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How should parents treat violence in virtual reality?

How should we adjust our responses when the killing "feels" real?

We're only weeks away from retail virtual reality platforms reaching players, and some aspects of the technology's use in day-to-day life are beginning to sink in.

My children are excited about playing some of the upcoming games, but experiences like The Brookhaven Experiment, an upcoming horror game for the HTC Vive, have challenged my own thoughts of what is age appropriate when played in virtual reality, especially with motion-sensing controllers.

It's not that the game is overly violent; there aren't large amounts of gore or blood effects. It never feels gratuitous. I would likely have no issues with my oldest son playing it, were the game displayed on a screen. But you're inside the experience, and you feel as if you're physically holding a firearm. That changes things.

Steve Bowler, one of the two developers working on the game, also has kids. I picked his brain about what it feels like to deal with violence in virtual reality as a developer, and also as a parent.

This is a concern, and developers know it

Before we even get to parenting, it's important to note that violent situations feel different in VR for everyone. It has nothing to do with your age.

"VR absolutely changes how we think about violence," he told Polygon. "It's frighteningly real when you're in there. I jokingly aimed the gun at my face and pulled the trigger, and the act of doing that drastically changed my heart rate."

monster gif

Our physical and immediate reaction to an external threat is something that developers have to design around, lest they overwhelm the player.

"The violence, any violence, feels so much more real than anything else you've ever experienced that your body reacts to it immediately with fight or flight responses," Bowler explained.

"Even just having three enemies walk right up to you is so damn intimidating that we had to add an 'Out of Ammo' fail state for the game." An earlier version of the game left you to be ripped apart by the monsters if you ran out of bullets, but now that situation ends the game. It operates as a sort of "eject button" so "you aren't forced to endure your terrifying demise," Bowler explained.

It may sound almost like a dare — are you brave enough to deal with being killed by monsters — but in practice it hurts the game. If players get too uncomfortable, they'll stop playing. It should be intense, but not physically uncomfortable or genuinely upsetting.

But everyone is different.

He let his friend's 12 year-old try the game after a bit of begging, and the child just as quickly asked to be removed from the game. "He didn't even experience any violence yet and his body was already demanding a flight response from him," Bowler stated.

Was the child damaged by the situation? Of course not, or at least not any more than any of us are hurt by media that we find momentarily overwhelming. The child shared his feelings, an adult was there to help, and everyone was fine. The important thing was that someone was there.

We don't have to be afraid, but we do need to show up

I don't think virtual reality is going to hurt our kids any more than M-rated games or R-rated films. There have long been arguments that violence in games may be more damaging due to the situations feeling more immediate and "real," and that possibility is going to be discussed again as more people try virtual reality games.

But just like pinball, rock n' roll and video games ... there will likely be a lot of handwringing and worry that peters out to nothing. The real threats to our children almost never come from their entertainment.

The real threats to our children almost never come from their entertainment

If anything, my experiences with introducing virtual reality in the home have been comforting. The best practices I've found with video games and movies work just as well with VR devices.

So what are my own best practices for parenting and games? I make sure to try what my children are playing while being aware of the content in the games and experiences. I watch them play and make sure they're not overwhelmed or having a negative reaction. I make sure I know what games my children are playing and how they're interacting with them.

The only difference I've found with VR is that some content that I may think is OK on the screen may not be the best fit for my family in virtual reality, and of course any adjustment to the rating system may be helpful, but I know my children and my family better than everyone else. Nothing will beat paying attention and being involved.

And for now? I think we're going to wait a few years before my kids try Brookhaven. "As a parent and a hopefully responsible VR dev, I would definitely be behind some kind of Presence Ratings for VR titles," Bowler said. "I know there's a lot of talk of Comfort Ratings, which are based on how much motion sickness the title induces, but I don't want my kids playing this game because of the intensity and the violence ... I helped make this and it still scares the crap out of me regularly."

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