VR - Safe for kids? - Photo by Sebastian Voortman

To harm or not to harm, that is the question

During its brief existence, there has been a consistent aim of harm reduction across the virtual reality industry. Nevertheless, the extent to which VR content should and will be assessed (and ultimately labelled) with regards to age classification remains to be seen.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the ins and outs of what separates virtual reality experiences from traditional formats of film and gaming, taking lessons from existing models of censorship to determine what form age classifications across VR film and VR gaming could and should take.

To do this properly, we’ll bypass the history of virtual reality and start with the classification systems used to define the industries in which commercial VR has found its place, before looking deeper into the extent to which, in terms of harm-reducing regulation, VR should be considered as a distinct entity with unique ethical concerns.

The film industry

In the UK, the duty to educate, guide and protect vulnerable demographics from unsuitable film content is taken on by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). In the US, this duty falls with the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA). The central difference between the two, is that filmmakers looking to release within the US are not obligated to apply the given rating to their content. However, for reasons I won’t get into here, most do.

As VR becomes an established section of the film arena, it’s vital that certain types of content are regulated in a way that will prevent serious harm to minors. The extent to which this is achievable is what we’re here to discuss.

While regulation and classification are to some extent necessary and inevitable, it’s important to be aware that the application of excessive levels of censorship to a format still very much in its infancy will play a role in how the format develops, and could negatively affect the overall good that VR has, and will continue to bring.

Traditional age classifications

One major consideration in this debate, is the merit (or lack thereof) of using traditionally concrete age classifications to determine who is allowed to consume what content. To begin, I’d like to consider the introduction of the 12A rating by the BBFC in 2002.

This rating was a result of a growing consensus throughout the film industry, and society in general, that individual parents and guardians (more often than not) were in a better position to judge whether or not a particular piece of content would be suitable for their child.

Ultimately, it was an admission that drawing strict arbitrary lines through age demographics was neither infallible or entirely justified, and that progression into a more fluid and contextual system of classification would be a welcome move. For now, the 12A is the best we have. But a move further in this direction would certainly be welcomed by a large portion of the film watching community.

As Virtual Reality (VR) continues to develop as a format within the film industry, similar questions must be asked and similar answers must be considered, taking into account what specifically (in terms of harm-causing potential) separates VR film content from non-VR film content.

For me, key attention must be paid to the following things…

  • The increased intensity of an immersive VR film experience in relation to a cinema experience
  • The extent to which the effects of this difference on certain-aged children can be determined by industry methods, and / or individual parents.
  • How much we currently know about the harm-causing potential of immersive VR experiences on children
  • The industry balance between reducing harm and exploring the potential for good

Ultimately, a pragmatic approach to establishing age restriction in VR will touch on each of these, yet it remains difficult to see an outcome that will satisfy everyone invested in this debate.

In search of a solution, there are two main routes to explore. Incorporate VR experiences into pre-existing film classification systems, or develop new VR-specific regulation. I believe that the levels of immersion afforded by VR experiences are too distinct, and the potential for harm is too unique, from traditional film experiences, which must be reflected in any established rating system.

VR film & child content

This in specifically the case with regards to the use of VR by children. Though the idea of a small child wearing a headset may instinctively paint a somewhat unnerving picture, child-specific VR content and apps already exist, and the niche will only continue to grow as hardware costs come down and the tech becomes more widespread.

The BBFC’s guidelines state that any ‘scary or potentially unsettling sequences should be mild, brief and unlikely to cause undue anxiety to young children’ if it is to be classified as ‘U’. They also say that the film should ‘offer reassuring counterbalances to any violence, threat or horror’ and that ‘the outcome should be reassuring’. As we have already established that the level of immersion in a VR film is significantly raised, it seems intuitive that the possible negative consequences of such a film are also much higher.

With VR then, the stakes are raised in protecting children from unsuitable content, regulators have a moral responsibility to take the regulation of that content even more seriously. For example, Watching Woody and friends link arms towards the end of ‘Toy Story 3’ is an unsettling, brief sequence of peril that is counterbalanced almost instantly. However, imagine that a child is watching that scene play out directly in front of them, with their favourite characters’ fearful faces close enough to touch. The notion of the film redressing a sequence like that is made instantly more difficult, if only because of the tangible horror of the scene. This extra level of immersion by no means pushes the film into a category only suitable for adults, but it definitely makes classifying conventional ideas of ‘threat’ and ‘violence’ murkier and the distinction between fantasy and reality more difficult to make.

VR film & adult content

Similar considerations become clearer the higher up the classification system you travel, with more adult themes likely to be explored. Films that depict graphic violence or sexual content are important factors in this discussion, but it is also important to consider the impact of films that deal with scenes of sexual abuse, drug abuse or racism, especially considering the potential for children to get their hands on such content.

VR brings the sensitivity of these topics to the fore of the discussion for regulatory bodies in new and interesting ways. Following a character as they undergo an instance of sexual assault in a VR film, for example, could be horrifying for many reasons that may not be present in an ordinary film.

Firstly, the scene may very well elicit a feeling of being a powerless observer of the event, taking away any agency or autonomy that certain individuals may choose to exercise if confronted by such a situation in real life.

Secondly, the unique perspective VR films offer may be more likely to act as a stronger emotional trigger in such instances of assault due to the aforementioned increased closeness between the medium and the actual experience. Furthermore, the sense of being made to feel like a powerless observer may further complicate the classification of VR films as they have the potential to create a sense of complicity between the observer and the act portrayed.

The introduction of 3D technology in cinema changed the way we considered cinema’s impact on an audience. This is reflected in the nuanced way that BBFCInsight distinguishes between the differing impacts of 2D and 3D movies currently, particularly with regard to the perceived sense of peril. The gap between 2D and 3D films is minimal in comparison to the gap between both of these and the newer technology of Virtual Reality. VR further blurs the line between observer and participant and it is my opinion that classification needs to reflect this in the future so that we can properly regulate content for all consumers.

The Gaming ndustry

Within the gaming industry, the nuance of VR classification is taken to new heights in comparison to the film industry.

The duty again is split in similar fashion, with The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ERSB) covering releases in North America and PEGI (Pan European Game Information) establishing itself as the primary rating system in Europe. Yet overall, the extensive variations of interface and mods through which games can be played quickly muddies the water.

On the surface, the key question is simply…

    “Whether and how VR functionality should impact the age rating of video games?”
    –Connected Consumer

In answering this question, the initial difficulties arise around the issue of who should be to blame for exposure to potentially harmful content. The producers of the game, or the producers of the tech through which the game is experienced?

Further difficulties must then be addressed concerning the relationships between content makers, who produce content that can be played on a wide array of consoles and formats, and the tech companies making the hardware. Ultimately, the question is simply – where does the buck stop?

In their 2016 article, “Youth Protection in Virtual Reality Environments”, published in Computer Law Review International, Connected Consumer concluded that:

    “When rating games with official VR support, this functionality has to be taken into account for classification. Different ratings can also be given to versions with and without VR functionality.

    Third-party mods and VR hardware that does not require official support cannot impact classifications at the moment – the situation is the same as with any other presentation hardware. This also applies to other hardware that is not intended to be used with a game by its publisher. As the publisher is not responsible, they cannot be subject to distribution limitations.”

Essentially, here’s the central dilemma…

Take a piece of VR compatible gaming content, we’ll call it ‘X’. Now consider…

    A. Content ‘X’ does not subject the user to harm when viewed on non-immersive hardware but does harm the user when viewed in VR hardware ‘Y’

    B. VR hardware ‘Y’ is not specifically designed for content ‘X’, and supports many examples of non-harmful content

    C. Therefore, neither the producers of content ‘X’, or the creators of VR hardware ‘Y’ can be blamed for the harm that occurs when content ‘X’ is experienced via VR hardware ‘Y’

The many variations in type of immersion produced through the union of a given piece of content and a given piece of VR hardware make it extremely difficult to place responsibility when harm is caused.

However, when determining the effect of virtual reality hardware for classification procedures, a clear distinction can be drawn between unofficial and official VR components.

Essentially, if a VR component is supported by the content publisher (either sold with the game or advertised as being designed with that format in mind) then responsibility for harm caused by immersion would fall with the content producers. Alternatively, if no such relationship exists between the content publisher and the VR component, then responsibility would land with the producer of the component.

Overall, as the level of immersion relies both on the content and the hardware, this issue is a difficult one to sidestep all together. However, knowing that VR gaming boils down to the type of immersion experienced by the user, something mostly alien to traditional gaming formats, it becomes clear why it is such a difficult thing to define in terms of pre-existing age classifications within the industry.

Understanding the impact of VR experiences

The goal of age ratings across both arenas is youth protection. The classifications given are ultimately justified by the levels of impact a game or film experience could potentially have on children and teenagers who are still developing.
So, when we’re talking about impact in these settings, what exactly do we mean?
There are various relevant factors that play into how a child may experience immersion in a VR film or game:

  • How real the graphics are
  • Its specific and individual appeal
  • The extent of immersion (haptics, etc.)
  • The potential for self-identification

In gaming, navigability and the scale of the decision-trees involved are also major influences on the impact of the experience, as games specifically designed for VR gameplay present a truly heightened sense of immersion into a new reality, unlike immersive film experiences which tend to be more voyeuristic.

Studies have shown that young children lack the capacity to distinguish between the real and the fictitious. Meaning VR films and (especially) VR games containing extreme detail could have major impact on a child’s development. In terms of harm reduction, it follows that classifications and time regulations need to be strict across these types of content, no matter the nature of the experience.

In this, we see a definitive difference between VR and traditional film and gaming experiences. Regulations for immersive VR experiences need time limits, as even the most neutral virtual reality could have drastic psychological effect on a user if consumed for a lengthy period of time. While this is partially true for traditional methods, it is incomparably so. Meaning age restrictions for VR content must take this into account, and so must be distinct from pre-existing regulations and classifications.

At present, Oculus VR recommend a minimum age of 13 for its headsets. However, this is purely a recommendation. Moving forward, what can actually be done in terms of practical harm-reduction in VR?

Progressive Regulation

The current international landscape of classification boards, bodies and organisations is vast, complex and often contradictory and it would be a headache for both me and you to survey its many valleys at this point in time.

Nonetheless, as virtual reality continues to take up a larger and larger percentage of total film and gaming content (the emergence of VR specific awards at Cannes and the continued growth of games developed solely for VR suggest this will only continue to increase) it must begin to have a very real effect on existing classification procedures.

As mentioned, this affect is likely to take one of two forms. It could directly affect existing structures of classification, essentially merging with them. Or, it could be introduced as a self-contained add-on to the existing system, with a primary focus on levels and types of immersion.

For me, the latter option is clearly the way to go as the impact of an immersive VR experience, whether in film or game, is entirely distinct from that of its ancestor, which should necessarily be represented in the classification structure applied to it.

In gaming, the people responsible for defining classifications often haven’t played the game, at least to any worthwhile extent. Plus, the spatial barrier between traditional film/gaming content and audience has kept potentially harm-inducing content at at least an arms length until now.

With VR, this is explicitly not the case. Meaning it is vital that those involved in the classification process understand (and are involved with) the tech first-hand, especially as the development of haptic embodiment technologies bring us closer and closer to the phenomenologically-complete ‘absolute display’ of full dive immersion that many are striving for.

The correct categorisation of content must be representative of the nature of the tech (how it works, how we react to it, how levels and types of immersion differ), whilst also involving a deep understanding of the child-psychology involved with different types of immersive experience.

This is a complex undertaking and will necessarily take time to develop as the industry progresses. But no one said this should be quick or easy.

And on the 3rd day, a governing board created age-ratings

With cinema and games, it took some time to understand the true effects of the experiences. And thus, it took some time to draw up age classifications that would accurately capture the levels of harm potentially involved in each experience.

This process is not an easy one. And it is not an exact science by any means, despite the many organisations across the world dedicated specifically to it.
Gathering the necessary information requires extensive surveys and tests, which are ultimately applied to educated guesses of what is and what is not appropriate for children of certain ages.

Examples like this, illustrate just how complex and confusing this subject can be. However, there is an end in sight…

VR is a unique format, with unique concerns

It is exactly because VR is itself a child, that we’re talking about this. It is new. It is young. It is impressionable. Meaning, we don’t want to expose it to something it can’t handle before it is fully developed.

    Introducing a pre-existing structure of regulation, censorship and age classification for VR now would be akin to putting a 5-year-old in a fully immersive virtual reality first person shooter. It WILL have some effect on what it grows up to be.

We have the right and the capacity to create a system of censorship, regulation and age classicisation that succeeds where traditional rating structures for traditional formats have arguably failed.

    In time, we can create and potentially in-build a system of classification that is a context-driven and accurate representation of our neuroscientific understanding of child development (whilst still taking into account parental instinct).

By collecting the right information, the right data, and through a detailed analysis of that data, we will be able to develop a new and dynamic method of age classification that will suit this new, dynamic and potentially vast technology.

Fundamentally, as an industry, we don’t really know what VR is, or what it is going to be. We know some things about the functions it has, and we know about its many failings, but everything we have done with VR so far is inextricably tied to the ancestors we have discussed.

VR gaming is (for the most part) being designed as an extension of traditional gaming and VR film is (for the most part) being designed as an extension of traditional filmmaking, struggling to escape the storytelling tropes entrenched in each.

When discussing what regulation and rating systems should like in VR, we commit the same mistake. We still view the format as being a part of those that came before it. Rather than seeing it in light of its potential, which is something entirely separate. As immersion levels continue to increase, and VR creative and revolutionary VR technology continue to evolve hand in hand, traditional systems of classification will grow increasingly ineffective.

In Conclusion

That we do not yet have a concrete picture for what VR regulation should be is no bad thing. It is representative of where the industry is currently at. Looking ahead, VR could potentially become the primary format through which we consume all our content. This is not a large stretch of the imagination. Especially considering the many serious developments that are progressing us we speak in pursuit full dive immersion technologies (See Dmitry Itskov’s story).

Over time, as an industry, and as a society, we will have the capacity to collect more than sufficient data to learn the effects of VR on the minds and brains of people of all ages. Jumping the gun now to instantiate a strict rating system tied to pre-existing structures, I think, would be misguided and harmful to the format in its development.

For now, VR remains scarce enough that its harm-inducing potential for children and teenagers is minimal. If parents take a pragmatic approach to the technology and the available content and content platforms, and roughly follow the recommended guidelines laid out so far, we will be able to lay out a more insight-driven system of regulation once we have the requisite understanding to do so. Which currently, for all intents and purposes, we do not.

About the Author

Daniel Cooke: Journalist, scriptwriter and creative at London-based VR Agency Pebble Studios.

With academic honours in the philosophy of ethics and perception, Daniel has pursued his interest in ethical theory into the practical domain, researching the practical ethics of emerging technologies in our modern world.

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