Virtual reality offers all manner of new opportunities for creators — empathy! new worlds! immersion! other buzzwords you’ve probably heard bandied about! — but that is very much a double-edged sword. For every opportunity to do something good or at least interesting, there is also a chance to innovate and discover in the realm of dickishness.
Here, then, is the story of an allegedly popular Halloween attraction at California’s Great America:
The attraction was originally called “FearVR: 5150,” with 5150 referring to the state code involving an involuntary psychiatric hold.
Mental health advocates speaking out included Ron Thomas, the father of homeless man Kelly Thomas, who had schizophrenia and died in a violent confrontation with Fullerton police in 2011.
Ron Thomas said the attraction stigmatized mental illness.
“You get in there and get the virtual reality set on, you know you’re in an insane asylum, and that this Katie, this patient, is loose and is going to do bad things to you. It’s wrong,” he said. “The mentally ill are people. They’re human beings. They’re suffering. They have illnesses, and we have to do something to help them—not demonize them. Not to continue the stigma of mental illness.”
The whole setup does indeed seem relatively tasteless. It’s probably worth noting that plenty of horror tropes are set in asylums and the broader question of what is indeed out of line needs to be revisited, but FearVR: 5150 seems more explicit in making the danger to the viewer from the infirm. The asylum isn’t just the setting.
Anyhow, the attraction has been closed, so that’s that.
Only not really, because on some level we can all admit that we’ll be here again soon. Part of what made FearVR: 5150 so unpalatable was that its central conceit was everywhere. It wasn’t just an underpaid actor in a haunted house; it was immersion. If VR has the potential for generating empathy, the inverse must also hold true. To paraphrase a Silicon Valley term, it has the potential to create shitiness at scale. That’s worth being wary of.