In retrospect, this was probably not the best week to show off a virtual reality first-person shooter at a big news-making event, much less one where the National Rifle Association unloaded some fiery rhetoric about gun rights.
Either way, Facebook showed and then pulled Bullet Train, which has been an Epic Games proof-of-concept VR demonstration for about three years, from a booth it was staffing at the Conservative Political Action Conference. This is the leading gathering of the nation’s conservative thought leaders.
On Thursday, Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association, responded to the national outrage over the mass shooting that killed 17 at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, with a defiant address that said gun control proponents were using those deaths to strip away individual freedoms. That reply did not play well with the general public, nor did remarks by his spokeswoman, Dana Loesch, who the night before said mainstream media “love mass shootings,” because of the content and viewership interest they deliver.
Hugo Barra, the former Oculus VR executive who is now Facebook’s vice president for virtual reality, gave a statement to Variety trying to explain the game’s presence at the CPAC booth, and then why it was pulled.
There is a standard set of experiences included in the Oculus demos we feature at public events. A few of the action games can include violence. In light of the recent events in Florida and out of respect for the victims and their families, we have removed them from this demo. We regret that we failed to do so in the first place.
This started drawing attention after Sean Morrow, a producer for Now This, a website covering CPAC, tweeted a short video clip of Bullet Train being demonstrated on the convention’s show floor.
Facebook is at CPAC and they have a VR shooting game pic.twitter.com/wmV23jezpN— Sean Morrow (@snmrrw) February 23, 2018
It makes sense that Facebook would be at a convention of the scope and size of CPAC. Social media is inherently a part of political life, whatever the ideology. The real question is why Facebook would demonstrate this kind of a virtual reality experience there — not only for the timing, but also for the way video games are so routinely demonized by the kind of VIPs who attend and speak at the conference.
Bullet Train, which we’ve described as an “ultra violent” VR experience, seems to be a cookie-cutter for the type of video game often blamed for turning young people into mass killers. The last time a school shooting attracted this much attention for this long — the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012 — LaPierre unloaded on video games, calling them part of “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sows violence against its own people.”
CPAC began Feb. 21, one week after the mass shooting in Parkland. On Feb. 16, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, went on a conservative talk radio show to blame video games for fostering a “culture of death” in America that leads to these tragedies. On Thursday, Donald Trump also blamed video games for the nation’s problem with gun violence. The next morning, he spoke to CPAC, a few hours before the Bullet Train tweet became known.