With the rise of VR adoption and the involvement of the gaming industry in developing content for VR, the topic of social impact takes the stage again: is VR ruining, improving or ignoring our social life?
Facebook took on the challenge to measure the implications of social VR, stating that VR can facilitate social connection for introverts. A statement that falls in line with their acquisition of Oculus VR and hiring Rachel Franklin, former VP/GM for The Sims 4, as Head of Social VR.
However, the study doesn’t mention if the respondents are self-identified as introverts / extroverts or if they’ve fallen into one of these categories, following a reliable psychological test. Another variable is the definition of introversion, as some people confuse it with social anxiety. According to personality theories introverts need to recharge their batteries by solitary activities, reflection on one’s self or spending time with a few closed ones, while extroverts recharge their batteries by spending time with other people, engage in social activities and would rather avoid alone time. Few people are purely one or the other, usually is more of a matter of degree, which can vary during one’s life.
The tricky part of the introversion-extraversion categorisation is that there are sociable introverts who go to parties and speak to big audiences, followed up by the necessary retreat to solitude. And there are extroverts who do very well addressing large audiences and introducing themselves to anyone, but struggle at socializing at a more intimate level. Therefore, regardless of the introversion-extraversion balance, it’s social anxiety that people would like to overcome in the quest of forming healthy relationships. Anxiety is a constant fear of present and, more often, future events, based on imagined scenarios that could go wrong and affect us physically or emotionally. Some of these scenarios are healthy and necessary, but others can be based on past events or on fearful childhood phantasies, that wouldn’t stand a reality check. The normal human response to these scenarios is to build a behaviour around them, in order to avoid painful situations. And this is where VR comes in!
In addition to the VR apps designed to overcome various phobias (including fear of public speaking) by being placed in scenarios specifically designed to gradually confront the user with his object of fear; there are also a couple of social VR games (such as Rec Room), that people have played. Luckily, some of them generously shared their thoughts on, in this Reddit thread. Reading through the comments, I’ve noticed the following situations on the uncomfortable end of the social spectrum:
- When playing a VR social game, it is expected of us to socialize, while on the streets no one has such expectations. So when in the mood for some alone time, exploring a social VR app incognito, might not be the best idea.
- Interaction is happening in real time, which increases the anxiety compared to chat and messaging, which lets us be in control on the time spent on replying. Which only proves that VR socialising is closer to socializing in real life.
- Although in VR we feel physically safe, we’re at a higher risk of being bullied, than in real life.
On the other hand, for those of us struggling to improve our social skills have found VR social games to be helpful in various ways:
- In VR you can control the environment: join or leave as you please, or even change environment if the app allows. For an anxious person, control plays a big part in feeling more secure.
- VR acts like a mask and just like in any type of environment, an online avatar or alias offers the chance of being someone else, which can be a crucial first step, for someone who has not yet accepted his / her own identity.
- These social apps open a world of likeminded people, which increases the chance to successful social interactions, which leads me to the next point…
- Any relationship that starts in VR can then grow in real life (someone confessed they got engaged after meeting in a social VR app).
- The most socially anxious people dare to interact a bit, rather than shutting down completely (which would be standard procedure in real life). Once this first step is made successfully, forming relationships is just one step away.
Going through the ups and downs of online social interaction, I’d say that the future of VR, as a tool to overcome anxiety, is user generated content in VR and customization of pre-established scenarios. The moment we will be able to put together our scariest and most exciting phantasies in VR ourselves and control them, we’ll fear them less. The moment we realize that we can survive the worst scenarios, maybe we’ll dare a bit more to face unknown and uncontrollable situations, which will bring along not just less anxiety, but also joy.
About the Author
Andreea Vaduva is Community Manager for Black The Fall, the Communism-inspired puzzle game developed by Sand Sailor Studio. The Bucharest based indie development studio is working now on a VR title with online and offline social implications.