Last night Futuredraft hosted a great conversation about video games and user experience design as part of our Designer’s Studio series. The speakers were Adaptive Path’s Jesse James Garrett, and Bungie’s Patrick O’Kelley, executive producer of Destiny, a major first-person console game. I was ostensibly moderating the discussion, but really I was just marveling as these two smart guys geeked out on games.

The entire conversation was lively and inspiring, but one thought that has stayed with me is that first-person games, which aim to present rich simulated worlds, are effective entertainment in part because of the psychological distance afforded by the fact that the simulation is taking place on a screen, with indirect input devices. As realistic as the sensory signals may be (and Destiny is amazingly realistic), the experience is still framed by the “real” world. Your psyche can engage in (and enjoy) the game because at a deep level it knows that the experience isn’t real; it’s happening “out there”, within the clear boundaries of the screen and the controllers.

Bringing such an experience closer to the psyche by removing that distance (for example, using seamless VR, where the psyche is in the simulation) could be more disturbing than entertaining.  For example, think of the action of quickly switching the camera from first-person perspective to the third-person “behind the character” view, as often happens in these games when you board a vehicle. While this seems like an acceptable transition on-screen, I wonder what it would feel like to unexpectedly jump out of “me” after the simulation has convinced me that “I” am there.

The history of digital user interfaces is a path from abstraction (and therefore detachment) towards a narrowing of the distance between the user, the information environment, and the “real” world: first we were flipping binary bits with switches, then entering characters in text-based terminals, then pointing-and-clicking in metaphor-heavy GUIs, then manipulating information by touching it directly on glass surfaces. It’s a progression from indirect interaction with abstractions towards direct interaction with the actual information being manipulated. VR-based experiences could be the next milestone in this trajectory, and for the most part this is unexplored territory vis-a-vis its impact on our consciousness.

Given simulated experiences that are close to seamless and completely engrossing – and therefore, potentially deeply terrifying – could users suffer mental harm?  If so, will these experiences be regulated? What are the ethical implications of convincingly replacing the user’s reality, albeit temporarily?