Things that happen in VR tend to be a lot scarier than they are on a TV screen, and I think that’s mostly due an unparalleled sense of invasion of space. If you’re playing Resident Evil 7 on your TV, you have the comfort of whichever familiar setting you’re sitting in, as well as some space between you and the things that happen in-game. If you’re playing in VR there’s no comfort at all, not even the ability to shield your eyes with your hands if you want to, and with that, comes an array of emotional responses that are hard to find anywhere else.
Obviously, Resident Evil 7 is meant to be scary so it accomplishes that easily, but there are an assortment of things that would be fairly tame if I were playing on a TV that dramatically unsettle me when playing in VR. Sometimes it’s just a vast amount of space, sometimes it’s the enormous scale of a generally peaceful creature, but most recently, it was having a gun pointed to my head, and having to lean toward it, in an Australian-made game calledThe American Dream VR.
The context of that is totally friendly - this is a satirical, on-rails adventure set in an idealistic, post-war America that effectively gives you guns for hands. The chunk I played was well-written, smartly designed and funny both in action (like being instructed to shoot at a door to tell your mother you’re hungry, because it’s the American way), and in dialogue, which is why the fact that I completely froze in discomfort is such a powerful testament to VR. You’re acting as a ‘baby’, sitting in a crib, and a cardboard cut-out resembling your mother feeds you bits of corn from the barrel of a gun. It’s obviously satire. It’s funny. It terrified me.
Things that are fine on a TV can be crazy unsettling in VR.
I’m sure I’ve had guns pointed at me in games countless times since I started playing regularly, at around five years old. No instances particularly stand out, and that’s probably because it has happened so often and absolutely never bothered me. In The American Dream, though, I hesitated for longer than is probably polite at a trade show where there are other people waiting in line to play, because my body just doesn’t know how to react to that kind of imagery in VR. I absolutely enjoyed playing the game, but was still crippled by discomfort with a well of nerves in my stomach, and felt utterly powerless to something that’s only virtually there. I don’t know why.
Of course, I consciously know that nothing bad is going to happen to me when I’m playing VR at PAX. I know I’m not going to get shot in the face, but some part of me, subconsciously, doesn’t register that logic. VR has an indescribably powerful ability to make you feel like the things you’re seeing are real, and that’s where a lot of virtual reality sickness starts - you have a visually-induced perception of motion, but your body doesn’t match it and you get confused. The same applies to being afraid of something that isn’t really there, which can cause a really jarring disconnect in VR.
I should mention that I’m Australian, and since guns are far less common in Australia than they are in the US, I can count the amount of them I’ve seen in real life on two hands, and three of those sightings were in Texas. Having an unfamiliarity with firearms might mean I’d react to this far more strongly than someone with a gun license would, and the way that bias affects my sub-conscious reaction is pretty fascinating, too. Some people are terrified of heights in VR (I’m not one of those people), even though watching someone else play a tightrope-simulator that’s situated 50 stories high doesn’t bother them at all.
It’s so hard to predict what will and what won't make you uncomfortable.
It’s just very hard to predict what will and what won't make you uncomfortable in VR, and I feel like it offers a window into your subconscious that almost nothing else really can. As the technology develops it’ll be interesting to see how therapy-based apps might help people tackle their fears, or if we eventually become completely desensitized and don’t get scared by things in VR at all. You’ve probably heard the story about ‘Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’, which is a 50-second silent film of a train pulling into a station, and the urban legend goes that when it was shown in cinemas in 1896 people screamed and left the theatre, unable to convince themselves that the train wasn’t really going to come out of the screen.
I wonder if we’ll ever outgrow VR. I wonder if we’ll ever become desensitized to simulated fear, and if, maybe in ten years from now, this article will be just as funny to people as the concept of Arrival of a Train at La Coitat. Right now, I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to react to things in Virtual Reality, and I really love that about it.