Can Virtual Triggers Lead to Real Anxiety?

nevermind
Image credit: Flying Mollusk

Virtual reality is an exciting frontier for both games and therapy, with potential that’s only just beginning to be explored. Developers are increasingly experimenting with immersive environments meant to help us work through our anxieties and fears, and users are discovering genuinely helpful VR experiences. But as much as VR has the potential to help, it also has the potential to harm.

Even the most well-intentioned game can have unexpectedly negative effects. So what happens when a game is less well-intentioned–when it’s designed to intentionally push our buttons, and it’s suddenly all around us?

As David Zax writes for Fast Company, it can be a nightmare.

Giant, it turned out, was a short fictional film depicting what are likely the last minutes of a family caught in a war zone. The parents and a young child have huddled in a cellar; I as the viewer was free to move my head around and see objects rattled from shelves as bombs fell in the distance—and then, finally, on us.

Them I watched a short VR film called Collisions. It turned out to be a documentary, including some 3-D animated scenes, on the subject of an indigenous Australian tribe’s contact with modernity, in the form of an atomic bomb test. A devastating scene depicted kangaroos fleeing futilely from a mushroom cloud, collapsing before my eyes, dead.

I thought I had stepped into New Frontier, mostly, to sample a few video games and see a few cartoons. Instead, I was simulating trauma.

 
Zax goes on look at the research surrounding VR’s ability to change people, and finds results both encouraging and unsettling. It seems that VR can have a profound effect on our mindsets, but there’s little research and less consensus on how to ensure that the effect is a positive one.

Take a game like Nevermind. It’s built on an incredible idea: simulating the horror of trauma through VR, and amplifying that horror based on biofeedback from optional sensors. As your heart rate increases, the game is designed to push you harder, ramping up the fear factor.

Theoretically, it could teach us to stay calm in the face of upsetting situations. The developers are exploring therapeutic applications, and there might be potential there. “Informal testing results” have been promising, according to the team, and some players have found it beneficial. But if you’re dealing with anxiety or PTSD, do you really want to jump into potentially triggering situations without formal research or professional oversight?

VR is a new frontier of gaming, capable of taking us deeper into games than ever before. But new frontiers are lawless places, and it’s on each of us to make sure we get through safely.

[Fast Company]