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On the Design and Ethics of Virtual Reality and Immersive Experiences

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With the growing prevalence of virtual reality technology and fully immersive experiences (“Escape the Room” games, immersive theater, ARGs), designers of such entertainment find themselves faced with a question and a bit of a moral quandary: where do our boundaries lie? At this year’s GDC back in March, VR made a massive showing, so much so that it ended up displacing more than a few panels in order to free up the larger convention hall rooms to house all the attendees who were interested in VR.

In one of those panels, VR developers discussed aggressively scary room-scale experiences. Scott Stephan, design lead at WEVR, the folks who created TheBlu: Encounter for the HTC Vive, said (via GamesIndustry.biz), “There’s one thing that I find it [room-scale VR] 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.”

Current conventions and traditions for video games and theater allow for a separation of the audience (via the screen, the book, the proscenium, or otherwise), but when you remove that fourth wall–and not in the fun Deadpool-esque way–one finds that much more attention must be paid to the audience for whom you are creating. In that same GDC panel, Alex Schwartz, CEO of Owlchemy Labs (Job Simulator), 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.”

VR and immersion

Virtual reality affords designers a level of immersion that was heretofore unseen. It allows them to get closer to players, more so than ever before, and in so doing, it has ratcheted up a designer’s level of responsibility for the player’s well-being. The barrier to a powerful, significant experience has been significantly lowered through technology, and has thus opened the door to both incredibly positive and unbelievably negative experiences.

Straight up: we need to change our priorities. Questions like, “How affected do we expect players to be by this… does that matter?”; “How is this going to change the player ‘in real life’?” should now be considered a major part of the design process.

So, to bring up a word that has some pretty harsh connotations in the gaming world, the ethics around game design have changed. The things that a game designer must consider when designing a VR game have increased in both number and significance. As an aside: this isn’t to say that ethics were never considered in the creation and design of video games, but rather, the caliber and makeup of those ethics have changed now that we’ve entered into the realm of virtual reality.

In addition to that panel at GDC 2016, there are a great many conversations and suggestions of how to go about establishing and enforcing the ethics of VR that are happening right now. According to New Scientist, Thomas Metzinger, a philosopher at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, co-authored a paper that calls for a code of conduct around virtual reality. It states, “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.”

VR Designers, meet Immersive Experience Designers

These conversations happening around how to responsibly design virtual experiences directly parallel similar conversations being had regarding physical experiences. These include examples such as ARGs, “Escape the Room” games, immersive theater productions Then She FellSleep No More, and the like. In a sense, the work is the same: you are creating a fully immersive experience for someone, be they player, audience, or participant (though one can argue those are all one and the same). These experiences are deliberately designed to evoke or elicit a specific feeling (or range of feelings), and since the belief is that immersion is directly correlated to the degree one feels things, it stands to reason that special attention must be paid to how one goes about the execution of these experiences.

Many of the same problems that VR experience designers are running into are problems that immersive experience designers face in their own craft; one just happens to be in a virtual world, and the other happens to be in a physical world. Aside from that difference, the design process for either experience is more closely related than one may think.

Consider, for example, an immersive experience designed by a friend and fellow experience designer colleague of mine, Justin Oliphant. Titled “One More Day,” this experience involved blindfolding participants and leading them through a series of short immersive theater experiences designed around a specific sense (smell, taste, sound, touch). Full disclosure: I designed one of the experiences within the greater frame of the overall experience. Without getting into too much detail (for worry of spoilers and such), during the course of the experience, we had elicited some extreme emotions from our participants. What was clear from the end of the experience was that we did not properly design for after care. Said Oliphant:

As we presented different scenarios, our participants were reacting strongly. This is a great thing as a story creator, but we weren’t prepared for the exit out of this world. As we pulled them into the final room and asked them to remove their blindfolds, we sat on the other side of the room looking forward to discussing mechanics and methods we were playing with.

What we found though was that all the participants were each slowly having to come back down to reality. Some cried, many were in shock, and all needed a few moments to process their own feelings. Unfortunately, we weren’t prepared for this and we found ourselves having to quickly shift gears to serve them better.

Despite having the best of intentions, and despite those emotions being unpacked very carefully after the fact, it was clear that we had underestimated just how strongly our audience would react to the things we had created.

Now, compare that to an example of a virtual reality experience as described by Matthew Handrahan of GamesIndustry.biz:

There is much to enjoy at the GDC VR Lounge. Games and ‘experiences’, in first-person and third, ambient and action-packed, but one in particular has caught the attention of a crowd. They watch as the player spins on the spot, first one way then the other, her mouth slack beneath the bulk of the HTC Vive’s headset, a controller gripped in each white-knuckled hand. Every few seconds she screams, a piercing exclamation of what looks very much like legitimate terror.

As well, take a look at the numerous examples of Let’s Plays featuring extreme VR horror experiences (and one probably a little less horror-based but still scary). The extreme emotional reaction exhibited in each of these can be likened to those experienced by participants in the earlier example of “One More Day.” These are but a few examples, but what you’ll find throughout virtual and physical experiences is, again, this idea of evoking emotion. When sufficiently immersed, vulnerability increases. As vulnerability increases, emotions run that much stronger. And, with that, the potential for things to go wrong increases exponentially.

Lessons learned

So, what can a designer do to protect their audience? Uriah Findley, co-founder of Foma Labs, an experience design firm, believes that the answer lies in the fundamentals of doing one’s due diligence. According to him, one must “give genuine consideration to all possible outcomes,” which may be easier said than done. After all, you can’t thoroughly anticipate and prepare for every single type of person who may go through your game or experience, but all the same, it’s crucial that attention be paid. He believes one must consider the question of, “what are the ways this could go wrong,” not just in a QA/technical sense, but in a “our audience is doing something we did not expect” sense.

Findley also paraphrased the Hippocratic Oath, saying, “First, do no harm. Keeping that in mind should be the first step of designing any experience.” Of course, one doesn’t purposefully set out to do harm in designing these experiences (at least, most people wouldn’t), but the harm comes in not developing with empathy; it comes with not understanding your audience.

Anthony Rocco, also a co-founder at Foma Labs, suggests that in order to understand your audience, it’s important to establish one’s self as they would in any other leadership position. “You have to be willing to subject yourself to it,” he said. In order to begin to understand what your audience is experiencing, one must put one’s self through the same experience. Granted, you may not react the same way, but for every moment spent in preparation going through an experience, valuable knowledge is gained that, in turn, will help you understand and thus protect your audience.

As well, placing focus on developing good content–not just pushing the boundaries of technology–is critical to protecting and respecting your audience and furthering virtual reality as a viable entertainment medium. Said Rocco, “Genuine content development needs to happen laterally with tech development.” It’s not enough to simply iterate on game engines and visuals; what keeps a medium going is the quality of its content.

Being upfront about what your experience entails constitutes a large part of how your experience is received, as well. While it’s fun a perhaps a bit cheeky to play to the mystery and mystique of it all, it’s still critical to convey some sense of warning if the experience you’ve created has potentially difficult or emotionally taxing moments. Going back to the example of “One More Day,” Oliphant said, “On one hand, mystery and secrecy are a game mechanic that isn’t always necessary. To be honest, the more participants know about what they are getting into, the more they can decide if they are ready for potentially transformative and emotional experiences.”

In other words: one must build a sense of trust with their audience. Geordie Aitken, advisor at Aitken Leadership Group and experience facilitator, had this to say about trust:

People need to feel connection in order to trust. And trust is necessary to feel safe enough to ‘push a boundary’. I think a well-wrought narrative can be critical in building a human connection… and thereby building trust. If a participant can really experience themselves, sympathetically, in a story, then that is a powerful foundation.

Just like what Rocco said earlier of being a leader, it’s about building trust. It’s about getting your player, participant, or audience to believe in what you’re doing, and that you wouldn’t lead them astray.

Moving forward

Based on these and many similar conversations, one thing is clear: it all comes down to empathy. When you ask someone to put on a blindfold or don a headset, you are asking them to trust in you. You are asking them to make themselves vulnerable in a brand new way. The comfort and well-being of your audience is now just that much more important. Tech and the human element of how we experience things have never before been so close together as they are now with VR and immersive experiences. For the good of both industries, we must be so much more responsible about the things we create.

(part of featured image via Pen & Banjo Films/The Institute)

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