Leah Perkinson, 13, plays in a virtual world at Virtual Reality Studio, Mt Roskill. Photo / Michael Craig
By: Nicole Barratt
A growing number of Kiwi kids are opting for virtual reality birthday parties over more traditional offerings like bouncy castles and bowling.
Managers of virtual reality (VR) studios, where kids as young as six can slap on a headset and immerse themselves in other worlds starring robots, pirates and zombies, say their popularity with children is greater than they expected, with one studio booked out a month in advance.
Auckland's Mt Roskill Virtual Reality Studio owner Holly White said they were hosting 20 to 30 children's birthday parties every weekend- adding up to more than 160 kids.
"It's really just grown in popularity through word of mouth. It catches on at schools with parents talking about it."
Hosting children's parties wasn't originally advertised on the studio's website, but they'd since added information and were booking out a month in advance, she said.
"It really has grown into such a big part of who we are."
Eden Terrace VRcade owner Kate Stevenson said the demand to host four to six kids' parties a month came as a surprise.
"Our audience is definitely different to what we thought it would be when we first set it up… It's kids eight to 12, and they've watched YouTube gaming videos where people play VR games.
A virtual reality session at the Virtual Reality Studio in Mt Roskill.
"We ask if they've ever used VR before and they say, 'No, but I already know how to do it'- they know all the little tricks."
Their favourites included the game 'Job Simulator', where the year is 2050 and "robots do everything".
Director of Christchurch's The VR Room Karen Dodgshun said their kids' parties were "chaos", but wonderful to watch.
"I think there's a lot of kids who aren't completely active, and they don't necessarily want to go to the trampoline park [for parties], and this is something inside they can all enjoy."
Dodgshun said about 80 games were on offer for kids to play on four headsets.
"There are games they can play against each other, but most tend to play on their own... It's an escape I suppose, they're in their own little world."
The company's biggest market for kids' parties was 10-14-year-olds, she said. Parties cost $160 for an hour, and $280 for two hours.
Dodgshun said they had a chat with parents before parties, as some games weren't suitable and wouldn't be played "unless mum signs off on them".
These included zombie-themed games that might feature gore or blood, and a drunken bar fight game "where the more beer you drink the better fighter you become".
But Dodgshun said there was little risk to children as it was well supervised, and generally kids liked to stay in their comfort zone games-wise.
Vas Ajello, University of Auckland teaching fellow in child and adolescent mental health, said VR's appeal for children was likely that it was a "richly stimulating" medium.
Ajello said although it could sound paradoxical for children to get together in order to be alone in their own worlds, that could be seen in every age.
Leah Perkinson, 13, plays in a virtual world at Auckland's Virtual Reality Studio. Photo / Michael Craig
"Teenagers get together and spend a lot of time on the phone or Facebook... I think the same would probably apply to VR, where there's still the fun of the experience even if it's not shared in the conventional way."
He added VR parties also "evened the playing field", in that it doesn't really matter how strong or fast a child is, they can all participate, so anxiety around being compared to each other is lowered.
Ajello said the only risk he could think of was kids being egged on by their peers to "go into forbidden territory"- like playing VR games with age restrictions.
But he acknowledged these were supervised parties, and with guidance from adults, felt they could be quite fun.