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Oculus Rift - The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Virtual Reality Gaming

While attending this year’s New York Comic-Con, I had the rare opportunity to use the Oculus Rift for the first time. The Oculus Rift is a three dimensional video gaming device that tracks the motions of your head in order to control your character’s movements. The game system’s technology utilizes a strap-on visor and headset in order to immerse the player into the world of the game with a full range of vision and surround sound capabilities. The game I played was a flight simulator based on Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon.“ As my character flew over the ocean, I was in awe of the spectacular graphics and accurate motion tracking capabilities of the visor as I looked in all directions. The experience was so immersive that an attendant had to tell me to “take it easy on the controls.“ In those two minutes I spent playing, I had become more immersed in a video game than I had ever experienced in the countless hours I have spent on other console and computer games. This technology heralds a new era for the gaming industry. In only a few decades, video games have gone from 8-bit graphics to complex three dimensional worlds. With the Oculus Rift, the concept of virtual reality gaming now seems feasible, and with it, a physical and mental evolution of the gamer.

I feel that the goal of gaming has always been to immerse players in a new world, inhabiting another person’s body, and experiencing physical and mental challenges that may not be possible in their own lives. Games as they are now rely on joysticks, buttons and triggers in order to carry out an array of functions such as running and picking up items. These factors ground the player in reality and keep them detached from a heightened experience of gameplay. Basic motor functions are carried out by pre-programmed functions and animations within the game. What if these functions depended upon the player’s own physical actions in order to be performed (beyond the motion sensor capabilities of the Wii and Kinect)? What if video games immersed the player through senses such as touch, instead of just sight and hearing? Any person is sure to notice a distinct difference between swinging a sword using the B button on a controller, and holding the simulated weight of a sword in their own hands. Physical stimuli evoked from a video game would have major health benefits for players. Playing video games would no longer be limited to problem solving and hand-eye coordination. It would be an experience that requires players to engage their minds and their bodies in order to complete challenges, resulting in a new form of exercise. The adrenaline released from this exercise would serve to increase a player’s overall physical health and mood. Enjoying all of the fantastic experiences some games would have to offer would be dependent upon how much a player is willing to improve upon themselves both mentally and physically. "Achievement unlocked" would no longer be a generic means of praise for the players doing what they are supposed to do in the game, but a true sense of achievement from pushing their minds, bodies, their entire being, in order to accomplish their goals. Eventually, this same feeling will inspire gamers to push their limits in other parts of their lives, such as their careers.

However, I believe it is important to remember that games such as this must also be designed to accommodate physically challenged individuals, as basing a game’s functionality on complete body control would be discriminatory toward the handicapped. While some might like the idea of complete physical control of a character in a game, there might also be individuals who enjoy the prospect of complete mental control of a character. What this would entail is using a person’s brain activity and thought patterns to control video game characters. Joysticks only have so much accuracy when aiming at a target or changing direction, but future technologies might be able to calculate a character’s movements based on factors such as a player’s eye movements and focus, creating a new level of precision control. Complete mental control would also provide handicapped individuals with realistic simulations of physical functions that may no longer be available to them, since thoughts would dictate actions. There is always the fear that individuals might become dependent on this type of escapism, choosing to experience simulations of a fully-functioning body more often than experiencing life in their own limited ones. However, if video games can be programmed to react to brain stimuli, who is to say they cannot be programmed to respond to the brain with stimuli of their own? The clash of swords could replicate the feeling of an amputee player's arm tightening. The sensation of running could simulate the feeling of weight pressing on the feet of a paraplegic person. Eventually this technology might yield advancements in the production of prosthetic limbs, electronic eyes, etc., allowing the brain to recognize these appurtenances as part of it's organic makeup.

There are those who claim that video games have warped players’ senses of reality, but new innovations in the gaming industry have proven that the goal of video games is to one day be able to simulate reality.


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