Reality Check: A Trip to VR World, The Largest Virtual Reality Experience Center

Orit Gat

Photography by Larry Fink

The wide-eyed patrons of VR World.

“What happens in this game?” a guy asks the attendant helping a group of middle-aged men with their VR headsets.

“You shoot zombies.”

It’s a four-person game called Arizona Sunshine. The premise is a combination of a Western and a zombie flick. The four players load up on guns and rifles, and the game is set up in a square so that Player 1 can spot a zombie coming behind Player 3, who is busy shooting the attacker in front of Player 2. In this dark, small side room of VR World, the players are lined up in front of a wall and flat-screen televisions in front of them show what they see. Headsets are attached to short cables: in the game environment, the players can’t move from their corner in the square.

“Stay on your mat!” the attendant shouts, as one guy clumsily wanders away from a zombie slowly moving toward him. “You’re dead, you’re dead. The zombie got you.”

Arizona Sunshine is on the second floor of a small office building on East 34th Street in Manhattan. Right by the Empire State Building and next door to a WeWork is this new hybrid of museum, arcade and attraction. VR World is one of a number of similar places in New York City—there are two in Downtown Brooklyn and two on the Lower East Side, and in May 2018, Facebook operated a pop-up in Soho for people to demo its Oculus Go headset—but VR World is the biggest such space in North America, with dozens of games, 360-degree films, and other headset-involving experiences. Upon entry, visitors receive a queuing bracelet and a hygienic cotton mask to buffer their skin from the headset; even though much time is spent waiting between games, most visitors keep their masks on, giving everyone the appearance of white-clad Zorros. While you wait, you see into other people’s games—every set comes with a television screen above it, so that the players’ experience is viewable, 2D, to anyone around.

“You gotta punch the guy!” an attendant says to a girl. It’s Hanukkah and I arrive at VR World on the heels of a large group of 10-year-old Orthodox Jewish girls and their mothers. Everyone who comes to VR World must buy a two-hour or full-day ticket, and the accompanying adults, who initially seem hesitant, quickly join in. A woman is doing a VR Google Maps experience that allows you to zoom in on a specific location or simulate flying over the world. She starts typing an address in an Orthodox part of Brooklyn, and the girls surrounding her are oohing and aahing about the familiar streets, seen from a subway ride’s distance away. I wonder to myself how different VR World is from everything these women and girls may experience in their day-to-day lives, with the half-naked female characters dancing in the music games and the male employees touching them as they help set up the headsets. But then, the Google Maps is an experience that allows you to explore the world. The woman leaves her own street and returns to the search bar. I see her type J E R U and wonder to myself if she’s ever been to Jerusalem.

I consider the novelty of the experience for this woman, but it’s all new to me as well. As a girl growing up in the 1990s, my brother would play Nintendo at friends’ places. He was invited to birthday parties at arcades and I had a Gameboy with Tetris on it and no other games (my brother took them all). I’ve never played a shooter game, I’ve never raced a car, don’t even have a Sims family going. I used to think gaming was about quick, constant decision making, but at VR World I realize how embodied the experience is. With a headset over my eyes and controls in my hands, I keep looking at how my fingers gripping the controls translate into the game: here are my gloved palms holding a bow and arrow, there are my arms slipping into a spacesuit, beforehand there was a gun in my huge, masculine fingers. I can’t stop looking at these dismembered limbs with endless surprise that they are, somehow, an extension of myself.

When I proposed this piece, I thought I would write about this experience like David Foster Wallace would. I thought that—like the American essayist who described how he did not enjoy a luxury cruise (in the essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”) or a country fair (which becomes a curiosity distant from any other experience Wallace could ever imagine in “Ticket to the Fair”)—I would feel isolated. I would notice the electric wires everywhere, the cheap walls separating one game from another. I thought I would constantly ask that very Foster-Wallacian question, “Is it fun?”

And it is fun. I’m not as cynical as I thought I would be. But still, I see a bit of Foster-Wallace-World. The attendants wear shirts imprinted with the writing “Dream awake 4 E 34.” On the day I was there, I was surrounded by women, but most of the attendants are men. There’s so much handling of equipment and touching, and much of it is awkward. You’re meant to lift a hand if you want to get out of a game before you’re done playing, and they are meant to give you directions on how to play. There is so much contact with other people, so much explaining that happens. Even though you’re meant to put on a headset and check out, VR World is not isolating at all. Except for me. I’m a little lonely. Even Foster Wallace had someone with him—“Native Companion,” he called her—at the state fair. I’m one of the only adults here not accompanying children or working as an attendant, and it feels like being undercover. I wish I had a friend to see it all with me, to witness and giggle and shoot zombies with.

I feel so lonely I decide to play something more personal, less shared: Tilt Brush, which allows you to paint in 3D space, presented in a green screen–clad corner. As I wait, I see that the girl playing is drawing a snowman in a mountainous landscape. She’s roaming the green floor and, onscreen, rotating around a mannequin, shaping it into a snowman, then changing colors, adding a carrot, a scarf. A few minutes later, it’s my turn. The game restarts and I step into her mountain scene. Where she had a snowman, there is now a pedestal. I play with the controls and realize you can choose the environment. I switch to outer space. Instead of a drawing tool, I opt for snowflakes made of light, which I scatter with my right hand.

It’s a seven-minute game. I know I should be drawing, but I just want to stand there and look. Under the headset, I’m smiling. I’m rooted in the middle of a green screen and all I see are bright, light snowflakes falling down on the galaxy.