“I recently played ‘The Visitor’ in VR. In front of an audience of drunken friends egging on my high pitch outbursts. I lasted seven out of the ten minutes, finally succumbing after a close encounter with a pixelated pillow. The Visitor’s story is about an unexpected guest calling to your house in the middle of the night. Developed by ‘NostalgicBear VR’ for the ‘Oculus Rift’ and ‘HTC Vive’ it relies on atmosphere to unsettle players, using visual cues in the form of intermittent flickering lights to inform the player where to look. Paralysed and lying in bed, you can only wait and watch as the strange occurrences culminate in one of the biggest jump scares I’ve ever experienced. As virtual reality goes, this particular experience has a high creep factor. It’s one of those new VR ‘games’ that really should come with a free pair of pants…In the wake of the PlayStation VR release, headed up by the dark and psychological Here They Lie, pretty much every major gaming outlet slashed their prices on horror games and gamers all over the world have been celebrating Halloween with their first exposure to a virtual reality freak out…VR grips the gamer with such a suspension of disbelief; when the headset is on there is seemingly no escape. Do developers take into account the psychological differences between previous gaming horror experiences and that of VR?”
The opening quote in today’s blog is from an article by Gareth May published last month for the Wareable website (‘Could VR horror be too…horrifying?’). I was interviewed by May for the story and is one of a number of media stories that I have been interviewed over the last year concerning virtual reality. Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a personal interest in horror films and a professional interest in excessive use of virtual reality so it was an interview I enjoyed doing (in fact, May interviewed me for two stories simultaneously, the other being on mechanophilia – sexual arousal from machines – which also was published last month in an article in the Daily Telegraph).
In his article on VR horror, May wanted to know about whether the playing of VR horror games could be problematic in any way (or as May asked me, ‘Is it possible that VR is just a bit too ‘real’?’). I pointed out that there had been little empirical research on the topic and that almost everything that I said was speculative. I noted that while VR is certainly more immersive than usual, we should remember that immersion can occur even without being in an VR environment. For instance, a lot of my research into video gaming demonstrates that gaming can be immersive (particularly the research I have been carrying out with Dr. Angelica Ortiz de Gortari on game transfer phenomena and some research I co-authored in the mid-2000s on time loss in video game play). I did point out to May that for most people, there’s not going to be a problem with playing VR horror games. Those that already enjoy watching horror films, the vast majority will probably love it even more in VR and it’s not going to have a negative impact on them. I told May that I loved gore in horror films and said that I would probably be fine playing an immersive horror VR game and that seeing somebody being disembowelled in front of me would have little effect on me psychologically. (However, I ought to point out that my few experiences of VR have left me feeling sick as I suffer from motion sickness). However, you can never rule out a small minority of individuals that it may negatively affect either psychologically or traumatically. In short, I don’t have many concerns about this until scientific evidence proves otherwise.
May also interviewed Professor Tanya Krzywinska, Director of the Games Academy at Falmouth University who thinks that VR and horror video games are a good match:
“VR is the next natural step for one of gaming’s most popular genres. Horror made its way into video games very early on [such as] the 1995 point and click ‘Phantasmagoria’ [was] an early breakthrough game due to its use of video snippets to show a ‘real’ actress reacting to the horrific events as they unfolded around her…’Silent Hill’ [was also] a game-changer for its use of sound and its surreal ‘Twin Peak-ish twist’ on survival horror. Both these games utilise a particular emotional palette that I regard as central to games: a sense of claustrophobia and the sense of being unable to act effectively on a situation…VR can make very good use of this palette because of its immersive nature and I think horror is one of the few genres that VR really suits…Horror is very inclined to want to take advantage of new formats to refresh the palette and work with the cache that the novelty provides. Without that novelty, repetition occurs and you then only manage to engage younger audiences who haven’t been around the horror block. Horror is a very suitable place to take a good, long, critical look at ethics and I hope that some game designers see that”.
So is the introduction of VR for the horror genre a game-changer? May also interviewed the independent games developer Sergio Hidalgo, creator of the creepy dungeon game Dreadhalls. He was quoted as saying:
“VR can work as an immersion multiplier, and given that the horror genre is built on immersion, it simply opens more opportunities to create experiences that take advantage of that sense of physicality it can provide. Simply being in a scary environment can be a very engaging experience in VR on its own. This was already true when I started ‘Dreadhalls’ but the technology keeps moving forward and improving with new developments such as room scale or motion tracked controllers…In ‘Dreadhalls’ there are monsters that react to the player’s gaze direction, forcing the player to either not look at them directly or the opposite. This is a much richer interaction when the player is performing it herself rather than via a mouse or controller. ‘Dreadhalls would never have gathered such attention if it weren’t for the new types of interactions and features made possible by VR tech…The main ethical recommendation I have in this regard is that of not betraying the player’s trust. When the player enters a VR experience and surrenders control over their senses to the developer, it’s important that [the players are] aware of exactly what to expect, and that this promise isn’t broken by the developer”.
In an interview that May had with Ben Tester, the games developer of VR horror game Don’t Knock Twice, Tester noted:
“Developers are in a strange predicament where it’s now possible to make a game that’s too scary. For that reason, ‘Don’t Knock Twice’ includes traditional adventure gameplay elements, such as puzzle solving and environmental props, to aid storytelling and remind the player every once in a while that they are still playing a game. We want to make a great horror game that people will remember for sure but we don’t want to make it so uncomfortable that it makes it unplayable. In ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, we want to avoid the player going through a constant stream of scares one after another and instead, create an interesting and atmospheric environment which will creep out any horror enthusiast. It’s about finding the right balance between having a solid gaming experience and immersing the player in a terrifying horror situation…In the VR demo of ‘Don’t Knock Twice’, players can break down a door with an axe. [This often leads to players] leaning their heads forward and triggering the classic ‘Here’s Johnny’ moment [from ‘The Shining’], which only amplifies the jump scare which follows. A scare that wouldn’t have been half as effective if it was in traditional gaming style”.
Finally, May asked me for some advice for those who were scared witless by playing VR horror games. My quoted response? “Just shut your eyes”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
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