The rapid development of virtual reality technology lets players immerse themselves into digital worlds. Virtual reality headsets are already used in numerous video games to deliver astonishingly real gaming experiences. It is yet unclear, however, how exactly the technology affects age ratings for video games. We explore some ideas.
Technology and Effects of Virtual Reality on Gaming
The games industry is putting intense efforts into the development of games designed for new VR hardware. Numerous manufacturers already offer VR hardware or have announced products. Most of these VR systems rely on headsets with built-in displays. Sensors monitor the players’ movements in real time. When players move their head, this movement is transposed into the virtual environment. Gamers have the impression of being completely surrounded by the virtual environment.
Many games are already specifically designed for use with VR devices, or at least can be used with them. With the Oculus Rift for example, it is possible to play not only current games like “Dying Light”, but also older games, such as the over 10 years old classic “Half Life 2” or the over 4 years old “Euro Truck Simulator 2”.
Impact on Youth Protection
Until now, the impact of VR technology on youth protection has not been discussed in legal literature.
According to media reports, the European rating body PEGI is considering to re-evaluate the criteria for “fear” and “horror” once VR-technology gains more market relevance. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, even brought up the idea of a dedicated separate rating system for VR games in a recent interview.
The question therefor arises whether and how VR functionality should impact the age rating of video games.
It may be surprising to most people not familiar with game classification that the people in charge of rating rarely play and evaluate the games in their entirety. We have provided an overview of rating procedures in Europe in our Online.Games.Law Blog.
Effect of VR Technology
Rating procedures vary across jurisdictions. While ESRB ratings are used in North America, the European standard is the PEGI classification – with the exception of Germany where USK ratings are used. Virtual reality technology could be considered a relevant classification factor in all rating systems. In Germany, the influence of VR on minors can be directly taken into consideration as these ratings do not rely on strict content categories. For North American ESRB and European PEGI ratings, which are based on content categories, it might be necessary to introduce an additional category for VR functionality. Game versions with and without VR functionality might also receive diverging age ratings.
Importance of External Accessories for Age Classification
To determine the effect of VR-hardware for classification procedures, it is necessary to differentiate between:
- „unofficial“ VR components, i.e. hardware players can use without the publisher advertising compatibility or providing support (1) and
- „official“ VR components supported by the publisher (or directly provided with the game) (2),
These unofficial accessories cannot affect age classifications at the moment. As the ratings are based on average consumer hardware, an expansion of the technical possibilities by – at the moment – only a few consumers cannot alter age ratings for the general public. This situation may, however, change with an increasing market penetration and availability of VR hardware, as a significant market share could have an influence on the “typical” consumer experience that the publisher has to expect.
A large part of the – mostly still experimental – VR hardware on the market can be used with video games without the publisher consciously having integrated VR functionality. Special 3D drivers developed by third parties add VR support to a multitude of games. Not all VR hardware even needs software support: Simple “force feedback” vests are for example connected to the sound card and vibrate on loud sounds.
Officially Supported VR Hardware
However, in order to determine what effect such VR hardware may have on the outcome of the classification process, it must be examined what relevant effects VR has on minors in the first place.
VR hardware officially supported by the publisher could already influence age classification of games. VR support fundamentally changes the game experience and is, in most cases, also advertised. As an integral part of the game, it is therefore relevant for its classification.
Impact of Games and VR Hardware
As the goal of age ratings is youth protection, such age ratings are justified by the impact a game might have on the development of juveniles and children. Several factors can have an influence on how a game is perceived by minors. Aspects can be the realism of a game, its visual realization or its appeal to minors and potential for identification. Virtual reality transforms several aspects of video games:
- VR technology has a massive influence on gameplay. If a game was designed to be used with VR hardware, this has to be taken into account during the classification procedure.
- The degree of immersion is higher if games are developed with regard to the limits of VR. In this case, VR can have an important influence on the perception of the game by minors, possibly altering classification.
- Another aspect with potential influence on perception of games by young players is the level of detail. Young children lack the capability to distinguish fiction from reality; this only develops later on. A more restrictive approach on game classification can therefore be expected for children’s ratings.
Oculus VR recommends a minimum age of 13 for its headsets at the moment, but plans to lower this age in the future.
Practical Impact on Classification Procedures
Under the assumption that VR does affect ratings, the technology will have massive implications on classification procedures.
The classification procedures vary , but they all have one thing in common: The people responsible for the classification do not play the games (themselves) in their entirety. Up until now, this was (arguably) not necessary. The review procedure could be deemed sufficient.
An evaluation of the special impact of Virtual Reality would however require the reviewers to play the games themselves. Game sequences shown in a regular screening lack the 360 degree surrounding display that is characteristic for Virtual Reality. On the other hand, it is essential that the field of view follows the movements of the players head. Similar problems occur with other VR hardware, e.g. tactile vests.
When rating games with official VR support, this functionality has to be taken into account for classification. Different ratings can also be given to versions with and without VR functionality.
Third-party mods and VR hardware that does not require official support cannot impact classifications at the moment – the situation is the same as with any other presentation hardware. This also applies to other hardware that is not intended to be uses with a game by its publisher. As the publisher is not responsible, they cannot be subject to distribution limitations.
Contact: Felix Hilgert, Associate
This blog post is a summary of our article “Youth Protection in Virtual Reality Environments”, slated to appear in the upcoming April 2016 issue of CRi (Computer Law Review International).