First Click: life as a bear would be sweet in virtual reality

March 29th, 2016

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I have a theory. A pet theory, you might say. I think that if and when virtual reality finally takes off (and I realize this still isn’t a given), some of the most popular games will be animal simulators. Bear simulators. Bird simulators. Bug simulators. Games where you don’t have to think too hard or do too much, and where the main attraction is simply taking time out of being human. These would be beautifully rendered titles — either highly realistic or slightly cartoonish, it doesn’t matter — where players are given the opportunity to stop and smell the roses, and maybe eat them, too. There might be structured gameplay elements like building a nest or hunting, but these will mostly be optional, with the main emphasis on experience and immersion. You’ll get home from your job, tired of human life, and you’ll think: “God, I could really do with being a bear right now."

This isn’t just an idea I’m pulling out of thin air. There have already been more than a few games in this vein already, ranging from the silly (e.g. Goat Simulator, with its Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-like gameplay of charging around maps and racking up points), to the slightly more realistic (Bear Simulator, which adds RPG elements to being a bear — you go hunting and increase your stats, for example). There are also abstract titles like Flower (where you take on the role of the the wind, guiding a stream of petals through the air), and the upcoming Everything, a so-called "conscious simulator" where players can inhabit every object they can see in the game world — from planets and cars, to rocks and animals. It's an idea that even has a philosophical school of thought behind: the recently-developed Object Orientated Ontology which, among other things, suggests we explore reality through the perception of non-human objects. 

Immersion and open-ended simulation seem a perfect match for VR
The open-ended simulation of the games above seems like it would mesh well with virtual reality's sense of immersion. Now immersion in video games comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, whether you're on a killstreak in Call of Duty or deep into micromanagement in Civilization, but with virtual reality there's a particular opportunity for gamers to inhabit a character. A VR headset supplants your natural vision, obscuring the real world and re-centering your sense of self in the game world. This can be used to give you a God-like perspective of a map, or a third-person view of some avatar, but in my experience (mainly with the HTV Vive) it's best when it puts you in a character's head. When it says: you here. You are this thing. This is you.

There's obviously some portion of the market then that’s drawn to this sort of experience, as the list of games above and some very successful Kickstarters suggest. Other individuals have taken these ideas even further, such as conceptual designer Thomas Thwaites, who tried to "take a holiday from being human" by becoming a goat. (No, I have no idea why goats are so popular for this sort of thing. Maybe because goats are trapped human spirits to begin with.) Thwaites notes that taking on the characteristics of an animal is an "ancient human dream," with roots in shamanism and Greek mythology. To become a goat he donned prosthetic limbs to walk on all fours, and created an artificial stomach using a goat's gut bacteria to digest grass so he could eat it. Speaking to Motherboard, Thwaites explained that he wanted to explore the ideas of post-humanism and transhumanism, but thought that despite these groups' emphasis on augmentation, some peoples’ desire in life "[isn't] necessarily to become super intelligent." They might want to regress instead. "To be a nonhuman animal?" says Thwaites. "So much calmer and simpler!"

Thomas Thwaites as a goat. (Image credit: Tim Bowditch)

It’s a sentiment you sometimes see expressed by the furry community. Although most mainstream interest in this subculture orbits those twin stars of prurience and pageantry (what do they get up to in those elaborate suits, etc.), furries themselves talk about the release they feel when donning their suits. Often this sounds simply like the license you might get from wearing a mask ("No one knows it’s me!"), but furries also tend to invoke a sense of innocence and simplicity that you might associate with the devolving described by Thwaites. "It’s a new way of looking at the world," one furry told Vanity Fair for a feature back in 2001. "It’s like looking at it with baby eyes, or cub eyes."

The infantilism in this sentiment is probably not to everyone's tastes, but the idea of getting a fresh sense of the world by taking a break from yourself perhaps has wider appeal. If life as a human feels too much, why not try being a bear?

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