I did a Vive demo at the Microsoft store at the Bellevue Square mall yesterday. While I tried on the goggles, a gaggle of developers watched Microsoft’s live E3 presentation on a big screen. From what I gather, the new Xbox is some kind of badass gaming weapon. I’ve never owned a game console. The last game I got hooked on was a version of Settlers of Cataan on my iPhone. For me, the world of video games is like Canadian politics. I’m aware that there’s a whole country there, sometimes its dramas enter my consciousness, but mostly I ignore it.
One of the Vive demos was a robot shooting game. It was cool. As a person who was once an eight year-old boy, I am genetically predisposed to like pretending to shoot things. I like watching violent movies, and I understand on some chromosomal level the appeal of a first-person shooter. I totally get it. And I think such entertainment can be cathartic and is ultimately harmless.
At the same time, I found it hard to enjoy shooting things in virtual reality after yet another revolting episode of American mass gun violence. I live on Capitol Hill, one of the world’s gayest neighborhoods, and in recent weeks the rainbow flags have been unfurled for Pride. Last year’s Pride month was joyful after the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling. This year an undercurrent of anger and sorrow will flow under the celebrations of acceptance and belonging, thanks to a deranged homophobe with easy access to military hardware in the theme park capitol of the world.
If one of the features of the new medium of VR is its capacity for empathetic experiences, the nature of violent entertainment might change. I’m finding that the idea of running around and shooting things in VR is becoming less appealing all the time. The gaming world is enthusiastically embracing VR and looks to be mostly transferring its old wine into new bottles. There’s an upcoming Batman VR experience? Gosh, I wonder if it’ll include a part about Bruce Wayne’s parents getting killed by muggers. VR Star Wars, you say? I bet there will be virtual reality light sabers!
Here’s an idea. How about some new characters? How about new characters who do more than run around and shoot zombies?
This weekend at UW’s Startup Hall there’s a ladies-only VR/AR create-a-thon. I was peripherally aware of the whole Gamer Gate situation in recent years and understand that the software industry in general is grappling with institutional sexism, which isn’t a new thing. The female programmers of the ENIAC were frozen out and ignored, and Amazon and other tech companies remain brogrammer cultures. Ladies-only VR meetups and other events are necessary and I think will be fantastic incubators for new ideas. Any way to encourage the participation of more intelligent and creative people in the medium is a good thing.
I also wonder how all the amazing experiences the Ladies of VR will come up with in their create-a-thons can have the greatest impact on the bros. If one were to put all the female Vrtists in one room and all the male Vrtists in another, I’d be much more interested in what the women came up with. Mostly because I think I’ve already seen what bros make: first-person shooters. I’d love for there to be a way to see what the ladies have been cooking up in VR, how they’re exploring presence. Women should be running VR companies, in charge of game design, empowered to bring their visions to the market, and defining what a VR experience even is. Right now I’m seeing a lot of the same-old shoot-em-ups. And I’m already tired of them.