“It’s Not Real, It’s Not Real, It’s Not Real”

Virtual reality and the dangers of 360-degree abuse.

Screenshot of The Walk.
The Walk simulates Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in 3-D. 

Screenshot via The Walk

While I was waiting in line for The Walk, a virtual reality experience that simulates Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers, a man working at the booth at the Game Developers Conference shared an interesting statistic with me. About 25 percent of the people who try The Walk quit, he said conspiratorially. They take one look down at the 110-story drop that materializes below them, take off the headset, and walk away.

“They never even take the first step,” he said. I laughed. What babies, I thought.

“I’m sure you’ll do better because you’re used to VR,” he reassured me.

I positioned myself, one foot in front of the other, on a roughly 6-foot length of wire taped down in the empty demonstration space, a fan positioned at the other end to simulate wind. A man adjusted a Vive VR headset to the contours of my skull and placed a pair of headphones over my ears. The screen was blank, but then suddenly I was there, standing on the roof of the World Trade Center. I could feel the wire beneath my feet, right where that tightrope was supposed to be, the wind blowing against my face as I faced the world from the height of a skyscraper. I saw everything in every direction as I turned my head: the sky above me, the roof behind me, the sprawling panorama of New York City opening in front of me. And, of course, the dizzying drop below.

For the moment my feet were fixed on a wide metal beam at the edge of the roof, but a wire beckoned, stretching 140 feet in front of me to the other tower. My path was clear, and it was about an inch wide.

I couldn’t move. And I wasn’t laughing anymore.

Rationally, I knew that I was in a tiny, makeshift room in a convention center, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers watching me wobble and shake. I knew I was standing on a carpeted and fully corporeal floor, my arms held out for balance, and that I only had to walk about six feet in a straight line to finish. But it didn’t matter. The moment I moved to take my first step off the building and saw nothing but a wire separating me from a 1,300-foot fall to the ground below, some primal, reptilian part of my brain started screaming: YOU’RE GOING TO DIE.

I tried to will myself forward, determined not to be part of the 25 percent that quits. Just move your foot forward an inch, I thought, trying to neuter the instinctive sense of self-preservation that told me I was making a terrible, fatal mistake. Instead I just stood there, seemingly paralyzed, for about 20 or 30 seconds, as a battle over reality—and what gets to define it—raged between my higher brain functions and my lower ones.

I finally took a step—and immediately lost my balance. Walking across the room in a straight line would have been effortless sans VR, but with life-or-death stakes looming below me, I felt unmoored. All I could imagine was tumbling down all 100-plus stories to the busy street below. I started reasoning with myself aloud, like I was watching a horror movie: It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real.

I knew an employee at the booth was hovering nearby, specifically to prevent people like me from hurting themselves. I asked him if I would fall to the ground in VR if I stepped off the wire. “No,” he replied. I started tilting to the side again. “You might fall in real life, but you won’t fall off the wire.” I took a deep breath, and took another step.

A developmental version of The Walk actually did let the player fall off the wire, but the feature was ultimately deemed insensitive in light of Sept. 11 and removed. Although falling—into pits, into lava, into nothing—is one of the most time-honored ways to die in video games, it can be surprisingly difficult to psychologically prepare for the consequences of it in a VR game experience. It’s just too much—words I hear a lot from people who have played frightening games in virtual reality.

Although horror games are intended to scare you, when experienced in virtual reality they can provoke intense fear—and potentially, even trauma. Just ask anyone who’s wandered the grim, sepulchral world of Dreadhalls, an experience so intense it has left more than one person in tears. Or anyone who’s played the fan-modded VR version of horror game Alien: Isolation, in which you’re hunted through the bowels of a spaceship by Ridley Scott’s murderbeasts. Not only can you hear the breath of the Xenomorph stalking you as you hide in shadowy corridors, if it catches you, you can actually look down and see its long, razor-sharp claws impaling your body.

Of course, we aren’t totally immune to physical reactions when we consume two-dimensional media like movies or games. We recoil when the killer slashes at a victim in a horror flick; we lean this way and that way when our digital car in a racing game starts to swerve off the track. But even in films and games that move the viewer around in a first-person POV, there is always a layer of remove: the border of the screen that circumscribes it like a frame, the portal that we peer through but do not walk through, that hard line that holds even the most immerse moments in a world apart.

The horror game Alone plays with those boundaries by folding them into VR in a wonderfully meta way. It places you in a creepy house where you’re invited to play another video game on a television in its living room. But the experience on the screen pales to what’s happening in the world around you, and the choices in the game within a game slowly start to bleed into your reality in increasingly frightening ways.

Although in theory you can close your eyes to escape a VR experience—or tear off the headset, as many players have during demonstrations—that doesn’t mitigate the technology’s potential to thrill, terrify, even traumatize. As reported by the website Kill Screen, some people are already worried about the potential for using VR as a torture device. Members of BeAnotherLab, a research and art collective that focuses on using virtual reality to engender empathy, seem particularly concerned

VR has the potential to induce severe pain or suffering, whether physically or mentally, if it is applied with a tortuous intentionality. … Most certainly, the military will shortly be experimenting with VR as a form of torture if they have not already begun.

So how much is too much? It’s hard to tell, although the potency of VR has caused several developers to call for restraint. At the recent Game Developers Conference, Denny Unger of Cloudhead Games called shock tactics like jump scares “the low-hanging fruit of VR,” while designer Scott Stephan noted that his studio, Wevr, has “a rule that no creature should be larger than the size of a small dog.” Anything bigger than that, “and you get this primal, lizard-brain thing of, ‘Oh, this isn’t a fun scare. It’s a survival scare.’ ” Others worry about its impact on the accessibility of a game, on children, or even on people with fragile health or heart conditions.

Of course, there’s a tension between these complaints and the goals of embodiment and emotion that video games have been striving toward for as long as they’ve existed. If you’re shaken and unnerved by a VR game, in some ways, the game is succeeding. What lies at the heart of “too much” is power: VR’s ability to create experiences more potent than some people want in their entertainment, or at least aren’t ready for.

The virtual reality experience might be transporting in ways that live up to all the hype, but it also leaves you vulnerable in ways that are ripe for exploitation. VR not only means disconnecting yourself from physical reality, leaving your body open to harm (both accidental or intentional); it also requires handing over something of yourself and your visceral presence in the world over to a company, and trusting them not to abuse it.

If any form of entertainment needs trigger warnings, it’s virtual reality; I’m waiting for the first “practical joke” to get played on someone in VR that exploits a phobia or experience of trauma; it is guaranteed not to be funny. Where a cheap shock or a particularly upsetting image might leave us annoyed or disgusted in traditional entertainment, in VR it could leave us disturbed or even psychologically damaged on a far more profound level.

But despite those caveats, virtual reality can accomplish something remarkable when wielded responsibly. It can make people feel as though they are truly doing, not just watching; being, not just empathizing; that things are not just happening, they are happening to us. Indeed, that connection is what documentarians are banking on when they use VR technology to cover harrowing subjects like the plight of child refugees or the horrific abuse of animals on factory farms.

After the conference, a friend told me that the only way he made it across the tightrope was by holding someone’s real-world hand the entire way. I made it, too, despite my panic and low-grade terror. Experiencing The Walk felt triumphant, as though I had truly overcome not a test of my gaming skill but of my mettle; I had confronted what felt like real fear and bravely persevered. Despite the dozens of games I’ve played throughout my life that asked me to become a hero, it was the first time I’ve ever felt like one.