What parents should know about VR gaming

Immersing yourself in virtual reality (VR) is no longer just for wealthy tech enthusiasts. VR goggles are now available on the market at affordable prices and the range of VR games continues to grow. Today, VR goggles may not be widely used in the average household, but that could change in the near future. This article summarises the most important information about VR games and it provides information for parents whose children are already using VR today.

Date 2024-06-21 Author German Safer Internet Centre Section awareness Topic gaming Audience parents and carers, teachers, educators and professionals
Kid using VR goggles in his living room

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality refers to the immersion of the player in a computer-generated environment. This virtual reality is usually viewed through VR goggles. Once these are placed directly in front of the eyes, the physical space becomes no longer visible to the player. The VR goggles are equipped with sensors that detect head movements. In this way, when the player turns their head to the left, their gaze in the virtual reality environment will also move in the same direction. This gives the player the feeling of actually being inside the artificial environment. VR goggles usually include hand-held controllers. These are also equipped with sensors, which makes it possible to display virtual hands and arms that move in the same way as the player’s real hands and arms.

What makes VR different from traditional gaming?

VR gaming differs from traditional gaming in two main ways: immersion and embodiment.
The word immersion describes the feeling of being totally absorbed in a world. People can experience immersion not only in VR games. For example, an exciting book, a gripping TV series or a compelling video game can also be immersive. However, VR games have a particularly powerful effect because the real-world environment is completely blocked out. A VR player cannot take their eyes off the screen. Moreover, players usually also wear headphones to immerse themselves acoustically in the virtual world.

Embodiment, on the other hand, is the feeling of perceiving a virtual body as one’s own. In most VR games, the player sees the virtual world from a first-person perspective. Many games also display virtual hands and arms that the player can control with the movements of their real hands and arms. The VR representation is modelled on the way we perceive the world in everyday life: we see the environment through our eyes and see our hands interacting with it. This similarity in perception between the real and the virtual world makes players feel as if they are actually the owners of the virtual body. This effect has been widely studied outside of virtual reality. For example, people with prosthetic limbs feel that such limbs, although artificial, are part of their body.

How widespread is VR gaming in Germany?

In November 2023, the German Games Industry Association asked how many people in Germany already own a VR headset. The survey revealed that there are already 3.7 million VR headsets in German households and that a further 4.7 million people are planning to purchase VR goggles.
Compared to other gaming consoles, VR devices are still a niche product. In Germany, 13 million people play on PCs, 19 million on other consoles and 23 million on smartphones (source: Annual Report of the German Games Industry 2023).

What VR games are available for children?

The market for VR games is currently very diverse. There are VR games for almost every known video game genre, including racing, role-play and skill-based games. The current global list of VR games contains over 4,000 entries and gives an idea of the wide range of VR games available.
Players can get behind the wheel of a Formula 1 car in a racing game, be chased by a killer through an abandoned mansion in a horror game, or take part in a virtual boxing workout in a fitness game. These examples show that it is not possible to make a blanket statement about whether VR games are suitable for children. There are hardly any VR games specifically designed for kids. If you search the internet for suitable VR games for children, you will usually find recommendations for games that have child-friendly graphics and are free of problematic content, such as violence. Alternatively, you may find games that recreate familiar games in VR, such as a chess simulator. However, it is important to remember that just because a game is violence-free and looks child-friendly, it does not necessarily mean that it is suitable for children. Parents should check the age rating of a game with the German Entertainment Software Self-Regulation Body (USK). The NRW games guide is a useful resource for parents looking for educational information on videogames. Ideally, parents should try a game themselves first to see if it is suitable for their child.

Is VR gaming problematic for children?

VR goggles are currently designed primarily for adult users. This means that some VR goggles are difficult for younger children to wear because they are too big. For example, the Meta Quest 3 VR goggles are only approved for use by kids above the age of 10, according to their manufacturer. Between the ages of 10 and 12, parents can create and manage an account for their child. From the age of 13, children can also use Meta Quest 3 independently. Sony, on the other hand, states in the PlayStation VR2 manual that the VR goggles are not suitable for children under the age of 12.
As VR goggles are not yet widely available and are rarely used by children, there is a lack of evidence on this topic. So far, there is no evidence that VR gaming has any significant negative effects on children. However, it is important to remember that the phenomena of immersion and embodiment (see the paragraph "What makes VR different from regular games?" above) are two factors that only occur in VR games. There is not yet enough practical or academic evidence on VR to be able to predict its effects on children. However, so far, there is no evidence to suggest that children might be overwhelmed by age-appropriate VR content or that they might not be able to distinguish between the real world and the virtual world.

What should parents be aware of if their children want to play VR games?

  • Find out if your VR goggles are age-rated by the manufacturer. You can find this information on the manufacturer's website or in the instruction manual.
  • Pay attention to the age rating of the games. These are clearly visible on the game box and are also displayed in most online stores. You can also consult online age-rating databases for games.
  • When playing VR games, make sure your child has enough space and that there are no tripping hazards nearby. Depending on the game, the player may move around and not be able to see possible obstacles.
  • Stay close to your child while they play and ask them how they feel once they finish. VR may cause nausea, dizziness or headaches in some people. If this happens, the use of the game should be stopped.
  • VR goggle manufacturers recommend taking regular breaks while playing. Make sure your child does not play for too long at a time.
  • VR games also carry the typical risks associated with video games. These include inappropriate content, interaction risks such as cybergrooming or cyberbullying, and cost traps due to in-game purchases. You can find more information on these topics in the digital games section of the klicksafe website.

For the German-speaking reader: have a listen to our podcast on VR gaming!

In the klicksafe podcast "How does virtual reality affect children?" Dr. Anna Felnhofer, scientist and clinical psychologist at the Medical University of Vienna uses virtual reality in her therapeutic work with children. In this episode, she tells us about children's reactions to VR content in practice. The podcast is only available in German.

Find more information about the work of the German Safer Internet Centre, including their awareness raising, helpline, hotline, and youth participation services, or find similar information for other Safer Internet Centres throughout Europe.   

This article was originally published on the klicksafe website and it is republished here with the permission of the German Safer Internet Centre.

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