And the Kids Keep on Playing – Minecraft and Its Fandom

Throughout my time in high school I worked for Open World Events, an event production company based in Philadelphia. OWE produces massive STEM-inspired events across the country for young students and families. Their largest event, Minefaire, is an Official Minecraft Community event that brings together YouTubers, their fans, and players under one roof. Minefaire has four different shows in massive convention centers across the country this year alone, with three more already planned for 2019. Each show attracts between 10,000-20,000 Minecraft fans over the course of one weekend. As a very casual gamer and a complete stranger to Minecraft, I am continually shocked by the intense fandom that surrounds the game. What seems to me to be a simple game that allows players to use basic creative skills to build worlds with 3D blocks has recently become the second best-selling video game of all time, with nearly 154 million copies sold across all platforms. In an attempt to comprehend this reality that is so distant from my own, I will explore its various components and its place in the gaming community as a whole.

A significant part of the Minefaire experience and the greater Minecraft fandom is rooted in its YouTube presence. Some of the top Minecraft channels, PrestonPlayz, TheAtlanticCraft, Popular MMOs, and Aphmau boast respective subscriber counts of 7.4 million, 4.9 million, 15.5 million, and 4 million. That’s a lot of people.

Most popular video game centric YouTube channels focus on first-person shooter video games where the YouTuber attempts to kill as many other players in the most entertaining, unique way possible. Minecraft, however, is a sandbox video game in which the player is freed from the traditional video game structure and chooses what, when, and how they want to approach the game’s content. As such, Minecraft videos on YouTube are often creative, light-hearted, comedic videos that offer unique, entertaining expositions of the game. Some titles of recent popular videos include: “I WAS CRUSHED IN MINECRAFT,” “I ONLY HAVE 10 SECONDS TO MAKE IT TO THE END,” “WHAT’S BEHIND THIS DOOR IN MINECRAFT,” “TRY NOT TO LAUGH OR GRIN MINECRAFT CHALLENGE.” Here is one of these videos from UnspeakableGaming:

As Minecraft lacks a single defined objective, YouTube videos offer alternative ways for players to experience the game. They offer challenges, new skills, and entertaining commentary to viewers. In doing so, Minecraft YouTubers fully enhance players’ experiences with the game. Many YouTubers build on this experience with their own merchandise, online forums, and other social media accounts; each channel possesses its own community and fandom of sorts. The nature of Minecraft as a sandbox game makes it such that there are infinite forms their content may take. In this sense, channels are infinitely entertaining; they never get old.

At Minefaire events, many of these “famous” YouTubers are flown in from around the world to speak at the show. Their prominence is a very unique sort of celebrity; I find it difficult to fathom how hundreds of individuals would be willing to wait hours in line for a picture with someone whose face they don’t even see on YouTube.

Here are some pictures that demonstrate the scale of this event:

While it is difficult to see in these pictures, most of the event attendees are elementary school-aged children. This ties into Minecraft’s kid-friendly nature. Players don’t kill other players, but rather flex their creative muscles to find an experience in the game that appeals to them. It is all fairly wholesome; players build worlds, interact with other players, and exercise skills directly related to STEM fields. Microsoft even has a version of the game, Minecraft: Education Edition, that is designed specifically for classroom use.

The entire premise of Minefaire itself is to highlight these educational benefits of the game. Through workshops, educational speakers, YouTuber Q&A’s, and more, young students learn how their experience with the game applies to the real world.

This passage from an article about Minefaire’s show in Philadelphia last week highlights this:

“…father Chris Gordon was his two young daughters’ escort to an alternative digital universe of biomes, precious ores, the Creeper, and other creatures well-known to youngsters around the globe as Minecraft.

‘I love it — just to see the creativity. This one’s 2 years old,’ Gordon said, nodding to daughter Charlotte, ‘and she can build her own world.’

‘I like that you can do creative stuff,’ agreed sister Elizabeth, 9.”

Source: http://www2.philly.com/philly/news/minecraft-minefaire-jack-beck-oaks-expo-20181013.html]

Minecraft is a refreshing departure from other popular video games and their fan bases. It offers an educational, family-friendly, fun alternative to gaming. Unlike the League of Legends World Championship and the intense fandom that envelops the world of Esports, Minecraft and its community events have yet to be overrun by large corporations and overwhelming, world-class production. Minefaire is truly a community event, and this reflects the grounded nature of the game and of the social aspect of the larger community. Minecraft fans commit to the game for the sake of the game itself.

And the kids keep on playing. 

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Podcasting — The Future of News Media

With the increasingly shortening attention span of the average person, the printed newspaper has become the least popular medium for news. News is now transmitted through a variety of different formats — such as television, internet, and video — and you would be hard pressed to find anyone that still reads the morning paper. Hell, I cannot even remember a single time I have read a newspaper throughout the 19 years of my life. The limitations of the printed medium just can’t compare with the affordances of new visual and auditory media. As a result, news media outlets are adapting to the current social climate.

News media outlets such as Vox Media and Vice News have taken advantage of the growing popularity of YouTube by creating informative, infographic videos that incorporate animations, video clips, and graphics with the spoken word to capture the audience’s attention. On the other hand, broadcast companies such as Fox, NBC, and CNN have taken advantage of television broadcasting to disseminate the news and reach broader audiences. These visual mediums have infinitely more potential to capture one’s attention than the small black and white words that fill newspapers.

Just take a look at the video and newspaper below. Which one would you be more likely to read or watch?

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The video, right? I agree. There is simply no comparison between the two mediums. With print newspaper, there is just not enough stimuli to compete with these other forms of news. Just like the common idiom states, a picture is worth a thousand words, and there is no way in hell I am going to read a thousand words; so, just show me the picture.

While these mediums do a great job of capturing your attention, they require your complete and undivided attention. People are busy. Most work 9 to 5 jobs, more people than ever commute to work, and a lot don’t have the time nor the energy to engage in these news mediums. So, how can the news be translated in another way to adapt to our busy lifestyles?

Podcasting has emerged as a new, great alternative for consuming the news. It allows for the average person to keep up to date with the news, while performing their routine day-to-day tasks. Depending on the type of job you have, you could be listening to podcasts the entire workday. News media outlets need to take advantage of this emerging medium. With podcasting, news media outlets have the opportunity to be in the ears of the masses for large portions of the day.

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Newspaper The New York Times has taken advantage of this opportunity with its podcast The Daily. They take the most significant current news stories and thoroughly examine them in a condensed 20-40 minutes. This audio format affords them a lot more freedom than print newspapers. For the Blasey-Kavanaugh hearing, they took actual recordings from the hearing, brought in guest speakers who have personal connections with Kavanaugh, and commented on specific key incidents that occurred during the hearing. There is a lot more nuance that can be conveyed in this format.

By listening to the actual hearing itself, a lot more is conveyed than words on a page. You can hear the intonations of their voice and emotions in their speech, and you can form your own opinions based off them. It makes it much more difficult to take out of context, and it holds a much more significant impact when you actually hear the words coming from their source. Podcasting also gives the audience a much more human take on the news. Hearing the reporter’s analysis through his or her voice helps the audience identify the difference between analytical opinions and objective facts.

With that said, podcasting offers an exciting, new alternative to traditional forms of newscasting, yet few news broadcasting companies have begun to utilize it. Podcasting is slowly growing in popularity, while these other forms are quickly declining. These companies need to advance into the future and pick up this growing medium. It is only a matter of time before podcasting becomes a significant component of news media.

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/dir-33yyz-4bc4d9f

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/n7abi-4b59fac-dir?from=share&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&download=0&vjs=1&skin=1

*Sorry, I know it’s annoying to click a link, but WordPress is being a butthole and I have been trying to fix it for hours.

Ethan Nguyen

The Rise of the Female Gamer

Historically, games have been designed with males in mind. When game developers are creating a new game, they are focused on pleasing the male consumer because males have been the greater part of the gaming population. However, according to Entertainment Software Association, since 2006, the share of female gamers has risen from 38% to 45%. Now with almost half of the population of gamers being female and the female gamer continuing to rise, the context of the gaming tale is changing.

The old gaming culture is very male-centered. Male characters were often the only option of player. When a female character was featured, she was often over sexualized or acted as the damsel in distress. A common focus of games is a male character journeying and defeating foes to save the woman and be rewarded with her undying love.

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Source: https://www.deviantart.com/nintega-dario/art/Mario-Carrying-Peach-698670534

Sporting games based of professional sports, such as NHL, 2k, and FIFA, are available for male teams only.Unknown-4.jpeg

Other wildly popular games consist of men killing each other over and over and over again. Call of Duty, a game ranked in the top 10 games of all time on almost every source, is a first person shooter game that originally takes place in World War II (however, spin off games take place in other settings of warfare). This male dominated video game features only male characters, despite the fact that according to a survey done by Steam, 48% of women play Call of Duty.

Don’t get me wrong, many girls do play and enjoy these games, however they follow a very male centered narrative that has recently seen a shift due to the rise of the female gamer. The time for males to be the sole owners of the label “gamer” is ending. Game developers have realized that almost half of their consumers are female and are adapting accordingly to satisfy their customers.

Character choices have started to include both men and women. From being able to compete as Princess Peach in Mario games to Mrs. Pacman, women are now represented in the action.  In 2017, Sledgehammer Games released Call of Duty WWII, which added female soldiers. This not only appeals to the women gaming audience, it is also historically accurate. According to History.com, more than 350,000 women joined the military during the second World War.

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Additionally, a new game called Iconoclasts is one of the best selling games of 2018. The main character, Robin, a female, must defeat enemies, solve puzzles, and venture past obstacles in order to escape the authoritarian group “One Concern” that has just overthrown the government. Games that have female lead characters are popular among the female and male gaming communities.

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Due to the rise of the female gamer, the narrative of gaming has seen a shift to a more female inclusive environment. This feminist wave that society is currently undergoing, sometimes referred to as Third Wave Feminism, has caused for a demand for female diversity in gaming. Females are now more comfortable picking up a controller and playing a game knowing that they can be represented by another female and the ladies who have been long time gamers can feel included in the world of games.

Cassidy Tynan

When will the Fortnite fad fade?

For the last year, it has been basically impossible to avoid hearing about Fortnite. For those of you who have somehow escaped its ubiquity, Fortnite is an online, multiplayer battle royale game in which 100 competitors skydive onto an island, collect weapons and materials, and fight each other to be the last player standing. Cultural icons like Drake and Chance the Rapper have garnered hundreds of thousands of livestream views while playing, parents hire Fortnite tutors for their children, and as of July, the game’s developer Epic had earned over $1 billion from in-game purchases.

Sure, the game is fun, but its gameplay isn’t all that different from other battle royale games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, so its success feels outsized. What made it so much better than other offerings that it became unprecedentedly popular, not just within the gaming community, but in our larger popular culture as well?

What sets Fortnite apart from the rest of the field is its contagious spirit of creative whimsy. Unlike other shooter games that seek to emulate reality as closely as possible like Call of Duty or Battlefield, Fortnite makes sure not to take itself too seriously. Its candy-colored weapons include a disco ball grenade that makes your opponent dance uncontrollably. Players can earn or buy cartoonish character skins that include a gingerbread man, a tomatoheaded pizza fanatic, and a nightmarish nutcracker. You can even collect dance moves and celebrations including a sarcastic slow-clap or a dab:

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Source: https://giphy.com/gifs/A4R8sdUG7G9TG

Fortnite intentionally eschews expectations to create a weird, engrossing world that stands at the intersection of gaming and imagination. And while other games have prioritized originality and playfulness before, Fortnite invites players to join in on the creativity. In recent months, YouTube has exploded with players’ “highlight reels,” which are compilations of game clips that exhibit their skill or funny moments in Fortnite. From such videos, professional gamers like Ninja and Tfue have built huge fan followings, regularly receiving millions of views on their videos. Take the following highlight reel from player FatPlanet85542 for example: 

The video exhibits serious skill at the game, just as a highlight reel from any video game would. But what sets this apart, and has made such videos so popular for players to both watch and make, is the creative expression that Fortnite affords players in creating them. The background music, Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” is an upbeat anthem that gives the video a carefree tone. The intertextuality at play in combining gameclips with popular music feeds Fortnite’s reputation of being not just a videogame, but a freestanding member of the zeitgeist in its own right.

The video humorously zooms in on the faces of opponents just before the FatPlanet kills them, poking fun at their last moments in a moment of dark humor that only seems to work because of the juxtaposition of cartoonish graphics and mortality:

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Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DroHKIx_FZU

At one point, the player does the worm dance as an opponent tries to kill him, a display of braggadocio and skill that makes it all the more entertaining when he gets up from the dance and kills the opponent. The video concludes with one final joke as the player tosses up an image of a tombstone just before he kills the final opponent to win the game:

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Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DroHKIx_FZU

As this highlight reel shows, Fortnite has made playing the game about more than just winning; it challenges you to play creatively, think outside the box, and share how imaginative you can be with an audience of millions of other players. Not only does this drive fan engagement and build a crucial subculture of paying customers, but it has kept the game relevant for far longer than most cultural fads in the internet age.

In the spirit of this post, I have tried my hand at creating my own Fortnite highlight reel. It is not nearly as impressive as the ones referenced above, but I sought to emulate all of its best characteristics: repurposed cultural references from outside of Fortnite, some exciting plays, and a spirit of whimsy. Check it out below:

  • Joe Lovinger

Subverting Tropes in Video Games

Tropes and subversion are nothing new. Tropes range from Chekhov’s Gun to the oft-maligned “110%”. It is hard to define exactly what a trope is, but sites like tvtropes.org exist solely to track and explain tropes that exist in all forms of media. And where there are tropes, there are creators and creative minds trying to avoid being too cliché. Marvel films have received great critical acclaim for finding humorous and interesting ways to subvert the tropes audiences have come to expect in superhero movies. The Cabin in the Woods is a famous example for intentionally subverting as many tropes as possible present in the horror film genre. When any work plays with expectations, it feels fresh, new, and exciting. This is especially true in traditional forms of media because the mediums are old enough for writers and critics alike to thoroughly understand them.

But video games have their own tropes. Press A to jump. Sure, you jump a lot, so the button closest to your thumb makes the most sense as the jump button. The standard progression through a series of levels to reach an eventual conclusion and end game screen is a trope. It makes sense from a game design perspective, and allows developers to break up their games into smaller chunks that give players more obvious checkpoints and frequent feelings of accomplishment. Usually, tropes make sense.

Unlike other forms of media, though, some video game tropes exist simply because they have always existed. Some have good reason, others do not. Nearly every 2D platformer – think Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong – starts with the player moving to the right. There is no objective superiority to going right instead of left, and yet because games exactly like Super Mario Bros. featured levels in which the player only ever progressed from left to right, nearly every other game that has followed in its footsteps has done the same. Being able to defeat enemies by jumping on their heads is another trope that came out of Super Mario Bros. It makes little sense – why is jumping on something the only way to kill it? When was the last time you saw someone get into a fight and win it by planting their feet onto the top of their adversary’s skull? The limited combat in the early games that defined the medium was born from the limitations of the platforms they were developed on, and yet even as technology has progressed and we have the possibility to create combat systems in games that are much more complex, the notion of jumping onto an enemy to knock them out remains present in a surprising number of games. Some, like Yooka-Laylee and even more recent Mario titles like Super Mario Odyssey, still even focus on it as the primary means of combat, trying to use nostalgia as a driving element in their design.

But not every game falls victim to the oft dubious tropes common in the industry. While many games are happy to include left-to-right movement and jump-centric combat, others like to ask questions and reconsider the assumptions most games and gamers make about the medium.

Undertale is one of the most popular examples of a game that strives to do exactly this. The question it asks is, “Are enemies really enemies? Do you need to fight them?” And with that question, it toys with its players’ expectations. It puts the player into combat against monsters with the cursor automatically hovering over the fight option, and it fully expects its players to fight and slay the creatures. At the end of the game, however, it asks players if what they did was really necessary. Who was the real monster – the aggressive invader slaying creatures in their home, or those same creatures trying to defend themselves and their society against that invader? The game encourages players to play the game again, and it quickly becomes obvious that it is possible to end every encounter peacefully. The game takes on a lighter, happier tone as you progress through a second, pacifist playthrough, and the empty landscapes the player experienced on their first run are instead vibrant and filled with the life that had been killed on the first run.

It’s a really simple question that Undertale asks, and yet it makes a lot of sense. Most traditional forms of media do not involve slaying monsters and frequent combat, so why are those elements deemed almost vital to video games? Is it fun? Can’t we have fun some other ways, too?

Another great example of subversion is the game Antichamber, which really aims to question everything about the medium. If you’ve got the time, this introduction to the game (with commentary from the developer) exemplifies what it is about: 

The gist, if you couldn’t watch it, is that we don’t need to take anything for granted. Falling down into a pit doesn’t have to be defeat for the player. A choice need not be whether to go left or right – why not turn around? A wall isn’t even necessarily a wall. Just walk through it.

Next time you’re playing a game, maybe ask a few questions. It is easy enough to get used to something and expect that to be the way it will always be. But in a medium so new and unexplored, we have a lot of interesting things we can do outside of the tropes we’ve built up around it.

Same Old, Same Old?

Throughout this course we have gone over the influential nature of literature movements on newer forms of media and how varied—but sometimes similar—themes are evoked through different mediums. Specifically, we have studied the effect of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work on the evolving media landscape. To credit Tolkien and his legendarium, it’s easy to say that his work inspired Dungeons & Dragons and other pen and paper role playing games, helped grow the fantasy genre’s books and movies, and effectively made video games in that genre more popular. If we look at publishers like BioWare, Blizzard, Bethesda and more, we can highlight games such as Baldur’s Gate, The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, Everquest, etc. that are all grounded in Tolkien fantasy.

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Screenshot from Shadow of Mordor, one of the many games that take place directly in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

As an avid Tolkien fan, I love that he gets the praise for his vast influence. However, I think it is unfair to not credit the myriad of literary legends that helped pave the same path. Authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert Howard, Robert Bloch, Orson Scott Card, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and so many more fleshed out the iconic nature of science fiction, horror, and fantasy genres (which combined are called speculative fiction) that laid the foundation for many of the best videogames in existence.

To highlight a few of these examples we can inspect Lovecraft who’s mastery of macabre literature aided the popularity of sci-fi and horror style games like Eternal Darkness, Alone, and Bethesda’s direct adaption of Call of Cthulhu. Robert E. Howard illustrated worlds around characters like Kull the Conqueror and Conan the Barbarian which influenced games like Thief, Rune, Gauntlet, and Dishonored. I could highlight even more specific examples about the direct impact of literature on the speculative fiction genre and its growth into the digital media age, but the overwhelming amount of connections led me to ask the question: “where did these authors find their influence from and are they connected?”

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Left – comic book cover for Conan the Barbarian. Right – cover art for the 1985 hit game Gauntlet. Eerily similar?

With some minor digging and some understanding of the history of literary trends, it is easy to see that many of the most popular games, and more importantly their literature influencers, can be linked back to ancient mythology. At the heart of these classic, successful stories and games lies the interaction with worlds that are timeless and universal…perhaps so ubiquitously because these worlds and myths reflect something deep within a set of collective human themes.

In less words, I venture to say that if literature is the groundwork for which a large collection of the world’s creative minds turn to for modern inspiration, then ancient myth and folklore are the foundational roots that lie even deeper. Additionally, I think that at the end of the day, it is noteworthy that every author that has ever lived can only pull inspiration off of their own experiences which includes the literature and storytelling that they’ve been exposed to. This is not to say that the world is devoid of original thought, but instead that every creative output is at least slightly meta-referential, and usually that reference is inlaid with ancient mythological tales.

To support this point regarding the importance of mythology, I want to take a quick look at some of the most successful, acclaimed, and lucrative games in memory. One of the most successful game series of all time, Tomb Raider, has over 30 video games and 3 feature length films in the franchise. Additionally, the entire series is based heavily on the use of mythological narratives originating from the Mayans, Greeks, Norse, Egyptians, and more. The hit franchise Turok: Dinosaur Hunter directly rips off of Native American mythology, and the 8 prosperous games in that series would say that clearly this type of story works in the gaming world. All-time acclaimed RPG Shadow of the Colossus is based entirely on Japanese myths. Household name franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Assassin’s Creed, and Prince of Persia all rip off of popular mythic characters and universally the mythological theme of the monomyth or hero’s journey (think Homer’s Odyssey). It’s mind-blowing to think that some of the most iconic, foundation-breaking releases in gaming history all stem from the collective themes of mythic folklore.

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Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft exploring puzzles and finding treasure related to the Greek myths.

However, there might be no game that integrates mythology better than the God of War series. Besides the fact that it has reached astounding commercial success, the newest installment solidified the franchises legacy through flipping the traditional hack & slash nature of the games on its head while still keeping mythology at its core in the best of ways. The 2018 God of War brings about the best of the past, the present, and the future of speculative fiction. The game ties in great storylines and characters from mythic pasts in a stunningly beautiful form. It synthesizes pantheons from the Greek, Nordic, and Egyptian traditions which creates a new yet seemingly classic world. It triumphantly tackles combining successful game interfaces like The Last of Us, The Witcher, and Skyrim. In a time where online games, shooters, and battle royales dominate the market, God of War uses these classic stories to showcase that the traditional immersive third-person RPG is here to stay, iterate, improve, and succeed as long as the genre garners influence from the right type of relatable storytelling.

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God of War (2018)

So I’m curious, what do you think? Do you see the commonality of these themes in popular games? Do you think I am completely off my rocker? Do you agree that the blanket of myth lore when applied to games has made your gaming experiences most enjoyable? Or do you think that the application of the more refined story-crafting nature of referential literature has brought you your best gaming memories? Let me know in the comments!

Ben Root

Augmented Empathy: VR/AR’s Impact on Gamers

Game psychologists are looking to a relatively new gaming medium to explore the effects of in-game experiences on the real lives of gamers: virtual and augmented reality. According to the Virtual Reality Society, virtual reality gaming is “where a person can experience being in a three-dimensional environment and interact with that environment during a game.” In contrast, augmented reality gaming is “the integration of game visual and audio content with the user’s environment in real time. … While virtual reality games require specialized VR headsets, only some augmented reality systems use them.”

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What these two forms of new gaming have in common is the integration of the gamer into immersive storytelling. Rather than watching the effects of gameplay choices play out on a flat screen using a controller, the gamer becomes the controller and experiences the impact of their in-game decisions in real time.

In the case of augmented reality, gamers can even experience the impacts of their decisions on their real environment through a camera. This leads to a sensation gamers call TINAG, or “This Is Not A Game,” in which one of the main goals of the game is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all (Virtual Reality Society).

Because of the real-world, real-time feel, gamers often feel there are higher stakes to their in-game decisions. Game psychologists argue that “VR experiences can impact the empathy of their users and immediately translate to positive real world behavior.” One example of this comes from a study done on VR gamers who were instructed to cut down a virtual tree. After cutting down this tree in the game, the gamers used an average of 20% less paper in real life.

Another study suggests that the more a gamer immerses in the environment of the game, the more likely they are for in-game choices to affect their empathy outside of the game. For example, when a gamer picks and customizes an avatar, they often bring traits from their real life into their game life. This causes them to identify more strongly with their in-game persona and blur the line that separates gaming from real life.

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AR and VR games are the final frontier in eliminating that line completely. When your in-game character is no longer distinguishable from your true self, your choices in and outside of gameplay affect one another inherently.

The implications of this empathy-building through gaming are massive. Some game psychologists argue that it is the moral responsibility of AR/VR game developers to consider the empathic development of their gamers when creating storylines, often with a focus on empathy for other persons, animal rights, and the environment.

Whether or not you believe the onus of creating a more empathetic generation falls on game developers, the impact of these AR/VR games on the emotional development of gamers is undeniable and will likely only grow as the technology flourishes.

Kathleen Shea

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003999
https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-games/what-is-vr-gaming.html
https://venturebeat.com/2018/09/24/augmented-reality-can-foster-empathy-and-games-can-take-advantage/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217305381