In the September VGHVI Symposium, we talked about virtual reality, using the phrase “metaphoric presence” to describe it; we contrasted VR to immersion, which we defined as identification with a ruleset. Basically, with our definitions (or rather Roger’s definitions, though I support them) virtual reality gives the impression that you’re there, while, if you’re immersed, the “there” matters less, you’re touching the underlying systems more directly.

Current virtual reality doesn’t try to be a complete simulation of presence: it tries to simulate visuals and sound, but not the other senses. Which got me thinking: I have another game which tries to simulate two senses, namely Rocksmith. It simulates the sound of playing guitar with a band, and playing the game feels like playing a guitar because you are, in fact, playing a guitar.

So, a thought experiment: contrast a VR experience simulating being in the audience of a concert with a VR experience that simulates standing on stage at a concert with Rocksmith with Rock Band. How do these four examples stack up along the metaphoric presence dimension?


This is just a thought experiment for me: I have experience with the latter two examples but not with the former two. Having said that, my guess is that the former two really would feel more like being present than the latter two, but that that depends on what aspect of presence you’re trying to target. If you’re trying to target being at a concert, then they do better. If you’re trying to target performing at a concert, then of course the audience VR example doesn’t work, but the stage VR experience raises the question of what exactly you’re doing on stage. It would give you insight into being on the receiving end of audience attention, but without them reacting to you, something would be missing even for that interaction, and of course the experience of making music would be completely missing. (Though you could always sing along!)

Rocksmith doesn’t have the crowd react to you; this is the right choice from a pedagogical point of view, but it does mean that the concert feedback loop has a break in it. Rock Band, in contrast, has always focused on that aspect of the experience. And actually, in this example, Rock Band with a VR headset (and with more computational power backing up the crowd animation) feels to me like one possible sweet spot: it gives you enough to do to make you feel like your actions matter, and I suspect the feel of the controls is just real enough that they would help trick your brain in interesting ways compared to using a traditional controller or air guitar gestures detected with a camera.

Of course, you can also imagine Rocksmith with a VR headset, too, and with reactive crowd mechanics. (Or even reactive musicians, which are already present in the game’s Session Mode.) Which, in turn, raises the question: does the fidelity of the controls help or hurt a feeling of presence?

My first reaction to that latter question was that, actually, faithful controls might hurt a feeling of presence: unless you’re particularly good at playing guitar, there would be a disconnect between the bad notes coming out of your guitar and the crowd’s enthusiastic response. (Alternatively, the crowd could respond unenthusiastically, but that also has its down sides.) Whereas if you add a Rock Band guitar style level of indirection, then it divides the problem into two parts: having you faithfully perform the simplified actions that the game wants you to do, and having the game translate those simplified actions into something that sounds good and that the crowd reacts well to. Thinking about it more, though, Rocksmith has its own level of indirection, with the way it asks you to play a subset of the notes; Rocksmith plays the original track along with your notes, but having the crowd react to how well you play the requested notes could probably work.

But, in general, a lack of fidelity is going to be key in VR games: a game that realistically simulated fighting with guns or athletic competitions is just not going to work very well for the vast majority of us. Easing off on the negative consequences of failure in physical simulations is crucial (i.e. you don’t want players to actually get shot!); you probably also want to ease off on the physical strains (traversing difficult terrain, carrying body armor, etc.), and for players at non-expert skill levels, you probably want a level of translation from simplified actions to complex results, similarly to Rock Band. (Laser tag is another comparison point here, too.)


I also wonder whether visuals are crucial for a real sense of metaphoric presence; if so, that’s an argument against the possibility of considering Rocksmith as a form of VR. My initial reaction was “probably”, but now I don’t think so: in particular, I suspect that there are a lot of people who would prefer an audio plus tactile experience for pornographic use over an audio plus visual experience.

So maybe the way in which the Rocksmith example doesn’t seem quite like presence is the limited nature of the tactile experience: having a guitar react to your touch is important, but it’s not the same as having a simulated person react to your touch, or even having the feel of traversing a broader environment. It’s unfair to instruments, but I think your brain treats playing an instrument as almost entirely an outgrowth of your action, whereas a feeling of presence would more of a feel of you reacting to the environment.


I dunno; I still think there’s something there in the idea of Rocksmith as VR. Also, current VR is so different from a Star Trek holosuite example that I suspect that, fifty years from now, current VR will seem more like current non-VR experiences than it will look seem that future’s best simulations. And I think this question of how much fidelity in responsiveness we want is an important one, too: do we want an experience that accurately represents what the outcomes of our actions would be, or one that translates our actions into a desired experience, turning us into a more badass version of ourselves?

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