Let's put down the guns in virtual reality, and learn to pick up anything else

Opinion

Purchasing one of the first Oculus Rift development kits allowed me to see the state of the art in virtual reality as the indie scene, and in some rare cases larger developers, discovered how to use this new means of expression.

The modern virtual reality community was recharged when enthusiasts finally had VR hardware that was worth a damn, and now Sony is getting into the game. Oculus itself has been acquired for $2 billion in cash and stock.

The promise of virtual reality is beginning to look a lot less virtual and much more like reality.

The art of putting someone inside a game instead of watching things from a static position outside of the frame, through a two-dimensional screen, is still being perfected. Developers are still learning what they can do, and that’s an amazing thing. I have only one polite request: Let’s try, at least at first, to put down the guns.

Violence isn't aspirational, it's filler

There are new gun peripherals coming to virtual reality, and a demo my son was given of a new virtual reality exoskeleton that worked with the Oculus Rift had him shooting zombies.

The joke for emerging technologies, stretching all the way back to the printing press, used to be that the Bible came first, followed by pornography, and then everything followed. Pornography has been successfully replaced by violence in the world of video games, for better or ill, and the Bible is rarely seen via any gaming device. These two precursors to adoption in technology have been replaced by violence, at least when it comes to what we consider to be "hardcore" games.

It's hard to imagine that people want to feel their virtual killing more acutely

It’s much easier to engage certain segments of the gaming world through violence than via any other method, and that’s why it can be hard to find marketing dollars for other games, or why it’s so rare to see more contemplative games like The Witness put on the big stage at events at E3. We remark on it when it happens; the quieter games don’t look as good when shown on a giant screen complete with thundering sound. We could see the same issue with virtual reality: Push the button, and someone really dies in front of you! Swing your hand to swing a baseball to beat your opponent; their blood splashes on your virtual face!

The reasons virtual reality is so effective in the latest versions of the Oculus Rift are also the reasons that violent content is so troubling. It's more real, and that's a problem, although that problem isn't obvious. The endless argument about whether violent content causes violent behavior will continue. The inability to prove a negative will mean that the point will always be argued, even if there is little to no connection between the games we play and our real-world actions. Let's set that aside for the moment.

The problem is that, in most games, violence is boring. It’s filler. Few people play Uncharted for the gunfights, and there have been numerous articles about how the combat in Bioshock Infinite was the weakest part of the game. Violence is needed to pad the length of many games, without adding anything to the worlds we want to visit. It's an easy way to add interaction to games, create danger for the hero, and give the player something to do. Go over there, but first you have to kill 20 people.

Violence is also common because game designers have had decades to master its use in games. The vocabulary of gaming, especially larger-budget titles, is the vocabulary of inflicting pain on others.

The Oculus Rift and hardware like it offer the opportunity to create a new vocabulary of exploration, wonder and even joy. The first few months of retail virtual reality could change what we look for in a game, and even what is profitable. The developers working in that space today are writing that vocabulary; taking a step away from gun play and the now-stock wars and combat situations that saturate games would be an investment in the future of how we interact with virtual worlds.

Virtual reality gives designers the ability to draw the participant closer to the experiences inside games, and that's a problem for violence. We may not be somehow damaged mentally by realistic violence, and I wouldn't argue that the ability feel and experience our virtual killing in a more intimate way will make us more violent or likely to hurt others in real life. I feel confident in my own ability, and yours, to separate the virtual from the real.

It's simply hard to imagine that people want to feel their virtual killing or maiming more acutely. The ability to hurt others isn't what drives my interest in virtual reality, and I’m worried about violence becoming the crutch for yet another kind of gaming.

Killing is rarely aspirational in our day-to-day lives anyway. If you could go anywhere, in any time, how many people would jump straight into a gunfight? Virtual reality offers the possibility to turn gaming into the largest retelling of Doctor Who, with every participant who has a VR headset becoming a character who can go anywhere and do anything, in both space and time. Given that opportunity, I'm not sure telling the TARDIS to take us to war after war is the sign of a healthy mind.

The ability to hurt others isn't what drives my interest in virtual reality

What would it say about our art form if we continually visited killing fields, or if they were the destination most often offered? If you gave someone three wishes, or even extended the number to 10, how many people would wish for the experience to kill someone, or multiple someones? This is an experiment you can try at home: Sit someone down, and ask them what they would like to do if they could go anywhere and do anything, anything at all. I doubt many would jump straight to killing, or violent situations. Ironically, I'm guessing some form of sexual experience would be in the top three, even if people wouldn't like to admit it.

We worry about sexual content, but why? There could be many benefits to experimenting with sexual programs, as long as the virtual participants are represented with respect and care, that aren't present in violent games. Everyone deserves a safe space to explore their sexuality and to discover what they need in a fulfilling sexual relationship. I’m not sure we need to model more realistic ways to model violent behavior.

There will be violent virtual reality games, and they will be popular. But the ability to offer new experiences, to focus on exploration or the idea of being something else, is much more interesting. There is an amazing demo that allows you to fly around a mountain. You can look left and right to see the wings of an eagle. There are experiences that put you inside something as simple as a forest, with the promise that there is something interesting to find. You don’t need sharks to attack and kill when simply swimming around undersea environments is so satisfying.

People will argue about whether or not many of these simulation-type experiences are games, which is as worthless a discussion in virtual reality as it is in any genre, but let’s not argue semantics when we live in a world where you can put on a piece of equipment and fly like a bird, or explore the bottom of the ocean.

The act of picking up a gun seems much less interesting once you open yourself up to other experiences. This is an opportunity for a new stars in development to rise up and define what we want virtual reality to be and, for the love of all that is holy, I hope they leave the guns behind.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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