The psychological and emotional adaptation of the mind to virtual reality
[Cody is a game designer and user experience engineer who has over 10 years in the game design industry.]
Technology is moving fast in the world of virtual entertainment, immersion and the concept of ‘presents’ is becoming wildly successful. Chances are if you have tried the Oculus Rift you are already in love with what it can do. The virtual reality industry will continue to expand as more people are given the opportunity to try these exciting new technologies and experience what they can do.
With more people getting their hands on this new medium we can start to get a better idea of how it will affect us. What is it going to do and how will our brains receive it? A common misconception is that these technologies will consume and negatively impact our neural relation to reality. There is very little proof I have found that supports the idea that our brain will suffer in these environments. However there are some very interesting changes in store for our minds within these virtual worlds.
At the core the concept of VR is simply a digital engine simulating pixels that cover the majority of our field of view and are reactive to our movement. So what makes this different as opposed to past media revolutions such as TV, film, music, and books? We all know what makes a good song, movie, or book, we know they are good when they are able to pull you in and create an emotional connection with you. When you can feel the emotions and feelings that the creator wanted you to feel.
Right now we are in the infancy of alternate reality entertainment. Because of the early stage we are at the experiences and media that we can enjoy consists of just a handful of tech demos and small independent games. These leave a lot to be desired in terms of narrative and any kind of engagement with the user. The creators of these demos are not designing to engage on an emotional level with the user. Similar to the start of other mediums people are seeing what they can do, but something different is happening here. Even with the absence of designed mental ties to a story or emotion we are seeing extremely strong emotional reactions to VR experiences.
One of the most surprising occurrences I have observed in users is the overwhelming emotion of loneliness. The small demos and worlds that you can instantly be teleported to through this technology consists of very little life. NPCs, multiplayer, and other forms of digital human interaction can be more time consuming to design for and so the developers tend to not include them in their demos. This creates an entire universe that you are completely and utterly alone in.
If you were watching a movie that had no visualisation of life or personal interaction chances are you would feel nothing. In all likelihood you would just be bored. That is where virtual reality differs, your mind is so immersed in the experience that it lets go of your true reality and adapts this new one. This is entirely on a subconscious level, of course you know that everything you are looking at isn’t real but part of your brain accepts it and defines it as being real. With part of your mind accepting this reality and having the understanding that you are totally alone in this world, it is understandable that our minds are filled with the emotions of isolation and solidarity.
Your mind is reaching out to the world, not the other way around.
So what happens when you are intentional about inciting an emotion within a VR game? I can tell you that it is very powerful. The clearest example so far is with horror games that are designed for VR. Gamers who are well versed in the genre and are complete thrill junkies have a tendency to avoid horror games in the Rift. The reason for this is the incredible immersiveness and emotional connection the brain is making. The pure terror and dread a user can feel in these environments is real, it causes real stress and the player feels it all.
Imagine now what we could do with experience designed to inspire other emotions. Games that are created to make you feel joy, sadness, love. It is an open medium that is crying out for us to create new and wonderful things that we could never have done before. If our mind is connecting so strongly to simple rooms, imagine what it will be like when we see the defining pinnacle of this new medium.
It is still so early for these concepts, what can be done will be well beyond what we think is possible. It is very exciting to observe and I am looking forward to watching the creation of new worlds that inspire and amaze.