VR Playtesting - Immersion or Isolation?

Topic: Gaming   |   14 February 2024

VR Playtesting - Immersion or Isolation?
Analysts Nelio Memollari and Huw Williams explore first-time user perspectives on virtual reality.
Through playtesting sessions, they found that while VR offers immersion, it can also lead to feelings of isolation and discomfort.



Virtual Reality (VR) is on the brink of breaking into the mainstream, spurred by recent contributions from tech giants like Apple. However, despite these strides, VR gaming remains largely confined to a niche within the gaming world. With most people yet to experience it firsthand, and fewer still adopting it as their gaming format of choice, VR stands at a crossroads between promise and practicality.

As experts in technology and gaming here at Bryter, and armed with a wealth of experience in playtesting, we embarked on a journey to explore the immersive potential of VR gaming for first-time users. Our mission was to unravel the delicate balance between immersion and isolation within the VR experience.

IMG_1625Our in-person VR playtest in action! 

The Promise of Immersion

Overall, the players thought that virtual reality would make games feel more real and exciting, taking them beyond the regular flat screens we're used to. Before trying it, they were especially excited about how immersive VR could be, thanks to what they saw in ads and heard from others. They were eager to see if it lived up to the hype.

Once they got the chance to try it, they put on the VR headset in a special room with a few people from our team. Even though it was a bit of an unusual setup, it didn't stop them from fully getting into the games. They became detectives in "The Room," solving puzzles and uncovering secrets in a world filled with strange machines. Then, they had fun playing "Beat Sabre," hitting boxes to the beat of different songs while feeling like they were in outer space.

"I think its biggest advantage is that it can offer you a level of immersion a flat monitor just can’t achieve." - Aged 25-34, UK

"It just feels like the next step. I’m not sure we can get any more ‘inside’ a game after VR." - Aged 25-34, UK


Navigating Immersion and Isolation

Once they tried out VR gaming and got used to it, their opinions changed. At first, they were excited about the idea of being completely immersed in the game. But they quickly realized that wearing the headset meant they were shutting them off from everyone else in the room. Even though they could see and interact with a different world in VR, their bodies were still in the real world, with researchers nearby asking them questions. This made using VR in a social setting feel a bit awkward.

"I didn’t realise how awkward it would be not being able to see everyone in the room." – Aged 25-34, UK

"I didn’t know how much I rely on just being able to see people’s facial expressions when they’re speaking to me." – Aged 25-34, UK


Players said that putting on a VR headset didn't feel very natural when other people were around. They also mentioned feeling vulnerable because they couldn't see what was happening outside the headset. So, while VR does make you feel like you're really in the game, it also takes away some of the control that players are used to having when they game.

Lately, there have been some new developments to address this feeling of isolation. Augmented reality (AR) and pass-through features are becoming more important. Also, Apple is avoiding calling their VR technology "VR" altogether, instead using the catchy term "special computing." It seems the industry is realizing that people don't like feeling cut off from the real world completely. 


Full Immersion Isn’t Always Required

This feeling of being exposed wasn't always seen as a bad thing. In scary games, being alone in VR can make the tension even scarier.

"I wasn’t sure if I was about to get jump scared, it kept me on edge." - Aged 25-34, UK

Not every VR game needs to be super immersive to be fun. Take party games, for example. These are all about having a good time with friends, and players really enjoy them, even if they're not fully immersed in the game.

"I can see this at a family gathering or pre-party before we go out." - Aged 25-34, UK

So, having total immersion isn't always a must for a great VR experience. In games where being social is the main focus, players enjoy the unique gameplay and the chance to play with friends more than being completely lost in the game. It's kind of like how the Nintendo Switch is known for its fun party games that everyone can enjoy together.


The Ergonomics of Immersion

As part of our VR research, we checked out how comfortable the Meta Quest 2 headset was. Overall, people found it comfortable, and once they adjusted it, it felt secure. But sometimes, if they moved their head, the picture would get blurry. This made it hard to stay focused and could strain their eyes.

The Meta Quest Touch Controllers, on the other hand, felt good to hold and were easy to use. But some people didn't like that they couldn't see the buttons clearly. This made it tricky to know where to press during the game, which made the experience feel a bit choppy. Instead of smoothly playing, players had to fumble around to find the right buttons, which wasn't ideal.

"The headset was comfortable, but there was a gap where I could see out to the real world, which broke immersion; handsets were all good." - Aged 25-34, UK


Virtual Travel Sickness

Participants also mentioned that besides the cost, they were worried about feeling uncomfortable when using VR. This discomfort included things like feeling sick or having strained eyes.

Motion sickness in VR is a well-known problem. It feels similar to when you get sick while travelling. This was a big concern for many of the people we talked to and might be stopping more people from trying VR.

In our playtesting, we found that game developers are helping with the motion sickness problem. The games we tried either kept the player still or used a point-and-click system for moving around. This helped the players not feel sick after playing. Some players said that while teleporting around in the game might not feel very realistic, it was worth it to avoid feeling sick.

"Honestly, I was expecting everything to look bad and to feel really sick after playing for a bit. Didn’t seem to be a problem"

- Aged 18-24, UK


What Can We Learn From This?

VR is often promoted as a way to get lost in games like never before. But our research suggests that this might not always be the best thing for VR. People need to understand how VR fits with different types of games. Not every game needs to be super immersive. For example, in party games where you play with friends, it's more about having fun together than being totally immersed in the game. It's like how we used to play games together on the Nintendo Switch or the Wii.

On the other hand, some games benefit a lot from VR's immersive feel. These are games where you want to feel like you're really there, like in a spooky mystery game. In these kinds of games, VR adds a whole new level of excitement and makes you feel like you're right in the middle of the action.

Another big concern for players is comfort. Some people worry about feeling sick or uncomfortable when using VR headsets. It's important for game developers to address these worries and make sure their games are comfortable to play. Assuring players that VR games have ways to prevent motion sickness can help them feel more confident about trying VR.

And when it comes to the actual headset, there's still room for improvement. More research and development are needed to make sure VR headsets are comfortable, sturdy, and really make you feel like you're part of the game.


Additional information

For further information about our VR study, conduct your own playtesting or anything else mentioned in this article. Please get in touch with Jenny McBean (jenny.mcbean@bryter-global.com) or Rob Jones (rob.jones@bryter-global.com); we’d love to hear from you

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