Can Players Have No Role?

At the start of the semester, we set out to create a virtual reality experience in which players had no role. The intent was to match the tone of 3rd-person branching narrative games wherein players take on a more omniscient identity. In our attempt to recreate this feeling, we decided not to make the player a character in the story. Instead, we would not explicitly tell the player anything about their role, hoping that they would accept having no identity.

Over the course of playtesting throughout the semester, we realized that this is an impossible task. Players will always have a role in virtual reality. When players are not assigned a specific identity by the game itself, they will naturally come up a role for themselves to embody. However, this role will not always be a character in the story. Many players identified themselves as playing themselves. In these instances, their own identities were their roles. Being “me” is a valid player role.

Among the majority of our testers, we found no discernable difference in levels of immersion across players who determined they were themselves vs a character in the narrative. Some people argued that we had to give players an in-game, character-driven identity. We argued that players needed no identity. It turns out both arguments were wrong. Players will always have an identity, but that did not need to be justified by the universe of the story. Being oneself created successful immersion.

Distinctions Between Novice and Experienced VR Users

Through playtesting, we discovered that there was a clear difference in immersion between novice VR users and players with more experience doing virtual reality. The novice users were more willing to accept being given no role by the game. Conversely, experienced VR users were more likely to demand being given an identity. This led our team to believe that expecting an identity in virtual reality is a learned behavior that comes with experience. In this sense, our project was more immersive for novice players because we explicitly did not assign the player an identity.

Suggestions for Further Development

Considering VR literacy will only increase over time, our suggestion for future developers is to clearly define player role. This will create the best experience for both new and old players alike. However, this does not mean player role needs to be an in-game character. One can design an experience that has players acting as themselves, but this needs to be reinforced in the design.