All the strange and beautiful things about videogames can only get stranger and more beautiful when viewed through an enormous glowing headset. Kill Screen's 8th issue tackles the topic du jour—virtual reality—by taking a timeless approach. We want to understand the era we're heading into by looking into its past and future.
And so we sent the best writers in videogames to try on primitive, battery-powered gloves from the Victorian era, and find a forgotten prototype from the 50's gathering dust in an Orange County apartment. We talked to the people designing the games, therapy treatments, and military tools today that will define our experiences tomorrow. We explored the political and psychological ramifications of a world in which all our VR fantasies have come home to roost.
Plus: Did the Lawnmower Man ruin everything? Will this all just crash and burn like it did in the 90's? And, horrifyingly: What happens if we can't get out?
Written by: Ryan Bradley, Chris Breault, Stephanie Carmichael, Gavin Craig, Darren Davis, William Drew, Nathaniel Ewert-Krocker, Kyle Fowle, Erik Fredner, Stephen Hershey, Brian Howe, Jason Johnson, Jess Joho, Zack Kotzer, Calum Marsh, Thomas Rousse, David Shimomura, Rich Shivener, Dan Solberg, Carli Velocci
Art by: Naomi Butterfield, Shane Jessup, Dave Kloc, Kiji McCafferty, PJ McQuade, Chris Nickels, Overture, Dana Paresa, Steven Strom, Keith Telfeyan
Cover art by: Dark Igloo and KidMograph
"VR, needless to say, is a big deal within video games right now, at least in levels of 'what might be' interest. Thus, it's characteristically prescient of the folks at Kill Screen that their latest magazine goes deep into the phenomenon, from its origins to eye-opening future ramifications." – Simon Carless
At first there was the world, and that was all. Then someone drew a picture, and the image—a porthole into a plane just beyond ours—was born.
But the realer our virtual worlds get, the less real our native one seems. This inkling of ontological uncertainty was there from the beginning. Shakespeare's famous declaration that "all the world's a stage," published in 1623, immortalized an artistic mistrust of reality that dates back at least to Petronius in the first century. Even longer ago, in the allegory of the cave, Plato imagined the real as light and shadow dancing on a blank wall. And while William Gibson is credited with popularizing the notion of cyberspace in the '80s, René Descartes was 300 years ahead of him.
Still, there is a vast order of difference between media you look at and media you enter. Before the Industrial Revolution, it was conceivable that our world was simulated, less so that we would create the false world ourselves and willingly step inside. The pictures thrown by a magic lantern could barely predict the spaces generated by computers. It was during Victorian times, when analog precursors to modern technology and media consumption habits can be found, that our images began to truly immerse us, implanting the embryo of our notion of virtual spaces as second lives rather than diversions. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mozi called the camera obscura, an early optical projection device that led to the camera, a "locked treasure box" that engendered inaccessible wonders. In the 1800s, the treasure box started to come unlocked.
Spanning most of the 19th century, the Victorian era saw mechanical advances that changed how we related to the world. Widespread railways connected geography like an analog Internet, drawing far-flung places together. This physical expansion was paired with a new virtual breadth of virtual experiences, as the 1800s saw the inventions of the kinetoscope (which showed the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures through its peephole), the handheld camera (following 50 years of photographic experimentation), the phonograph, and telegraph. Electric streetlights replaced gas lamps in a London that sat on a hidden, interconnected sub-world of new sewage pipes. Even before cinema, stereoscopes—basically an archaic version of your 3DS screen—were popular in many Victorian homes. In this context of dwarfing scale and mechanized entertainment, a sense of virtual disembodiment took root, evidenced by a fad for séances. It was when we started living outside of normal space and time.