The coronavirus is making data collection very much more difficult – admittedly a minor inconvenience in the greater scheme of things – so as a community of scholars we’re all learning how to do research in this new context. My physical science colleagues are slowly finding themselves back in labs with social distancing procedures and big facilities like Birmingham’s free air carbon enrichment site (BIFoR FACE) are getting back up to speed. As human geographers, we’re adapting to new ways of doing research mainly through online platforms. Indeed, some very dedicated people in the wider human geography community have been working hard putting together resources for undergrads wanting to continue with their dissertation data collection online over the summer.
Tess is staying in my spare room for a few weeks while visiting the UK from the Netherlands. We’ve taken advantage of being locked in a house during her quarantine to do a bit of collaborative fieldwork that requires us to physically be in the same space. For some kinds of research, embodied presence is the only practical option, although this is somewhat ironic since we’re doing some work on virtual reality. We’ve just got a commission from Bristol University Press to do a ‘short’ book exploring VR methods for social sciences and humanities researchers. This will mean pulling together a critical review of how different scholars have used VR within their research projects and how it might be more widely employed. The book will also use worked examples from research that some of the Masters students in the Playful Methods Lab have been doing – with those individuals getting a co-author credit on a collaborative volume.
One section of the book is looking at ‘readymade’, commercial VR experiences, including gaming. To this end, we’ve been thinking about the practicalities of doing content analysis in VR. This has involved getting myself and Tess together in a room while playing Half-Life Alyx, the first large scale, triple-A grade game designed exclusively for VR.
Neither of us are big fans of horror games – I spent an alarmingly high proportion of my time playing 2014’s Alien: Isolation hiding in virtual cupboards feeling utterly terrified. As a result, neither of us have played the other games in the Half-Life canon. Nonetheless, Alyx works as a standalone game and so we felt it would be possible to undertake a content analysis on it, even though we’re not familiar with the wider story in which it sits.
VR can be a very physical medium – depending on the hardware being used you can stand up and walk around, wave your arms, crouch and peer around corners. For the content analysis we therefore decided that it was important to film what we were doing, rather than just take written or voice notes so that we captured this physical interaction. Thus, we have footage recorded of the 3m by 2m area that we were using to play in, the size of the space being dictated by the constraints of my lounge and the length of the wire on the VR headset. We set up the camera so that it captured a secondary output from my gaming laptop being sent to my TV. Thus, our video field notes contain a view of the action seen by the player, as well as our physical movements and commentary on the experience.
Alyx is quite an unusual experience for a player used to traditional consoles because the game environment is so interactive. You can bend down and pick up objects with your hand and throw them. You can punch through glass panes, pick up pens and draw on whiteboards. You reach out and grab door handles to pull them open. Even the action of closing a car door – which looks very boring on screen – feels almost magical.
The sense of immersion is the major selling point of VR but in a horror game this can be somewhat unpleasant. Oozing slime on walls, which looks unremarkable when seen on a TV screen, is viscerally disgusting when viewed through the headset. Dark passages seem horrifyingly ominous as you move your hand to point a virtual torch to illuminate pitch-black spaces filled with unknown dangers. Worse of all are the combat sequences. You start to panic while struggling to remember how to remove a spent magazine from your gun and reaching over your shoulder retrieve a new one from your virtual backpack. This can lead to running out of bullets and trying to duck out of the way of a creature that is jumping at your face intent on murdering you.
Our experience of using VR is that it is reassuring to have someone else in the room who can tell you when you’re about to trip over something and generally look after your physical body while your senses are immersed in the virtual world. As a result, we’ve been taking it in turns to play, maybe doing about 40 minutes at a time. This also helps in terms of keeping a field diary – because the VR experience is so immersive it’s hard to maintain a commentary as you play because it’s very easy to forget you’re an academic doing research, rather than a survivor fighting off horrifying creatures in dank sewers. Having someone else there to ask you questions and prompt you to reflect on what’s happening is very helpful.
We have, however, found Alyx utterly exhausting, even when taking turns to play. The sheer physicality of the experience, with heart rate and adrenaline constantly through the roof has meant that we haven’t spent as long playing as we had planned. Thus, we’re only about 5 hours in to a ~15 hour game and are both finding ourselves making excuses for “not playing today”. Both of us have found it emotionally draining and at times really quite distressing. This not only has methodological implications for content analysis but also, from an ethical point of view, for the kinds of VR experiences that one might choose to expose participants to. All of which, of course, is good material to reflect on as we begin work on writing the new book. If everything goes to plan, that book should be available in early 2022.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer