Story by: Tom Lammert, Lecturer at MSU Department of English
Science fiction films and novels depict worlds where characters use some sort of advanced science or technology. The Matrix (1999) describes a post-apocalyptic Earth where sentient, tentacled machines—like farmers cultivating crops to sustain life—grow and harvest human beings, yet most of these humans don’t realize their bodies are naked and atrophied and riddled with that are essentially power outlets and HDMI ports that connect them to the Matrix, a virtual reality designed to keep humankind passive.
Whereas methods of escapism haven’t advanced to Matrix-esque levels, we have entertainment technologies that exceed the immersive capabilities of those imagined by older sci-fi. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, every home’s walls have been replaced with massive television screens, making escapism via screens ubiquitous. The most recent studies from Statista—a company that specializes in compiling market and consumer data—suggest 27.2 percent of households in the United States own at least one smart television, and the Nielsen’s National Television Household Universe Estimates places the number of homes with a broadcast-receiving television at 119.6 million. This doesn’t mean 119.6 million families have walls subsumed by massive screens, but size isn’t proportional to immersion despite the implication of Bradbury’s pixelated walls.
In addition to televisions, the portability of cell phones allows us to ignore our surroundings; immersion by entertainment technologies is no longer tethered to the home. So mundane are pocket-sized screens capable of streaming that octogenarians no longer flinch in awe when their grandchildren use smartphones to cue YouTube videos. What some may find surprising is that phones are inching toward streaming videogames that have been exclusive to Sony’s and Microsoft’s and Nintendo’s gaming systems.
Patrick Boudreaux, a software engineering student at Mississippi State University, played a lot of videogames with his older brother, Chris, and these games led him to recognize how technology provides escapism. The two would bond while playing Mario Party, a virtual board game during which players advance across the board and gain points by competing against one another in games that require fast and precise button inputs. He also fell in love with videogames because of Metroid Prime. He’d grab the controller and the television would broadcast the game’s world from the first-person perspective of the protagonist, a female space crusader. Boudreaux would navigate paths littered with noxious plants and caverns where geysers of flame distracted him from shooting vicious creatures intent on upending his journey.
Boudreaux continued to game, and as he matured “the games just kept getting better.” He bought a PC to keep up with an industry that incessantly obsesses with refining its immersive experiences via improved visuals and controls. Instead of representing protagonists with pixelated images that barely qualify as recognizable abstractions (e.g. basically every videogame produced before 1990), games released in 2018 can represent their worlds with more than sixty 4K frames per second, and gamers are no longer resigned to controlling characters with a joystick or a gamepad that only has half a dozen inputs.
Such technical complexities suggest Boudreaux’s fear about making games—that others will find the pursuit juvenile—should be put to rest; there’s no way this industry could continue to innovate with children at the helm. Despite Boudreaux’s fear, and even though he has only programmed travel websites for his classes and a basketball videogame during a Hackathon, he’s determined to join the gaming industry as a game developer.
Boudreaux’s project is called ClasScape, a videogame that’s designed for educators. While playing games together, Boudreaux’s fiancé, who teaches, told him she wanted a game to help her students engage the course’s material. He told her, “I’ll look into it,” and after a quick Google search, he found that educational games are prevalent, but not many include gameplay mechanics that would be considered fun. The only thing that separates many of these games from a work sheet distributed by a teacher is how the games provide a virtual space to answer questions. Yes, ClasScape will require students to answer questions about algebra or chemistry or English, but Boudreaux envisions his game as a fun and challenging experience for students while testing their scholastic success.
To achieve this, teachers will use a website—one being developed by Patrick’s brother, Chris—to input questions they require their students to answer. For instance, a biology teacher asks a student to know what distinguishes a prokaryotic unicellular organism from a eukaryotic unicellular organism. He enters questions about their similarities and differences into ClasScape’s website, and the information appears in the game. If this student can’t answer the multiple choice, short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or ascending/descending questions, the teacher can provide a visual hint in the form of three-dimensional models. These models—one representing a prokaryote and one representing a eukaryote—will appear in the student’s virtual space, where he or she can examine the unicellular organisms from all angles by rotating the models.
If the student answers the questions correctly, he or she earns what is known in ClasScape’s lore as a Book of Knowledge, which the student uses to upgrade the skills of his or her in-game character. Once the character—a wizard—has been upgraded, the student ventures forth into a maze where he or she encounters an assortment of creatures that would feel at home in Lord of the Rings. During these segments of the game, a student controls his or her character in real time, pressing buttons to make the wizard cast spells toward or hack at the encroaching enemy hoards. After the student completes the level, he or she encounters the next Book of Knowledge. These questions are more difficult than those that protected the previous Book of Knowledge, so a student will have to study, provide correct responses, and receive more skill points to apply to his or her wizard so he or she can conquer increasingly difficult enemies during the real-time action portions of the game.
Boudreaux is aware that some educators might be skeptical about allowing students to play videogames during class, so he’s careful about how much time students spend answering questions relative to the time spent roaming a maze and fighting monsters. About two-thirds of the game sees a student answering questions, and the remaining third of playtime is only included to incentivize students to learn their class’ material.
Boudreaux plans to release ClasScape on PC, and students will control the game using a mouse and keyboard. However, he aspires “to make the next best game. And that’s going to be [in] Virtual Reality.”
Virtual Reality (or VR) isn’t a new concept outside of the gaming industry (consider The Matrix or—fifteen years earlier—William Gibson’s Neuromancer) or within it. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy released in 1995, but the company discontinued the product less than one year after its release. It’s taken the industry two decades to reach a point where VR appears to be a feasible method of providing gaming-centric, immersive experiences. Boudreaux believes games like Skyrim VR—gamers don a VR headset to explore a vast continent teeming with ogres and dragons and other creatures that place the game in the same epic fantasy genre as Tolkein’s work—foreshadow VR’s potential. He praises the game’s scope and how its developers maintained the game’s visual fidelity when they made the game playable with a VR headset. However, the technology has limitations. Battling an ice dragon might appear aesthetically impressive, but Boudreaux isn’t thrilled with how a lot of VR titles feel. Slashing a sword at an armored skeleton or hurling a fireball at a wolf doesn’t feel as tactile as it should. A game “can look pretty, but if you’re not fluidly moving in it,” there will be problems. For instance, he and other gamers have experienced motion sickness after playing games in VR. “Your body thinks you’re standing still, but your eyes tell you you’re flying around. It’s not right.”
Therein lies a problem for Boudreaux as he develops ClasScape. He wants to maintain a sense of immersion, and he’s willing to sacrifice graphical fidelity in favor of precise controls. He recognizes that school administrators and teachers will never accept ClasScape if students spend half of their days feeling woozy. However, Boudreaux and other developers are determined to work out these kinks.
As VR advances, Boudreaux’s ClasScape will, too, and if ClasScape launches in VR and finds evangelists among educators, we’ll be living in a world that makes the immersive technology of Bradbury’s sci-fi appear antiquated. Maybe twenty, thirty years from now kids won’t attend school—they’ll learn in the Matrix.