Industry reflection: What can publishers do to try to prevent public concern around the ethics of virtual reality?

With virtual reality, audiences are immersed into stories and different situations. These stories are often issues in society and audiences are “encouraged to empathise with the characters”(1).

However, the portrayal of issues such as violent acts in a real-life simulation could have a negative affect. “It’s possible this immersive medium can be used to encourage negative behaviour,”(2) because publishers may desensitise serious matters.

Another issue with virtual reality is ‘cyber-addiction’. Users can “become addicted to virtual reality games and as a consequence, start to blur the boundary between real and virtual life. They spend increasing amounts of time in the virtual environment which has a detrimental effect on their real world life”(3).

A study commissioned by Wiggin LPP revealed that “majorities of respondents would be concerned about losing awareness of the real world around them (69%), a reduced sense of right and wrong (59%), becoming addicted to VR (58%) or the experience of VR affecting them after use (55%)”(4).

Freelance VR producer for the BBC Catherine Allen gave five tips for news outlets looking to produce this kind of immersive storytelling, at the VR and AR World conference in London in October 2016. She explained that virtual reality is likely to have a negative affect when not enough research has been carried out.

The first tip Allen said was that journalists should make a risk analysis. “It’s important to make a risk analysis from both an integrity and ethics perspective, and a health and safety perspective.”(5)

She also said you should test what you are producing as you’re making it early on, as “it is quite unlikely your audience will have ever experienced anything that you’re making before”(6). She explained “maybe you could run small focus groups or surveys, just like you would do for product-testing.”(7)

Allen said to make audiences “feel comfortable”(8), you could give a prologue which “gives then some context and tells them what they’re going into”(9). By doing so, you won’t be just “randomly dropping them into a situation”(10) where they may feel unsafe and out of control.

She also said readers should be encouraged to be active customers who provide you with feedback. Allen explained “with feedback, you can improve your process next time according to how they felt about that experience – it’s important to co-create with your audience, working with them to develop the product.”(11)

The final tip Allen gave was to diversify teams. She said “getting diversity into your team whether that’s through gender, age, ethnicity, or experience level, will allow you to create a product with integrity.”(12)
















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