Let’s Play: Passive Participation in VR

As VR technology becomes increasingly available and affordable, social experiences will be important in bringing VR to a mainstream audience. The involvement of friends and teammates helps enrich the experience, and can reduce the isolation caused by full-face headsets cutting off the outside world. Seeing and interacting with other people increases presence, the sensation of one’s body being in a real space. The whole industry will benefit if VR experiences lead the way in creating new ways of interaction and enriching others.

But not all games or experiences are multiplayer, or could be made co-operative, and that’s okay! Luckily, it isn’t a necessary part of making this social reality come true, so let’s discuss some ways how.

The activities I am looking at encouraging could be called passive participation, but with VR that concept comes with a few additional twists. There are a number of examples of this participation in traditional 2D media. In the home, it can be as simple as watching someone play a game. Even in this action, there are multiple participatory levels, ranging from enjoyment in an entirely passive capacity to providing help, moral support or strategy to the player.

With livestreaming now so easily accessible, wider participation of this type has moved to new platforms. With Twitch, you can easily stream and chat with viewers but, with VR games, the 2D stream is only a fraction of the full experience. 360° video streaming from within VR seems like an obvious step for livestreaming, but it doesn’t provide a comfortable or optimised experience for the viewers.

While all of the major VR platforms currently support a 2D secondary view of the action, allowing a person in the same room to watch and contribute vocally, it is a degraded version of what the headset-wearer experiences. The medium is not built to be consumed in 2D, and it would be hard to say you are playing a game together in this way.

Ghosts in VR

We can attempt to improve upon these options with what I’ll refer to as VR “ghosts”. A ghost is an active participant in an experience in that they are wearing a headset and physically exist in the virtual world with the player. The difference is that they have no control over the game. They don’t physically interact with anything in the world and all they control is the movement of their own body, yet they will feel entirely present in the space.

The active player would see these ghosts in the space, where they move, what they’re looking or gesturing at, and speak directly with them. This physical presence is where VR ghosts have benefits on top of traditional passive participation, twists that add a whole new layer of potential interactions.

In The FOO Show, we can see an example of something similar with pre-recorded characters. You enter a room and essentially are a ghost in a conversation— like the presenter and subjects, you can move around and examine objects at your leisure, but you don’t influence the already-existing interview. It is some of the most immersive content I’ve seen, and even though you are a ghost, you truly feel present with the group of people. With live players, that would move to a whole new level.

A ghost would no longer be constrained to follow the main player’s actions. With free movement, they are given an amount of agency and presence to help the player or play their own way. They can scout and explore separate locations, work on solving problems while the player is occupied or simply focus on whatever aspect of the game interests them the most. The experience they can have is far more visceral and rich than today’s passive participation. Just as in immersive theatre, like Sleep No More, ghosts will be able to walk towards or away from the main action, examine the environment more deeply and have their own unique perspective on the world.

In the project I am working on currently, a narrative-heavy adventure with several compact but richly-realised locations, players will have to work to solve problems that may take 5–10 minutes of mental work to progress. Ghosts could perform as a sounding board, or explore the rooms, finding important objects and information to help the player move forward.

Ghosts could take copies of items, only visible to them, and examine something without needing the player’s help (similar to interactions in The FOO Show)

The ghosts could be realised in different ways to fit a specific game. Perhaps it makes sense for them to be physically visible in the room but, if not, ghosts could jump between specific viewpoints, or control cameras, allowing them to participate in an even more relaxed way where they can communicate and see but don’t have to physically move around.

The audience for VR is currently very small. To make participation like this work and be worth the development effort, a change in the way games are released may be necessary. Instead of paying to download, you pay for the game if you wish to be the player. For ghosts it would be free and they can passively participate, through observation rather than direct action, alongside anyone who has paid.

There may be an argument that this would reduce sales, but it is really no different than what’s happening with Twitch/YouTube streaming already. You could potentially even convert more ghosts to players, especially with an in-game option for immediately purchasing the ability to play.

Where could this go?

When you move beyond a small group, this sort of mechanism could create whole new ways for e-sports’ audiences to view games: for example, with that number of participants, the audience could be broken down into friend groups to participate with those they know, just like watching a sport together at home.

It could also become a popular method for livestreamers to engage with their audiences on the next level. There are many technical and usability issues involved with scaling this up, but they are different challenges than making a game cooperative or multiplayer and more generally solvable. If embraced, new game mechanics could spring up that rely upon ghosts giving assistance or information to the active player to progress.

It’s vital to recognise how important having basic social participation will be for VR to become an inclusive medium. For too many years, traditional games had the perception of being a solitary or anti-social experience even as they became increasingly about interacting with others. VR has the chance to really embrace social in its infancy, sidestep that reaction and create whole new ways to enrich participation for everyone.

Follow me on Twitter @jeyb / @bonecroft for VR/narrative talk. I’ll be at Steam Dev Days this week, looking to chat with other VR creators. I hope to experiment with some of these ideas in my upcoming game.
Thanks to @marcmcg for discussing this, and @yoshikischmitz for mentioning that VREAL has started on the road to enable in-VR streaming and bridge the gap to 2D streaming.