VR gaming's problem with diversity

VR Gaming’s Real Problem Isn’t Price; It’s Diversity

As virtual reality makes its much-hyped comeback, developers and headset makers have been trying to sell us on the idea that the technology will offer the most immersive gaming experience ever. Why just play a game when you can feel as though you are actually in it?

It’s certainly an alluring premise, after all, games are already such a Very Big Deal because of the fantasies they let us play out and the worlds that they allow us to virtually inhabit. The suggestion is that VR gaming will essentially be video games on steroids and that we’d be silly not to spend a small fortune on getting in on it.

However, there’s one very significant roadblock that stands between virtual reality gaming and a gamer’s dream of true, virtual immersion –  and that’s diversity.

If virtual reality games are designed to make players feel as though they are right there in the virtual space, then how the player is represented in that space becomes all the more vital. When the player character’s identity isn’t particularly important to the narrative and the character may even be unnamed, then developers shouldn’t be assuming a default.

Oculus Rift female user

For example, a dark-skinned, Asian player may feel less immersed in the world seeing that the the player character, despite being a no-named blank canvas with which they’re meant to ‘project’ upon, has white hands. And what about female gamers, where the character is addressed by others in the game with male descriptors (dude, guy, man, etc.)? This only results in them feeling ‘hey, this game was not designed with me in mind.’

It’s like Freaky Friday body-swapping on a technological level.

That’s not to say that characters need to be race-swapped or need to have different gender counterparts or voices in every accent either. I’m not talking about games such as Rise of the Tomb Raider, which will soon let players explore Croft Manor (as Lara Croft) in VR, ADR1FT in which you play as (female astronaut) Commander Alex Oshima or Surgeon Simulator 2013 in which players assume the role of shaky-handed surgeon Nigel Burke.

Regardless of whether you identify similarly with these characters or, on a base level, have hands and a voice that look and sound like theirs, it’s certainly possible to empathise with them and feel immersed in their games as the developers have taken the time to craft a story around them.

The Climb game wallpaper

Rather, the sort of games this suggestion is levelled at are titles such as The Climb which has two disembodied hands accompanied with a (typically) masculine sounding voice. A male character is also depicted in the game’s wallpaper art. PlayStation VR horror title Until Dawn: Rush of Blood also has a masculine sounding voice and in-game, VR Luge features the body (neck-to-feet) of an “illegal street racer,” but that body is not necessarily one that looks like yours.

Right now, there aren’t many statistics on who is playing virtual reality games as the big-name headsets haven’t been on store shelves long. But the virtual reality industry is expected to make almost $900 million this year alone, with the revenue from VR/AR industries (potentially) ballooning to $150 billion by 2020. Surely, with VR hardware strapped to the heads of so many players, it’s unlikely that they will all identify the same.

Being inclusive to all players could be as simple as putting gloves on the player character’s hands (as is the case with PlayStation VR title The London Heist) or letting players customise their characters. Whichever solution developers choose, it could make a huge difference in how people enjoy virtual reality gaming.

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Jasmine Henry

Staff Writer at New Normative
Jasmine Henry is a games and technology writer from the UK who has been playing video games since before she could tie her own shoelaces. She is also a serial games hoarder (thanks Steam sales!) and dreams of a day when the representation of women and minorities in games is no longer debated and is simply just the ‘norm’.


4 responses to “VR Gaming’s Real Problem Isn’t Price; It’s Diversity”

  1. Something I hadn’t thought of. The idea of gloves on the hands is a really interesting solution. Makes me wonder what other possibilities there are for games that are supposed to feature a character that isn’t identified outside of their name.

    1. Silent protagonists are another possible idea but then you have people who complain against those/hate having to read dialogue so that’s another battle.

  2. I’d never considered diversity in virtual reality, but can see how not having your gender or race represented would remove the fantasy of the game. I like your gloves solution. Another possibility (though certainly not applicable to every game) would be to have a cyborg or robot character. Robot hands aren’t necessarily distinctly feminine or masculine. Hehe.

    1. Balloon animal hands is my vote.

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