There has been quite a bit written about Virtual Reality (VR) and children but the analysis has focused on the risk viewing VR content could have on eyesight. The majority of VR headset manufacturers are setting age limits for users. Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headsets have a 13+ age requirement. HTC, while not setting an age limit, warns against letting young children use the Vive. This is certainly more of a “better safe than sorry” tactic than the result of any conclusive findings on the impact of using VR on “growing” eyes. Kids, of course, face the same issues as adults when it comes to motion sickness or the risks of hitting objects in real life while moving about in a virtual one. More recently, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario Bros, took a very cautious approach to VR when it comes to kids saying more research needs to be done to make sure the kids are safe and parents do not worry.
Physical Vs. Emotional and Psychological Impact of VR on Kids
While there seems to be enough concern about the physical impact of VR on kids, I am personally more concerned about the emotional impact VR is likely to have. Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been studying VR for more than a decade. In 2009, they published the results of a study that focused on children’s memory and VR. A group of children played with whales under water through VR. A week after the experience took place, they were asked about it. 50% of them said they remembered it as if it actually happened in the physical world.
This weekend I went to the movies with my daughter who will be nine in December. We saw “Pete’s Dragon” in 3D. During the trailers, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” played and, as many times before when a scary scene was shown, the glasses came off and the fingers went in her ears. Thus far, my daughter has only tried child friendly games or educational experiences in VR so she was either able to understand it was fiction or she had experienced something like visiting the Natural History Museum in New York City so she felt like she was visiting somewhere familiar. Our movie experience made me wonder how she would react to a story told in VR.
How is Storytelling Different in VR?
Earlier in the year at the Samsung Developer Conference, I attended a session on VR where Eric Darnell, the Chief Creating Director of Baobab Studios explained the difficulties of storytelling in VR. Baobab created a computer animated VR short interactive movie called Invasion where a bunch of aliens come to take over Earth.
Instead of being populated by humans, Earth has only two citizens: two white fluffy, super cute bunnies — the viewer is one of them. When the storytelling becomes interactive, you sometimes lose control over the pace and composition of the story but the team at Baobab was able to come up with a technique to inspire the viewer, through sound and visual clues, to follow the path they wanted. Interactivity brings an extra layer to the story; this can be good or bad. Darnell talked about a scene where there are aliens in front of the viewer while the other bunny is behind him/her. This was fun for some as they felt they were really in the story as they could “feel” the bunny’s presence behind them. However, others were stressed by the experience as they were not sure whether they should look in front or behind. Even more interesting was how viewers reacted to one tested story ending where the other bunny dies. Killing the bunny triggered much stronger feelings than it would have done in a regular movie. You are in the story; you are the bunny’s companion yet there is nothing you can do to save it. You can see how this must be much harder on children – and adults for that matter, I cried watching Pete’s Dragon! – than a traditional screening, even a 3D one.
VR Experiences might be Virtual but the Emotions It Triggers are Very Real
What makes the emotions even stronger is that the child will be completely “alone” in this world and taking the headset off for a few seconds might not be the first thought. If you think of those instances where you are wearing a VR headset as well as headphones, you can easily see how what we call immersive can turn into a terrifying experience for a child. The quick TV channel switch when something inappropriate comes on, or the burying of the face in the armpit, will not work as parents will be left clueless as to what is happening inside the headset.
Because of this, I believe VR content aimed at minors, young children in particular, calls for more stringent guidelines so that once the concerns for any physical risk will go away, and they will, we do not forget about the emotional and psychological impact VR could have.
Of course, children are not the only segment that could find VR experiences too immersive. Like for many other platforms before VR, sex and violence are big sellers for both games and content. While it might not be down to platform owners to determine what is bad and what is not, I believe there is a duty that lies with app store owners and content publishers not to censor but to warn. Not an easy discussion to have and one I am sure we will hear more about in the future.