On Immersive Virtual Reality Technology and the Ethics Questions It Raises
Immersive virtual reality technology is steadily gaining a foothold in the entertainment and gaming markets, and proof of this is the extreme popularity of fully immersive experiences in the form of alternate reality games (ARGs), immersive theater, “Escape the Room” games, and the like. Along with the increasing popularity of immersive VR, there has emerged a question that have put many entertainment designers and programmers at a moral dilemma: where does the limit end?
At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) held last March 2016, there was such a great demand for virtual reality to the extent that it forced out several panel conferences in order to free the larger convention halls for the VR participants.
Room Scale Experiences
At one of the panels, a team of VR developers talked about room scale experiences that specializes in horror. In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Scott Stephan, WEVR’s lead designer (the people behind TheBlu: Encounter for the HTC Vive), said about room-scale VR, “There’s one thing that I find it does a little too well. I find that scary experiences, horror experiences need to be really finely calibrated. If you see a horror movie on a screen, you have the abstraction. It’s not so frightening, and you know you’re there for fun.”
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With more traditional forms of media like theater, movies, books, and video games, their setup allows for a certain level of separation between the media and the audience via the proscenium, the screen, the printed page, and the like. This structure makes it possible for the audience to absorb themselves in the story while still retaining some level of detachment. With immersive VR, that fourth wall is practically removed—and not in a fun, satire-laden Deadpool-esque way either. As such, we must address the elephant in the room: the mental and psychological well-being of the audience for whom the immersive VR is being made.
In that same GDC panel, Alex Schwartz, the CEO of Owlchemy Labs, said, “I think I would say we would nope the f*ck out of any jump scare kind of game, and try to avoid that. It’s really rough on the players. VR is now making gaming and interactive entertainment more accessible than it’s ever been, and so to throw someone into the most intense experience? We’re very against that. I’d definitely try to push in the opposite direction.”
Virtual Reality and Immersion
Virtual reality’s immersive structure has added a depth of dimension that had never before been seen before in games. Its very design enables the designer to get much closer to players, and thus, it has also increased their responsibility for the players’ well-being as a result of playing the games. An obstacle had been removed with the help of technology, creating a more powerful experience that while creating positive experiences also caused negative ones.
In the conference, the need for a shift in priorities was brought up. Questions like “How will players be affected by this? And does that matter?” and “How is this going to transform the player’s personality and his real-life dealings?’ were proposed to be made part of the design process.
Outside of the GDC 2016 panel, there were also many conversations in the community that opened the subject of launching and enforcing an ethics code in virtual reality. Thomas Metzinger, a scientist and philosopher based in Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University, recently co-wrote a research paper that put a spotlight on the need for the enforcement of a code of behavior within the virtual reality world. In his paper, he stated, “VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as ‘conscious experience,’ ‘selfhood,’ ‘authenticity,’ or ‘realness.’ In addition, it will transform the structure of our life-world, bringing about entirely novel forms of everyday social interactions and changing the very relationship we have to our own minds.”