Last week I accidentally shot myself in the face while playing a virtual reality game called The American Dream.
At this year’s PAX East in Boston, a friendly young man named Nicholas McDonnell shook my hand while an associate helped me into an Oculus Rift headset and a pair of Touch controllers. Once in VR, I found myself seated in a bullet-shaped car on a kind of carnival ride. A 1950’s style narration began, trumpeted by a cutout of the family dog. It promised to show me the wonder of a future living with guns.
Over the next ten minute demo, I proceeded to do things with firearms that no sane person would ever do.
As an infant, I answered flashcard questions by shooting the correct answer out of my mother’s hand. While working at my first factory job, I emptied magazine after magazine into a conveyor of pastries, trying to knock a hole out of the middle to make the perfect bagel. Later, I cleared the dishes off the counter by plinking them like a tin can perched on a fencepost.
To interact with buttons in the environment, I either had to shoot at them or boop them with the muzzle of the gun. To reload, I slammed the butt of the gun into buttons on the sides of my bullet-shaped car. That launched ammunition into the air, beginning a slow-motion bullet time sequence where I had to catch the flying magazine in the receiver.
Reloading both guns at the same time, I’ll admit, felt pretty cool.
Seeing rounds ricochet off the walls in front of me and zing back directly towards my face in VR, however, felt less cool.
“The American Dream is about a two or three hour experience,” said McDonnell, co-founder of developer Samurai Punk. “You go through starting out as a baby to different elements of life, like childhood and being a teenager. You go to the prom. You take your date out to dinner. You get married and do lots of other things. So it’s about doing normal stuff that everyone in America does, but with guns.”
It’s fairly obvious satire, and only a portion has been unveiled so far. I spent all my time with a pair of 1911-style pistols, but McDonnell told me that there would a variety of weapons in the final game. A live-action trailer shows a Thompson sub-machinegun, for instance.
There’s just one problem.
In testing the game, the team at Samurai Punk discovered that many players didn’t know the first thing about guns. So they had to get the game to teach people how to load and fire a pistol.
First, they created little red flags that pop out of the chamber when the magazine is empty, prompting a reload. As the magazines fly through the air, some players tried to catch them in the ejector port instead of the receiver. So now empty magazines fall, very visibly, out the bottom of the gun in order to show people where they go.
In addition to a brief education on loading a gun, users will get two to three hours practice in rapidly acquiring a sight picture. So, in the hope of turning people off of gun ownership, Samurai Punk may actually make them a better shot.
“That was almost by accident,” McDonnell said. “It’s very unfortunate. And honestly, I don’t want people to get better at guns. I want people to play this game and then put the game down and never want to play it again. And to find out how exactly we’re going to achieve that, you’re going to have to play for the final version to discover. That’s all I can basically say about what the game.
“Whether or not it’s going to actually teach people to get better [at shooting]? I doubt it. This is VR after all. It can only teach you so much.”
There’s of course the small issue of McDonnell and his team all being from Australia, a country that enacted a strict set of gun control laws after a mass shooting in 1996. I asked him how he felt being an outsider, and making a very public critique of American gun culture.
“We’re not trying to critique America as much as we are using America as a lens to critique guns in video games and guns in media,” McDonnell said. “America is just a really good way to start that conversation. But we’re not shitting on America. We’re not shitting on anyone.”
The American Dream will be out later this year for Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. No price point has been announced.