Inclusivity, Accessibility, and the Potential for Escapism in VR Gaming

Gamers come in all shapes and sizes.

We all have our own strengths and our own weaknesses, and for the most part, video games are a great unifier which can help us forget the stresses and burdens of our everyday lives.

Some peoples’ challenges are more difficult to overcome than others – physical, mental, and emotional difficulties can be a hindrance in the real world, though they’re often easier to transcend in a digital world. Now, the advent of virtual reality brings an opportunity for gamers of all backgrounds to use games as an outlet to explore and overcome the challenges of everyday life.

That said, there are potential concerns which developers have to overcome. Issues of accessibility and inclusivity in game design mean that the games developers who will make the best use of VR technologies are the ones who are careful to take all potential player needs into account.

The Limitless Potential of Digital Realms

Games offer a window of freedom to the player that far surpasses what can be achieved in any other medium.

By virtue of the wide variety of circumstances that players may find themselves in, this freedom often takes the form of escapism – challenges of anxiety, social pressure, physical impairment, and mental illness can all be left aside when the player takes up a game controller and disappears into a digital world.

There are plenty of stories found across the internet of players who, through games, have been able to either discover something about themselves or recover from some of the trauma of their past. One gamer shared her experience of discovering her asexuality through playing Borderlands, while an entire guild exists within World of Warcraft that’s exclusively for players who suffer from social anxiety.

Players have experienced incredible freedom and gained a better understanding of themselves through games like Borderlands | Image Source:
Players have experienced incredible freedom and gained a better understanding of themselves through games like Borderlands | Image Source:

There’s even more that games can contribute to the well-being of their players: as virtual reality comes to the forefront of gaming, there’s a fantastic opportunity for players to use this new medium to break through barriers and begin periods of healing.

Escapism as Therapy

It’s no secret that video games can have a significant positive impact on a player’s mental state. A 2010 study from Texas A&M University found that a significant number of players are able to use games to ‘work through their frustrations’ in real life, while a study in 2014 from University College in London found a direct correlation between the hours spent playing video games and the rate of recovery for participants suffering from workplace stress.

There’s something to be said for turning off the real world for a couple of hours and substituting the problems of everyday life with problems that are clearly defined and have a definite solution. In virtual reality, the player is able to shut out absolutely everything else by letting their senses fully invest in a fictional, virtual world – games like Loading Human present fantastic fictional worlds which, while not free from peril, provide challenges that the player definitely knows they can solve. Loading Human can be taken at the player’s own pace, and its focus on storytelling is perfect escapism for those who want to spend a few hours enjoying a highly immersive narrative.

The level of immersion in VR is so great that the technology is even used as a pain relief for sufferers of intense third-degree burns, one of the most painful medical conditions known to man. Since the early 2000s, doctors have been using VR games involving arctic landscapes to distract burn victims from medical treatment. Similarly, a VR simulation that involves punching sharks is used by some medical professionals to help sufferers of MS undergo water therapy for muscle pain.

Using VR games for treatment of physically painful injuries has been common practice for over a decade.

For those whose lives seem bleak, or for those suffering from significant physical ailments, virtual reality games provide a level of escapism that’s far beyond what can be achieved from other forms of media. Gamers can become immersed in the stories they’re experiencing, and while these games may feature peril and suspense, the challenges within these games are manageable – the player knows that they are in control.

For many gamers, this means regaining the ability to function normally.

The challenge that developers face, though, is making games that are accessible to all those who may need them. VR games are only as good as the level of inclusivity they offer, and it can sometimes be a tough job finding ways to let everybody play.

A Little Game Design Goes a Long Way

As wonderful as VR can be for escapism and helping with the treatment of various ailments, it’s not much use if gamers can’t actually play the games.

There are a lot of potential challenges that VR can create for players – recently, a friend of mine tried a VR device for the first time and pointed out how difficult he found it to get comfortable wearing the headset over his glasses. This is just one problem that players can end up facing when VR developers don’t take into account the various needs of their audience.

Progress is being made on this subject in a variety of ways. Recent work in creating VR setups that are wheelchair friendly means that players can have access to VR titles which require the player to move around in a physical space. While a lot more needs to be done before players can fully engage, the industry is taking the right steps towards developing inclusive game mechanics. Work is also being done to develop controllers for those with upper body limitations — while not all physical needs can be accounted for, developers are doing their best to find ways to let anybody play VR games.

VR software that tracks eye movements instead of head turning is in development to aid accessibility in gaming.

Similarly, cautions from industry leaders may go some way to helping VR developers make smart choices in game design, so that players don’t feel emotionally or mentally overwhelmed by the game experience. Through inclusive, considerate game design, developers can ensure that their games connect with the widest possible audience.

Moving Forward

All gamers have different needs. While not all games can be suited to all players, virtual reality titles can be produced which are inclusive and accessible to a variety of players with different backgrounds, strengths, and challenges.

As these games reach the market, it will be interesting to see the impact that VR will have on gamers from all walks of life. With any luck, VR will become a safe space for all those who wish to enjoy the escapism of modern video games.

To try out Loading Human, preorder the first episode today.

Andrew Nguyen

Producer, gamer, coffee roaster, leather worker, and part-time streamer.

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