When 17-year-old Daniel Petric killed his mother because she took away his Halo 3 game, his defense was that he failed to understand that “death wasn’t real”. In a CNN piece, Tom Coyner, a writer based in South Korea, commented that the parents who let their daughter starve to death while raising a virtual one were “physically and socially divorced from reality”. If this disconnect from reality sounds familiar, it should: it’s commonly associated with an addiction to crack. Regular cocaine users lose touch with reality, and addiction to crack cocaine has an insidious grip on 1.9 million people. The numbers of people facing crack addiction may soon be subsumed by another addiction: virtual reality (VR) gaming addiction. With over 1 billion gamersin the world, VR game developers and VR headset manufacturers need to take action to ensure players have the best gaming experience possible while engaging the community and proactively supporting self-regulation.
The Immersive World of Virtual Reality
VR headsets such as Oculus Rift, Sony Project Morpheus, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, FOVE VR, Zeiss VR One, and Razer OSVR offer an immersive experience in an artificial environment where the user feels just as immersed as in consensus reality. Virtual reality glasses can produce a visceral feeling of being in a simulated world, a form of spatial immersion called presence. The perception is created by tracking the user’s head movements to provide 3D imagery to its stereo screens, sound or other stimuli that provide an engrossing environment. Specifically, the following are needed to establish presence: a wide field of view, high resolution, low pixel persistence, high refresh rate, global display where all pixels are illuminated simultaneously, optics, optical calibration, tracking-translation with high accuracy, and low latency.
To create a sense of full immersion to perceive the digital environment to be physically real, immersive technology can perceptually fool the senses through: panoramic 3D displays (visual), surround sound acoustics (auditory), haptics and force feedback (tactile), smell replication (olfactory), and taste replication (gustation).
For some, living a VR fantasy will seem more rewarding than reality, as they partake in virtual adventures, travel, gaming and even companionship. In extreme cases, players would opt to live a vegetative state that keeps their vitals alive and live out their mortality in a complete fantasy. Welcome to the Matrix.
The Brain on VR
Video games are designed to promote user interest and repeat interaction. The lush jungle venues of Avatar pale in comparison to the wonders of the VR world — -and the gamer is directing it all. Real-life situations like rejection, suffering, and death become surreal in the virtual domain, with a second chance always around the corner in the form of another level, life, or character. This detachment from reality in the gaming environment is temporary, and in fact, is a welcome aspect of games since it provides a brief respite from everyday life. Most players will be able to separate reality from VR. However, just as crack affects the chemicals in the brain, video game addicts suffer from a similar negative impact. Since video game addicts typically experience a dissociation with reality, VR aggravates this situation. Not every gamer will become an addict, and the majority will be able to enjoy the games safely. However, adult populations suffer from video game addiction. An Iowa State University study indicated that about 9% of the youths studied showed signs of gaming addiction — -which correlates with other studies that showed young “pathological gamers” to be in the 7–11% range of gaming populations.
Adults who have difficulty controlling their behavior have a responsibility to recognize when it is out of control. While adult addicts may have a difficult time altering their behavior, parental influence over minors cannot be overstated, as studies have shown that parental involvement makes a difference in technology use.
Tackling Gaming Addiction
Keeping the customer’s best interests at heart is key to any business (after all, customers who stop going to work, speaking to their relatives, and suffer poor health outcomes are not going to be happy customers — -and neither will their relatives who develop a grassroots campaign against your company). A combination of high tech and low tech solutions provides for a range of practical tools that can help users.
Advances in wearables can clearly benefit users through a combination of functionality and data analysis. Developers can take a page from casino playbooks by creating an algorithm that recognizes the signs of addiction. Cognitive research on pupil dilation has shown that it can reliably indicate information processing in the brain, a useful indicator for the customer’s engagement. Body temperature has also been used to monitor user response, as well as visual tracking devices. These devices, like the “Camera mouse”, have been shown to be successful in interpreting user movements. Heart rate monitors are effective in assessing physical activity, and a factory-set timer that can be modified via password would allow for parental or individualized control.
South Korea has been one of the first nations to wade into the murky areas of legislation against Internet gaming, with poor results: rules such as the “Cinderella” law, which states that minors under 16 are not allowed to play Internet games from midnight to 6 am, are easily skirted and clear violations of civil rights. Government intervention in gaming activities is at best an unwieldy blunt instrument, and at worst, a violator of personal liberties of Orwellian proportions. Currently, there are no federal statutes limiting or restricting access to VR video games, but that may change.
VR headset companies and game developers should focus on self-regulation in order to best serve consumers, working in conjunction with industry bodies such as ESA and IDGA. Practical considerations include system time limits or breaks, track eye movements and pupils for fatigue, and reward players for maintaining healthy boundaries.
VR offers a powerful experience with incredible promise, and it is the responsibility of industry leaders and gamers to proactively promote a positive gaming culture and not look to legislation to set questionable policies.