Despite the fact that you look silly, experiencing VR can be a very intense and personal experience. Because you’re blocked off from the sensory experiences of the real world, it’s your role as a gamer to suspend disbelief and internalize that the things you see, hear and do are what is actually happening to you. Generally, when you do that, you have more fun.
Recently, when I tested the Sony’s PlaystationVR, I ran through a demo of high-wire walking developed in promotion of the Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie ‘The Walk.’ The folks at Sony set me up, wearing the headset and headphones, on a yard stick to help mimic the feel of the wire. The demo sent me high above the New York City skyline, looking out, around and down onto the city below. When the demo prompted me to walk, my legs were jelly: my body was in an a temperature-controlled office in the Bay Area, but my mind was looking out between two buildings with just a rope to guide me.
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I stepped out onto the wire, and the demo ended. “That’s great,” the demo conductor said. “We tested this out at gaming conventions and half the people couldn’t even step onto the wire.”
The most controversial moment in ‘The Walk’ happens near the end, when highwire artist Philippe Petit walks a wire between the World Trade Center towers. The mere view of the two massive skycrapers that collapsed on September 11, 2001, killing nearly 3,000 people, was enough to rub still-frayed nerves raw again. Not even 15 years on, and America still struggles with what happened on that day in varying capacities.
So tell me, why would someone create a VR experience about 9/11?
Released last month ‘8:46’ describes itself as “a narrative driven experience designed for virtual reality, which makes you embody an office worker in the North Tower of the World Trade Center during the 9/11 events.”
For those not in the know, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower at 8:46am. The ensuing building damage, fire and smoke hazards led people to jump to their deaths.
Recreating such a traumatic experience for a video game, even one that calls itself narrative-driven, is already hard to comprehend. It seems illogical in its controversy — manufactured drama at the expense of people who still live the with the scars of that day and its lasting repercussions.
But creating that experience for VR is triggering in a way that can’t be qualified until you put that headset on. When you are required to turn your head to look, or move your hands to feel — as companies like Oculus, Sony, HTC and others are moving towards — your mind automatically compensates to stitch the experience together and make it real. You’re not just moving around some avatar on the screen from the comfort of your couch.
You are immersed in the situation. You make decisions and they feel like they’re yours, given to you by that intimate first-person perspective. You feel scared, even when you shouldn’t. Even just looking out a window. Even just looking out on the city below.
I won’t pretend to be able to understand what the creators of ‘8:46’ — a team of French developers — were intending when they developed this game. Clearly, they were going for drama, and they achieved it. But something like this gives us an opportunity to understand: when and how can we develop emotional or harrowing events for VR without risking trauma, triggering, or damage?
We’re given a whole new set of tools with VR as we inch closer to graphic realism in video games and more authentic controller inputs for the medium. While I don’t expect developers to purposefully sidestep any and all forms of violence and dramatic tropes that have become commonplace in modern games, it is worth understanding that those scenes and scenarios have a different impact when they are so close to you.
VR is personal. It triggers visceral reactions in a way that traditional gaming does not. Developers need to use this wisely, or risk hurting those they seek to entertain.