How a VR board game helps its maker deal with phobia

first_imgWe’ve all had those nagging fears that scratch at the mind in just the right way to start impacting our life. I’m terribly afraid of not finishing every pint of ice cream I see, for instance. Some, however, face fears that permeate their personal and professional lives in devastating ways.Former EA developer Theresa Duringer has just that problem. She’s terribly afraid of flying. For most, that’s not such a big deal, but now that she’s running two game development studios of her own — one for virtual reality games and the other for more traditional indie titles — she has to fly quite a bit.While working on Bazaar (her last VR game) she noticed that she was able to cope with flights a bit better. “I had a huge reduction in stress,” Duringer says. “To the point where my usually sweaty hands were dry after an hour in VR. My heart was calm. I think just visually and auditorily being in a different place altogether really helped me forget I was on a flight.” For someone who “[breaks] out in hives” and “can’t sleep for weeks before a flight,” that’s pretty special.After that trip, Duringer wanted to take the idea of using VR for therapy a bit further. “I wanted something that would constantly tax my attention so I didn’t have a chance to freak out or think about my seat flying 30,000 feet in the air,” she says.Shortly before she’d met with the makers of the popular deck-building game Ascension at GenCon in Indiana. She won some tournaments at the convention and earned an invitation to the game’s world championship. Duringer thought the game would be the perfect fit, requiring care, attention, and deep strategy. Plus, she says, board games are already made to be extremely replayable, because many of them cost so much to develop, produce, and distribute.With Ascension, she says, she had the perfect mix. She reached out to Stone Blade, hoping for permission to license the game while she had her team get started on modifying their VR engine to accommodate tabletop games. Stone Blade wasn’t interested at first, but after CEO Justin Gary played Bazaar at SXSW and saw people’s reactions to VR tech, he made the decision to go ahead with the port.The result is remarkable. Ascension VR works by honing in on what makes tabletop games special — their social element — and tailoring the VR experience around that, instead of just moving their game into the virtual world.As anyone part of the tabletop revolution of the past few years can tell you, shooting the shit with friends over a drink or two, seeing their reaction when you pull a ridiculous play, and building a sense of community as you play together is essential. And while Ascension and many other tabletop games have mobile and even video game console ports, they all fail to capture that feeling of presence. Duringer wanted chat and camaraderie to be a focal point, however.Games care organized into lobbies of up to four players, and everyone can see each other’s digital avatars. As each of you speak, the game uses voice recognition software and lip-syncing to match your avatar’s virtual expressions to your real-world ones. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s surprisingly effective — especially given that the game can run on anything from the Gear VR to more robust head-mounted displays like the Oculus Rift.All of this works over the internet, too, helping bring people together in a pseudo-physical space in the virtual world. That alone is noteworthy, particular for extroverts like myself who eschew digital interaction. This may well be the first step in helping far-flung friends stay connected regardless of distance.But all that started with the idea of making a game that could help Duringer overcome her fear of flying… and unfortunately, while it’s helped, it hasn’t been all that successful. In a phone call, she says, “I’m still terrified… I wasn’t always like this, I think it was a string of bad flights in my 20s that started it, but now it’s awful.” Duringer’s last flight was just a few days ago, and while Ascension helped, it’s clear that it’s grown beyond its inspiration, and that’s okay.For VR to succeed we’re going to need a lot more games like Ascension. VR is a new field, fraught with a lot of design problems and hampered by developers that aren’t designing with the medium, but Ascension VR knows what it needs to be. It had to offer something above and beyond just a card game “but in virtual reality,” and to Duringer and the team at Temple Gates’ credit, that’s exactly what they’ve made.last_img read more