Cause & Effect— VR’s Essential Interaction

I’ve been noticing an interesting trend in new VR experiences: people spend a surprising amount of time playing with the physics of a game. Why should we care? Let’s investigate.

From the moment babies are born, they drop things to see what happens. They grab things, poke things, and knock them over. A child’s play may seem senseless, but they’re actually conduct mini-experiments to develop their understaind how how the physics in this world works [1].

Eventually, what every child, person, or animal discovers is Causality: the relationship between Cause and Effect.

Press X to Win

Causality has always existed in video games mostly through the form of “action” buttons. Press RT to Kill, Press X to Interact. Sometimes, you could even knock things over by bumping into them.

These interactions have always been so limited not because of lazy developers, but because of the limited amount of Agency a player has with a gamepad.

Not Ghosting

Having Agency is the ability to act in any given environment. It’s the feeling of having power and ability to manipulate the things around you. Without it, you have the Swayze Effect which is an issue that 360° Video Storytelling is still dealing with.

As I’ve mentioned before, your hands are one of the most important things you need to bring into VR with you. Why? Because you’ll spend more time playing with balloons than you would’ve ever imagined.

Doped up on Dopamine

Why is playing with balloons so much fun? Because physics interactions make you feel like you can predict the (nearby) future. Nailing a target gives you that awesome rush of pleasure because you planned it, anticipated it, and executed [2].

Reinforcement Learning Loop

Learning how to throw a ball into basket requires an incredible amount of processing, but our brains become good at it through Reinforcement Learning. Playing off of the Anticipation and Reward of nailing a target, your Dopamine System is heavily invovled in facilitating learning.

What does this all mean?

Looking at this baby, she’s implicitly learning learning about the causality of pushing, pulling, and inertia just by playing.

We’ve all been there

There’s something fundamental in our nature to play with our surroundings, and to become better at prediciting the results of our actions!

Never before VR have we had this much freedom to explore and interact, and spend a significant amount of time learning new physics properties of a world!


As developers, we must work with this huge sense of Agency, and encourage people to learn the physics by playing with it. Giving the ability for a user to get better at doing something physical can encourage them to keep playing and exploring your world.

Mess with the gravity sittings, make people super human if you want, and somewhat violate their initial expectations, and you might see an incredible engagement rate.

Keep exploring my fellow VR innovators, and tune into my podcast to learn more: ResearchVR Podcast
Newest episode: User Interface and Interactions