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The Classification Office meets virtual reality: what are the ramifications of VR technology?

Posted on 19 July 2016 by Henry

Our classification officers have collectively seen and examined a huge variety of media over the years. They've seen tonnes of movies, TV shows, and games — most with generous helpings of sex, horror, crime, cruelty and violence. Some of these are great works of art, some are just really entertaining, but some are harrowing, disturbing, or just awful. While everyone here has had memorable experiences, it's pretty rare for us to experience something that feels entirely new, but that's exactly what happened recently.

The other day a group of Classification Office staff were lucky to be introduced to virtual reality (VR) courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment and its Playstation VR technology. We've been paying close attention to VR for a while now, knowing that inevitably we'll have to deal with VR games — but the experience of VR blew us away. It made a group of seasoned professionals flail about like confused and excitable children (a particular delight was watching the Deputy Chief Censor tie himself up in the connection cable). Following this novel experience we were focused on the wider ramifications of VR for our work.

While we've had a go on VR, we haven't actually examined a game yet. When examining a game, our Classification Officers will need to consider the classification criteria, including whether the game has content like sex, violence, or offensive language. Another thing to consider is the impact of the medium — in other words, is the format of the game likely to have an impact on its audience? Will this lead to a different classification? This isn't usually a difficult consideration for us, as formats generally stay pretty much the same over time while underlying technology improves. Games for example have always been played on screens with some kind of controller, over time graphics have markedly improved and different control mechanisms have been designed, including, notably, the analog stick for 3D games and Wii's motion controller. While these changes were significant, the experience of playing games is still fundamentally similar — VR arguably changes all this, creating an experience that is strikingly different to what has gone before.

I caught up with a Classification Officer (our resident games expert) after the demonstration for his thoughts on VR:

I imagine VR has quite the potential for workplace related accidents, so for the sake of my bosses' paperwork I hope to not trip over anything!

When talking VR, everyone mentions the sense of presence. The trend in modern horror games has very much been about that sense of immersion to generate fear and tension. This has largely been achieved by introducing physicality to the player's avatar — emulating a person's perspective with in-game hands, panicked breathing and so on. With an increased sense of presence and the immediacy of motion control, VR has the potential to frighten people beyond anything currently in games. With even simple arcade games evoking physical responses like adrenaline or stress, I'm concerned about how VR might physically impact players and look forward to research in this area.

Personally I’m excited to see how VR gaming evolves, as it has great potential for new experiences. I don’t think it will supplant traditional video games, as the mechanics of many current genres appear to be a difficult fit with VR, unless we all remove our inner-ears! Jokes aside, I feel games are at their best when played with friends and family so am more interested in seeing how the advances in virtual reality accelerate the development of our inevitable augmented reality future.

So will VR significantly affect classifications? Would the same content played traditionally get a lower classification? It's impossible to know right now, but it's likely we'll have some idea in the coming months. In the meantime we're keeping up with VR developments. These recent articles are a good introduction to the wider discussion around VR and its potential effects on players:

PlayStation VR will launch in October for NZ$629 — learn more about the technology here.

Let us know what you think in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter, or contact us by phone on 0508 236 767, or by email at info@classificationoffice.govt.nz.

Henry works in the Information Unit at the NZ Office of Film and Literature Classification. His views do not represent those of the Chief Censor or of the Classification Office. The Information Unit provides information to other staff, to the public, and to industry members - they are not involved in assigning classifications.

Classification Office staff member playing on Playstation VR
Looking awesome — the first test of VR kit at the Classification Office

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