In the PlayStation VR booth at the Penny Arcade Expo 2015, one group of players dodged garbage thrown by cute little robots before blasting off into space. Beside them, another gamer withstood the threat of torture, wincing as a gruff-looking man threatened them with a blowtorch before engaging in a violent shootout. While the first demo might appeal to players of all ages, the second, called The London Heist, is targeted squarely at adults, making it part of the larger, adult-oriented nature of virtual reality technology.
While games are often associated with younger players, VR is targeting an older audience; not just with explicit storylines, but with those that explore themes and ideas related to navigating the world as an adult. Sure, there will be explicit VR games out there, but those aren’t the only reason VR is one of the few pieces of gaming tech not targeting the kid market—a combination of other factors are also at play.
The Technology Itself May Not Be Right for Kids
Despite the outside (and increasingly outdated) assumption that games are for kids, VR technology isn’t recommended for young children, due to concerns that it may have negative effects on eye development. Compounded with the potential for kids to hurt themselves when playing with a headset on, most VR companies recommend that young children only use a headset with adult supervision, or not use it at all under a certain age.
PlayStation recommends that its VR system not be used under age 12, while Oculus Rift (in part due to its ownership by Facebook) has a higher recommendation, of 13+. Google simply recommends parental supervision, likely because its cardboard system doesn’t enclose the head in the same way, leading to less potential disorientation.
The effects of these recommendations are twofold. First, the age restrictions mean that there’s little reason to develop games targeted at solely young audiences. All ages titles may still hold appeal for both younger audiences and adults, but the lack of focus on children means that VR games are exploring the many ways a game might be oriented toward adults.
Age Restrictions Aren’t the Only Marker of Adult-Oriented Games
Though many early prototypes are based on simple mechanics or experiences, such as riding a virtual reality rollercoaster, VR has a lot of storytelling potential. The immersion of VR and being face-to-face with other characters clues you into emotional experiences in an entirely new way—emotional experiences better appreciated by adults.
Games that struggled with earlier technology, such as L. A. Noire’s inspired motion capture, would have been better served by virtual reality, where you’re not so separated from the action. In games where reading emotions is an important part of the gameplay, this can mean the difference between a cool idea that doesn’t function and truly revolutionary gameplay. Though L. A. Noire’s sequel has been mere speculation since the game’s release, and it may be unlikely to ever come to fruition, games using a similar reliance on reading the faces of non-player characters can find a home in VR.
Virtual reality also allows players to be more engaged with emotionally driven scenes. Rather than being a distant participant, players are right there. Gameplay interactions and scenes with heavy emotional weight may feel a little stilted when enacted with a traditional controller, such as Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare’s infamous ‘Hold X to Pay Your Respects’ scene. In virtual reality, heavy experiences like this can be experienced differently. When you’re seeing the grief on NPC’s faces, feeling like you’re actually present rather than surrounded by the familiar scene of your living room, that experience shifts from being a tawdry moment, executed in the same way that you might kick or punch, to a profoundly impactful one. The emotions these games can portray—and evoke—are better processed and valued by an adult audience.
Adult-Oriented Stories Take Dark Turns in Virtual Reality
There’s a common perception that games being targeted toward adults means that they’re all explicit, whether in terms of graphic sex, violence, or other potentially objectionable content. While those games do and will exist in virtual reality, there are plenty of other stories just better suited to adults audiences.
Nevermind, already available for PC and Mac and in the works for Xbox One and Oculus Rift, is a psychological horror game that uses biofeedback like heart and breathing rates to soup up the scares and encourage you to be more aware of your body’s fear responses. While it’s not consistently violent, the game is targeted squarely at an adult audience–the stories wound through its frightening landscapes are stories of trauma and terror. While some children might enjoy the scares or gameplay, there are more appropriate games for that audience that focus on being scary without the traumatic connection, making this game more appealing for adults than children.
Something like ADR1FT is a little different. Like many narrative-heavy games in the vein of Firewatch and Gone Home, ADR1FT is more about being present and interacting with a story that’s being told than having impact on it. Children are more likely to be drawn to a game with action, puzzle-solving, or combat than ADR1FT’s low-key exploration that unravels the story as you go. The game isn’t excessively violent, sexual, or otherwise inappropriate, but in the same way that kids are more likely to be interested in Guardians of the Galaxy than Moon, some stories simply aren’t appealing to younger audiences.
There’s also Loading Human, which is a decidedly adult story exploring relationships and humanity in a futuristic setting. This heavily emotional and deeply investing tale is intended for mature audiences because of the themes it explores, such as love, morality, and death, which are interesting and complex for adults but unlikely to be interesting to younger audiences. And it’s ideal for VR, as letting you experience the emotions and insights of characters from the more advanced level of being physically present enhances your reaction to the story.
Virtual Reality’s Adult Orientation Springs from Multiple Sources
There’s a wide range of features that designate a game as for adults, not all of them related to potentially objectionable material. And with VR’s recommended age restrictions, more adult-oriented stories may be the focus for VR for some time. That doesn’t mean the technology is inaccessible to players younger than thirteen, only that virtual reality games for adults may dominate the conversation. That’s great for adults–we get the opportunity to play games with these complex stories, giving us a wider variety of experiences than any other media can.
Loading Human explores the complexity of human relationships in a futuristic setting, using virtual reality to make you a part of the drama. Preorder now to reserve your copy!