Point of View

The art of VR: In 2017, filmmaker Joyce Wong found compelling new ways to socialize online

Joyce Wong broke out this past year with "Wexford Plaza," but in her spare time she headed to the "Rec Room" — part of the social gaming wave of VR.

Wong broke out this past year with 'Wexford Plaza,' but in her spare time she headed to the 'Rec Room'

Rec Room. (Rec Room)

This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by filmmaker and writer Joyce Wong.

What are the alternatives to socializing online beyond self-promotional platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?

I often arrive home to the sight of my husband Aylwin wearing a virtual reality headset and blindly gesturing at non-existent objects in our living room. To the outside observer, it looks ridiculous.

HTC's User Guide. (HTC.com)

Aylwin's line of work requires him to stay up-to-date on current VR games and trends. That's why we have an HTC Vive that takes up the entire floor space of our living room and why we have anywhere between two and four VR headsets in our home at any given time.

I'm no expert — merely a peripheral observer. But I've been able to play 40 to 50 VR experiences this year. Out of these experiences, the one that has fascinated me the most is Rec Room — not because of the visuals, game mechanics or story, but because it provides an engaging alternative to how we socialize online.

I don't think our social interactions should mirror the language of marketing. At the very core, we're searching for simple human connection when we interact with one another online.- Joyce Wong, filmmaker

I discovered Rec Room a couple of months ago when Aylwin scheduled a "hangout" with David, his old roommate, in VR. David lives in Hamilton and has a small child. We don't see him that often anymore because of his many responsibilities and physical distance between our homes. But that evening, we chatted about film, played virtual laser tag and paintball with him while sitting in our respective living rooms. One of the things I found so surreal was being able to hear his daughter babbling babytalk in the background while we snuck around the neon and black laser tag court.

Rec Room. (Against Gravity)

Rec Room is a multiplayer online arena that allows you to participate in activities such as dodgeball, charades, laser tag and paintball with other people in virtual "hangout" rooms through your VR headset and motion controllers. This creates an online meeting place where friends and strangers can communicate with each other using their microphones and virtual bodies. It's part of a larger trend emerging in VR: social games that have accessible activities for non-gamers.

As we've moved away from communication tools like ICQ, IRC channels and AOL Instant Messenger (RIP), marketing tools like Facebook and Instagram have taken their place as the dominant way to socialize online. These marketing tools force users into self-promoting in order to communicate. It's like our entire online presence is a flashing banner ad.

Rec Room. (Against Gravity)

I don't think our social interactions should mirror the language of marketing. At the very core, we're searching for simple human connection when we interact with one another online. Going into Rec Room was a welcome refuge from Facebook and Instagram because I don't need to promote myself in order to participate. It doesn't require me to post photos of things that I ate, my shoes from a vertical angle in some exotic location or thigh gap selfies through the mirror — all I need to do is join a group of cartoonish figures and enter a neon maze. It reminds me of schoolyard interactions from my adolescence, right down to the presence of teenage boys yelling vulgarities because they have something to prove.

[Facebook and Instagram] force users into self-promoting in order to communicate. It's like our entire online presence is a flashing banner ad.- Joyce Wong, filmmaker

I'm picking Rec Room as my most interesting piece of art in 2017 because it's a fascinating study in socializing, but I'm not trying to say that all or even most VR experiences are great. 2017 also birthed Mark Zuckerberg's tone-deaf disaster tourism VR demo, where he gave high fives against the backdrop of homes in Puerto Rico flooded from Hurricane Maria. According to this Buzzfeed article it's only one of the many misguided projects in VR that conflates the idea of presence with the creation of empathy.

Screengrab from Mark Zuckerberg’s post on Facebook. (Mark Zuckerberg's Facebook)

Rec Room is free and was originally released in 2016 — but it's the November 2017 release for PSVR (Playstation's VR headset) that makes it very exciting. The ubiquity of the Playstation console and the accessibility of this game for non-gamers allow for the possibility for mass adoption. Road to VR considers its release an important moment in VR's journey to the mainstream. In the future, this game may change in unpleasant ways. Tech companies have a habit of evolving their products into ways of data-mining consumers. But for now, it's an enjoyable experience.

I find social media newsfeeds frustrating. It's not that I or any of my Facebook friends naturally drift towards attention-seeking behaviour — it's the format of that platform that forces our interactions to be that way. I like how Rec Room is a social tool that doesn't require the need to constantly ask people to "look at me!". I've met a lot of interesting strangers there even though I've also encountered some mean-spirited teenagers. It may or may not work for you, but it's important that these VR social arenas exist — because they provide alternative ways to connect with other humans online beyond algorithms.

About the Author

Joyce Wong

Joyce is a filmmaker based in Toronto. Her critically-acclaimed debut feature, Wexford Plaza, premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2017 and was nominated for the Best Canadian Film Award by the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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