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VR & Gaming: Diversion or Just Diverting?

By Jason Patterson

VR & Gaming: Friend or Foe?

The story of gaming is a checkered one, and will always intertwine with VR, even when the reach of the latter exceeds it. But according to Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Research Professor of Psychiatry at University of Southern California (USC) and Director of its Institute for Creative Technologies Medical VR department, this need not be as worrying as it sounds, despite the perceptions held by some that gaming is an irresistible vice. Why is he optimistic about the future? Read on.

Gaming is integral to virtual reality, and will always be part of its DNA. Even when the VR Internet (known today as “the Metaverse”) takes shape, its inherent appeal will derive from the basic pleasures of gaming, where a screen seems to act & react to you.

But gaming is addictive, right?

A little perspective is called for when sizing VR up as friend or foe. Fear and derision of mass media are nothing new. Television, gaming, and the Internet before it have all drawn comparison with addictive drugs, with VR having the potential to amplify the power of all three, all while looking a mechanical blindfold to boot. Or worse, an invasive prosthesis, ideally suited to cranial hijacking.

Is your child’s cranium in danger?

According to Jez Jowett, Global Director of Creative Technologies at Havas Media, VR will reach 500 million users by 2018. But before you start worrying about an onslaught of headset zombies, it’s worth considering whether gaming, or any of the other applications that VR can provide, are inherently addictive at all, or what addiction really means.

When asked about gaming addiction, Skip Rizzo responded, “There’s definitely people that are hooked on it. I don’t know if it’s such a bad thing. I think that the kind of folks that throw themselves into games to the exclusion of everything else are relatively rare, and if they didn’t have games then they would find something else to throw themselves into. With every technology you’ve got the risk of a downside.”

In other words, Professor Rizzo thinks that if gaming addicts didn’t have games, they would probably find an addiction elsewhere, and there is evidence to support this point of view. Professor Bruce Alexander at Simon Fraser University in Canada studied drug addiction in lab rats. He found it relatively easy to get a rat hooked on cocaine or heroin if you keep it isolated in a cage with little else to do but take the drugs, but much harder when you put the rat in a stimulating environment with tunnels, toys, and other rats. And what’s more, putting rats that are already drug-addicted into the aforementioned “Rat Park” reduces their withdrawal symptoms to near zero. Similar findings have been seen in humans who are prescribed purer forms of heroin for pain relief in hospitals who fail to become addicts, while more desperate people get addicted to weaker forms of heroin on the street. The take-home lesson here – it’s not the drug that makes an addict, it’s the cage, and cages can be powerful.

What if the cage is your own body?

When asked as to why he took an interest in VR therapeutics in the first place, Rizzo responded, “I first started to think about VR back in the early 1990’s when I was working in brain injury rehab. With a lot of people with brain injuries, their motivation is affected, especially with a frontal lobe injury, which a lot of injuries are from car accidents. In order to rehabilitate the brain, after a significant brain injury, you’ve got to do a lot of repetitions, a lot of training. It gets very boring. So, I had a client, a 22-year-old male, who I couldn’t motivate for more than five or ten minutes for a traditional exercise. But, one day, I see him sitting under a tree. I walked over to him and I go, ‘What are you doing?’ and he goes, ‘Look at this! It’s a new thing. It’s a Game Boy.’ I watched the guy, and he was glued to it. He was engaged with it. He was playing Tetris. He was a Tetris warlord, essentially. He was just great at it. I thought that if we could make rehab like that, if we could bring game activities, interactive technology, we’d really be doing something. So, I experimented a little bit with computer games; Sim City was a big one. A lot of my clients really enjoyed it, good cognitive stimulation activities. And then when I heard about virtual reality and the idea of being able to put people in simulations where we could systematically manipulate stimulus presentation, or make it either easy or hard, pace it to the evolving development of the person based on the rehab, and I thought that is the way that we need to go with this stuff.”

A way out of the cage

Rizzo would later note, “In the motor area, bringing games to rehabilitation is the big thing. People have been doing this now for 10 years. But, before it was very difficult and costly to track human movement. But with the Microsoft Kinect coming out and other cameras, other sensors, now we can take somebody after a stroke or a brain injury that has impaired movement and we can track that user’s movement and put it into a game on their smart TV and connect it to the Internet with their therapist watching from afar. You can do the in-clinic-type rehab, but you can actually send the person home and monitor what they do and hopefully engage them in the process more because it’s fun. Everybody gets the same prescription after they leave the hospital. Do a hundred of these. Do a hundred of those; twice a day. They do it the first day, but after that, it just fades. It’s so frustrating. You were able to be functioning before and now you see every day, when you are doing your rehab, what you’ve lost. But, if you take that action and put it on the screen, and make it so that little action is amplified in a game, all of a sudden you’re getting good at a game, and that’s what we want to do. We really want to motivate and engage people.”

Gaming: Powerful & progressive

Gaming is very powerful, and it has helped bring VR back from the brink of death. According to Rizzo, “There’s a giant market in gaming. Gaming is a progressive thing. It’s pretty damn real now. How many Call of Duty iterations before you’ve reached the ceiling? So, the next step is putting people in the game; not just looking outside the fish tank, but putting you in the fish tank. Because of that, we benefit in clinical applications and other non-entertainment applications because the game industry drives the tech development, drives the rendering, the graphics, the computational power, the interface devices, all these things that the medical community can use. It’s a noble thing, but people aren’t throwing money at these kinds of things like they do for games.

So, the case in point is the Oculus Rift. Palmer Luckey, its inventor, worked in our lab before he started his Kickstarter campaign, and I hope we had a good influence on him. But, he had a vision of building a good headset where you could really feel like you are in a game, and this is an area where VR has been having an Achilles Heel for the last 20 years. Typical headsets were expensive, complicated to use. It was like looking at a couple of postage stamps (edgy, slightly doubled, like a bad 3D movie). It was actually not very comfortable. What he developed, and now what 30 other companies are developing, is like putting on a ski mask. So the first thing people think is that the industry is going to love it, and they’re right. This is the next big thing in gaming. In fact, this week the E3 conference is in town and I was just reading an article this morning talking about how it’s a gaming conference but this year it’s a virtual reality conference, because there’s so many VR booths set up for new companies, it’s like a gold rush of companies wanting to build these things, because we can at a low cost.

We get the technology benefits but people don’t really want to throw a lot of money at clinical care until they’re sick. They don’t want to throw the money into it like the gaming industry. Gaming is a giant market (MarketsandMarkets estimates that gaming will account for more than one dollar out of every five spent on VR applications in 2018), and it’s driven the technology and now we stand to benefit from it. With that said, the mental health & rehab literature and scientific literature for VR is probably the most extensive of any application of VR, more extensive than education, more than whatever literature there is on game playing or game design.”

Rizzo would later add, “I remember hearing when we first started to do work with virtual humans, some of the critiques were that if you build virtual humans, good enough that you can interact with them, people won’t interact with real people. But, come on. People are always going to want to interact with real people. But for the ones that really get engaged with it, maybe these are folks that wouldn’t have another outlet. I think that the whole Internet VR gaming thing has opened up a door, particularly for people with disabilities that might not have had another outlet for them. I think it gives them a pastime or a hobby. Maybe, by practicing their interactions in a virtual world with virtual people, maybe they’re going to pick up skills, something that will translate to the real world.”

Interesting thoughts, here. VR provides the ability to create digital interactions more like real life, and thus, even if you spend a bit too much time playing virtual poker or racing virtual race cars, these activities will still be relatively transferable to the real world, more so than simply mashing buttons on a Game Boy, anyway.

It won’t always be a new toy

The digital world is inherently compelling thanks to its reach and convenience, but VR grants it far more visceral power. Should the real world risk having a potential competitor? According to Rizzo, “People often worry about our children getting so obsessed with the digital world that they won’t have an appreciation of the real world. And not just our kids, but civilization, people in general. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I think that what’s going to happen is that people will have great experiences in the digital world but there may be a time when a kid takes off the headset and says, ‘When can I go to a real beach? When can I go to the real woods?’ I think there’s always going to be a place for this digital stuff, but I think people have an inclination toward the natural. I think that once the novelty of all these digital things wears off, people will start to use them more judiciously. After a while, if you have a choice between going to a real beach or putting on a headset and sitting on a virtual beach, with all things equal, you’re going to pick the real beach. You want to feel the sand under your feet. You want to jump in the water. Now, if you’re not near a beach, maybe that virtual beach is a good substitute. You can relax and listen to the waves. I’m not too worried. I’m optimistic. I’m optimistic about most things so I could be wrong. We’ve got to be vigilant for some of the unintended negative consequences. That’s normal, but I think the opportunities that this affords – education, clinical care, entertainment, journalism, far outweigh any of the negatives.”

VR applications

Ma rketsandMarkets forecasts that e-commerce will actually be the biggest application for VR in the near future, and not gaming (which is forecast to come in at number three). As to other applications of interest, Skip Rizzo sees, “Journalism, that’s another area where VR is standing by. Fullspherical video of newsworthy events will be a very big thing in the very near future (Facebook has stated intentions to develop 3D news feeds). It already is kind of big right now, but there’s no evolved literature. In science, mental health, rehabilitation, medical applications, there are literally… I don’t want to quote a number but there is a large, growing body of research and a lot of the research is really good. It’s very promising.”

About Skip Rizzo

Skip is a clinical psychologist and Director of Medical VR at the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies. He is also a research professor with the USC Dept. of Psychiatry and at the USC Davis School of Gerontology.

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