nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh on responsible VR design and dealing with player fears

Virtual reality: The emotion amplifier

If you have used a virtual reality (VR) headset recently, you’ll understand the sense of presence that a combination of great software and hardware can make you feel. The feeling evoked – that you have been teleported to another world – is due to the fact that you’re not on the sofa looking at the world through a 40-inch rectangular window – you’re actually in the world. This major shift from ‘viewer’ to ‘actor’ brings with it many powerful advantages, along with and several new areas of responsibility.

Good VR acts like an emotion amplifier. This amplification is most easily demonstrated with horror – try playing a horror game in VR and it can be scarier (by an order of magnitude) than on a TV. Rather than empathising with a character who is being chased by a poltergeist, you are that character.

Rather than looking at a first-person view on a 2D monitor, safely surrounded by the real world, your first-person view is in 3D all around you, and you can no longer see the safety net of the real world. Plus, you have 3D audio all around you rather than 2D stereo speakers – it’s a very powerful combination.

Horror may be the easiest emotion to elicit, but there are a tonne of other emotions that can be amplified in the same way – for example, happiness, sadness, awe, curiosity, pride and even emotional attachments to other characters. All these are likely to be much stronger when executed well in VR. Moreover, this ability to create strong emotions also makes VR ideal for education and learning.

With the new power that we have as VR designers to create stronger emotions comes increased responsibility. Fears are a particularly important area to understand, as they can be much more apparent in VR than in traditional gaming. Furthermore, whilst fear can be a good thing if you’re making a horror game (which is clearly sold on that basis), it is something that generally should be avoided. If new players feel uncomfortable in VR, they are not likely to want to return.

Probably the worst scenario as a game designer is that players experience something in your VR game that freaks them out so badly, they rip the headset off and refuse to put it back on again. Moreover, because VR is an emotion amplifier, all sorts of negative emotions and fears can become apparent that even the player may not have known about before. Do you suffer from a fear of giant creatures over 30 foot tall? I suspect you don’t even know yet.

Fears are a particularly important area to understand, as they can be much more apparent in VR than in traditional gaming.

I ought to mention in passing Jed Ashworth, Sony’s senior game designer on Morpheus, who has been doing a lot of work in this area, and is a huge advocate for responsible design. Jed’s passion is making sure that players have fantastic VR experiences – and making sure that developers understand the responsibilities of VR design. Conversations with Jed have provided me with the impetus to look into this area more closely.

So what kind of negative emotions are likely to be the biggest issues? They are likely to match the most common phobias in the real world, which are:

  1. Arachnophoia (fear of spiders)
  2. Ophidiophobia (fear of snakes)
  3. Acrophobia (fear of heights)
  4. Agoraphobia (fear of crowded areas)
  5. Cynophobia (fear of dogs)
  6. Astraphobia (fear of thunder and lightning)
  7. Claustrophobia (fear of small spaces)
  8. Mysophobia (fear of germs/dirt)
  9. Aerophobia (fear of flying)
  10. Trypophobia (fear of holes)

So what can you do about these in your VR game/experience? First of all, if your game contains anything that you think may freak some players out, you should display this when the game starts – treat your players with respect and let them know in advance. Maybe just a screen saying “This game contains moments of intense horror”, or something like that.

You can also give players a panic button. Find a button/control that can be used to instantly pause the game and take the player to a calmer place – maybe fade to white with some relaxing music to give players a break if they need it. Let players know where this is. Hopefully 90 per cent of players won’t need it, but the remaining ten per cent will be incredibly glad it’s there. Knowing it is there will also make their experience much more comfortable.

If your game contains anything that you think may freak some players out, you should display this when the game starts – treat your players with respect and let them know in advance.

You can also look at allowing players to skip sections of the game if they aren’t comfortable; or to brighten the level up; or to replace all the enemy characters with teddy bears for the rest of the current level (assuming the player isn’t arcotophobic!)

I understand that some of this advice sounds extreme. For many VR games, it will be unnecessary. Nevertheless, it’s important to realise the responsibilities of VR development and the effect of emotion amplification on players. Above all, make sure you user-test your game heavily (something you should be doing regardless, naturally!). Good user testing across a range of demographics should help identify any moments in your VR game that might need attention.

And finally, don’t forget that emotion amplification is an incredibly exciting thing. I’ve focused mainly on the negative side because it is something that game designers need to understand. But there are huge positives, and I’m looking forward to VR games which make me laugh, cry and maybe even feel love (amorous or otherwise) for another character.

In VR, anything is possible…

[nDreams is a UK developer that focuses on virtual worlds and virtual reality. You can find out more about the studio at www.ndreams.com]

Image credit: Until Dawn by Supermassive Games

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