© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




With both movies and games the vast majority of instances will involve the audience experiencing the content through a rectangular screen with one or two speakers positioned near that screen. Big screens tend to be popular, although a small screen on a mobile phone can sometimes fill as much of your field of vision if you bring it close to your face, though there generally isn’t as much detail as with a large screen. These screens are almost always wider than they are high and I believe the main reasons for this are A) because we have two eyes placed side by side thus giving us a slightly wider horizontal scope of vision in the real world in combination with our eyebrows blocking out part of our vertical vision, and B) because wider screens allow us to show in detail more than one person from the waste up. This is important because most of our non-verbal communication is carried out in facial expressions and hand gestures. A movie screen that is taller than it is wide would inevitably result in our attention constantly being drawn to the upper half of the image where people faces and hands are to be found. Perhaps one day we’ll have some sort of viewing screens that change dimension according to the requirements of changing content within a movie, just like we vary the framing of photos, but for now we’re stuck with dimensions that are absolutely restricted for individual games and movies.

Various attempts have been made to break game and movie formats out of the rectangular box visual limitation. We’ve had virtual reality helmets, curved Cinerama screens and giant screens so large that they extend closer to or sometimes beyond out peripheral vision. There are even some instances of PC users fitting three monitors next to each other to create panoramic visuals in certain games. But none of these more realistic formats have yet caught on for the general public, possibly due to hardware expense. Instead their predominant use is for simulation training for soldiers, pilots and so on.

Now assuming we could have full panoramic visuals, it’s fairly obvious that this would be a big attraction for gamers. Being attacked by off screen enemies can be annoying so having a wider range of vision plus the ability to quickly tilt your actual head to see something would allow greater interactivity. However with movies, panoramic vision would be almost completely impractical. The narrative content of a movie requires that the film makers restrict our viewpoint to draw our attention to particular people, objects and events at specific points in the story. And film makers have this unique little aesthetic tool called editing – they can chop and change our viewpoints at will to show us anything from any angle in relation to the story. Create a panoramic view and suddenly the viewer might find themselves choosing to look 90 degrees to their right to see a sunset rather than looking at two characters who are sharing an important moment in the story directly in front of them. Not to mention it would be a nightmare for film makers to actually get movies made because the panoramic viewpoint would reveal their crew and filming equipment, thus utterly revealing the illusion of realism in the story. So restricted viewpoints are an essential requirement of movies.

When it comes to sound we’re equally restricted, but in a less obvious way. In the real world we can detect whether sounds come from any of dozens of directions and distances, but movies and games restrict us to either a single speaker or, usually, to a two speaker system or occasionally five speakers, but again mostly positioned in front of us. Being that the visual content is all displayed in a box in front of us it’s not so jarring to have all the sound come from that direction too. However, we do tend to enjoy surround sound when we can get it, which is usually in a movie theatre. But there’s also an argument against realism here too. Many movies will show characters talking in busy noisy environments. If we had full surround sound then those characters voices could be drowned out by the thousands of noises coming from other directions. In games though, it’s a little more practical because there’s generally not much sound going on in game environments that is not related to game play. Although as game environments get more complex this could change. Dialogue is also less important generally in games compared to movies.

Ok, so we’ve looked a little at sight and sound interface, but beyond that there’s generally no other interface content in movies. Our physical bodies are almost entirely unaffected by movies apart from restricting our eyes, level of visual focus and head positions toward a particular point in space, though our emotional reactions to movies might trigger some small chemical changes in our blood stream or even trigger a tear or two or increased heart rate. But do we want movies to extend any further beyond their current visual and audio limitations? In the open mass grave scene from Apocalypto do we want to smell the hundreds of rotting corpses and risk throwing up on our sofas? While watching The Thing do we want to physically feel the Antarctic temperatures of the film's setting and risk frost bite? And how about the drowning scene from The Abyss? Do we want our breathing to be restricted when our viewpoint goes under water? Not only are these kinds of unpleasant sensations near technically impossible to impose on the audience. They’re also impractical because they would damage the audience’s health. Of course we’d no doubt be more receptive to positive physical stimulation from movies such as the smell of good food, the high of a drug or the ecstasy of sex, but again there’s a massive gap in technology.

All of this also applies in computer games. Gamers don’t want to feel the intense pain of a sword slice, a bullet impact or a jaw breaking punch. And if they did they might suffer a heart attack or psychological trauma. There have been assorted attempts to bring some physicality to games such as arcade machines that rock, light guns, vibrating joy pads or motion trackers, but it’s nothing like reality. The light guns lack the weight, hard recoil, heat and smoke of real guns and if they had those features they’d actually be physically dangerous to the gamer. Generally such features are merely to give a very watered down and entirely safety conscious bit of physical simulation to the player, but more often they serve the purpose of giving the player a more varied range of ways to control their character in a game. Most gaming is still limited to the sole physical activity of pressing buttons on a joypad or keyboard or moving a mouse about with just one hand. I’ve not even come across a game yet that involves two mouses? So the interface system hasn’t changed much since the old days of the Atari 2600. We just have more buttons and more sensitive control sticks. It seems that gamers are happy with this entirely unrealistic interface. Playing a shooter in which you actually have to run on a treadmill to move around or actually fall to the ground and crawl would be great for keeping in shape, but most gamers would get tired and opt for the comfort of their trusty joypad.

And a last point I’ll add is that movies are definitely not designed for interaction. They’re simply stories that we observe and are unable to partake in. This in itself is a definitive separation with reality.