When I first started working in virtual reality, I learned about something called the simulated body. I learned that our brains create a simulation of our body based on our visual and auditory perceptions. Our minds project a version of our body into the world we perceive, a projection that keeps us safe, that helps us react by readying our physical body to respond.
In the early days of cinema, audiences were alarmed by simple black and white “motion pictures” of a train coming right at them. They started screaming and desperately tried to hide from the coming train.
You can watch this very underwhelming video here: The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station
We have obviously grown more accustomed to movies over the years, yet many of us still react similarly to jump scares and suspenseful moments on screen.
As gamers, however, we choose to push this further. We choose to look through a character’s eyes, to move them, to move ourselves into the most treacherous environments, and surround ourselves with enemies. We are aware that it is just a game. We know it’s not real. We are enjoying the danger, the thrill. We’re safe in our gaming chair, comfy even.
Our brains are releasing chemicals in response to what we perceive; adrenaline and dopamine make us play harder and feel good. As we sit and play, our brains subconsciously and constantly project a simulated body into the environment we see, while our butts stay glued to our seats.
Once we’ve played a game enough, the control of the camera and character becomes subconscious, our eyes see and our hands respond. We just have to think “move,” and we move, “jump,” and we jump. We take our characters to the edge, meanwhile, our physical bodies are relatively uninvolved; perhaps this slightly disconnects us from the perceived dangers of the game.
Most of us know what it’s like to physically stand on the edge of something high - a cliff, a rooftop - and we know how our bodies react. Our bodies respond to the real danger of falling, even if we are safe behind a rail, or strapped to the seat of a roller coaster. However, there’s something about being more physically present, about actually being there that makes us more nervous. This is because our brains are warning us.
Our brains subconsciously project a simulation of us falling off that building or cliff. We only look over the edge, but our simulated body goes tumbling over, and our bodies respond. We are flooded with fear, heart rate increasing and hands sweating as the adrenaline starts flowing. This is our subconscious desperately trying to keep us safe.
In much the same way, as we play a video game, our brains do the same thing but to a lesser extent. Because we are less involved physically, the brain body connection is weaker.
But then there’s virtual reality, a medium by which we connect our bodies to the virtual world directly. This is where things get interesting. This is where the lines between our physical and simulated bodies begin to blur.
Have ever seen someone in a VR headset start physically walking towards a wall, or leap towards a television, completely oblivious to their actual surroundings? If you’ve ever shown someone VR for the first time, you’ve probably seen this first hand.
My teenage niece tried playing my VR game, HAX, for the first time, and almost walked into a glass door. She was so convinced that she was in a warehouse with plenty of room to explore that she almost got seriously injured. Fortunately I was monitoring her, so I was able to prevent an accident.
Her wholehearted belief that she was able to move about the environment she was seeing isn’t so strange when considering how our brains work. VR accidents are more common with first time users because they haven’t grown accustomed to the difference between perceived reality and actual reality.
That being said, as a daily VR user for the past 7 years, I still notice myself reacting to VR more viscerally than to regular 2D games. The nature of VR gaming being more physical makes the mind more susceptible to perception. VR invokes a more sympathetic response than 2D games because our physical body and our simulated body are moving in a much more similar way.
During my time playing a professional VR game called Echo Arena, I was delighted to find that all my years of playing sports translated almost directly to the game. My brain-body connection from playing sports allowed me to have tremendous spatial awareness and control in VR. Even though my physical body was standing, ducking, and dodging, my brain was right there simulating my position as my VR hands grabbed a disc out of the air and slammed it in the goal.
We are physical creatures. We’ve relied on this mind-body connection for survival and we depend on it every day to move about our lives. We tap into it for entertainment and fun. The simulated body our mind projects is more connected to our physical bodies in VR than when we sit in a chair and game. It’s for this reason that VR gaming has far more potential than 2D gaming will ever have to thrill us.
Thanks for reading,