Character animation and virtual reality gaming — where to now?

This year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco was, of course, fully dominated by the blossoming of virtual reality. It’s still early days, but it was thrilling as to see what’s here, now, and what’s just around the corner when you put on an Oculus Rift or a HTC Vive. These are exciting times!

Animation geek heaven

Animation geek heaven

Despite the excitement, I attended an interesting Animator’s Roundtable Discussion where some serious anxieties were expressed about what might be coming. The discussion focused on what character animation will bring to VR, and how animation (and games) in VR may be different in this more immersive virtual environment. The discussion’s been percolating in my mind for a while, and I want to use this post to organize my thoughts. I’m relying on my often-faulty memory for the gist of the discussion, so apologies in advance to any animators who were there and who remember it differently!

One of the first points brought up was the assertion that perhaps the most popular single type of game is shooter games, and that a large measure of their success derives from the emotional satisfaction of killing non-player characters. While that’s obviously debatable, there’s no doubt that a LOT of popular games put the player in challenging kill-or-be-killed situations, where killing NPC enemies is a constant proximate goal. Many successful games revel in the realistic carnage and high body counts one can rack up with a staggering array of sexy and lovingly detailed weapons.

Please note, I’m not judging this game style, nor were the animators in the GDC roundtable. I like many FPS games, as did most of those at the roundtable. I absolutely loved Half Life 2 and the Resistance series of games, among others. The question isn’t, are shooter games socially or morally acceptable, but what will happen when shooter games take place in VR, and what will replace these games if killing NPCs turns out to fail to continue to be a satisfying mechanic.*

On the first question, the issue is that VR is vastly more immersive than conventional games we view on a screen. We’ve already reached the point where some FPS games leave one feeling queasy when you make that perfect head shot, and you see the head snap back, like the animator used the Zapruder film for reference, and you see the blood mist, and then the body crumples awkwardly into a dead heap. If there’s any kind of remotely believable facial animation on that NPC, it becomes a sickening sight. So what happens if we go further, and make that more real?


Ouch! Imagine this in room-scale VR.

The question was even asked, “Can you get PTSD from VR?” Yes, I’m certain one can, and this will doubtless be an issue for vulnerable people playing certain VR games in the very near future.** I think this issue is why many successful shooter games focus not on killing human NPCs, but on killing NPC zombies, robots, and really ugly alien creatures. And the evil, killable human NPCs tend to be like Star Wars’ Nazi-esque Storm Troopers — sans personality, covered head-to-toe in aggressive body armor — or dressed in dirty Mad Max-style hooligan rags and scummy tattoos.

If VR will lead to a place where gamers will find immersive shooting/killing games too disturbing, which seems likely, then what will replace this typical game action? The discussion then shifted into why killing enemies was so dominant in game play, which is a reasonable place to start when considering where we go from here.

Do we really like killing?

And this is where I think the discussion went off track. Most who spoke up at the roundtable seemed to assume that there was something primal and satisfying in this kind of aggression —  that FPS games and killing NPCs became popular because it was a quick and direct way to engage players, and to get an emotional response. People seemed to like killing, at least in game space. The thinking goes that if violent FPS games are so successful, then people must have an innate dark side, and what happens if we cater to that in VR games? And if we don’t want to cater to that dark side, then what style of play, what gaming action or mechanic, can replace this visceral pleasure that comes from killing?

Happily, I’m confident that killing is not emotionally satisfying for the vast majority of us. It elicits revulsion. Soldiers and police officers have to be extensively trained to be willing to use deadly force.*** We need to be indoctrinated as children or young adults to not be disturbed by killing the animals that we eat. There’s a reason people eat their steaks at Sizzler instead of at the slaughterhouse tasting room, where the food would be so much fresher! This theoretical emotional satisfaction of killing is not why FPS and similar games became popular, because it doesn’t exist. So why are shooter games, and all that gaming violence, so popular?

More on this shortly…


*I use ‘mechanic’ in a broad sense here – substitute ‘game action’ or ‘player behavior’ or ‘thing-you-do-in-the-game-that-makes-it-engaging-to-play’ if you wish.

**Note that VR is already being used to treat people with PTSD. It could not be an effective treatment for psychological trauma if being ‘present’ in a virtual environment didn’t sufficiently fool the brain. If being in a virtual environment can fool the brain sufficiently to heal trauma, it can sufficiently fool the brain sufficiently to cause trauma.

***There’s a bit of WWII history that few Americans celebrate from the ‘greatest generation.’ When American troops first engaged in infantry battles, in 1942, their allies were dismayed that the majority of US soldiers failed to fire their weapons the enemy troops, even when they were being shot at. The soldiers found that shooting at man-shaped targets was much easier than shooting at actual men, even when those men were trying to kill them. Of course they got over it, but military training had to change to get soldiers over their natural reticence to actually shooting to kill. Here’s a discussion of this phenomenon.



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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch