Scale, Gaze & Validation
I was recently down at Stanford University, where I had the opportunity to meet Vander Caballero, founder/CEO of Minority Games, and hear his incredible story. He spent his time in the lecture hall juxtaposing his experience at EA Games, where he spent 6 years, with his independent career at his new company Minority Media.
Vander noticed something in his years at EA that bothered him.
“These are [first person shooter] games where power fantasies are imagined by caucasian producers and creative directors.” Vander asked, ”Have they experienced a violent death first hand? You can’t bring someone to a place you have not been.”
Platforms set the way stories are told. For consoles, the result is often shooting and stabbing gameplay that is fun and fast, a sort of “digital cocaine,” but creating empathy is slow and hard. Having been raised by an abusive alcoholic father in Columbia, where he witnessed firsthand the violence and destruction that we so often seek to imitate with these games, Vander wanted to change this approach to game design. He wanted to make games about the powerless — the victims. Enter, Minority Media.
Minority Media was where Vander could explore new directions in game concept and design, particularly the development and application of emotional mechanics for meaningful gameplay. His first game, Papo & Yo, received critical acclaim for its innovation as an empathy-focused game, and managed to make players experience an emotional journey of change. He brought the players into his world, into the fight with the Monster that was his alcoholic father. He took them on a journey, a vicious cycle of love and fear intertwined with confusion, anger and guilt. He demonstrated how important it is to balance the story vs. mechanics, explaining during the lecture how the real magic of games is when these two come together rather than fight for attention. Something he believes VR as a platform will help change.
Having managed to make players experience an emotional journey of change in Papo & Yo, Minority Media is adept at triggering empathic feelings in players. Now that VR technology is here, they are using the medium as a storytelling tool to deepen empathy in players. Vander is no newcomer to virtual reality. Before he entered the games industry he worked on a virtual reality ride for the Oceania Project in Montreal and also developed virtual environments for world-class architects. When Minority’s CTO, Julien Barnoin, showed Vander the first Oculus Rift development kit, he immediately saw the unprecedented immersive power of this new generation of VR technology. In it, they both saw the future of entertainment.
In his talk, Vander focused on three key elements of VR designers should recognize: scale, gaze and validation.
In virtual reality you can get a true sense of scale unlike anything achievable on platforms of the past. In flat game’s, designers make monsters huger and uglier to evoke more fear. The normal scale is not real enough to convince you. Let’s look at an example. While playing a game like Cabela’s® African Adventures on PS4 you might run into an elephant roaming the plains. On a flat TV, the elephant feels small. It doesn’t evoke an feeling of fear from you because you can’t understand the scale of the animal. In VR that elephant is towering over you one step away from squashing you into the ground. This real sense of size triggers emotional responses in players like fear, and it is something only VR can deliver.
Gaze & Validation
Another important element VR provides is gaze. And gaze is made even more important because of the third element, validation. On the screen when an actress (Vander used Nicole Kidman as an example) looks at you and says “I love you,” you don’t believe it. You don’t believe it because your brain doesn’t recognize her gaze as one directed towards you, leaving you to only dream that Nicole Kidman meant those words for your ears only. In VR, when she looks deeply into your eyes and says “I love you”, you believe it. Why? Because your brain validates her gaze. You feel like it was meant for you and only you because she feels like she is there with you, not just on a screen in front of you. Vader recommended the experience Coffee Without the Words as a demonstration of just how powerful the gaze can be in VR.
“To make a career in gaming” Vander says, ”sometimes you are forced to make a shooter, you are forced to make a free-to-play on mobile. In VR, there is a responsibility to create the games you want for society, and for your kids. When you look someone straight into their eyes, you create a connection. Your empathy reflex kicks in, you care, and hopefully, you will have a hard time shooting that person in the head.”