THREE: Working with existing VR material: activities with participants

This chapter examines approaches to undertaking VR projects with human participants. We explore the ethics of working with human subjects in VR, including problems related to intense emotional stimulation and cybersickness. We also reflect on the predominance of quantitative methods in projects that analyse participant response to VR environments and scenarios. The emphasis is on how existing VR materials might be employed as a simpler and lower-cost alternative to building original VR content. The chapter also includes a case study of a qualitative project in which experienced gamers played the VR zombie shooter Arizona Sunshine (Vertigo Games, 2016). The exercise revealed a powerful affectual connection to the virtual space, creating a considerably more physically and emotionally intense experience than participants normally experienced when gaming.

Introduction

One of the key selling points of VR is that it allows us to explore environments and scenarios without the need for travel and with limited physical risk. This means that there are tremendous opportunities for working with participants to examine how people react to different places and circumstances in ways that would simply be impractical if attempted in the real world. As we will explore in Chapter 6, however, much of this work with participants has taken place within environments that have been specifically built for a particular project – this approach can be quite expensive and requires considerable expertise. Our concern in this chapter, therefore, is the ways in which commercially available VR content can be cheaply redeployed within research projects to explore some of these same questions. This immediately lowers the barrier of entry into this kind of research.

Work with participants in VR has been dominated by researchers in psychology and human-computer interaction, leading to a particular skew in the topics and approaches considered. Projects employing standardised questionnaires form the majority of work in this area and, while this is highly valuable, it does create a research gap around more qualitative and creative work with participants. Likewise, as an emerging technology, more of the work with participants in VR has focused on questions of user experience than the new opportunities for research that are opened up when participants visit virtual environments.

This chapter is in four parts. First, we examine the ethical considerations that need to be made when designing VR research projects for participants. We highlight some of the emotional and physiological pressures posed by VR and how these can be mitigated in order to ensure that research is undertaken in an ethical and responsible manner. Next, we consider some of the practical issues around user experience within VR, particularly questions around cybersickness and physicality. We then explore how VR has been used for therapeutic and training applications, highlighting the power of VR to help participants overcome real-world constraints. Finally, in order to highlight the potential for qualitative research with participant groups, we present a case study of an exploratory project we undertook where participants had to fend off invading hordes of zombies.

Ethical considerations

Despite users not being in any real danger, VR still has major effects, both psychologically and physically. As a result, the ethical review process before commencing research with participants using VR requires more than a simple tick-box exercise. Part of the reason for this stems from the fact that the illusion of being in a particular situation is very compelling in VR. Slater (2009) has helpfully broken this down into two elements: Place Illusion, the sense of ‘being there’, and Plausibility Illusion, the feeling that the events being depicted are actually happening. Taken together, Slater argues, they create the sense for the participant that the scenario being depicted is actually happening – thus they will respond as if it were real even if they objectively know that it is not.

As noted when discussing Half-Life: Alyx in the previous chapter, this sense of being in a real situation means that users physically and emotionally respond to the scenarios being depicted in VR. From the standpoint of ethical review, therefore, the question is whether high-stress scenarios depicted in VR are measurably more impactful than experiencing something similar in a less-immersive medium. Many ethical review panels will have limited expertise in the effects of VR when making judgements as to whether a project should proceed, though they will likely have experience of comparable conventional scenarios, such as asking participants to watch a scary movie or play a stress-inducing game on a monitor. The relative affectual, embodied response of VR compared with non-VR scenarios has therefore been a crucial issue to test because it has consequences for whether and how we undertake ethically responsible research with participants in VR.

Wilson and McGill (2018) have raised this question by asking whether the intensity of fear response in VR means that games should be given a different age rating when played in VR compared with a conventional screen. As with many of the studies that we discuss in this chapter, Wilson and McGill used a standardised questionnaire (in their case the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory) to capture their participants’ emotional state. A degree of caution should be noted here, particularly given that there have been concerns over whether the results from this type of research design are reproducible (Baker, 2015). Regardless, Wilson and McGill quantified the difference between participants playing Resident Evil 7 (Capcom, 2017) on a screen compared with an HMD. This was triangulated with a set of qualitative interviews exploring the drivers of players’ physical responses. Overall, they found a slightly higher fear response from the VR experience, though not strongly different from conventional screen-based gameplay.

Fear response therefore needs to be considered carefully when reviewing the ethics of research within VR. Developing on Slater’s ideas of place and plausibility illusions, Lin (2017) examined player reaction to VR horror game The Brookhaven Experiment (Phosphor Games, 2016). Only a small minority of the 144 participants reported strongly negative responses to the experience. Likewise, the day after exposure, very few recalled nightmares or any dreams about the game, nor any sense of the ‘Tetris effect’, where one perceives elements of the game bleeding into everyday life. Lin’s study is especially interesting because it highlights Slater’s plausibility illusion having a particularly strong effect on players’ fear response: they reacted because of the feeling that the events were actually happening, even if that illusion was broken once the HMD was removed. Similarly, Lin observed that differences in participants’ coping strategies to manage their fear were in line with what one would expect in a real-world scenario, reproducing common responses that reflected, for example, gender and sensation-seeking traits.

All the participants in Lin’s study were students, and a more diverse group might have responded somewhat differently to the material. Indeed, reliance on students to generate larger samples is quite common in studies of this type. Nonetheless, the qualities highlighted by Lin indicate that VR is quite a good tool for assessing response to different fear-based scenarios without necessarily creating negative psychological responses that still affect participants the following day. Thus, from a research ethics point of view, this suggests that, while participant activities exploring fear in VR should be carefully designed, they do not need to be ruled out altogether.

Fear is, of course, only one emotional response that one might look to explore via a VR intervention. Nonetheless, in terms of ready-made VR materials, the horror genre does seem to be particularly attractive to VR developers and this brings a temptation to focus research projects more in this area. One interesting potential way around this is to use tools such as VorpX, which are designed to let a range of different games be experienced in VR even if they were not originally designed for this. Tate (2016), for example, has demonstrated how VorpX can be used to access the social virtual world Second Life (Linden Lab, 2003) in VR (social VR is discussed in more detail in the next chapter). In terms of more conventional games, VorpX could be used with something like Mirror’s Edge (DICE, 2008) a game that involves parkour across the rooftops of a future cityscape – this can be quite vertiginous in an HMD and would be an interesting tool for exploring anxiety about heights. Again, however, going beyond fear as the primary emotional response, one could also use these VR conversion tools with a range of games to explore different scenarios. Walking simulators would be interesting in this regard as they are designed to be more contemplative and rooted in expansive environments rather than more traditional gameplay tropes. Participants could be given the opportunity to explore and derive aesthetic and sensory pleasure from, for example, the landscape of the imagined Scottish island in Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2016) or the forests of Firewatch (Campo Santo, 2016). With some careful thought around matching games to the aims of a research project, therefore, tools like VorpX can be an inexpensive way to access commercially produced, high-quality virtual environments that can generate convincing plausibility illusions via an HMD.

A note of caution is necessary here since these games were not designed for use in VR. As a result, when ‘hacking’ them into an HMD, they bring a higher risk of cybersickness. The problem of cybersickness, which we discuss in more detail later, needs to be actively considered when reviewing the ethics of potential harms in VR studies with participants. Szpak et al (2020), for example, argue that, although most of their participants showed no symptoms of cybersickness 40 minutes after an extended period playing in VR, around one in seven still had a relatively high score on the standardised Simulator Sickness Questionnaire. Indeed, they explicitly caution against assuming that participants do not suffer longer term physical effects from VR – not least because their study examined a predominantly younger cohort where one would expect a faster recovery rate. Their key recommendation, which is a sensible one, is to ask participants to trial exposure before the main study to assess whether they are particularly vulnerable to cybersickness. Likewise, they suggest including recovery time in any study and insisting that participants agree to a waiting period at the end of the exposure to VR.

Another key consideration for undertaking ethical research in this area is highlighted by the periodically recurring moral panic about video games encouraging violent and addictive behaviours. The myth of video games creating real-world violence is routinely debunked, but frequently resurfaces, particularly following incidents of US school shootings (Gallar and Ferguson, 2020). Again, however, it is important to consider whether the immersive qualities of VR lead to a greater propensity for violent thoughts and actions among participants following exposure. There has not been a great deal of research around this, although an early study by Arriaga et al (2008) attempted to explore whether VR created an increased aggression response in participants. This relatively small study could not find any significant increase in self-reported hostility for those playing within an HMD. Likewise, a more recent study failed to find any major effect in terms of aggression response when playing a violent game in an HMD (Ferguson et al, 2021). The absence of evidence does not completely rule out the potential for VR experiences of violence to trigger aggressive behaviours, but it does suggest that a short exposure as part of a research intervention is unlikely to cause long-term harm.

Addiction is the other well-known bogeyman in popular discourses about gaming. There is well-established evidence that small numbers of users struggle with addiction to video games, to the point that, in 2018, ‘Gaming disorder’ was included for the first time in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (World Health Organization, 2018). Although for the individuals affected this is a serious issue, the numbers of people involved appear to be relatively small, with a Guardian investigation (Thomas, 2021) revealing just 56 referrals to a specialist clinic dealing with gaming and technology addictions in the UK from January to May 2021. There have, however, been relatively few studies looking at the addictive qualities of VR specifically. Zhai et al (2020) found some limited connection between the increased sense of presence generated by VR and a tendency toward addictive patterns of behaviour. Nonetheless, there is not a great deal of evidence that VR users are at a markedly higher risk of addiction than the wider population of gamers. When undertaking an ethical review, therefore, it is unlikely that limited exposure as part of a research project offers a particular point of concern around addiction risk.

So, we can reflect that while VR does have distinctly different qualities from non-immersive forms of media, the risk to participants does not appear to be substantially greater. Clearly, however, there are some sensible safeguards to build into projects where researchers are working with participants, particularly in terms of trial exposures and cool-down periods. In summary, there are specific concerns that researchers and ethical review panellists should consider in applications for studies utilising VR, but these should prove relatively straightforward to manage and mitigate.

User experience

Beyond reviewing the ethical implications of working with participants in VR, there are also practical issues around user experience to consider when designing research projects. Fortunately, there has been a wealth of studies in this area. As an emerging technology, much of the research around VR has been around how users interact with it, with implications for how these systems are designed and developed.

Cybersickness is an absolutely crucial issue here and, beyond the ethical concerns about making research participants ill, there are also considerable practical issues to consider in terms of generating a usable dataset. Cybersickness can affect participant drop-out rates and can overwhelm other aspects of the emotional and affectual experience for participants that the researcher might want to examine – hence finding ways to mitigate this is important for the data collection process. The impact on sampling is a particular concern because women have been consistently shown to be more susceptible to cybersickness than men (MacArthur et al, 2021). As a result, considerable energy has gone into examining how cybersickness might be tackled, though we should note that it is a somewhat catch-all phrase, with a number of different drivers (Rebenitsch and Owen, 2016).

The main issue is a mismatch between perceived and actual movement. Recent research has examined drivers of the cybersickness gender divide, noting that interpupillary distance between the lenses on many HMDs defaults to a larger size, assuming a male bodily norm. As a result, women are much more prone to ill effects because, in many common headset designs, the lenses cannot be properly aligned for typically smaller female bodies (Stanney et al, 2020). Beyond this, there are also problems caused by maintaining focus on a screen just a short distance from the eyes, incorrect adjustment of the interpupillary distance on the HMD, the fact that the field of view within HMDs is less than humans naturally experience and the ‘screen door’ effect of being able to see individual pixels on older, lower-resolution displays. At a simpler level, the weight of the headset, how it is balanced and the heat generated when it is clamped across the face can all lead to problematic levels of discomfort and nausea.

Research around some of these issues has driven changes to the technology, with manufacturers creating lighter, higher-resolution HMDs with much wider fields of view and made of breathable materials. Nonetheless, cybersickness persists as an issue and it is important to consider this when designing research projects. The problem is sufficiently serious that a number of standardised tools have been developed for assessing the degree to which participants are made ill by different scenarios. These include variants on the Simulator Sickness Questionnaire, although there has been some debate about how appropriate they are for examining user response specifically within HMDs (Sevinc and Berkman, 2020).

There is some evidence that the type of gameplay affects rates of cybersickness. The majority of VR content is designed from a first-person perspective, meaning that the body of the user is mapped onto an avatar of the protagonist within the virtual environment. There is some evidence, however, that cybersickness can be reduced when using VR content based around a third-person perspective, with users seeing the environment from the view of a game camera that follows the protagonist. Monteiro et al (2018) compared third- and first-person perspectives for participants playing Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo, 2008). They used Dolphin VR – a system similar to VorpX described earlier – both to transfer the game into VR and to allow it to be flipped between first and third person perspectives. This allowed a direct comparison between the two states in the same gaming environment. While participants reported feeling less immersed in the third-person perspective, they also reported lower levels of cybersickness, with no apparent impact on levels of enjoyment.

In virtual environments specifically designed for VR, there are now a number of standard design techniques used to mitigate the mismatch between bodily and perceived movement. In non-VR gaming, camera movements usually track smoothly the position of the virtual protagonist. In VR this visual flow can be quite nauseating, as the perceived movement does not align with the player’s stationary body position. Many VR games therefore adopt a ‘teleport’ approach, where the virtual body is moved in a series of non-contiguous jumps. Alternatively, some games have a ‘comfort’ mode that narrows the field of view when the virtual body is moving quickly as this reduces the effects of nausea.

Omnidirectional treadmills are sometimes presented as a silver bullet to solve the mismatch between perceived and actual movement. These treadmills allow the player to walk or run in any direction while remaining in a fixed position. When synced to a VR system, they can give a convincing impression of being able to walk endlessly in virtual space without ever leaving the physical room. Wehden et al (2021) have undertaken a really interesting study of how an omnidirectional treadmill affects user experience in VR. In a rather neat move to make good use of an existing, high-quality virtual environment, the research team built a unique quest within The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011: remastered 2016, VR version 2017) creating a custom hunting task using a bow and arrow. The fact that some games allow this type of customisation is worth bearing in mind when considering the design of an intervention because it may be possible to reuse and adapt an existing commercial product rather than having to go to the expense of designing something from scratch.

In some ways, the results from Wehden et al’s study were a little disappointing. Comparing treadmill VR, standard VR and non-VR gaming, with a sample of 203 students, they did not find a reduction in cybersickness from using the treadmill. While participants reported enhanced presence and awe in both VR scenarios, the overall gameplay experience did not appear to be significantly improved when using the treadmill. Interestingly, however, using the treadmill for more natural locomotion around the game space did result in higher levels of physical exertion, and the authors suggest that this might be of value in the field of exergames. An omnidirectional treadmill is a relatively expensive additional piece of equipment for a VR lab. Nonetheless, where projects are interested in exploring participants’ physical activity, it might be a worthwhile investment, even if it does not apparently help to combat cybersickness.

Wehden et al reported unambiguous findings that VR produced an enhanced participant enjoyment of the game. This conclusion is, perhaps surprisingly, not shared by all studies in this area. Player enjoyment is a crucial issue in commercial gaming and, as a result, there has been a fair amount of research exploring how it can be maximised. A number of papers have attempted to reproduce the findings from a study by Shelstad et al (2017), which found a clear enhancement of user satisfaction when playing in VR compared with conventional gaming. Shelstad et al employed the Game User Experience Satisfaction Scale, another of the standardised tools developed within psychology. Yildirim et al (2018) attempted to replicate these findings and found little difference in enjoyment between the VR and non-VR parts of their experiment. Indeed, in a subsequent paper, Yildirim (2019) hypothesised that the higher levels of cybersickness reported in an HMD might be a key barrier to VR systems outperforming non-VR when it comes to player enjoyment. The fact that Yildrim’s team were unable to reproduce Shelstad et al’s findings again highlights some of the concerns around reproducibility when using this type of research design.

There are a couple of things to reflect on here. The first is that, while standardised questionnaire tools exist for studying VR and are valuable research methods, they do not necessarily give unambiguous and reproducible findings. The second is the sheer number of potential confounding factors that could explain the differences in findings derived from apparently similar experiments, from the type of game used, to the participant sample, even down to the controllers that participants used. Following up on Yildrim et al (2018), Carroll et al (2019) attempted to compare game types (a racing game with a first-person perspective versus a strategy game using a third-person perspective) while using the same type of controller to try to rule that out as affecting the player experience. Again, they found no significant difference in player enjoyment between the VR and non-VR.

An interesting element in Carroll et al was that participants consistently enjoyed the strategy game more than the racing game, regardless of whether it was played in VR or not. One potential reason for this is that a standard gamepad controller does not accurately reproduce the experience of driving, thereby creating a mismatch between virtual- and real-world experience. This suggests that there might be more research to be done around the effects of the controller interface on VR participant experience. We have done some exploratory work in this area, having visitors to a university open day engage with Assetto Corsa (Kunos Simulazioni, 2014), the same driving simulator used by Carroll et al, but using a steering wheel and pedal set-up to more accurately reflect the experience of real-world driving. Older participants (parents and grandparents of applicants) tended to be more comfortable with this because it was a familiar experience and user interface. Some of the younger participants struggled simply because many of them had not yet learned to drive a car so the controls for the virtual simulation were much less familiar than if we had given them a standard gamepad. Clearly, this is not much more than anecdotal evidence, but indicates that there is still work to be done in thinking specifically about the effect of participant’s prior real-world experience when considering which controllers they could use to interact with these virtual environments.

Beyond the use of standardised questionnaires, there are interesting possibilities for using more direct physiological measures to assess participant response to VR. In recent years, tools for measuring heart rate, electrodermal activation, brainwaves and other physiological responses have started to be used more widely by researchers beyond medicine and psychology (Osborne and Jones, 2017). These measures can be ambiguous and require a fair degree of expertise to interpret meaningfully. Nonetheless, falling costs and increased ease of application means that they can potentially add an interesting element to projects examining how participants respond to different VR scenarios. Heo and Yoon (2020), for example, explored the potential for using an EEG device measuring brainwave activity in order to examine participant comfort while playing a basic fantasy combat maze game. They found activity in the occipital and temporal lobes stimulated by exposure to VR led to nausea among their participants. Further, they suggested that real-time monitoring of EEG during gaming could be built into systems that encourage players to take breaks or even to increase the difficulty of the game where players were not physically discomforted. While EEG monitoring is not straightforward to operationalise, these kinds of studies indicate that there might be potential for scholars interested in VR to collaborate with those more familiar with physiological monitoring in order to devise cross-cutting research projects.

Therapeutic and training applications

Many projects with an explicit therapeutic or training element use bespoke software and set-ups that we discuss in Chapter 6, but there are also examples of these kinds of issues being explored much less expensively, through off-the-shelf approaches. Dahlquist et al (2007), for example, chose to use the Jellyfish Race sequence of Finding Nemo (Traveller’s Tales, 2003) in a study on pain distraction in children. The children had one of their hands placed in water at 5°C and either played the game or watched previously recorded footage of the game being played. The participant group wearing an HMD had a significantly increased pain threshold compared with the control group and it was higher still among the group who were actively playing rather than simply watching gameplay footage.

This kind of project demonstrates that the immersion effects of VR operate not merely in the visual and auditory registers but can also make us less aware of external physical stimuli. It also shows how existing materials can be usefully employed within a careful research design. Here, the use of a commercial product potentially enhanced the research findings because Finding Nemo would be much more familiar – and thereby distracting – to that cohort of children compared with a bespoke virtual environment designed for the project. Of course, many researchers in the social sciences and humanities would not wish to be involved with projects that deliberately caused participants pain, even in the highly controlled manner employed by Dahlquist et al. Knowing that VR is an effective distraction from pain, however, could prove useful in projects working with the elderly and groups suffering from chronic conditions.

There have been a number of review papers within medical literature looking at the potential applications of VR and gaming technology, though in practice some of the older sources in this area relate to virtual environments as experienced through a conventional monitor rather than via an HMD (for example Ferguson et al, 2015 and Yates et al, 2016). Nonetheless, a meta review of projects employing HMDs in VR exposure therapy for trauma patients has found this to be an effective technique for combating anxiety disorders (Carl et al, 2019). Even widely available commercial products can be seen to be effective here, such as Lindner et al’s (2019) study which used the off-the-shelf app VirtualSpeech (2016) to examine VR exposure therapy to tackle a fear of public speaking.

The powerful physical effects that we see in explicitly medicalised applications of VR indicate that there is interesting potential for research that takes a more interventionist approach, attempting to alter participants’ lives. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there has been considerable excitement about the role of VR within training and education research. Aebersold et al (2020), for example, explored whether a conventional team-building simulation app was enhanced if participants had first engaged in a VR simulation of the same environment. The group who had explored the Everest VR (Sólfar Studios, 2016) app on the Oculus Rift subsequently performed better in the Everest-themed 2D team-building simulation than a control group. The research team hypothesised that a VR experience might be useful to provide context to students who did not have real-world experience to draw on during a team-building exercise.

The importance of previous experience fits within constructivist theories of education that emphasise sensory stimulation as a learning tool. These ideas have been discussed in a review paper by Oyelere et al (2020), which examines how educational materials have been deployed on the major commercial VR platforms. From an educational and training point of view, the primary advantage of VR is in being able to virtually visit sites that would be too expensive, inaccessible or dangerous to experience in person. In a classroom setting, however, this can be quite challenging because the experience within HMDs is often quite solitary, even before one considers the expense and logistical difficulties of working with multiple VR set-ups with larger groups. As a result, teacher and classmates are not usually sharing the experience inside VR with a participant; it is more common for large classes to follow one person’s exploration of VR content via a mirrored-screen set-up, which, of course, lacks the immersion and sense of control over the environment.

The use of ‘serious gaming’ VR in educational settings positions the technology as having social value. Another potential benefit is in encouraging greater exercise in an increasingly sedentary population. Because VR can distract from physical pain or discomfort, exergames can encourage participants to exercise harder and for longer than they might otherwise do. McMichael et al (2020) noted, however, that using such games to encourage exercise in adolescents ran into parental concerns around addiction and violence related to gaming. While the parents in this study were grateful that their teenage children were taking any form of exercise, the researchers concluded that educating the parents about this new and unfamiliar technology was a crucial step to it being more widely adopted as a way to encourage exercise.

There is an interesting contrast between the kind of physical training in VR represented by exergames and the use of VR in training scenarios where participant mobility is restricted. This restricted mobility might be as simple as the cost of taking a class to a distant field site. There are also physical mobility issues to consider. Coldham and Cook (2017) give a nice example of whether commercial VR could be used to help older people learn to navigate real-world environments. This study used Google Earth VR, an incredibly compelling, freely available tool, which reproduces topography and buildings rendered in 3D combined with the option to enter Streetview images as 360° immersive photographs. While many participants saw the technology as somewhat frivolous, the virtual environment was not seen as jarringly unrealistic and there was a general acceptance by participants of its potential value for older people to safely explore different navigation scenarios.

It is important, however, to reflect that older people are not a singular cohort, and clichés about them being reluctant adopters of technology are far from universally the case. Indeed, the popular Elders React to Technology YouTube series plays with this idea, with one episode specifically examining the responses of older people using an Oculus Rift HMD (REACT, 2014). We have undertaken a tentative initial exploration along similar lines, asking Phil’s parents to try Google Earth VR, with both reacting very differently to the experience. Val, now too unsteady on her feet to climb the hills she loved to walk when she was younger, was somewhat underwhelmed by a virtual climb up the Old Man of Coniston, a mountain in the English Lake District. Although the view of the wider landscape from the top of the hill is quite convincing, when looking around at ground level, it is clear that one is standing on a highly pixelated aerial photograph. Val commented that her primary reason for enjoying walking was to see the plants and flowers around her on the hillside, so this was a poor substitute. She also struggled a little with controlling her virtual movement. Ian, meanwhile, rapidly got to grips with the hand controller and was soon zipping across the skyline of Liverpool as if flying a virtual aeroplane, diving under Runcorn Bridge and attempting a ‘landing’ at John Lennon airport, just around the corner from where he grew up. In part, this returns to the issue of control mechanisms needing to feel familiar. Google Earth VR asks the user to tilt and pitch the hand controller in order to set the direction of movement – Ian had been a gliding instructor and found the controls entirely logical because they mirrored an aeroplane’s control stick. A standard gamepad controller would have been much more of a struggle because of its unfamiliarity.

Case study: surviving the zombie apocalypse

We turn now to reflect on one of our projects, led by Calla, which asked participants to play the FPS, Arizona Sunshine (Vertigo Games, 2016). The game takes some of the familiar elements of VR survivalist horror, but, unlike the dark and grimy realism of Half-Life: Alyx, transfers these tropes to the bright daylight and wide-open spaces of a cartoonish Arizona desert. The setting alters the deliberately unsettling atmosphere favoured by many zombie games, although there is an interesting contrast narratively between the attractive landscape and the horrifying creatures that populate it.

Arizona Sunshine was a finalist for 2017 VR game of the year, reflecting the fact that it is a well-made game, though it lacks the depth and scale of a triple-A offering. Nonetheless, the shooting mechanics within the game are highly intuitive, with weapon aiming controlled by pointing the hand controllers rather than using a gamepad, as would be the case in non-VR. The participant sample for the research was a group of 33 experienced FPS gamers (aged 18–32), meaning that they could reflect on the VR versus non-VR experience. The participant group was all-male, to isolate gender effects for this initial study. Only 30 per cent (10 participants) had previously experienced VR.

The project used a large classroom, with the play space cleared of furniture to remove trip hazards. One of the major safety concerns when using tethered VR is of tripping over the cable. At the time of undertaking the study, wire-free, streaming VR was prohibitively expensive. We thus attempted a relatively simple mitigation placing the gaming laptop (Asus FX503, 7th gen Core i5, GTX 1060) into a rucksack worn by the participants during play so that there were no trailing wires. This proved to be impractical, as VR runs the battery down very quickly and it was too time consuming to recharge between participant sessions. In addition, because the rucksack was not ventilated, the laptop could easily overheat and shut down mid-session.

Following these practical tests, we pragmatically decided to give participants a play area restricted by the length of the HMD tether. The Windows Mixed Reality system allows users to set up a warning boundary that appears in the field of view when getting too close to the edge of the safe area. In addition, the researcher remained in the room to ensure that participants were safe during gameplay and was ready to intervene where there was a risk of tripping over the cable. Unlike participants in Coldham and Cook’s (2017) study with the elderly, the relatively young sample group were less anxious about tripping and therefore more confident in their movements. Participants’ physical movements were not recorded, but a camera was mounted in front of the laptop screen to record the gameplay (Figure 3.1). As with the Half-Life: Alyx study in the previous chapter, screen recording was not attempted on the gaming laptop to avoid placing additional load on a system that was at the bottom of the required specification for running the game.

Figure 3.1:
Figure 3.1:

Recording set-up for the Arizona Sunshine project

Source: Calla Sullivan-Drage

Participants were given a ten-minute orientation period both to become familiar with the hand controllers and to become acclimatised to VR. None dropped out at this stage with cybersickness symptoms. All participants were then asked to play a 20-minute session of the game in ‘hoard mode’, where continual waves of zombies attack. The ‘Canyon’ map was utilised because it confines participants to the centre of a small tarpaulined area, thus avoiding the temptation to make larger physical movements that might have drawn the user outside the designated safe play area.

After the 20-minute period of gameplay, participants removed the HMD and sat down to undertake a video-stimulated recall interview, which allows participants to reflect on their actions that have been captured in a recording (Nguyen et al, 2013). Adapting this approach for use with VR gameplay, we drew on a technique previously employed with non-VR games (Jones and Osborne, 2020), with participants watching footage of their gameplay while the interviewer asked questions about the experience and the choices being made. These qualitative interviews were subsequently transcribed and underwent thematic coding in NVivo. It was possible to use time codes on the audio to track back to the specific action being discussed within the participant videos, although this was not felt to add much value in this specific use case since most of the recorded gameplay action is fairly repetitive.

Reflecting on the general theme of comparing VR and non-VR FPS, much of the participant commentary concerned itself with ideas of presence, for example: “like you’re in the action – you’re like a hero, aren’t you? You’re actually more immersed in it because it feels like the gun’s in your hand” (Participant 22, 18 March 2019). This does not necessarily translate to a greater enjoyment of the gameplay compared with non-VR, but indicates that the sense of presence adds value to the experience. Given that the participant sample was of keen gamers, there was an unsurprising theme around being impressed by the technology and its effects: “It was really intense. My heart was racing and I felt quite hot and sweaty at points because it felt so much more realistic. I didn’t think that games could get this sort of reaction out of you” (Participant 33, 7 March 2019). Nonetheless, there was no sense that participants were going to rush out and buy a VR system after this experience. Even though they responded positively to it, this was not going to replace Call of Duty and similar non-VR FPS as their primary choice of games.

Methodologically, the project highlights the potential for undertaking rich, qualitative studies with participants using VR. Much of the existing work with participants using VR concentrates on standardised questionnaires, with qualitative material either missing or a second-order method. The participant interviews in the Arizona Sunshine study gave more reflective context to some of the well-worn debates around player enjoyment in the fields of computer science and psychology. The caveat, of course, is that VR remains a very niche concern, with many potential participants either not having experienced it at all or only very briefly. Thus the ‘wow’ factor of being immersed in a rich VR landscape for the first time can overwhelm the participant experience. In turn, this can narrow the focus of research projects more toward the VR user experience and less on what it can mean for projects working with participants in being able to virtually visit otherwise inaccessible environments and scenarios.

Of course, the Arizona Sunshine project is equally guilty of focusing on the experience of being in VR rather than what VR allows us to do with participants. Likewise, many scholars working in the sciences would be unconvinced by what conclusions one can draw from a small qualitative project. This flags up philosophical differences between disciplines, particularly on the use of qualitative datasets. Nonetheless, given that most VR research to date has focused on quantitative approaches, there is quite a large gap for qualitative research in this area.

Conclusions

This chapter has explored the challenges and opportunities presented by working with participants immersed in VR. Environments and scenarios can be created in VR that would be simply impractical to explore with participants in the real world. As a medium, however, VR still raises unique questions for how we undertake ethical research, but there are sufficient studies demonstrating that these ethical concerns are not unsurmountable. The great strength of VR is that it can feel surprisingly plausible, even though you know it is a simulation. Exposing participants to virtual danger, for example, can thus have a physical and emotional impact even if this does not last much beyond the point where the headset is taken off.

Modern VR is still a fairly new technology, so a great deal of research has focused on player experience – not least with the commercial aim of finding ways to encourage more people to buy equipment and software. Cybersickness remains a considerable barrier for many participants being able to engage with VR, which can narrow the sample of participants for research seeking to immerse people in different environments. Likewise, because VR remains unfamiliar to many potential participants, the ‘wow’ effect of using it for the first time can overwhelm other emotional and affectual responses to virtual environments that a researcher might be keen to explore.

In this chapter, we have been specifically considering work with existing, commercial VR content. There are significant disadvantages to this compared with custom designing content that specifically meets the needs of the research project. But there are valuable advantages to finding existing content through which a project’s research questions can be explored: removing the cost of custom development; using globally familiar characters which can ground participants in the otherwise unfamiliar world; and providing robust and high-quality virtual experiences built and tested by large teams of experts.

As a medium, VR works very well for the horror genre. A selling point of VR is that one can try activities that would be too dangerous in the real world, meaning that reusing commercial content risks nudging research projects more toward topics considering fear and anxiety. As we have seen, however, there are ways around this, from employing tools that allow a wider range of games to be experienced in VR, to using games that allow for unique quests and experiences to be built. While Half Life: Alyx is a horror game, for example, the developers have released modding tools that allow users to easily customise the game environment and experience. Researchers can browse a catalogue of other users’ designs or create their own to simulate the type of environment and scenario that they want their participants to experience.

As with any project, careful research design is therefore essential when considering how to utilise VR with participants. Suitable virtual environments need to be chosen and participant groups appropriately selected, carefully briefed and looked after while in VR. There are important considerations about the types of tools (quantitative, qualitative, creative, mixed) that might be applied to collect the data and materials that will address the research questions. Nonetheless, VR offers significant opportunities for research with participants. There are major research gaps around: investigating positive emotional experiences; considering how participants can themselves engage more creatively with VR environments; and, more generally, undertaking in-depth, qualitative projects with research subjects. In short, when focusing on commercially available software environments, there is no shortage of work to be undertaken with participants in VR.

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