The low-down on virtual reality & gaming

Virtual reality (VR) has dominated tech headlines in recent years and has lots of uses: it's brilliant for entertainment and a fantastic platform for education, with virtual field trips giving an incredibly immersive experience of the subjects children and young people are exploring, and is revolutionising the sports industry for players and viewers alike.  But it is perhaps best known for its use in the video gaming world. 

Players wear VR headsets and see the virtual environment from a first person perspective. As they turn their heads and move around the world moves accordingly; the technology engages the whole body, eyes and ears. This sensory immersion combined with the user’s ability to make natural gestures and to interact with characters and objects creates a very real experience.

"...a good rule [for parents] is, if you wouldn’t want your children to live with the memory of the event in the real world, then don’t have them do it in VR. Travelling to the moon is fine, but scary experiences will stay with them."

Commonsense 2018

What's the impact on young people?

VR tricks users' brains into thinking that objects on a screen that are just centimetres from their eyes are actually far away.  This is such new technology that no-one knows yet what the long-term effects of this are, especially on children whose bodies and brains are in the process of developing.  Some experts have raised concerns about short sightedness (myopia) which children may be more vulnerable to if they are focusing on something very near to them for long periods of time.

Manufacturers are being cautious: they all recommended a minimum age for players and suggest limiting time and access to children whose eyes are still developing:

  • Gear VR and Oculus Rift both have a 13+ rating.

  • The PlayStation VR states that it is for children who are 12 years+.

  • The HTC Vive specifies that young children shouldn’t use the product but don’t state a precise minimum age.

While there is currently limited research and resources available, Commonsense have produced an insightful report into VR: "Virtual Reality 101: What You Need to Know About Kids and VR", which you can download here.

Useful for parents

  • None of the current range of higher end headsets on the market are recommended for under 12s; even Google’s cardboard headset comes with the recommendation that children should be supervised.

  • Manufacturers consistently advise that children should be monitored and take regular breaks. According to the Occulus manual, “prolonged use should be avoided as this could negatively impact hand-eye coordination, balance and multi-tasking ability”. 

  • Parents should try the games out before younger players experience them and keep a close eye on their in-game behaviour.

  • Some people report that the VR experience can trigger feelings of nausea or motion sickness. The PlayStation VR guide states that “in many cases, initial discomfort experienced can fade as you acclimate to VR gameplay”.

  • As well as the potential physical side effects, of more concern for parents may be the psychological effects these games have on children. Would their child be prepared for the experience of being killed in a virtual world (for example)?

Dreams (Sony Playstation 4): a game where anyone can create anything.

Less of a video game, more a powerful piece of game development software, the eagerly anticipated (almost 6 years in the making) Dreams VR game encourages players to turn “anything in your imagination into reality”.  Players make their own characters, worlds and interactive adventures to share with a massive online community, where they can also browse other players’ creations and bring elements of them into their own games.

This has been given a PEGI rating of 7.  However, similar to Roblox, this is an open source game where players can create anything – from first person shooter games, to recreations of horror games to puzzles games and anything in-between. 

Parents should be aware that the game experience may change significantly when players encounter and interact with other players’ creations.  The Playstation VR is helpful in this respect as parents can see what the player is seeing, mirrored to the television. As with Roblox, however, the team at eSafe would ultimately question the suitability of this game concept for children given its unregulated approach to content.

Blood & Truth (Sony Playstation VR): blast your way through London underworld.

Sony’s British gangster thriller game, Blood and Truth, is inspired by the likes of John Wick and Die Hard. Players ‘inhabit’ the role of cockney gangster and former Special Forces soldier, Ryan Marks, who must save his family from a London crime boss.  

In the development of the game, Sony not only involved talent from Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to help with the visual effects but also hired a real-life SAS consultant to help get the details right.  

Reviewers rave about how this game is different from other first-person shooter games – the vibration of weapons can be felt as they’re re-loaded and holstered, for example: players feel like part of the scene, fully immersed in the action, rather than passively watching the action play out.  This leads to the obvious questions about how virtual the violence really is, and whether this experience can lead to negative behaviour in the physical world.

Unsurprisingly, given the level of violence and authenticity, this game has a PEGI rating of 16 meaning it's unsuitable for younger players.