Aaron Poole investigates the impact that virtual reality might have on its users


VIDEO games have always offered their players fantastic possibilities. When we come home from a long day at college or work, they offer us the ability to transport ourselves into a different world, whether it’s a distant, forgotten past; in a spaceship headed to explore the vast unknown; to a far-off land populated by dragons and sorcerers. While this is unlikely to occur in the near future, the medium through which we begin to experience this is already beginning to change in front of our eyes.

​Virtual reality offers us a new way to live out our fantasies – the ability to be an active part in the impossible and the terrifying”

Looking back on the landscape of the video game world over the last twelve months, it’s hard to fathom how much of a leap we have taken in the development of video games and their technologies. Who knew that this year, as opposed to a new triple-A title, the most wanted video game would be an hour long experience that sees you take physical control of Batman in Gotham City? Virtual reality offers us a new way to live out our fantasies – the ability to be an active part in the impossible and the terrifying – and it looks like it’s here for the long haul.

VR companies, such as Sony, who are currently working on games for their newly released PSVR headset, are largely focused on bringing us experiences that we can’t, or are too afraid to, live through. At a recent press event in Dublin, I was able to go hands-on with one of these games.

Ocean’s Decent is a game which sees the player lowered in a cage to the depths of the ocean. “We want you to be transported to a different world”, I’m told by the assistant lowering the device onto my head. With 360 degree head tracking, I’m able to move my head anywhere, allowing me to see out to the ridiculously detailed 3D ocean surrounding me, just as a great white shark swims by and shakes the diver’s cage, complete with sound effects that were equally as detailed.

It’s an obvious fact that you experience emotions while playing games in a conventional manner, but to be inside the game is something that amplifies these emotions to levels beyond anything experienced before. This enables even the most simplistic of actions to become exciting and new.

“New levels of immersion that come with VR raise new levels of concern for its users, both physically and psychologically.”

These new experiences, however, bring new concerns. I was asked before engaging with the technology if I had any prior issues with regards to heart conditions or anxiety attacks, something that would rule me out of being able to test it, and was again shown a similar notice on the game’s load screen. New levels of immersion that come with VR raise new levels of concern for its users, both physically and psychologically. Developers and consumers alike should be aware of very real risks such as undiagnosed heart conditions, asthma and sensitivity to adrenaline.

It is fair to say that people are guided by the impulses of their environment, so there is a sense of danger attached to VR that exposes an emotional nerve. There was a lot going on in terms of how I felt inside that space – while playing ​Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, there were instances where I noticed that I had become very alert, causing adrenaline to start pumping throughout my body and for me to start sweating inside a room that was quite cool.
It was a dissociative experience that was designed to make you lose a sense of where you are in space, creating an atmosphere where your body doesn’t feel like it’s yours anymore. It is here that a sense of discomfort arises, and where a question of ethics might be raised.

Understanding the very real physical risks of VR will undoubtedly present a challenge for game developers. Intense reactions in VR experiences are going to raise new questions on the ethics of game design, making sure that they try not to scare users to death.

Responsibility is something that is going to fall on the shoulders of many developers in the near future. This is especially true with the advances in game AI, which could actively work out what it is that provokes emotional reactions and attempt to make those moments happen more often (not too dissimilar to scaling difficulty seen in games today).
In terms of ethical dilemmas, what was initially a product intended for an individual’s entertainment is in danger of veering more towards the realm of, for lack of a better term, a self-torture device. A note here to parents considering buying into the technology for their children: supervision is key.

As VR becomes widely available, and is set to enter the homes of thousands this Christmas, the studies are really just beginning for everyday gamers. Entering a virtual world offers challenges for both our minds and bodies, but the slightest miscalculation in gameplay design is in danger of causing a severe physical reaction in players. Caveat emptor.