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Violence in VR Video Games in 2019 (Essay)

This is a written adaptation of a feature-length video essay by the same title.


💥👊😡 Video games make you violent 😡👊💥

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Ouf, that must’ve been a hard false reality to live under. I and presumably you, are fortunate enough to have grown up as gamer folk in a world where this expression had either already been or was in the process of being disproved. We know today that this isn’t true and we’ll get to some examples of why that is later. But what’s important right now is that I disclose to you that for a long time I’ve doubted this. I doubt that video games don’t make you violent, or in other words I suppose that under certain conditions it's possible that a video game and a video game alone could be the cause of a person’s violent behavior.

Why’s that? Well, because of a personal experience I’ve had with guess which hyper violent game your parents would’ve never let you play as a kid?

It’s easy to forget the technological and cultural significance of Wii Sports Resort. So remember the Wii? It was marketed as this incredible machine who’s peripherals would translate your movements one-to-one into its games. Turns out that was mostly bologna. I mean it still did some fun stuff, but it was mostly bologna. So a good few years into the console’s life they put out this attachment, the Wii Motion Plus. This butt plug looking device encased a super accurate gyro sensor which promised to, well, fulfil the console’s original promise. And did it? Heck yeah it did. The Wii Motion Plus allowed for games to be developed in which the most minute movement affected by a player could impact their performance… and what better way to demo this than to package it with a sequel to Wii Sports.

Whereas Wii Sports’ scope was broad movement and swings and waggles, Wii Sports Resort was chalk full of games where wrist positioning was critical. We weren’t in infrared-sensor-town anymore, we were in gyro-city! Now when you go to gyro-city, you get what you expect: pita, fries, and a salad. But as far as gyro in the game goes, that’s the sorta accuracy they were working with now.

One of it’s games though was the main reason you’d wanna try this thing out. Freaking believe it or not, one-to-one motion controlled sword fighting. And this is the game that made me mad.

Every time I played this game it was the same story: I’d be fine for a little while and then suddenly once I reached a certain difficulty level I’d just get pissed. I’d start slamming shit when I lost, I’d punch my damn couch, smash my controller against the table. It was like... it wasn’t something I could control. And worse, the same thing would happen when my younger sister played it. For this reason, Wii Sports Resort took its place as the second game which my mom ever had to ban us from playing, a spot it well deserved right next to Duke Nukem for the Game-Boy Color.

Now here’s what never made sense to me about this. So according to a lot of studies, games don’t make people violent or aggressive. What are contributing factors to violent behavior though are things like family history of violence, substance abuse, some societal causes, stuff like that.

And that’s why I’ve never been able to wrap my head around this. I mean, I was a Canadian kid, that’s like the most non-violent demographic you can imagine. This is how old I was, I made this video 3 days after Wii Sports Resort came out. Family history of violence? No, not really. I mean, shit I don’t know how much reach into the future this will have but I was born into probably the last generation in which spanking your kids wasn’t socially unacceptable, me being on the receiving end that is. I got, as we say in italian, a little pac pac au coulo from time to time when I was being a little too much of a, as we say in greek, a malaka, but that was it.

So that’s why for a long time I’ve been unconvinced that games are incapable of making us violent. Because unless I’m missing something, this game, Wii Sports Resort made me and my family violent without any external factors… unless… here’s the external factor: motion controls.

Due to my personal experiences, I think in general games cannot be a sole factor in aggressive or violent behavior. But for the longest time and in the back of my mind is where I stored this little doubt that this also held true for games who’s take on immersion goes a step further. And in the back of my mind is where this little doubt, this little thought stayed until I got an Oculus Rift this year and felt what it was like disarm a robot and shoot it in the face with its own gun in Robo Recall.


Introduction to VR

More so than any technology, virtual reality hereafter referred to as VR, is allowing for the most emergent gameplay video game players have ever seen to take place. That’s if we can even call these basic movements and interactions gameplay, I don’t think that’s a strong enough word.

While we’re here still in the introduction, for the sake of this piece, VR is a virtual reality experience which a user interfaces with through a specialized headset which displays stereoscopic 3D images and includes head-tracking. In VR the user experiences the world in the body of some avatar which they are viewing through the eyes of. Additional tracked controllers for things such as hands or legs are optional. So it’s VR if it’s 3D, its first-person, and there’s at least motion control of the head.

I specify this because by this definition neither a plain 3D video screen nor a 2D projection of a game played with motion control are allowed to be called VR. This distinction will be important later.

What is VR going to do? What is it already doing? What are the impacts of this technology on us personally, psychologically, but also on a grander scale: societally? What kinds of conversations should we be having about VR or what sorts can we be having before it's too late? And in terms of those creating content, AKA games for VR, what are their ethical concerns and responsibilities? What are ours as a society that’s currently receiving this tech with open arms it seems?

Is it maybe time to reconsider Violence in Video Games in 2019?


Violence in games, a brief history

Before getting into games and their effects on us particular to this bleeding edge technology, it’s important to take a step back and see where when why and how this whole ‘violence in video games’ conversation started.

He was a video game player in the 90’s, she, or they, rather, were his overprotective paranoid boomer or gen x parents… can I make it anymore obvious? Past the point of novelty, when games started to be more than just dots on a screen that you controlled with a stick and a button, when they started moving closer to the living room and forward into more faithful depictions of action and player input, adults of the world started flipping their shit. Sure, this is a new thing that they didn’t grow up with and didn’t know what would be the effects of. Makes sense they might react this way. Now, the hypocrisy here is that many of these grown-ups had been on the opposite end of this rodeo before; be it with the movies, comic books or godforbid rock-and-roll music that they loved but that their own parents, priests and rabbis rallied against. But hey, to be fair, never before had any form of media tried so directly to put realistic looking guns into the hands of kids. Look, neither side was playing with a full deck it looked like.

So of course, public interest in the subject of the effects of videogames on players drove tons of people into its research. Lucky for me, just after the turn of the millennium, a couple of guys including one Dr Bushman (stick a figurative pin in him, he’ll be important a few times throughout this piece) played cowboy to all these old pieces of Scientific Literature and wrangled them up into a single Meta-Analytic Review, AKA a summary of everything that was known about video games and their effects on aggressive behavior at the time. In the end, their analysis of the massive amount of existing research revealed that “violent video games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults”. Well, shit.

And that’s kinda how the subject was left for a while. Video games make people violent.

Except then paradigms began to shift, duh! Turned out a lot of the studies previously conducted on games and aggression suffered from the same limitation: the correlation/causation issue. AKA just because shit’s linked in some way doesn’t mean either’s the cause or consequence of the other. Many of them delved deep enough to find a link between violent games and aggression and assumed this meant that the games were responsible for creating the violence in people. This however isn’t logically sound as it could also be used to argue the case that people with existing violent tendencies would be likely to seek out violent games. Basically, studies up until then had shown that aggressive people play violent games but the relationship between the two wasn’t properly established. People, or researchers at least, were no longer satisfied with blaming games for violent behavior and realized that this didn’t paint a clearer picture.

Here’s a good example of a work done during these changing mentalities: Violent Video Games and Aggression: Causal Relationship or Byproduct of Family Violence and Intrinsic Violence Motivation? This one’s a two-parter.

Part 1: do video games cause violence? No! “neither randomized exposure to violent-video-game conditions nor previous real-life exposure to violent video games caused any differences in aggression”. Hell yeah Dr Ferguson’s out here checking immediate AND regular exposure.

Part 2: alright so what are some factors involved with aggressive tendencies? “Results indicated that trait aggression [aka personal proneness to aggressiveness], family violence, and male gender were predictive of violent crime, but exposure to violent games was not”... well shit that doesn’t help my case… but hey, neat stuff!

Studies like this were extremely valuable to the reception and recognition of gaming as a hobby and games as a medium for entertainment. They not only refuted that “players of violent video games can be categorized as being prone to violent criminal acts” but they highlighted the true combinations of influences of this sort of behavior. While playing violent games is a choice someone who is violent would likely make, they don’t make you that way.

Now here’s what studies like this didn’t rule out. The possibility that playing violent video games could have harmful impacts on people with preexisting violent tendencies or mental illnesses. Maybe they can be used as a contributing factor, a vicarious experience or way to prepare for a real life violent act. This is the angle from which the anti-gaming crowd would most often continue to prod from and still do today, and I guess you can’t blame them for that. That being said, there’s still a lot to learn and a lot of people from both sides are continuously working towards answering new questions.

Here’s a snapshot of the conversation in the modern age: In 2019 we believe that there is no strong evidence that games are a cause of violent criminal acts. However some links have been found between games and short-term aggression. As important as it is to acknowledge that, it’s just as important to pay mind to the murkiness of it. First of all, measures of aggression are weird and often criticized. They include things like making subjects feed hot sauce to one another. As Dr Graham Wilson from the University of Glasgow told me in an on-paper interview (thank you again by the way!), “there is a world of difference between hot sauce and criminal aggression / violence. [It’s] the player’s personality that matters more”.

Now, the issue here is that studies from the other end of the line agree with this, violent behavior does have more to do with someone’s personality. So instead what they’ve reported to show is evidence that “cognitive aggression is [a] predictor of long-term aggressive personality changes” and that repeatedly and regularly activating one’s aggressive thoughts by playing games can risk aggression becoming part of their personality (Mcgloin, Rory, et al, 2015).

And that’s a really interesting counterargument! Or at least it would be if it weren’t for another study (Hilgard, Engelhardt, Rouder 2010) showing publication bias towards works which show positive links between games and aggression as opposed to those that show none or other.

That’s why I’m using the word murky to describe the state of the Violence in Video Games conversation in the modern age. There’s no evidence for the big scary and potentially important-if-true claims, but people are finding out some interesting stuff by poking around at the issue from a lot of different places. For example maybe it’s not about if games can make us violent but its instead their addicting qualities that we should be worrying about.

Or here, remember my story about how my family and I got angry playing Wii Sports Resort? Well in 2014 a group of researchers from the University of Rochester showed through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (a psychological framework about how people make motivated decisions) that wholly independent from violent content, a game could make someone aggressive by result of what they call Competence-Impeding (Przybylski, A. K.). In their experiments in which they pretty much explored the psychological processes behind rage-quitting, they took a few steps to make subjects feel incompetent playing games that included re-mapping buttons to un-masterable combinations and manipulating the games to present a difficulty that can only be described as unfair. They literally made a version of tetris that would algorithmically determine the worst 4 possible pieces to dish out per-turn, and then pick the absolute worst at a 75% chance. Talk about a Tetris effect, this is someone out there’s version of Hell!

They showed that impeding someone’s confidence could result in them having aggressive and violent feelings, and there’s no doubt in my mind that’s what we were experiencing with Wii Sports. I mean, the sword fighting is really cool… for a while. The problem I guess is intrinsic to designing automated challenges for a motion controlled game. With every round won the game kinda just cranks up the reaction time of the AI opponents it’s serving until you reach a critical point at which they’re able to counter your every move with just frames to see ‘em coming. It feels unfair and you feel incompetent for being unable catch them off-guard for a clean strike. The fact that those strikes are triggered by the identical movements of your actual body and the immersion that lends make the aggression even hotter. You get some spicy feelings playing that shit.

So while murky, the fact that people are thinking outside of the box and examining this subject every which way is really important. Some have observed that historically most studies took a very unsophisticated view of video games (Madigan J. Psychology Today) which might be the reason for their weird conclusions. I think I’d attribute this most recent shift in the way games are studied to the fact that many researchers today are people who’ve grown up with games and like you and me, have participated in the establishment of whatever the hell gaming culture is. These aren’t outsiders looking in, you know, trying to compare paper plane glider games to first person shooters (Przybylski, A. K.). These are gamers who treat the medium properly, don’t make goofy mistakes, but most importantly are likely to pick up on subtleties that researchers of older generations are unable to.

It feels to me like we’re in the golden age of psychological research on video games, which I think is cool as niche as it is. There’s still a lot to learn though, especially when it comes to VR which in its commercially available state is still a very new thing. So let's take a look at what relevant research does exist.


Research Into VR

So first of all, let me introduce to you a problem I discovered. If you ever find yourself for whatever reason researching the psychological effects of VR, you might be led to believe from your first search results that a small wealth of studies already exist on the subject. Hey that’s really exciting! Then the further you dig into them the less they make sense. I mean, they didn’t have this tech back in the early 90s, did they?

Turns out that before the head-mounted displays of today, VR was popularly used to describe any sort of computer graphics application. From interactive games to emulations and simulations to 3D videos, the term Virtual Reality was used often to describe very broadly any visual stimuli which was produced digitally or was some other way virtual.

Other slightly more recent studies seem to understand what VR is but then do a poor job of explaining how they got their studies to work. For instance one study that claimed to have players play Grand Theft Auto 4 in and out of VR… which as a gamer I know is not a feature of that game and that mods for are pretty bad because GTA4 was not optimized for this sort of perspective or control. Then you take a deeper look and realize they somehow just projected the game in stereo 3D. I mean it’s not really VR but I get the point.

These common occurrences unfortunately make it a little bit difficult to delve into research on what it is that we call VR today. They muddy the results which is a pain. But once you, who are for whatever reason still researching this subject, discover these mirages and learn to look past them... you don’t see very much left. Maybe one or two cactuses.

Most studies I could find that proposed there being a difference in how we consume content in this media were either about 3D projectors or sole VR headsets. Other studies I found which I considered relevant were about motion controls on their own, most a response to the Wii era of household gaming peripherals. These might not be exactly what I was hoping for, but they were stepping stones technologists needed to take towards the contents of the cardboard box I keep on my desk chair when I’m not using it, the complete package that we call VR today, (you know, a headset, motion tracking sensors, and hand controllers) no doubt. But here’s where one of this piece’s primary cruxes is going to be; in the assumption that the studied effects of 3D displays and headsets AND the studied effects of motion controls are both applicable when it comes to modern VR. As you might remember, when defining VR earlier we mentioned that motion controls are an optional component. That’s true, while some games require them, others work without them. So we’re basically gonna look at their effects separately and assume they add up when, well, added up.

Here’s a good time to mention that I have no background in psych. I’ve had experienced help writing this though. My background is in software engineering, so while that means there’s undoubtedly gonna be a whole bit towards the end of this about technological ethics, it also means that for once this is my first of this kind of rodeo. From my perspective, as a technologist lets say, I see no reason not to assume that the results of studies on general 3D display systems and those on motion controls would both be applicable when it comes to VR. As far as I can tell they shouldn’t contradict or conflict with each other in any way.

Nevertheless, I should be pointing out that in the lack of any studies about the exact sort of VR games I’ve been playing, those where I wear a headset and move my hands about, yada yada, I’m going to be taking what people have learned about VR headsets and 3D and other immersive displays, and I’m gonna be taking what people have learned about motion controls, and I’m gonna be making the assumption that both of these would hold true when paired.


Effects of 3D Displays and VR Headsets

So you might remember that in the intro when defining the technology we mentioned that 3D movies are distinguishable from VR; that while implementations of stereoscopic 3D are certainly a component of VR, they are not the same thing. As far as what they do though, they both immerse the player or viewer (in the most literal sense of the word) by providing you a perception of depth comparable to real life vision.

So here’s another assumption I’m making which should be easier to swallow: I think when it comes to what effects a 3D display is shown to have on people, we can assume that those effects would at least be true of VR displays as well. Why’s that? Well because the actual source of those effects wouldn’t be either technology but rather their byproduct: immersion. Now, VR displays should no doubt have immersive properties and effects unique to themselves, but whatever 3D does simply by being 3D, I want to assume VR also does for the same reason.

So let’s talk 3D. 3D TVs, remember when those were a big deal? Nope, me neither. But you know who does? Dr Bushman!

In 2014, he and his associate published a study on the mediatory effect Presence has on violent video game play (Bushman and Lull). Presence is the word researchers seem to like to use to describe the particular brand of immersion available through VR. Presence is the combination of 3 phenomena:

  • Place Illusion, the sensation of being in a real environment.
  • Body Ownership, basically how much you believe that your avatar’s virtual body is your own.
  • And of course, Plausibility Illusion, the feeling that the events or actions occurring are actually occurring or could actually be occurring, this one not being unique to VR but something you’ve probably seen in any deep systems-driven game or immersive sim where you have freedom to solve problems as you would, though VR definitely does help.

No shit as you could tell from how roundabout I’ve been at introducing this, Dr Bushman didn’t study how Presence affected violent game play in VR but rather on 3D monitors. Why’s that? Well, as he explains, at the time studies of HMD type VR were already cropping up but with mixed results. He attributed these inconsistencies to the pairing of the awkwardness and novelty of this sort of technology.

“These in-consistent effects may be due to the bulky and unfamiliar nature of VR headsets, as relatively few participants typically have experience with VR headsets compared with more popular immersive technologies such as large screens and high definition images”

I mean it makes sense, most people have not experienced VR, and anyone’s first experience (whether it be after waiting an hour in line at a convention or just in a laboratory setting) is bound to be weird. I can see how the lack of most people’s exposure to VR and the fact that a first interaction with it can be as incredible as it can be nauseating makes it really hard to study on a mass scale. There’s more variables at play here than just the content of the games which could be influencing the results, not too dissimilar to the motivation behind that whole competency impediment study.

So long-story-short, he studied 3D screens instead which admittedly would have a much lighter Presence, but a sort of Presence nonetheless. If you’ve ever played something like Metal Gear Solid 3 on the 3DS you probably know what it’s like. You know that the character isn’t you, but everything from the characters to the foliage of the jungle feels more alive. You don’t feel like… you… but at least to some extent you feel like the world you’re seeing is real and you feel present within it. And of course, 3D media being something most people are familiar with from their movie going experiences, there was less to worry about in terms of external factors limiting the results.

And so in the end what they found by having participants play violent and nonviolent games across different sized displays in 2D and 3D was that violence in 3D had greater impacts on aggression which were attributed to its immersive condition. Basically, the more present you feel in a game, the angier you’ll feel afterwards if you’ve played violently. Or maybe another way to put it: if you're a violent player, immersion increases your feelings of aggression.

Here’s as good a time as any to bring up that Dr Bushman doesn’t have the most spotless record. He’s a controversial guy, he’s had papers redacted, he’s been accused of fabricating moral hububs, he’s got some beans. But at the end of the day he’s a doctor of psychology specializing in human aggression. Maybe a lot of what he’s gone on about has been disproved but that’s fine. Without a character like this we wouldn’t have the current discourse we have today which is so great. Now that being said, when it comes to technology on the cutting edge which it’s funny to admit 3D displays once were, this is stuff he hasn’t necessarily been directly challenged on yet, as far as I could find. So there’s some uncertainty here we need to consider. These results might be something worth worrying and learning more about.

It’s a worry that personally I’ve had making the rounds in my head for a while. It’s the ‘BUT maybe’ I think it might be necessary to add at the end of every ‘videogames don’t make you violent’ argument. It’s one of the reasons I’ve wanted to make this video for a long time. Here’s one of the things that worries me…

One of the earliest virtual reality experiments people have ever done is the ‘walk-the-plank’ experience. It’s basically a height simulator. A virtual plank exists high atop a city and you walk across it. Simple enough. These days you can buy a version of it on steam for like, 17 bucks. Outrageous!

In cognitive science there’s this concept of schemas: the way our brains organize information for storage and retrieval. As a kid when we learn the schema for dog, it might include things like names of different breeds, physical attributes like having four legs and a tail and others that make them distinct from - say a cat, like the noise they make, and the fact they're better.

As far as what we care about today, we may for example have a real life schema which includes information about how we behave and respond to things in the real world, and then a media schema which keeps track of how things in media are to be interacted with. This helps when, say you watch a violent movie. You store information about how those characters interact in your media schema because you’re smart enough to tell it’s just a movie and this isn’t how you should behave in real life, assuming you're a typically-functioning and fully developed adult at least (which honestly is an asterix that, I’ll mention here, is implied basically everywhere throughout this piece unless explicitly stated otherwise).

Well, a few scholars have proposed that when it comes to VR and the presence we feel when in it, our brains might be easily fooled into feeding us information from our real life schemas rather than our media ones. Evidence of this can be traced as far back they say as some of those earliest plank simulators (IJsselsteijn, 2002) and how players respond to them under various levels of sensory feedback. We know it's not real, we observe ourselves putting on a headset to peer into this virtualization, but still we react to the height similarly to how we would if it were actual. And raising the seamlessness of the simulation increases those reactions. If we amp up the frame rate, we react to it more realistically. If we induce haptic feedback by walking on an actual plank rested on the ground exactly where the virtual one would be, we react more realistically. If we know none of this is real… why do we respond with natural fear?

And I mean… and pardon my language… but no shit! VR is supposed to try to convince you it's real, otherwise what’s the point? What’s its novelty? Like, as a commercial product I’m talking.

But here’s what worries me: for a long time our greatest guard against those suggesting that video games cause violence is that we can tell the difference between media and reality. But VR, by its nature, has as an objective trying to fool us into believing it's real. As gamers, we see increases in visual fidelity and immersion as progress, always. Does that mean though that the direction we’re progressing will eventually surpass our guard? I don’t know.

But when it comes to violence is where I personally begin to have second thoughts. First of all, is violence really something we want to subject ourselves to in this medium? And if there’s a chance that increased sensations of presence give us greater feelings of aggression… aggression that our minds might be associating with real life schemas rather than media ones, is that a problem? Is there a chance that in its current state or the states it will no doubt mutate into in the future, will enactments of violence in VR contribute to learning in parts of our brain responsible for interpreting and operating within the real world rather than the virtual? I know that comes off sounding super “moral panic-y”... but like, we don’t really know, right?


Effects of VR Headsets

Before diving into that with only the ability to extrapolate based on what we know about 3D displays in general, let's actually see what studies about modern VR do exist, eh?

Violent Video Games in Virtual Reality: Re-Evaluating the Impact and Rating of Interactive Experiences is a study on, you guessed it, the impacts of violent video games in virtual reality, by Dr Mark McGill and Dr Wilson of the universities of Strathclyde and Glasgow respectively. The latter of which, as you may recall, agreed to answer some questions for me in an on-paper interview. Unlike a lot of studies on games content though, these docs came at it with a tangible goal, a suggestion to the industry. The twist in their study was that it was about game ratings, like, ESRB and PEGI and the likes. Basically, like I’ve been trying to say in this video, proving that VR games affect people differently than their non-VR counterparts should be sufficient in getting them different treatment and consideration, and one of those differences, these guys propose, should be how we rate them.

At the center of their study is Resident Evil 7 for PlayStation 4, a game selected for its ability to be played either regularly on a TV like any other mediocre-to-bad first-person survival-horror game… or in VR using the PSVR headset. And very importantly, at least to these two researchers, these two versions of the game are not rated separately but instead share one rating with nothing but a little warning about VR creating a sense of presence and immersion. To the Glasgow boys, this is insufficient.

This paper is really cool, and it's a good read unlike most of the old-timey game studies I’ve been checking out a lot. My one issue with it might be their sample size which is pretty small and might not be generalizable to population, but like Dr Bushman observed when he decided to study 3D monitors, the elements that make VR VR also make it hard to study on a large scale. But since the people used here are still the target demographic for these games and headsets, it might be okay.

In their study and on their quest to show that there is what they call a “meaningful difference” (Wilson and McGill. 2018) between VR and TV, they describe this concept of visceral realism. Games marketing has historically used the term realism to describe advanced graphics and visual effects, so describing VR as real alone “may only suggest realistic portrayals of events” and not tell the whole story. They explain that “the effects of presence [and] body ownership are, [for the most part], subconscious and inherent”. They say that “the instinctive nature of the player’s disposition and response” is the difference here and is what needs to be highlighted when it comes to ratings. The term Visceral Realism instead they believe better implies “that player experiences could feel instinctively, even irrepressibly, real”.

As Dr Wilson told me in his interview, their study “found [that] people felt more personally involved in violence when playing in VR vs on a TV”, which is “compelling evidence that violence can *feel* different in VR, [affecting us emotionally] and [feeling] similar to how it does in reality [which is usually very unpleasant].” He believes that a more important real-world concern than whether VR violence makes us act differently is “how [this] violent media affects us” and who might be affected differently.

As they explain in the study itself, when acts of violence are committed against the virtual body of the viewer, their subjective and physiological responses are correspondent to those they’d have were the attacks real. At this point I don’t think we’re even in the realm of games anymore! I mean, what are the harmful psychological impacts of having someone assault you? Having someone hold a knife at you? Of subjecting yourself to a realistic fear of heights?

The researchers then run with this to say “hey! There’s a meaningful difference here and maybe slapping a small warning on VR games isn’t enough to protect consumers”, which yeah holy shit it probably isn’t. It sounds weird admitting it, but VR content, especially that with depictions of first-person violence like Resident Evil 7, might harm the people who choose to purchase it. I don’t know... -- imagine paying money for a game and then having to go to therapy or something because you experienced a realistic reaction to a virtual trauma. I mean, this isn’t something unheard of happening even outside the realm of VR, like the case of the Mortal Kombat developer who needed to be treated for PTSD following their work on the game (Joshua Rivera. Kotaku). So yeah, it only makes sense to treat VR content differently in the rating process to ensure that nobody gets hurt or damaged in any way. These ratings are meant to protect consumers from things they might not know about the things they want to buy.

Now, all this talk of the negative impacts VR experiences could have, it feels like the right time to mention some of the positive effects it's already been shown to have. By a function of the same elements that might seriously harm someone, (presence and body-ownership and immersion), VR has also been able to help treat people suffering from serious phobias and anxieties. Immersion therapy is one of the ways we currently treat these issues: by exposing someone to their trigger in a controlled environment. One of the reasons VR treatment is said to work so well is because it has “lasting effects that generalize to the real world” (Maples-Keller, Jessica L, et al.), aka virtual experiences can impact our processing of the real world just like real-world experiences. VR’s been shown to surpass traditional therapy in types of situations where it might be impossible to expose someone to anything close to the circumstances of their trauma. VR was super helpful for example in a case where it was used to treat a 9/11 survivor’s PTSD (Difede, JoAnn, and Hunter G Hoffman) in a safe and controlled way.

In addition, VR’s been shown to help with body image issues and promote exercise both in and out of games. This is something I totally get: it sucks to fail at a video game because of a limitation of your own body and I’ve personally experienced how it can motivate you to work on improving yourself. I fucking screwed up my knee trying to play a sniper in Onward, it sucked having to admit that transitioning in and out of a crouch is not something my body and myself are very good at which limits the sorts of combat roles I can play in this game. But it was a serious motivating factor in me trying to get out of the office more during lunch and just go for walks.

So, types of VR content have already been demonstrated to affect our psyche and cognition in a lot of different ways, not all negative like it might’ve sounded like I’ve been saying.


Effects of Motion Controls

Let’s talk real quick about motion controls before going any further.

Like I said before, there’s not much I could find specifically about motion controls paired with VR, but when the Wii came out and once again put a gun-looking thing into the hands of kids, some folks were a bit peeved, as to be expected, and this public interest led to a few studies being done. What folks/parents were most concerned about were games which asked players to mimick violent motions. At the center of attention for a while was the snuff film themed Manhunt 2 for Wii which had players trigger all manner of murderous actions analogously through gesture based control.

After a lot of research turns out there’s nothing really to worry about. Playing these sorts of games and doing the motions does not a violent individual make, or at least there’s no evidence for it. You know, same as for games before the touch and motion generation.

As before though there are a few positive links between motion controls and increased short term aggression, and once again, they’re brought to you in part by Dr Bushman.

In social psychology there’s this thing either called the Weapons Effect, the Weapons Priming Effect, or the Sight of Weapons Effect depending on who you’re talking to (Benjamin, Arlin James, and Brad J Bushman). Its something monsieur over here has spent some time studying. Basically what it is is a description of how people naturally experience increases in aggression when seeing or holding weapons. It’s pretty much that old expression, “when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail” but extended to things like guns. Merely seeing an image of a firearm increases our aggression, holding one is even worse.

In 2015, a group of researchers published a study about the effects of Realistic Gun Controllers for video games on Perceptions of Realism, Immersion, and Outcome Aggression (Mcgloin, Rory, et al). What they found was “compelling evidence that using a realistic firearm controller positively impacts cognitive aggression”. They called playing a game with a controller like this a Triple-Whammy in terms contributing factors of increased aggression due to the Weapons Effect from the weapons in-game, the immersive violence depicted on-screen, and the Weapons Effect from holding the aforementioned realistically designed gun controller.

Now, as a gamer, I have some problems with this study (that is a great fucking line). But what it comes down to again I assume is unfamiliarity with games on the part of the researchers. First of all, they mention first-person-shooter games throughout the study but then in the experiment they have participants play Time Crisis 4, a light-gun shooter. This is a different genre, this is a type of game that plays entirely differently to the FPS games they say they’re really worried about. And I don’t know if you’ve played a light-gun game with a controller, but its ass. I think they went the wrong way with this study; instead of picking a game designed for a light-gun and then comparing the experience to the outright bad controller version, they should have taken a traditional first-person-shooter which is also playable with motion and then compared those experiences. They could have used any of the Wii or Wii U versions of Call of Duty games to do this with which all have extensive motion control support. I, a true gamer, should know!

Do I think this shows a lack of attention to detail in their study? Yes. Do I think it invalidates it though? Yeah probably not, I just like to complain.

The Weapons Effect is something with a wealth of research validating it, no questions there. So when they say their results “raise concerns about the harmful effects of [...] realistic firearm controllers” (Mcgloin, Rory, et al), they might be onto something. But, I mean come on, who’d go ahead and call what we use in VR a realistic firearm controller, thing looks like a… looks kinda like a… well, not really like much really.

Well, here’s the issue we’ve never really faced before when it comes to controllers. When you play the Wii and you grab a Wiimote, sure maybe it feels a little like a gun but it certainly doesn’t look like one. When you go into the Rift though and pick up these mannetes, they don’t look like this anymore. The game world overlays hands onto them, your hands. And with those hands, your hands, you grip, aim, and squeeze the triggers of virtual guns. So I wouldn’t disregard a study like this because, unlike the light-guns which they studied, the way a virtual gun is observed can be described beyond realistic-looking. In VR your controller is not analogous to the weapon you’re wielding in-game, it becomes that weapon exactly.

The motion capturing technology effortlessly grants you access to abilities no light-gun or FPS game ever has; you can accurately aim without using sights by simply pointing your hand in a direction, even directions you’re not looking. You can lower and raise your weapons exactly as you wish, manipulate and position them any which way. You can set them down, pick them up, throw them away, anything!

Included in the researchers’ original concerns was how the effects of light-gun controllers (and the mental link that exists for most people between the guns they represent and aggression) could reach a large proportion of people through the great market popularity of shooting games among other genres. This concern however was partly based I’d say on their misunderstanding of game genres and the fact that light-gun games are not first-person-shooters; not in gameplay, not in audience, and definitely not in market share… nobody really plays these things at home lets be honest.

When it comes to VR in its current state though, I’d say at least half the games with motion controls out there involve firing weapons. Shooting games lend themselves really well to the medium. The design of handheld controllers with grips and triggers are a response to this, or maybe its the other way around. So assuming the Weapons Priming Effect as studied by these researchers with light-gun games holds true for VR games, which from my perspective seems like it at least should (implying I believe VR might have a stronger Sight of Weapons effect because, unlike light-gun games, you actually see your weapon in your field-of-view rather than just a 2D reticle projected onto a screen), I think it's easy to understand that VR shooting games can be considered a Triple Whammy risk factor. You see detailed 3D imagery of weapons; your own and those of others. You’re fully immersed and present in a world of 3D violence, and a couple of dongles you hold shape a corporeal feeling of holding a firearm.

But again we’re talking short-term self-reported or convolutedly measured levels of aggression. Spicy... not progressions towards or links to serious violent criminal behavior. This isn’t enough reason for the people who’ve called VR an “over-the-counter digital bootcamp” (Bailenson. CNN) to be suggesting that. Afterall, as we’ve learned, the fact that violent individuals tend to play violent games doesn’t mean the games make them that way.

But one of the points these confused light-gun controller researchers have might stick. So right away they admit that “cognitive aggression is not a measure of current or future behavioral aggression” (Mcgloin, Rory, et al), but they bring up that “other researchers have argued that cognitive aggression is the most theoretically useful predictor of long-term aggressive personality changes” and that “aggressive thoughts that are repeatedly activated in [a] person can lead to aggression-related knowledge structures becoming a part of [their] personality”. Having aggression be part of your personality is basically trait aggression. So what they’re arguing is that repeatedly exposing oneself to immersive violent motion controlled games and the Weapons Effect with realistic gun controllers can lead to the development of trait aggression.

Now to be crystal fucking clear, they’re not proving this. This isn’t evidence. This is a concern they’ve raised and have justified: that these sorts of games could lead to “aggressive knowledge structures and, potentially, subsequent aggressive behavior” in people. As a consumer of this sort of media, and more generally as just a person living in this world, this kinda concerns me a bit.

But like Dr Wilson says,

“seeing a sad film may make us temporarily sad and we may cry, but it does not induce clinical depression, and so why would violent [media] make someone go out and repeat those acts?”‌‌

Wrap Up: Impacts of VR and VR-like technology and Gaming Specific Effects

Alright so let’s wrap things up here and do a little recap so far of what we’ve learned about the gaming specific impacts of VR related technologies.

Important question: does VR media impact us differently than other media? Yes, due to its distinguishing factor which sets it apart from other media, Presence (composed notably of Place Illusion, Plausibility Illusion and Body Ownership) it would seem so.

Though as Dr Wilson mentions, “none of these are inherently problematic in a way that would cause more aggression than TV [or] monitor games”, and it probably comes down more to the personality of the player rather than the game itself. “We don’t know yet” whatever effects will (and are) being had on human behavior either in or out of VR games, “there’s not really any research in the area.”

There’s the good: the positive impacts of VR which can be leveraged for applications like therapy and healthcare. There’s the bad of course: impacts which most would perceive as negative. Most importantly the unintended consequences of visceral realism which improperly expressed to a consumer might cause them mental and psychological harm. False memory acquisition which could make us suffer physiologically to fabricated and virtual yet vivid events. Digital trauma with real life consequences. And then there’s the ugly: the real spooky stuff that, unlike the good and the bad, isn’t quite proven as of yet but I think the risk of deems them worthy of some serious scientific scrutiny. This is the ugly learning of violent knowledge by VR’s potential to bypass media-schemas, our previously thought best defense when it comes to how much influence media can have over us. This is the ugly potential for regular exposure to immersive VR motion controlled violence, games and experiences where the weapon is put in straight into your hands, to encode aggression within our personalities and change who we are.

We don’t really know, conclusively, much about this. Not many people are really looking at it to be fair. But what I think is that if virtual events and experiences stand to have similar effects on people as real events and experiences, what the various stakeholders involved in this technological ecosystem might need to be more considerate of is the gaming content ethically permissible on these platforms.

But gaming isn’t the only domain in which VR exists. Not even is it just in entertainment. Outside of that industry completely, VR and AR both have for a long time found roots someplace a little weird: Training.


VR in the Training Industry

The training industry is a little hard to visualize. Every company, big or small, has to train their workforce for the particularities of their jobs. For a long time training, head-to-toe, was a completely internal process. But developing and maintaining training material, issuing it, collecting and distributing it, this is a lot of work. That’s why a few businesses dedicated to this sort of stuff have cropped up to serve this market. If you’ve ever worked for a large company, you’re probably familiar with those horribly acted weird hr videos you have to watch from time to time. Well, unless you work for the sort of place with the means to produce video content like that, odds are the clips you watched were part of a training service package that your employer bought or had commissioned from one of these businesses that makes them. Now that being said, in certain industries, often in extremely complex domains, there’s still a need for on-premise internal training material.

So the training industry can be seen like this: as an encapsulation of every company managing its own training and all companies producing training content and/or offering training services to other industries, businesses or individual clients.

Why are VR and AR such good pairings for it? Well, partly for the same reasons we’ve discussed relative to the impacts they can have on people in games. The fact that we may perceive and interpret virtual experiences as real in terms of our responses to them and our memory formation means they can have a very similar influence on us as compared to real-world training. Then of course there’s the cost factor.

As I’ve learned, the hotel industry is big on VR training, particularly for its higher ups to experience what it’s like to work on the front lines. There’s these intricate VR workspace demos they have for customer service roles with paid voice actors and all sorts of gnarly stuff.

VR’s also big all over the place for workplace safety training; much more impactful interactive safety demonstrations taking the place of simple video presentations. These cut costs by not having to spend resources building training environments or spending to have people travel all over the place to do it on-site. You can put a headset on from the comfort of an office and just be transported anywhere else to do anything else, it’s practically magic! And of course, though not real, you do get a sort of hands-on experience similar to the real thing that leaves more of an effect on you than watching a clip or not doing it at all as the case may be when costs are too high.

Then of course, especially when it comes to AR, augmented reality (you know, stuff where additional details and graphics are overlaid atop a user’s view of the real world) there’s a whole bunch of medical stuff. There’s definitely a lot of what you’d call medical AR apps, just plain applications used for diagnostics and treatment, but there’s also a wealth of education and training specific stuff out there.

Now to give you a sense of the scale of this industry from the developer perspective, XRDC, one of the largest VR, AR and MR conferences in the world runs a survey amongst developers and publishes the results as a report every year prior to their event. It's kinda like a nice little annual snapshot of this very young industry, and it’s interesting to see the progression of it.

This year it turned out that when surveyed about the focus of their current or potential work, education came up as a target of a third of developers. Almost as many mentioned training, over a fifth specified that their work was medicine or healthcare related, and a few more said they were doing something for workplace or public safety projects (XRDC Innovation Report).

Like I said, this industry is kinda hard to put one big cap over, it’s very dispersed. Just a rundown of the titles of articles announcing presentations at this conference makes that clear:

Don't miss these career-expanding Training & Safety talks at XRDC
Discover what it takes to build great medical AR/VR/MR apps at XRDC!
XRDC offers a rare look at how biometric VR is improving mental health care
At XRDC you'll learn how VR is radicalizing drug design at nanoscale
Come out to XRDC and learn how your VR skills can be used for public good!
VR training for the workplace works -- see how firsthand at XRDC!
Attend XRDC and see how VR helps caregivers see the world through their patients' eyes!
Grab the new XRDC Healthcare Report and see how AR/VR is changing medicine!
Come to XRDC for the inside scoop on how VR is enhancing worker safety
Come to XRDC and see how VR devs are improving healthcare for kids!
Get up to speed on how AR/VR is transforming healthcare at XRDC!
Come to XRDC for expert insight on how AR/VR is transforming business!
Come to XRDC and learn how VR can have a positive impact in classrooms

But the point I’m trying to make I guess is that, to most people, especially the audience I expect to be watching this video, gamers, VR is gaming. It seems like most people are aware of VR games and maybe some other VR entertainment like 360 video, and maybe a few more people know about the industrial design and visualization applications. But like, nobody I’ve spoken with knows about the training side to it.

And going back to what we’ve learned is a possibility when it comes to how immersive violent VR might affect us… holy fuck!? I mean, okay, this is just my thought process, this isn’t coming from anyone else. This isn’t even necessarily my opinion, it’s just me trying to explain what I’d call the elementary mental gymnastics my brain does whenever I think about this.

“Okay, so video games don’t make us violent, sure. Violent behavior has more to do with the individual, badabing. Can video games make us aggressive in the short term though? Yeah. Do immersion and presence and plausibility and all that shit amplify that aggression? Some people say it does, so maybe. We know at least that we respond to it realistically which is a danger, but whether it can affect how we act, we don’t know. Now can we be tricked into thinking that it’s real and processing what we do in it like it’s real? Well, maybe. And how about if we keep exposing ourselves to it? Is there a possibility of personality change? Is there a chance that regularly playing VR games can turn us into more aggressive people? Well I mean, there’s no real evidence but some people have suggested that could be the case… so I guess its possible.. There’s a lot of uncertainty around here? But I mean, come on, learning to be actually violent from video games? Come on, it’s not like, you know, we’re using this same technology to help anybody learn anything else right? It’s not like serious benefits when it comes to teaching or training people to do things… right? Oh fuck wait...”

I know its dumb, but I think that there is something really fucked up about the same devices I use to transport myself to some unnamed middle-eastern warzone where I use guns and heavy weaponry to kill bad guys… being also used to train workers how to keep their asses safe, aspiring doctors how to perform surgeries, and hotel chain directors how the day-to-day work of their employees looks and feels.

Look, I don’t think games make you violent, and at least in their current state, despite how the fuck this piece sounds I mostly doubt that VR games are an exception to that rule. But I think it's fucked that I even think that despite looking at the training industry and its potential implications towards learning skills in VR. I don’t know what analogy to make, I don’t think there is one for this. It feels like we hold games and entertainment to this different standard because unlike an industrial application we see them as art. I don’t know. I just, even the thought of this is really dissonant to me.

It’s especially weird when you think about the development of these games and applications. VR expertise is not super common and it takes a lot of time to acquire, so I’ve heard. So often developers will have had experience across the board; in training, in medicine and in games. Realistically, last week’s fire safety demo could be built by the same team making next week’s hyper violent power fantasy. Isn’t that strange? Shouldn’t that concern us? Given that the two largest industries in which VR technology is applied are gaming and training… is it maybe a little weird for game developers to be making violent content on this platform? Or is it incorrect to think this way or be worried about this, there’s not much evidence. And afterall, a teacher can use chalkboard to teach a class a lesson, and serial killer can use one too to keep track of their murders… or whatever the fuck weird-ass shit a serial killer might want to do with a chalkboard… this is a terrible example. But, like, maybe VR is just a tool? Maybe that’s the defense?


Learning Violent skills in VR

Let's ask some important questions.

Can violent skills be learned in VR?

In other words, can I go into a violent game and learn something I previously didn’t know about committing violence which then I can take back with me into the real-world once I remove my headset? Personally, I think so. I mentioned before, I’m Canadian. We don’t really see guns so often up here, they’re probably afraid of the cold or something. My experience with them goes as far as the pellet guns I’ve shot. I used to collect airsoft guns which I disarmed in order to take to conventions for cosplay and to make goofy films with my friends. I fired an assault weapon once at a family friend’s home out in the country, but in Canada automatic firing weapons are banned and magazines are limited to only 5 rounds, so it wasn’t anything crazy. It even jammed right after my first shot and I didn’t get a second.

So maybe it’s just my lack of knowledge and experience, but when I play any of the shooting-range or military simulators which are extremely popular on VR marketplaces, I feel like I come away from them learning something about guns. Like, small things I couldn’t have ever gotten by only reading about them or watching videos. I feel like I don’t think I could honestly say that I don’t believe that violent skills can be learned in VR when I once had to google how a certain gun actually operated in the real world in order to reload it in a game. Yes, that’s the other way around, but still. Stuff like becoming accustomed to how holographic optics work, or just, developing the muscle memory to reload a gun… these are things I’m picking up which are a little scary when presented in montage:

In Onward, one of the games I play a bit, my favorite weapon is this heavy machine gun whose complicated and time consuming reload I’ve seen animated countless times from the first-person perspective in other video games at the simple press of a button. Before having to do it in VR I didn’t really understand the intricacy of it, and when I first started I fucked it up constantly. But I’ve gotten to a point where I can do it pretty quickly now, it’s almost impressive. If I didn’t tell you I was doing all this with my own hands, you’d probably think this was a Call of Duty animation or some shit. But no, that’s what a few hours of experience looks like; I’ve learned how to realistically reload a machine gun, a few assault rifles, handguns, this sawn-off shotgun, which by the ways is really really fun. Sure it’s not real, but I’ve learned to get into the swing of things. Is that something I should be happy about? Or is that something that should worry me?

Most people though tend to disagree with me on this point, which is why I think maybe it's some of my personal bias. Dr Wilson brought up the issues of motion “tracking not always being perfect”, weapons having no weight, and a lack of force feedback being limiting factors to the transfer of skills. “Yes, you can aim down sights,'' he says, “but the guns have no weight, no kick back”, and things like auto-aim and auto-spread are still present.

I talked to a few friendly players I met in Onward who agreed to share their thoughts about this as well and they echoed the same points. Turns out that the game attracts a large milsim crowd, (an abbreviation of military simulation traditionally used to describe hardcore variants of airsoft or paintball) and they were quick to point out the limits to skill transfer with current VR.

It might be enough for now to point out the current limits of this platform and be reassured by them, but VR is an evolving technology. Compare where it was a few years ago to now and you’ll realize why critique and judgment passed on those old things wouldn’t necessarily apply today. VR is going to get better, no doubt about it. As it does, the fidelity of performing any sorts of acts (not just violent ones) will get better and come closer and closer to reality. “So [it’s] important that we understand if and how any transfer might work” says Dr Wilson. “If there was theoretically a 1:1 recreation of, [for example], a famous monument, and an individual was able to practice moving through it and shooting with a highly realistic gun, then [there’s] scope for risk. But [we’re] some distance away from that.” He’s referring here to the concern some have raised that VR could be a digital bootcamp which aspiring mass shooters might use to virtually hone their skills in preparation for the real thing. Unfortunately, if it is, there’s not much we can do about that. None of the suggestions the proponents of ideas like this make any sense at least, but this shouldn’t matter so much because as Dr Wilson tells, “this claim is simply unfounded based on the research, there’s no evidence of transfer yet”. But I’m getting ahead of myself, more on this in a moment.

Can violent skills be taken into VR?

So on the topic of bootcamps, let’s flip the script for the next question: Can violent skills be taken into VR?

This is hard to answer, there’s no research around this I could find, probably because of how new VR is and how busy people with violent skills typically are. I don’t think it’s as controversial though for me to say that I wholeheartedly believe this. Do I have any non-anecdotal evidence for this though? Nope not at all.

In my decent time playing Onward I’ve noticed a cultural similarity among the player base which is that a lot of players think very highly of military service members. Often players who perform really well will be asked in the waiting lobbies whether they’ve served. Others will try to point out behaviors in their teammates from the spectator screen and try to guess when and where they were trained. It’s stuff that mostly goes over my head, but something I’ve noticed a lot of.

The only other story I have is that a very close person in my life who’s actively serving tried out my VR setup last time they were around to visit, and when they did they played really freaking well. I had set them up on Robo Recall because it was the only VR game I owned at the time, but I accidentally loaded them into the first boss-fight instead of the level I meant for them to try out. And much to my surprise, a level which took me 3 tries to get my first time and for which I had already learned the ropes for by having cleared the previous stages, they took out on their first attempt… their first attempt in their first real AAA VR experience. It wasn’t just that, but the way they played was really interesting. Robo Recall is kinda meant to be played with a Keanu Reeves type energy: dual wielding, not looking where you’re shooting, total ninja matrix mayhem. But they played this with cold precision, almost never holding more than one gun at once, aiming down sights, picking off targets one-by-one despite the enemy’s hoard approach. It was really impressive and without question one of the reasons I think real-world skill and training for violent situations can be taken into VR and used effectively in games. I’m not even talking about tactics or strategy or anything, I think just having any sort of real combat experience or weapons training can give you a measurable advantage in the second-to-second action gameplay these sorts of games serve. It doesn’t really make sense to me that it wouldn’t.

Can violent skills be honed in VR?

So then back to what in my opinion is probably the most important question related to violence in video games in 2019: Can violent skills be honed in VR? Can someone with pre-existing violent tendencies and abilities and skills apply these to VR in order to improve them? To train? To learn? Can someone fulfill that sensationalist headline we’d all dread to see one day?

"This week’s mass shooter prepared for attack by practicing in Virtual Reality video games."

As a player of these things whose observed personal physical improvements in these sorts of games over time, it makes me wonder. Would, for example, having some sort of muscle memory, no matter how loosely related to the real experience of carrying out the motions of reloading a particular weapon, have any impact on the degree of damages done by such a malicious attacker? I don’t know. Like we said before, if the technology keeps advancing (which it seems like it will) the feeling of performing violence in VR will trend closer and closer towards the real thing. Will it ever meet it? Or is there some close-but-no-cigar limit it will infinitely converge towards? I don’t know. But will it get to a point where for the same reason companies buy VR training programs for their workers’ safety formation… will it get to where it’s more cost effective and immersive for a malicious individual to pick out a cool new gaming headset and motion controllers to prepare for that sort of act than to do it any other way? If things keep improving… I don’t really see how not.

I’m not really prepared to answer whether violent skills, today, can be honed in VR. Based on my own exposure to the games I’ve played in this medium, I think these sorts of experiences could surely be able to desensitize someone to violence and fear, maybe prepare them mentally, but physically? Could playing VR improve whatever skills are necessary to carry out acts of violence… like some sort of training program?

Well, remember when we talked about how VR is used for training in various industries? One I left out is military.

Depending on your role and location and responsibilities, as a military trainee it's possible that you’d be exposed at one point or another to some form of VR training. As a training platform, VR has benefits where (you’ve probably guessed by this point) it can stand-in for otherwise expensive practice environments or situations that are impossible to recreate under control. In particular flight and vehicle training are good applications. But there are, however less frequently used, boots-on-the-ground training simulations... which modern VR FPS games might be proportionate to (Virtual Reality Society).

Now, when it comes to the nitty gritty, stuff like weapons drills and field exercises, these are done in real life. We’ve already brought it up but the weightlessness and lack of feedback inherent to the general purpose peripherals packaged with most headsets doesn’t allow them to very accurately emulate the experience of operating a weapon or doing anything really. This then limits the transfer of knowledge back into the real world blah blah blah. So VR’s very limited military use for soldiers is instead focused on team dynamics including things like tactics and planning for combat scenarios and also adapting to variable conditions like environment and casualties.

So while there’s an evident line that protects us right now from a reality where specific violent skills can be practiced in virtual worlds for the sake of their improvements in the real one, this technology (albeit in a moderately mutated state) can and is being used to acclimate people to certain experiences they’ll be meant to have and to train them on the softer skills required for operating effectively as a team.

An anecdote I have is that one time after spectating the last surviving member of my team in a round of survival in Onward, one of the other spectators who’d said he recognized one of the tactics this dude was using asked him if he had served. The guy answered that no, he hadn’t, but he’d picked up some army field manuals and had been practicing the techniques and tactics he learned from them in the game to get better and achieve the sort of miraculous results the rest of us had just witnessed. Dude was a monster, straight discipline.

Which to a lesser degree holds true for my experience as well. Most of my best VR victories in this tactically focused game were won through communication enabled teamwork. There are clearly some dudes in there bringing in real-world tactics and commanding their teams to victory, and I’m just happy getting to be a player in those people’s game because it's always a blast and you learn a lot. It has regularly made a difference.

Now here’s what the research says

So these were interesting questions to ask, but let's go back to what we had discussed the research saying and see what implications there might be now.

Does VR violence create violent individuals? No. It’s fun to worry but there’s no direct evidence of this, and so much like with their non-3D video game counterparts, violence likely has much more to do with the individual. However, studies of technologies within the range of VR have shown that increased immersion can lead to increased aggression which has been suggested that in excess could lead to personality changes. Still, like regular games, this is mostly only a risk for people at risk of developing or with existing violent tendencies.

Now, something we’ve yet to bring up directly: there’s a difference between learning how to perform violent acts and developing violent tendencies. We can learn the motions to draw, aim, fire, and reload a weapon to great effect, but that doesn’t come with it violent tendency changes. Same as how we can become momentarily more aggressive without developing a violent personality. So research pertaining to games and immersive technology and our exploration of the use of VR in other industrial settings have shown that, to this point, the effects of this platform can make people more aggressive, and that it can (independently) be used as a learning and training tool for real-life scenarios. But that’s as far as it goes.

Do I want to be the guy who tells you in an article that because the two main applications of VR are gaming and training, that playing violent games is effectively training us to be violent? That VR is in fact an over-the-counter virtual-bootcamp? Well frankly yes, fucking absolutely. That’d probably go viral as shit! But am I? No. We can’t draw conclusions from this because this isn’t evidence. The media men might beg to differ, and you or I or your dog might have strong feelings about it, but this isn’t proof. This is as close as it gets. This is just a fun and interesting story about a certain technology and its potentially conflicting effects and applications relative to our social values. But yes, in my opinion, it's probably a good argument as to why there should be more research interest here.

All this story reveals to me, personally, is how scary it is that there’s barely any inquiry here on a device I paid a few hundred bucks for that’s sitting in a box next to my computer.


Creative Ethics

So there’s no evidence or anything and that’s all fine and good, but for a moment (before looking at any new research and without any evidence) let’s assume the worst. Assume VR is used for training purposes, and it’s also used for games, and when gamers play games, just like in training scenarios they pick up skills. We don’t actually, but let's pretend that we have reasonable cause to believe this.

Considering this, as a creator of any sort of VR content (whether a game maker, a film maker or whatever) you’d probably have some ethical concerns or considerations surrounding your work and its impact. From an audience’s perspective, there are probably kinds of content and subject matter safe to project when viewed on traditional displays that would be off limits in VR given the unique ways in which it affects us. Kinds of subject matter that, as we’ve learned, might either cause people psychological harm, or as we’re imagining, teach them certain skills we’d ought not. From a creator’s perspective, if a link is made between their content and harm to or the negative behavior of their players, perhaps it would be best to avoid these sorts of things altogether.

I mean, forget imagination, this is something the artistic medium of gaming has seen before. Over the years, many game developers have demonstrated a certain awareness or moral responsibility towards producing certain content which they considered to go too-far. For instance the designers of 2009’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 who had the sensibility to make completely optional an emotionally intense part of the game where the player’s character (for various narrative reasons I won’t go into) is asked to participate in the shooting of a public airport. Not only did they make the entirety of the level No Russian skippable by choice, but they designed it in such a way that if the player does decide to play it, they aren’t forced to actually participate in the shooting themselves. The player can just walk through and view the graphic scene being composed by their teammates without actually participating in it if that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Games of the last few generations which have begun to touch more on these kinds of mature subjects have done well to show awareness of the limits they think their medium should have. There’s a reason No Russian is optional. There’s a reason there are no children in open world sandbox games like Grand Theft Auto.

Violence against children is actually a good example of the sort of subject designers probably don’t want players to experiment with and make their own stories about in these kinds of sandbox games where the draw is that, well… it’s a sandbox! Games where you can make whatever good or bad choices you want to fulfill whatever weird and possibly violent, chaotic and power-driven fantasies you might have aren’t a decent fit for this. No, that’s not something even the creators of a totally open game like Grand Theft Auto, which is constantly getting flak from the popular media for its sheer raunch, are very comfortable with. Instead this subject is reserved in the rare instances where it is brought up in games for expressing specific messages or themes. Often the presence of children in a game is surrounded by restrictions; an open world game like Metal Gear Solid V that otherwise treats everything; every mechanic and every system as a toy for you to experiment and play with, when it comes to children... the game stops and says “no, this is how you play with this one, there are rules now”. That’s a serious show of maturity and sign that this medium has evolved.

There are certain basic moral considerations we can expect these days. Games which cover certain topics like sexual violence or mass shooting anywhere close to insensitively are bound to be rejected by the general public and banned from digital marketplaces (BBC). Most people don’t see these sorts of subject matter and the interactive medium being things which can really shake hands, even when discretion is advised. And so what we can expect from developers is not to cover these subjects. We can expect them to know that there’s a line that they can’t really cross or even dance around without getting some hate.

And so when it comes to VR, we’d expect the same sorts of restrictions apply, the same sort of awareness from its developers, right? Well, as someone who owns one of these headsets and often performs searches for games to play on it, lemme tell you… it doesn’t seem that way.

When we say that games don’t cause violence… I don’t feel like we’re talking about stuff like Blood Trail, a VR exclusive game which prides itself on being called “The most violent game in VR” (Blood Trail). What sets this game apart from most VR shooters is its focus on realism. Simulated laws of physics rule the game world, waves of bodies tear apart and ragdoll by the intense forces applied to them, leaving behind blood splatters of the most supposedly true to life shapes and sizes. There’s a sandbox mode of course, basically a virtual torture chamber where you can experiement with whatever you want and learn the best ways to off your foes, I guess? This in preparation for the main game in which you shoot people… but it’s okay! It’s okay! Because they’re not just people, they’re fanatical cultists! See! They’re bald and everything! And they’re also mostly unarmed… and this user wants to be able to snap their necks in the next update…

A brief scroll-through of this game’s Steam reviews will reveal that… well first a lot of people aren’t super pleased with it, it’s a pretty buggy mess. But to a few people it seems to be fulfilling something that I’m not really sure I’m comfortable talking about. This is just a dumb game, a really stupid fucking game, but its clear that its trying to be (without outright saying it) a murder simulator. Its ability to be that draws in people, and that’s fucking freaky business.

Look, I’m all about artistic freedom and I don’t think video games cause violence, I think most of us feel the same. But when we say that, we’re not thinking of things like this: a realistic physics and gore driven cocaine cult shooting game with a torture room mode that’s probably giving a few people out there their kicks. If you want it to be, this can be an approximation of mass shooting, it can be an approximation of torture and of murder. I don’t know what playing something like this or going into it thinking its just fun entertainment might do to you if you’re not aware of the unique ways VR can fuck with your mind. It makes me uncomfortable that a game like this would be made and released and sold among the lack of research that exists. Sure, there’s no evidence right now for us to worry about… but I don’t think that means developers feel comfortable enough to go all the way to extremes and assume everyone will be safe. It seems pretty unethical and irresponsible.

Dr Wilson and associate bring this topic up briefly and less slippery than myself as “Impermissible Content” mentioning that certain red lines might exist for virtual reality content and that we’ll need to do more research to determine if, at all, portrayal and interaction with a certain level of sensory fidelity and realism will be unacceptable for whatever reasons. This research will be necessary to determine what guidelines or restrictions might need to be made. They mention this is important in order to protect creators as well as consumers. “Content creators”, they say, “should be able to push the artistic and aesthetic boundaries of their medium without potentially harming their consumers or being falsely accused of causing harm” (Wilson and McGill. 2018).

I mean, what the fuck? This isn’t the only game like this. I’ll spare you the slew of pornographic VR games that you know exist and instead show you the absolutely ridiculous intersection, or, inter-sex-ion if you will… of sexual and violent content in Sex-&-Gun-VR. This is not a joke, this is an actual game where you have straight male sex & gun down bad people…? I don’t know, I have not played it. It’s just fucked to me that something like this would exist so openly, like not even try to conceal itself or anything. How is this shit so easy to access?

Why is there so much VR content that seems to disregard the socially enforced content rules we’ve established, as a community, for games? Is it just because the VR market is so small that there’s a lack of awareness of stuff like this being built? And what are the ethics to consider from the creative perspective?

Well it turns out it might be more a cultural thing. I spoke with Stuart Thiel M.Eng, an old professor of mine who on the side of his faculty responsibilities, had at one point been in charge of Concordia University’s games research lab. A point that kept coming back up in our interview was that Mr Thiel was concerned with how creators in this new technology might believe that any old rules would not apply to them, that they could do whatever they wanted and explore uncharted territory in this medium. The excitement of a new technology like this could have a liberating effect on people who wish to try new things previously considered a little weird.

And I agree with his point. You have to look no further than another disruptive gaming technology to see the same pattern we’re seeing with VR now.

Flash had a major influence on our perception of what gaming was back in the 90’s to 2000’s and probably is to credit for some of the foundation that the industry sits on today, especially the indie scene. Prior, games were for the most part physical things you needed to go out and buy, products controlled by ratings boards and sold over the counter by stores willing to sell them. Now with Flash, games could be published and played directly on the web with nothing but the most basic browser installed on the machines in your grade-school’s computer lab.

The ease with which flash games could be developed and reached made this a double threat. Not only was it easy to distribute them, but anyone could make them. Flash was a liberative creative force that showed the world the likes of Heli Attack 2, of full-fledged series like The Last Stand, of countless archery games, (what the fuck was up with all of the archery games?), but also, on the darker side... things like the Torture Game where you’d point and click on a dangling body and use various torture weapons on it to cause as much damage as possible while seeing how long you could preserve the victim’s life. There’s even, get this, an option to upload an image of someone else’s face to the torturee… hahaha that’s cool right? No that’s fucked. But despite that we used to play it all the time in the computer lab at school.


See, anything that frees us to produce more creative works, or any sort of disruptive technology linked to entertainment will no doubt lead to the development of some fucked up shit. In the case of Flash, it’s ease of use was unfortunately paired to ease of publication which is why a bunch of canadian grade-schoolers were able to spend hours peeling skin off a half naked man’s body during computer class.

Reflecting back on VR now, maybe it's easier to understand how by granting tons of people access to a whole new medium of entertainment, their creativity is naturally running wild. Freedom to make art also means freedom to make shit though, and so that’s probably what we’re seeing happen here. This is something that’s happened many times before in entertainment, even in gaming. Ultimately though as the markets mature, the ranges of content we should be seeing coming out of VR devs’ heads and studios should normalize out the extremes. So while this is some real fucked up shit, it's probably a necessary phase. So long as it doesn’t persist too long, it shouldn’t be something to worry about.


Social and Tech Ethics

The bigger issue I see with VR is that while there’s little to no evidence to suggest we worry about anything, there’s also basically just one study I could find about anything close to the kind of VR I’m talking about, and even it points out that we need more research on this shit! You know, the kind of VR that I’ve seen is very much alive judging by the online multiplayer lobbies I’ve had little trouble finding. The kind of VR that, myself semi-included, many people are enjoying on a regular basis.

There isn’t just the ethics of the creative side to consider when it comes to controlling the progress of VR however, there’s also the role of society at large.

At the moment, gaming culture is universally and unconditionally in-support of graphical advances and immersive tech. You’ll hear people discuss and argue design and mechanic’s ‘till the world’s end, but you’ll never hear someone wish the graphics were worse or that the experience was less immersive. These sorts of things even get the attention of non-gamer folk, they transcend the medium’s regular boundaries. When companies show off their latest cutting-edge ray tracing engines or whatever else  they’re cooking up, we all clap, always. This view of technology is called Technological Determinism. Basically it’s the belief that any technological progress is progress in-and-of-itself in terms of the human race and our advancement. Any new developments and any new learnings are always considered inherently good. “Progress towards what?” is not a question you ask because it's the belief that you can’t stop progress, that technology is the key driver of social change and then that it shouldn’t be stopped.

A hard determinist view of technology would for example lead us to construct things like nuclear weapons and allow them to determine the way we live. In reality though it's much more complex. It’s neither technology or society that determines the other, but rather a broad set of multidirectional influences that allow them to co-shape one another. Nukes didn’t make the Cold War, just like the stirrup didn’t make feudalism, and neither the other ways around.

But when it comes to gaming and immersive technology like VR, any new tech that can sell enough to cover its own costs seems welcome at the table. The way we dance around gaming tech to me looks a lot like technological determinism, and I think this might be a dangerous view to have, culturally. I don't think you could argue that it’s a sustainable way for us to view games. I hate to go all best-case futurology for a minute, but if the world doesn’t end, what we can expect is that this technology will keep improving and improving. I mean even just in the next 10 years, what VR will look like is anyone’s guess. See what phones looked like 10 years ago, would’ve been hard to predict how they’d come to be today. And now that modern smartphones are being used for AR and VR, what’s gonna happen? Rumor has it the next generation of VR is gonna be a lot about hand tracking, eye tracking, foveated and varifocal displays which have the potential to drastically improve graphical performance and immersion on current-gen machines. Little innovations with large impacts like that will just keep happening as time goes on and more and more people adopt the tech. Someday far far far into the future (unless something halts it) this technology’s final form will probably be close to what we’d call indistinguishable from reality… at which point we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that violence in it will have negative impacts on people and society.

What I’m saying is that we’re not there yet, but we’re heading in that direction now, a direction where we know eventually we’ll face an issue. Yes, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong and stop us from getting there, but optimistically, if we do… and I’m not talking 20 to 40 years, but if humanity is still around a century or two from now and this tech keeps progressing the way its trending to, I think eventually there will be a point along this line at which time violence in this medium will be a problem. Now why does this matter? Why am I talking about this now, in 2019 (or 2020 depending on when this is published)? Well, because I think there’s also eventually going to be a point at which it will be too late to start establishing any sorts of rules or guidelines, which are probably what we need. There’ll come a point where if we haven’t already considered the way we’re progressing, if we haven’t already asked ourselves “Progress towards what?”, we won’t be able to stop it once we realize that maybe we’re not heading somewhere we like.

Who’s to say that point isn’t now? Or won’t be in the next 20 - 40 years? Maybe it's foveated rendering that’s the domino piece that seals in the deal. Maybe it's more advanced haptics. Maybe it’s portability and hand tracking which we have now. Maybe it’s some special combination of these which’ll seal our doom. I don’t know. But what I do know is that with momentum building it can at some point become too late to give things a little more thought. It can never be too early though.

So let's ask: Should we be treating VR differently, socially? And how could we?

Well one way, as Dr Wilson and associates suggest in their study, is to rate VR games differently. As they determined when comparing VR and non-VR play of the same game, “the two formats led to meaningfully different experiences”, which most importantly presents the case “that current game ratings may be unsuitable for capturing and conveying VR experiences” (Wilson and McGill. 2018).

They go on to explain basically what I’ve been saying throughout this video but much less sensationally, that “issues of sensitive or extreme content in video games, particularly violence, are a recurring social concern [despite] there [being] no strong evidence that playing violent video games leads to long-term violent or anti-social behaviour [or] cognition”. BUT, “because of the demonstrable effects [its] experiences can have, VR introduces a new angle to this debate”. When it comes to ratings, they explain that “as VR increasingly tends toward realism”, it’ll be necessary to know how players and users will be affected in order to “provide accurate and robust content ratings and descriptions”.

So of course the call to action is to push for more research in this direction. We currently don’t know much about this subject, and if I may add some of my own opinion (not that I haven’t throughout this whole piece) but it doesn’t seem like we’re on the right track to improve that. It would be a terrible event for them commercially, but maybe creators of VR headsets could be held accountable to fund research into how their disruptive technology might negatively impact us. Maybe like cigarette companies, they could be forced to label their packaging with the potentially ugly consequences the use of their products can have.

I mean side note, but even just the nausea and motion sickness factor. Could we force Oculus and HTC and the rest of ‘em to fund research on that? One of the biggest hurdles in finally making the purchase of my own headset was knowing there’d be a chance I’d be one of those people who never quite gets used to it, that I’d constantly feel sick while playing. And honestly I’m not really out of the woods there yet. I’ve gotten better, but I can still easily and suddenly get whacked into a cold sweat and belly ache by the most innocuous situations. And it’s bad fucking nausea, it’s debilitating, fucks you up for a whole day. Gut pains, dizziness, weakness, sweating, dry mouth, not to mention vomit and loose poos to write home about. It’s gotten better, but it sucked paying so much money for something that I just couldn’t find any decent statistics on. Just gimme a percentage, that’s all I ask. I feel like they should be obliged to tell during purchase, “hey there’s an X percent chance you’ll feel incredibly ill when using this product and a Y percent chance that you’ll never get over it no matter how much you try”. This is stupid money for something that might not work for any given person.

When it comes to console stuff, VR isn’t really vibing. For PlayStation VR, ratings of special-case games like Resident Evil 7 which can be played in and out of VR include a little disclaimer which isn’t enough. Any VR content should be reviewed as a standalone experience, no matter if the same material’s been rated before for a different platform. The bigger fish though is PC, where most hardcore VR game playing occurs.

Steam for instance doesn’t have expert game content ratings. Anything similar is either added at the discretion of the publisher themselves or generated by the community (like content tags). However important to note, unlike other retailers who might be restricted from selling physical games to children below the age suggested by the ESRB or PEGI rating on the box, nothing stops a child from just clicking ‘okay’ and getting whatever they want on Steam (Will Freeman, askaboutgames.com). And trust me, a lot of them do. I’ve seen a lot of kids making a mess of things in tactical military simulators. Sometimes it’s just a harmless kid frivolously charging forward into battle, not having been weathered long enough by this world to fear death yet. And sometimes it’s some Lord of the Flies fucking shit: organized kids teaming up and endlessly spawn killing you. AKA, hell itself.

So another option aside from rating them differently, should we maybe be selling VR tech and games differently? Sure. But does that then turn the sale of VR headsets into a gun-control sort of conversation? No, because unlike weapons which no matter what light you shine on them are always weapons, it’s the content which is played on these headsets that could be the problematic cause of harm.

So if this is the approach we take, selling VR differently, it shouldn’t be on the sellers of headsets but instead the salesfronts of games that we focus on. Should we ask them to take more control over what they publish and sell for VR? Or otherwise find some way to control what certain underprivileged users like children are allowed to buy? Or are simple content warnings sufficient? Keep in mind, these are games folks don’t just watch from a couch, they wrap them around their whole heads which makes vulnerable their psyche.

In general, I think a lot of headaches could be avoided if more awareness were made about how VR experiences are different than traditional screen-based ones. And since this is the case, since there’s evidence to prove it, all parties involved in selling the VR experience (whether they be stores, publishers, rating organizations or even developers) should be held accountable to properly inform their potential customers about what they’re getting into.

This of course is just my opinion, but we’re already seeing some of this sort of content awareness among some VR stakeholders and it seems like it comes from a place of good intention. For example, a developer of a VR horror game who implemented an out-of-ammo fail-state because of what they deemed an otherwise really uncomfortable and frightening experience (Ben Kuchera, Polygon).


So what can each of these groups do to better redirect VR onto what’s probably a better track than it's on now?

Well first of all, rating orgs could develop a new ratings system specific to VR. The console-based roots of some of these organizations has meant that VR has, up until very recently, flown outside of the scope of their purpose. With the current and next-generation consoles dabbling in it though, this might be the right opportunity for someone like the ESRB to establish a dedicated framework for rating VR content which we could then later apply to the slew of currently unrated PC VR games. At the very least, as VR is currently looking to straddle the gap between console and PC, these organizations can put more effort into rating separately such bifunctional hybrid VR games like Resident Evil 7.

Publishers could do more to disclose the intensity of the realism of their games. It's been shown that the disclaimers currently posted might not be enough. This is especially important when the games being published contain sensitive content like violence or anything else that might hurt or disturb someone. Also, gonna sound like a broken record here, but they could distinguish more strongly the differences between their games which are playable in and out of VR. Simply including a description of the non-VR mode with a little blurb about VR attached might not be sufficient. It’s their job basically to make sure the players see all the signs before heading down the road to VR.

Stores, physical and digital, could disclose content warnings on VR games that stand to disturb some players at the point of sale. They could even enforce restrictions all together when it's clear a certain person shouldn’t be getting their hands on a game whether by age or some other factor. This is something we’ll never be able to eliminate entirely, but stores could definitely enforce policies of informing parents of minors who come in to buy a headset or a VR game for their kid.

On the more extreme side, marketplaces on which VR games are sold could outright ban titles with subject matter unsuitable for entertainment that common sense would tell you are impermissible for VR… at least until some proper studies come out that show the all-clear. I’m not for artistic censorship, but I don’t think we need to be selling a fucking VR torture room game, anywhere. I don’t think this is right, I think this should be taken down, like, today. It makes me uncomfortable to think that people play this. I happen to know a lot of people who are into VR and it would make me sick to know that any of them played something like this. This sort of shit, people either are only playing for shock value or to make a point in a fucking essay… or for some sort of dark fucked up reason I don’t think a sales platform like Steam should be catering to. Again, at least not until we have actual studies out telling us that this shit is fine. Which… fucking good luck with that.

Developers, probably one of the most important groups, can do a lot. First of all, to mitigate the potential harm done they can include safety modes in their games. Many already do offer such accommodations, which was something really surprising to me entering the VR party so late into the game. Often these are referred to as ‘comfort’ settings and most have to do with physical and physiological limitations. Many of these displays and locomotive options are there to prevent you from bumping into your surroundings, tangling yourself up in cables or getting too nauseous by sharp unnatural movements. But there are some games which on top of considering the physical, also deal with what might be mental health comfort controls.

The best example is VRChat which enables a personal-space option by default, preventing you from seeing any other players who approach too closely. Turning it off and letting people crawl all over you can be a deeply uncomfortable and claustrophobic situation to say the least. VRChat has a lot of other nice-to-have comfort and safety options that other games would do well to follow as a standard. Basically what I’m saying is I’d like to see more of this coming from VR devs. Just like I’d like to hear more stories of designers acknowledging the unique impacts of their medium and changing experiences that would have otherwise been fine to have on a regular screen but are a bit too much peeped in a headset.

Look, there’s a difference between seeing someone holding a knife to what’s implied to be your neck but is really just the bottom of your TV screen a living-room’s distance away, and seeing someone hold one to your actual neck. And since this is the case and not everyone will be cool with that, there should be a way to turn that off. You know, maybe alternative less-threatening animations for players who still wanna play a game in VR but don’t wanna have to seek therapy after.


Wrap-up and Recap

What’ve we learned? Well first of all, violence in video games is a very popular topic even today. Though we’ve shown more ways than Wednesday that there are no strong links between violence in games and actual real world violence, Virtual Reality possibly stands to change what we think of as games. Studies of past immersive technologies have demonstrated that what weak influences violent games did have on aggressive thoughts and behaviors were amplified by them. They attributed this to sensations of presence and immersion, both from the visual and motion-control side of things, which when you buy a VR kit these days is exactly what’s in the box. These feelings of presence and body-ownership and realism served by VR technology and it’s content developers are exactly the things that can also leave harmful effects on us psychologically. They can make us respond to virtual experiences as though they were real, which is why they’re a really good match for both therapy and training. From workplace safety to military applications, or treatment of PTSD, VR’s ability to convince us of its unrealism can be a powerful learning tool.

So the question reads: if this technology is used for learning in other domains, does that mean people will learn from the violent experiences they have gaming with the same tools? Will players of violent VR video games become violent people? Pick up violent skills? No, or probably not, or maybe… but not yes.

Consider the worst case, let's ask ourselves what we can do about this. Creators can be more concious of what they’re making and try not to make horrible fucking garbage. And we, as a society, can be more aware of the direction VR is progressing and stand up and make noise when or if we don’t like it. We can talk to all manner of stakeholders about treating VR a little bit differently than other games and show them the evidence as to why they ought to. Developers seem to already understand this, but the places VR games are sold and those who publish them there aren’t putting in the effort quite just yet and probably need to be addressed. Hopefully sooner rather than later, before anyone gets hurt.


In case it wasn’t clear, this piece is mostly my opinion. Don’t take my word as shit, I’m just some dude. Yes, I did a lot of research, and yes, I had a lot of people help me out with either writing or answering interview questions. But that doesn’t change who this video comes from: me. I’m not a journalist, I’m some dude, I’m a stupid fucking idiot and this is kinda just a big (hopefully well structured) editorial made to raise awareness of something I think more people should be thinking about. My goal isn’t to convince you that VR is gonna fucking ruin the world, it’s just to make you think about it a little bit more. I’m here so that the next time someone blindly regurgitates “video games don’t cause violence”, you can offer a “but maybe”“but maybe VR”.

But that’s all it is, a but.

I’ll be honest, its been hard playing devil’s advocate throughout this whole discussion when most times I entered VR game lobbies expecting to capture some hardcore violent gameplay footage to use in the video, I’d come away with mostly just hope in humanity.

We’re a weird animal. We can spend exuberant amounts of money to put virtual guns in our hands and wear goggles that transport us to non-existent battlefields where we can lay waste to our enemies in gory immersive bloodbaths… and yet we’ll still take the time to make complete goofy asses of ourselves for the sake of having a good time.


Sure, screens and the depth-less view they present may keep us protected from harm as they’re an easily perceived border between a game world and reality, but as VR permits us either to pass through that boundary (or at the very least look into the screen rather than at it), it’s clear that what a lot of people see on the other side isn’t harmful. Instead they’ve found the means to be more creative, more expressive, and to make a total mockery of their surroundings, which is what I think are some of the things people do best.

That’s all I’ve got. From my reality to yours, have a decent day.




--- References & Works Cited ---

Wilson, Graham, and Mark Mcgill. “Violent Video Games in Virtual Reality.” The Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play Extended Abstracts  - CHI PLAY '18, 2018, doi:10.1145/3242671.3242684.

Hilgard, Joseph, et al. “Overstated Evidence for Short-Term Effects of Violent Games on Affect and Behavior: A Reanalysis of Anderson Et Al. (2010).” Psychological Bulletin, vol. 143, no. 7, 2017, pp. 757–774., doi:10.1037/bul0000074.

Benjamin, Arlin James, and Brad J Bushman. “The Weapons Priming Effect.” Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 12, 2016, pp. 45–48., doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.05.003.

“Frustration, Video Game Violence, and Real-Life Aggression.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/mind-games/201407/frustration-video-game-violence-and-real-life-aggression.

Przybylski, Andrew K., et al. “Competence-Impeding Electronic Games and Players’ Aggressive Feelings, Thoughts, and Behaviors.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 106, no. 3, 2014, pp. 441–457., doi:10.1037/a0034820.

Mcgloin, Rory, et al. “Triple Whammy! Violent Games and Violent Controllers: Investigating the Use of Realistic Gun Controllers on Perceptions of Realism, Immersion, and Outcome Aggression.” Journal of Communication, vol. 65, no. 2, 2015, pp. 280–299., doi:10.1111/jcom.12148.

Lull, Robert B., and Brad J. Bushman. “Immersed in Violence: Presence Mediates the Effect of 3D Violent Video Gameplay on Angry Feelings.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016, pp. 133–144., doi:10.1037/ppm0000062.

Persky, S., & Blascovich, J. (2007). Immersive virtual environments versus traditional platforms: Effects of violent and nonviolent video game play. Media Psychology, 10, 135–156. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15213260701301236

Difede, JoAnn, and Hunter G Hoffman. “Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for World Trade Center Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: a Case Report.” Cyberpsychology & Behavior : the Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2002, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12556115.

Maples-Keller, Jessica L, et al. “The Use of Virtual Reality Technology in the Treatment of Anxiety and Other Psychiatric Disorders.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5421394/.

Bailenson, Jeremy. “If a Possible Mass Shooter Wants to Hone His Craft, Don't Hand Him a Virtual Boot Camp.” CNN, Cable News Network, 5 Mar. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/03/05/opinions/video-games-shooting-opinion-bailenson/index.html.

Freeman, Will, et al. “Beyond the Box: Understanding Content Ratings on Steam.” AskAboutGames, AskAboutGames, 3 Aug. 2018, www.askaboutgames.com/beyond-the-box-understanding-content-ratings-on-steam/.

Rivera, Joshua. “'I'd Have These Extremely Graphic Dreams': What It's Like To Work On Ultra-Violent Games Like Mortal Kombat 11.” Kotaku Australia, Kotaku Australia, 9 May 2019, www.kotaku.com.au/2019/05/id-have-these-extremely-graphic-dreams-what-its-like-to-work-on-ultra-violent-games-like-mortal-kombat-11/.

“School Shooting Game Active Shooter Pulled by Steam.” BBC News, BBC, 30 May 2018, www.bbc.com/news/uk-44302146.

Staff. “XRDC Innovation Report Reveals Games Remain the Top Focus for AR/VR/MR Devs.” Gamasutra Article.

“Virtual Reality in the Military.” Virtual Reality Society, 12 July 2017, www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-military/.

"Understanding Presence" Wijnand IJsselsteijn, Eindhoven University of Technology

Vulnerability to Violent Video Games A Review and Integration of Personality Research

"How should parents treat violence in virtual reality?", Ben Kuchera https://www.polygon.com/2016/2/26/11120792/how-should-parents-treat-violence-in-virtual-reality

LambHoot

LambHoot

Takes videogames a bit seriously. B.Eng Software Engineering. Video Dude. Reportedly incredibly cool. Είμαι μαλάκας.

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