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Traumatic Stress, Virtual Reality, and Accessibility

Virtual reality will make experiences so real that they register in the mind as real experiences. This can be a wonderful thing, and certainly this is going to be part of the human experience generally in the very near future. This article outlines one of the related issues for industry professionals, law makers, players, parents and educators to take into consideration.

When you combine the realism of virtual reality and the ability for players to create their own experiences, it becomes not only possible, but likely, that players or authors will adversely impact other players in real life.

For example, teens could visit a virtual world together using avatars that are customized to look like them. If some of those avatars are murdered, the experience might register with the players as nearly as traumatic as if they witnessed actual murder. This might sound silly, since death in video games is hardly traumatic. But, witnessing something in a sandbox virtual reality world will be nearly indistinguishable from witnessing something in real life. Events will happen around you in 360 degrees and at real life scale.

As game worlds or virtual worlds become more central to life, even impacting players comfort level inside the world can be damaging. For example, an employee might be nervous returning to a virtual world for work, after just having had a bad experience in the same or a similar world recreationally.

At risk groups:

  • Those with memory issues, who might not remember:
    • That what they are experiencing is fiction or virtual
    • That they can take off the headset / shut down the game
    • How to take off the headset / shut down the game
  • Teens / others who might not understand how an experience might impact them later or who get so wrapped up in the game world that just leaving is not thought of as an option (This is a different topic, but note that virtual reality is not recommended for children regardless of the content. Virtual reality headsets have not been proven safe for the developing brain, even if the content is a friendly g-rated cartoon world.)
  • People playing on a team, where they feel social pressure to keep playing
  • Anyone who comes across mislabeled, deceptive or intentionally malicious content - For example, content might seem like a documentary, but include horror sequences.
  • Those with physical disabilities if a game system does not provide an accessible way to quickly exit the game
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