Why Steven Spielberg can’t sleep at night
Thursday the 19th of May, 2016 a news story spreads like wildfire throughout the VR community. Steven Spielberg, who had just entered the board of advisors at Los Angeles based, well funded VR startup, VRC (The Virtual Reality Company), told the media at the Cannes Film festival that; quote
I think we’re moving into a dangerous medium with virtual reality,” “The only reason I say it is dangerous is because it gives the viewer a lot of latitude not to take direction from the storytellers but make their own choices of where to look.
The reactions where two sided. Those with no understanding of story looked dumbstruck at Spielberg as if he had become an old senile man, with no vision and hopes for the medium of the future. And then there was the other side, the professional storytellers, who secretly had felt a growing concern picking their brain, but were afraid to speak out. And now finally Steven Spielberg, the God amongst Hollywood storytellers, had said it out loud. – I think we’re moving into a dangerous medium with virtual reality.
In order to understand the core of this problem, we must go back to the first chapter in any book about storytelling. What is a story and why do we tell stories. I know that there are many exceptions to what i’m about to tell you. But instead of discussing narrow interpretations of what qualifies and what does not qualify the term a story, please bear with me. I will only talk about the classical Hollywood, Spielbergien concept of story. So let’s begin at the very beginning. What is a story, and why do humans tell stories.
Story is an analogy for experience
When we were all cavemen, before we started writing DIY blogs, we needed a way of passing on important information to others. Imagine a hunter walking into the forest alone. Then suddenly, out of the bushes springs a mountain lion. The hunter barely manages to escape the situation in one piece, clinging on to his fighting stick as he runs back home. Late that night, when his cavemen family is gathered around the fire, he needs to inform the rest of the group about the danger in the woods. More technically; he needs to share his experience with people who weren’t present when it happened. And thanks to thousands of years of evolution, he now has the right tool for the job. He can share his experience in a story. And the story will be told through generations, and so knowledge is passed on, and the gene-pool keeps surviving.
Fast forward fifty thousand years into the future, and suddenly virtual reality is reinvented in Palmer Lucky’s garage. The nature of virtual reality is to create alternative realities for you to experience. It does that by hijacking your senses, feeding an artificial sensory input to your brain, and now you’re feeling present somewhere else. If we now revisit the story about the caveman entering the forest in VR, you are that caveman, you enter that forest, and you get jump-scared by that mountain lion. You were there. You’ve just experienced it. And since the purpose of storytelling, in a classical sense, is to be an analogy for experience, virtual reality pulverises the need for a story. Now you can better understand why Mr Spielberg can’t sleep at night.
Does this mean that we can’t tell stories in VR? No probably not. It only means that we have to redefine what a story is, and why we tell them. More about that in my next article.
And the next time you step out of virtual reality with a burning need to tell somebody the story of what you’ve just experienced, remember “Story is an analogy for Experience”