Media reaction to 9/11 VR experience is a lesson to all VR developers

Media reaction to 9/11 VR experience is a lesson to all VR developers

By Jason Kingsley, Rebellion

December 22nd 2015 at 11:18AM

Rebellion co-founder Jason Kingsley looks at the fall-out of recent 9/11 VR experience 8:46 and looks at whether it’s the tip of the iceberg for visceral VR experiences

You’ll likely have seen the news and follow-up media reaction to the launch of a VR experience – 08:46 – based on the harrowing events of 9/11.

The first article to mention the new experience – days after it was released on Oculus Share on September 11th – included a brief preview of the experience, but wasn’t overly critical of the idea behind it. It took weeks for mainstream publications to weigh in to condemn the experience as insensitive, quoting those who lost loved ones that day labelling it ‘disgusting’. You can understand this reaction.

For those yet to catch 08:46, it opens with you sitting at your desk, taking the role of an office worker in the North Tower. A colleague asks you to hand her some documents, with a tilt of the head and click of a button, and moments later there’s a deafening crash as a plane hits the tower some floors below.

You’re then faced with the impossible task of trying to escape and the ‘experience’ ends in one of two ways: either dimming to black as you succumb to the smoke filling the office, or jumping from a smashed window.

The team behind 08:46 have recreated a horrible wormhole where anyone with an Oculus Rift can go back in time and exist in that time and in that space, where thousands died in a terrible act. Yet, digging deeper, the makers were a team of students, who put time into research to create an ‘authentic’ experience and haven’t created 08:46 as a commercial product.

Knowing this seems to radically transform how you view the experience. Whilst it remains unsettling, if the intention is to help foster greater empathy – potentially with young people who don’t have conscious memories of the attack – then that intention is to be applauded. One of the key issues here is the newness of virtual reality. When hardened gamers still don’t know what to make of it, you can understand how the reaction to 08:46 amongst the media and general public came about.

At Rebellion, we’re preparing for the launch of our own VR game, Battlezone. It’s a reboot of Atari’s classic 1980 arcade title, but now with the software and hardware to make that '80s VR dream a reality. Despite the striking sci-fi environments, it still benefits from using the PlayStation controller, so it’ll be both reassuringly familiar and wonderfully alien to a whole new generation of gamers. Yet we’re only just beginning to discover the true potential of VR, and its long-term future could well be away from gaming and towards virtual tourism, journalism or even education.

As we’ve seen with the 9/11 experience – not to mention the recent New York Times app transporting users to the vigils in Paris for those who died in the recent terrorist atrocities – it’s possible to now place users in an environment where they can see and feel part of their surroundings. It’s a huge responsibility, and clearly up to developers to assess what is and isn’t an appropriate time and space to put users into. The risk lies in putting consumers into visceral experiences for entertainment.

It’s a very different proposition to develop a VR game based on, for example, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, than to make a Call of Duty game for a 2D TV screen. Horror games fans might enjoy the feeling of terror and fear, but when the brain thinks the experience is real, there’s a real risk of a ‘game’ actually becoming a little traumatic.

It’s something we all have to be mindful of. Just recently PEGI announced VR might force them into a rethink of the ratings system given the immediacy and comparative realism of the platform. It’s something we as an industry need to get right, or we run the risk of VR’s huge potential to improve our lives being overlooked as a mere gimmick.

The real challenge looking to 2016 is to ensure that we’re educating the public on just how useful and powerful VR can be. The contrast between the myriad of documentaries and films around 9/11 – which drew little negative response – and the strength of reaction to 08:46 should be a lesson to us all.

It will take time to move past the growing pains all new mediums go through. Yet the potential for our virtual futures is vast. With VR, we can step away from the binary win/loss format of traditional games, the beginning, middle and end of books and film, and the clickbait headlines of modern journalist. Instead we can build a nuanced, informative and educational middle ground.

The future’s ours for the making.