all the sequels drew criticism because of their violent and sexual themes.  One could argue that you do not have to go around blowing things up, having sex with prostitutes, and getting the federal agents to chase you in the game, however, the missions in the game do revolve around performing a violent act. Therefore, completing or winning the game forces players to kill someone.  

I don't believe that it has been until the most recent games that we get a better concept of a video game with total freedom.  A good example of this was the controversy surrounding Mass Effect.  Those who aren't familiar with this, see here (and try to ignore the idiocy):

The distinction here is that one is given the option to engage in the sex scene of the game.  As Geoff points out, the scene could be avoided altogether.  Cooper sarcastically points out that "young boys are going to choose to not have sex," as if she has also made it a foregone conclusion that men just want to engage in acts of violence and virtual sex.

 I don't necessarily disagree with Cooper's, Frasca's, or the character is Strange Days' ideology that humans (men or women) are inherently violent and/or sexually promiscuous.  This is a debate that has been around forever.  It has become a stigma of video games that they are violent or sexual, but they are just feeding off of people's desires.  As the clip states: "how would it feel to go into a liquor store with a .357 magnum, or to be with the hot filipino woman for 20 minutes."  The client does not immediately state: "why would I want to do that," or otherwise refuse this offer.  He is intrigued.  I think this is an accurate depiction of human behavior.  The success of video games from Mortal Kombat and Doom, up to and through the Grand Theft Autos prove that there is this humanistic desire. 

Difference, Virtual Reality, and the Touristic Gaze

by Jason Lipshin

In his article “Getting the Reality You Deserve,” Julian Bleeker charts the relationship between dystopian representations of futuristic cities in recent science fiction films and contemporary anxieties about race in the urban context. Pointing to bleak depictions of city space in films such as Blade Runner (1982) and Demolition Man (1993), he contends that the feelings of paranoia surrounding the perceived decline of urban space in the genre are intimately related to the racialized image of the city as a place of criminality and social unrest, particularly after the 1992 riots incited by the Rodney King trials. However, while these paranoid impressions of the city as a place of danger are certainly important to understanding the ways in which contemporary anxieties about race show up as a present, but relatively unmarked term in futuristic scenarios, a full understanding of how race operates in these films must also take into account its paradoxical relation to desire. For as bell hooks' article “Eating the Other” so clearly articulates, the racialized other is never just the object of fear, disgust, and danger, but also the simultaneous object of desire (especially in the post-civil rights context, although this is true throughout colonial history). Seen within this framework, the ghettoized urban environment becomes a playground for exotic, though dangerous adventures – the lure of criminality, death, and racial otherness gains an erotic charge for the white subject, even as he continues to fear them.


For hooks, so-called multicultural consumption becomes a problematic way to “solve” this fundamental contradiction in the white subject’s experiences of race and place. Eating the other, thus, operates as an exotic  “seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture” (hooks 21) while allowing the consumer to ignore the various inconveniences and oppressive power relations that come with a marginalized subject positioning. In these two clips, virtual reality clearly extends and exacerbates this tradition. As a technology of consumption, it simulates for the user the thrill of encountering danger, luridness, and difference, but it divorces the experience from any real sense of consequence or historical context. For instance, in this clip from Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), executives testing virtual reality for the first time in their board room experience the technology as a kind of tourism pandering to white, masculine desires: driving off the side of a cliff and shots of scantily clad women are juxtaposed with panoramic views of Rio de Janeiro. Thus, by the very nature of the technology’s affordances, the VR user is able to simulate the thrill of adventure or danger but from a position of safety – in particular, the idea of Rio de Janeiro as a vista abstracted from the reality of poverty and crime at the level of its inhabitants speaks to this idea of virtual reality as a racialized, touristic consumption of urban space.


 In the clip from Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), we are given an even clearer picture of how VR serves to resolve the contradiction of fear and desire for the racialized other. Raving to a potential customer about the freedom inherent in being able to try on different identities, the character Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) describes a series of VR scenarios which provide the user with a taste of “forbidden fruit.” Moving fluidly between the thrill of committing a crime, to having sex with a girl or a guy, to even temporarily inhabiting the body of a teenage girl taking a shower, virtual reality in Strange Days provides the user the attractive potential of trying out “the stuff you can’t have” but without any strings attached. Consistent with hooks and Bleeker’s contentions, the prototypical user in this clip is a white, well-off business man looking to use VR technology as a “vicarious aid” (Bleeker 19) to his most lurid desires, without any chance of “tarnishing [his] wedding ring” or disrupting his position within the social hierarchy. By being with and even temporarily becoming the other, the user wants to feel the excitement of bonking a Filipina prostitute or robbing a liquor store, “adrenaline pumping through [his] brain,” while still keeping a safe position of distance from the abject, racialized urban environment.


These representations of virtual reality, thus, remediates our typical ideas about cinematic voyeurism by extending the practice into a kind of identity tourism which is mired in contemporary gender, racial, and geopolitical inequalities.  Although the experience of VR as a first-person POV shot in both Brainstorm and Strange Days remains curiously impotent, and thus, extremely cinematic (Galloway Ch. 2), the idea of temporarily immersing and inhabiting oneself in another body clearly points to the experience of controlling and identifying with an avatar in video games. While many have argued that such a process of fluid identity construction and performance may allow the user to encounter, better understand, and identify with difference (Stone), these two clips remind us that virtual reality can also act as a kind of exploitative consumption, flattering the user with the erotic lure of the other from a position of touristic distance.

Works Cited

Bleeker, Julian. "Getting the Reality You Deserve." CTCS 505 Course Reading.

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” in Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End

Press, 1992, 21-39.

Galloway, Alex. "Ch. 2 - Origins of the First Person Shooter" in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of

Minnesota Press, 2006, 39-69.  

Stone, Allucquère Rosanne. The war of desire and technology at the close of the

mechanical age. MIT Press, 1996. Print.  


Agency and Sensuality in Video Gaming

by Andrew Eisenstein

Can there be a phenomenology of virtual reality?  Or perhaps more aptly, does virtual reality require a virtual phenomenology?  Our real (authentic?) experience with virtual reality has fallen short of the promises made by movies such as Strange Days.  Yet, while it is easy to blame this shortcoming on the failings of contemporary technology, it might be that the actual failing is on the part of reality.  True virtual reality, as is portrayed in Strange Days, implies an empiricist notion of the mind; this scene suggests that the mind really is only the stimulus that is presented to it, without context or temporality. 

Disturbingly, our perception of true virtual reality denies us agency in real life.  In Bigelow’s vision of virtual reality, the entirety of human experience is sensual stimulus, not the ability to make choices.  In this scene, Lenny promises a potential client that the experience that he is selling is “life…This is a piece of somebody’s life.”  The technology allows the client to feel what somebody else feels, yet it does not allow the client to experience decision-making, ethical choices, etc.  

Perhaps this is why this sort of “perfect” virtual reality has yet to exist: we don’t need it.  Video games as they exist now allow users the agency to make rapid-fire decisions, even though the sensual experience may be less, or more abstracted, than what we expect from virtual reality.  Perhaps more aptly, the sensuality of reality has yet to be digitized, but the cerebrality of the real is all over video gaming.  Rather than demanding the passive experience of seeing what another person sees, video games encourage us to think as another person might think.  In Call of Duty, I get to make the sort of decisions a soldier would make without having to suffer the sensual experience of war.  In Tony Hawk, I get to express the creativity of a professional skateboarder without feeling injury when I fall.  In Civilization or Sim City, I get to think like something I will never be.  Ultimately, sensual experience proves an ancillary aspect of video gaming, second to agency.


The Remixability of Identity

by Evan Sforza

The reality of human memory in allowing for the experience of a persistent self has been fertile ground from which the sacred concepts of the soul and the spirit have unfurled; but, we are at time in history when we are beginning to recognize the quantized digital nature of fundamental information itself, and, by proxy, our memories and our-selves. 

Our-selves and our bodies are the only things we truly have; they're what we continually seek acceptance and appreciation of, and the act of sharing about who we are and what makes us unique has been done and valued since the existence of language. In a modern society such as ours, where tweets and status updates are the norm, some may say, "to exist, is to be known." Many of us are in a state of continual self sharing, uploading snippets, whether they be recorded video, photos, audio, or text about ourselves and the experiences we've gathered to the collective nervous system that is the internet. It is here where others, those with, as of now, distinct stories and personalities - brains and minds - can partake and share in what it is that makes us who we are. 

As of now, our lives and memories are dominated by experiences solely our own, with sprinklings of imperfect representations of others'. But, what happens when the modern self sharing technologies allow for more than just a camera or microphone's disembodied account of our experiences? What happens when a technology like the SQUID from Strange Days exists, or a technology that allows us to continually save and upload all the information every sense organ of ours collects, when we can upload someone's fifty year long data stream in a minute? What happens to our identity then?

The digitization of information has imbued the Arts with an unprecedented level of recombinance - of remixability. And, now, existing on the advent of digitized sense experience, our-selves become as recombinant as our Art, and the ageless debate about the difference between Art and Life will come to an end. It is then when identity dissolves into a solution greater than anything we could ever be on our own.

Strange Days male fantasy VR

by Critical Commons Manager

Along with several other films released in 1995, Strange Days offers one of the richest and most problematic visions of Hollywood's imaginary relationship to virtual reality. Referred to be some as "virtual, virtual reality," scenes such as this one are typical of the male fantasies that are often projected onto the technology of VR. This scene offers a narratively inconsequential vision of what the "wire" technology at the center of Strange Days makes possible, by initiating a "virgin brain" into the wonders of VR by allowing the client to experience a few minutes of what it is like to be an "18-year-old girl taking a shower." The gender politics of the film grow increasingly problematic as the film plays out a narrative involving horrifically brutal scenes of rape, torture and murder, using the VR technology to enhance the killer's sexual excitement. This aspect of the film's narrative is entirely gratuitous and it has been argued that such scenes in Hollywood movies served (consciously or unconsciously) to increase the moral panic around the emerging technologies of VR and video games more generally.

Strange Days VR demo

A "virgin brain" experiences the ultimate in VR: being an "18 year-old girl taking a shower"

from Strange Days (1995)
Creator: Kathryn Bigelow
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Posted by Critical Commons Manager