We have the ESRB rating system in America: EC, E, E 10+, T, M, and AO.
Not many games get an “Adults-Only” rating, and the ones that do feature content nothing short of pornography. Manhunt 2 is one of the few that is not rated AO for sexual content, but is for the plethora of violence, gore, and drugs.
Most horror games, whether recently released or released since the ESRB rating system was implemented, have an M rating – SOMA , Until Dawn, even the Nightmare Edition of Goat Simulator have an M rating. With the advent of VR, does playing horror in that format change the experience enough to warrant an AO rating for VR only, or should a new rating be created altogether? Horror games are too intense for many people, some only opting to watch others get the pants scared off them on Twitch or Youtube. The physiological and psychological response many feel while playing horror games may be too much for them to handle, and that’s perfectly fine. But what about the ones that can – will they have a more intense reaction to the same game in VR? That seems to be the case for those who went to E3, EGX, etc. and played Capcom’s Kitchen demo – people cried from fear. All over YouTube are reaction videos. You won’t find footage of the demo itself, but that didn’t stop some people from describing what happens. Apparently, you are tied to a chair and are repeatedly stabbed in the virtual leg – just one of many lovely experiences.
When I play horror games on my PC, I generally have a headset on and I play at night to enhance the experience. In anticipation of what’s to come, my heart will start to race with anxiety, the back of my throat gets dry, even my knuckles will feel tight. This is before I start playing a horror game. Thankfully, the psychical sensations tend to subside once I get going, but if I get hit with a jump scare or I discover I’m being stalked, the tell-tale signs of being scared come racing back, and yet I press on. I still have a keen awareness that I am sitting in front of a computer; I can hit the escape key, pause the game and walk away at any time. With VR, everything we see is the video game. Now, I am the kind of person that is hyper-aware of my surroundings, so I don’t think I could ever be 100%, fully immersed in VR, mainly because the bulky headset would feel like something was uncomfortably suctioned to my face. Maybe that break in immersion would be just enough to ward off a panic attack, but I haven’t exactly worked up the nerve to play a horror game in VR quite yet.
The horror VR experience is not necessarily one you can slap an age rating on and call it a day. Some experiences, especially ones that might trigger real-life traumas from the past or give a person nightmares, cannot be given an age rating. You can be 18 or 45 and still experience a horror game in VR the same way, so there needs to be a special rating for VR horror based on research. Someone needs to take the time to measure physiological and psychological responses to horror games based on age and game preference, and once they record extremely intense responses (as I suspect they will), they can name their new rating anything they want. If PEGI operations director Dirk Bosmans thinks the incoming wave of horror VR games should be reassessed more specifically according to the criteria around fear, then the ESRB here should do the same thing.