Phnom Penh joins the virtual reality craze with the opening of Gamestation Social Lounge, a video game entertainment centre. Donning a glowing headset and plastic rifle, Jessica Tana checks out the future of gaming whilst running from virtual spiders. Photography by Enric Català.   

“You have to experience it for yourself,” operations manager Dwight Hayden says, leading me down a grey hallway and into a darkened booth, where I am strapped into a white headset. “It’s mind blowing,” he adds with a grin, before closing the door.

I’m about to enter the immersive world of virtual reality gaming, thanks to Phnom Penh’s latest entertainment centre, Gamestation Social Lounge. 

Virtual reality (VR) is seen as the future of media. From selling furniture to practising surgery, the possibilities of VR seem boundless. Perhaps there will be a day when everything from jobs to relationships are conducted online from the comfort of people’s bedrooms. However, as Gamestation proves, VR doesn’t have to be an antisocial experience.   

The centre has four booths and two lounges, where customers can play Playstation4, either with VR headsets or on the TV. 

“We go to the club, we go to bars, but this is something brand new in Phnom Penh,” Hayden says. Although it’s one VR headset per room, customers can take turns or compete online from different booths. 

“The technology is fairly new, so we’re trying to stay on top of it as much as possible,” Hayden says.

Gamestation’s owner Robert Schmalohr adds VR gaming is a unique experience. “It’s entertainment in a new way,” he says. “If you have never done it before, it’s a completely different experience. If you play for 10 to 15 minutes, you are so inside [the game] that you need 10 to 15 minutes just to come back out.”

Hayden agrees. “Really, it takes your mind away. You could be on a roller coaster and actually you’re trying to hold onto something. Something comes at your head and you duck.”

Because of this behaviour Schmalohr warns you play at your own risk.

“We have some games where everybody experienced stomach pain because your body is moving and it’s really intense,” he says. “Everyone who played this game got a bit dizzy. So, don’t play pregnant or if you are unhealthy.”

To make sure people are as safe as possible, Schmalohr has added a few precautions. There are padded walls surrounding the console and a guide stays in the booth while customers play.

“For the first one or two times we always have somebody in there with them,” Schmalorh says.

“People freak out,” adds Hayden. “We’ve had people literally try to run out the door – just turn around and run with the headset still on.”

Now that I’m sufficiently nervous it’s my turn to step into the wonderful world of VR. I pull the headset down and am immediately transported to Batman’s bat cave. I can hear water trickling down the rocks, and looking up and behind me I feel as though I am really in the space; that I can walk straight up the stairs and into Wayne Manor.

The graphics are bright and sharp and colourful, although it’s frustrating not to be able to touch anything and the controllers seem clunky. Hayden mentioned they were ordering gloves and I think this will improve gameplay tenfold. 

I fair better at Farpoint, a shooting game using the Aim controller, which looks like a futuristic gun and enables me to walk with a joystick and pull the trigger to shoot. Walking towards a desert cave, I gasp as a huge gnashing spider tears out from the lair. Dodging its giant legs, which send mini earthquakes towards me, I shoot at its mouth as it screams in rage. After some back and forth, the spider climbs on top of the cave and releases smaller spiders that come rushing towards my face. 

It’s at this point that I realise I am yelling and contorting my body in order to shoot them. I die. I remove the headset and find both guide and photographer laughing at me heartily. VR may look cool on the inside, but it looks pretty ridiculous from the outside.

The third game is about agility. I am an eagle flying over a futuristic Paris taken over by animals. By tilting my head, I can direct the eagle, my objective being to fly through as many rings as possible placed around the landscape.

Although the spider game was extremely loud and intense, it is the moving of my head to fly that starts to make me dizzy. I feel completely disorientated and when I remove the headset, find I am facing the back wall.   

While every gamer’s dream is to find a way into the game, VR gaming takes some getting used to. However, the possibilities for interactive, educational and intensely exciting gameplay is just the beginning – I for one can’t wait to see what the VR future looks like.