VR could traumatise players, warns British game CEO

CEO of hesitant to create a VR version of hit sniper game because of PTSD fears

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 1:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 July, 2016, 3:59pm

Virtual reality (VR) offers huge opportunities for new gaming experiences, but there are fears the technology has the potential to traumatise audiences.

Several VR devices, including the Oculus Rift, have launched in 2016, with more to come. The technology will allow games developers to create much more immersive experiences, according to Jason Kingsley, CEO of British video game developer Rebellion.

"Every form of entertainment up to this point, you have been an observer. With computer games you become the protagonist, but that only takes you so far. VR makes you no longer just a participant in terms of watching but you are present in this story," he says.

"The trouble is that means it's more intense. You're surrounded by it and immersed in it. Suddenly it becomes more real rather than abstracted."

Kingsley warned that there may be problems that need to be considered when developing games and experiences for virtual reality.

"Will a horror game give you the same physiological reactions as being in a horrific situation for real? Horror movies can be very scary or very cathartic or very terrifying, but horror VR will take it beyond that and do we want to be entertained like that?"

Developing for VR is also a challenge. Kingsley confirmed that his studio doesn't allow developers to drive home for 30 minutes after being in VR. He described one developer who, after playing a VR game for four hours, had to sit down and "reload reality" because his sense of self was left behind in the game.

"His brain needed to adjust to the rules of the real world again," Kingsley said.

One of Rebellion's franchises, "Sniper Elite", allows players to take control of a World War 2 sniper. A feature of the game is a "kill-cam" which tracks a bullet as it hits an enemy and shows the damage done to their body.

"We're famous for our fairly grotesque and extreme kill-cams," he said. "The idea behind that is to emphasise what one bullet from a sniper rifle can do. It's also gory and there's a part of the demographic that loves gore.

Kingsley described how he was hesitant to create a VR version of "Sniper Elite."

"We have to consider that fairly thoroughly before we start on that road because you're playing a war game and you're killing artificial people. Where does one draw the line? Will you trigger PTSD in some proportion of your players?

"I don't want to do that. I don't want to traumatise my players and PTSD is a very, very serious issue for our modern soldiers."

VR is not only useful for gaming, but is an efficient video marketing tool, according to Phil Nottingham, video strategist for marketing platform Wistia. He also called for game developers to be cautious.

"Developers should retain a sense of responsibility towards gamers' wellbeing, as continuous hours of unbroken gameplay, whether traditional or VR-based, is not recommended by any health experts," he recommends.

"One solution to prevent any detrimental effects could be to have indicators built in to the VR experience, reminding gamers to take frequent breaks."

Kingsley suggested that there needs to be dialogue between the games industry and regulators such as classification boards.

"We need guidelines. We are going to be exploring this space imminently so it would be really great to start a dialogue in this area. Is it okay to strap somebody in VR to a chair and simulate torturing them in VR? There is already a game like that and I don't want to participate in it as a game."

The line on what constitutes acceptable content is being tested. One example of questionable content was 08:46, released in October last year. Developed by a team of French students, the game recreates the events of 9/11 and follows an office worker in the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

As reported by Tech Insider, the game ends with the player either suffocating from smoke or jumping from the 101st floor of the building.

"I'm not a big one for censorship, but I kind of know it needs to be there in the extremes," added Kingsley. "It comes down to where we draw the line."

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