Social and ethical concerns regarding VR horror games

Social and ethical concerns regarding VR horror games

This thread allowed me to conduct some domain research, I wanted to familiarise myself any problems, pros and cons and what concerns and opinions the industry and the public were having.

There appeared the be a huge debate over entertainment or reality with horror VR. I discovered the ‘FearVR’ case study to which was a VR experience in Knotts Berry Farm theme park that got shut down due to ethical and social concerns the public were having. FearVR puts users in a simulation of a mental health facility, this is where the mass controversy came from; people felt it was ethically wrong to put users in an experience which is based around the sensitive matter of mental disorder. The Developers of FearVR argued the closure of their experience due to the experiences horror setting of a mental hospital, ‘people line up to see horror films in theaters and mental health facilities are a common motif. Just in case you were wondering, IMDb has a list of 99 horror films that rely on these settings. When we do a VR experience inside a mental health facility, is it just another form of entertainment or does it cross a line’ [8](Craig, 2016).

Throughout researching this topic, I had come across some shocking quotes and points researchers had made within this area of study. Within an article on ‘The New Yorker’, Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, psychologists and researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz stated that VR horror games can “induce particular kinds of emotions that could be used deliberately to cause suffering”  and that “the suffering could be so extreme as to be considered torture”[9](Parkin el al., 2016), this really emphasises the power of VR and how this could be ethically concerning.

In 2014, Denny Unger from Cloudhead games expressed concern that developers would underestimate just how immersive and powerful VR can be. Unger emphasised his concern that he genuinely believes horror VR games will be so intense, that they could cause their first death and that jumpscares could be so harsh on users it could do some serious harm to “somebody with a heart condition”…“The low hanging fruit of VR, to me, is horror games that purposely do jump scares. We’re very close to having the first death in VR – I firmly believe that.” [10](Batchelor, 2016). Leading from this, I soon discovered that being scared to death is actually possible, it’s called Cardiomyopathy. Martin A. Samuels is a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and professor at Harvard Medical School who studies sudden death. In a 2006 interview with ABC, he explained that no history of heart problems was required to be scared to death. He stated that “If the situation is just right, if the stress is bad enough, if it’s acute enough, if there’s no way out, any of us can die” [11](LLC, 2014). Samuel also stated in an interview with ‘SciAm’ that Adrenaline from the nervous system lands on receptors of cardiac myocytes (heart-muscle cells), and this causes calcium channels in the membranes of those cells to open. Calcium ions rush into the heart cells and this causes the heart muscle to contract. If it’s a massive overwhelming storm of adrenaline, calcium keeps pouring into the cells and the muscle just can’t relax…If this system is overwhelmed with adrenaline, the heart can go into abnormal rhythms that are not compatible with life. If one of those is triggered, you will drop dead.” [12](LLC, 2014)

I thought it would be interesting to do some research into developers ethics when creating VR horror games and to see whether there were any company/ developer rules they abide by. Hidalgo a developer from the VR horror game Dreadhalls stated “The main ethical recommendation I have in this regard is that of not betraying the player’s trust, When the player enters a VR experience and surrenders control over their senses to the developer, it’s important that she’s aware of exactly what to expect, and that this promise isn’t broken by the developer.” [13](Gareth, 2016)

Whilst researching this thread I came across a very shocking VR experience which isn’t exactly a horror game but displays events of a real life horrific event. 08:46 is a 911 VR experience that puts users in the perspective of office worker in the world trade centre when hit with the 911 terror attack. Supporters and the developers see it as a path towards empathy for the victims however, others feel it’s an unnecessary indulgence in horror and tragedy. This is very ethically and socially concerning because why would users want to experience an immersive experience of one of the most horrifying events in history.

‘But where do we draw the line? Is it acceptable to watch real falling bodies on the news, but morally questionable to undertake immersive fictional re-creation? Now that virtual reality (VR) is here, and here to stay, this sticky ethical dilemma is only one of many moral conundrums to come, especially in regard to the use of this revolutionary technology with children and teens. VR may have unprecedented value to education, but that very same power must be managed responsibly. This is both a flag to be watched closely for ethics violations, but also a testament of the platform’s immersion potential.’ [14](Darvasi, 2016)


[8]Craig, E. (2016) ‘Scary VR: When virtual reality and ethics Collide’, Virtual Reality, 30 September. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2016).

[9]Parkin, S., Treisman, D., Hsu, H., Davidson, A., Moss, G., Ross, A., Toobin, J., Borowitz, A., Adichie, C.N., Twilley, N. and Marantz, A. (2016) Simon Parkin. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2016).

[10]Batchelor, J. (2016) VR devs call for restraint on horror games and jump scares. Available at: (Accessed: 27 November 2016).

[11]LLC, V.M. (2014) It’s ‘inevitable’ that a virtual reality horror game scares someone to death. Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2016).

[12]LLC, V.M. (2014) It’s ‘inevitable’ that a virtual reality horror game scares someone to death. Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2016).

[13]Gareth (2016) Could VR horror be too… Horrifying? Available at: (Accessed: 28 December 2016).

[14]Darvasi, P. (2016) Five ethical considerations for using virtual reality with children and adolescents. Available at: (Accessed: 28 November 2016).


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