On Real World Violence and Virtual Reality

This is an essay about actual gun violence and first person shooter games. My intent is to provoke discussion that will help make the world less violent. I appreciate thoughtful feedback.

Guns in My Life

I’ve never owned a gun but grew up among guns and hunters in rural Skagit Valley, Washington State. I had ten year-old friends who owned shotguns. Sometimes I’d go over to their houses and shoot at bottles and cans in their fields. My father, knowing that I’d be exposed to guns whether he wanted me to be or not, signed me up for a gun safety class with a local police department in which I learned how to fire a pistol. I proudly displayed the target I’d shot at on my bedroom wall.

My parents, seventies progressives raising their own vegetables and livestock on seven acres of land, didn’t allow me to have real guns or guns as toys. They believed in nonviolence and pacifism. By the time I was in high school I’d embraced these progressive values and participated in protests against the Gulf War.

My maternal grandfather was a veteran of World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, a colonel, Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Legion of Valor member, and inductee into the US Army Ordnance Hall of Fame. He knew guns and weaponry to the point that he’d helped design certain mortars during World War II. At some point, maybe when I was ten or so, he showed me a book of photographs taken during the Vietnam war. One image in particular of a pile of bodies shocked me intensely. What I remember most vividly about this  photo was the dead baby lying on top of the pile. I was horrified to the point of nightmares. My grandfather hoped, in vain, that no one would have to experience what he had. He hated violence. I heard him say hundreds of times that no one hates war more than those who have to fight it.

As a kid, I had this poster on my wall.

I grew up with a very clear line delineation between real violence and fantasy violence. I loved violent entertainment, and the eighties of my childhood were a festival of machismo. I considered it a violation of my civil rights that my parents wouldn’t let me watch Rambo. I somehow managed to see The Terminator as soon as it hit VHS and I considered it an masterful opera of carnage. Mad Max and The Road Warrior and especially Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome captivated me with an atmosphere of apocalyptic doom and I played out the scenes in my back yard. I gobbled up pulp paperbacks with titles like The Executioner and The Destroyer, books full of taciturn mercenaries using assault rifles and machine guns to mow down terrorists and drug cartels.

As a boy, I played guns a lot. Since my parents wouldn’t buy me toy guns I made guns out of Legos and wood. My friends and I talked endlessly about Uzis and AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns. I wanted to cradle a sidearm. I wanted to fire off rounds. I dove through the woods getting stung by nettles while pointing a stick and making machine gun noises.

As an American adult living in 2016, I live with the cognitive dissonance of enjoying a bounty of gun-related entertainment while being sickened by story after story of real-world gun violence. Every innocent black person executed by a racist police officer, every mass shooting involving high-capacity, military-grade hardware, adds more bodies to a growing mountain of corpses that is this country’s shame.

As a citizen, I want my lawmakers to pass strict regulations on guns, so that I can live in the kind of society my Scandinavian friends enjoy, one where children don’t have to participate in active shooter drills in their schools. I hate the NRA and the cowards they prop up in Congress. I’ll go further than that–I believe the NRA is an organization that abets domestic terrorism, and I think there’s a legal case to be made against them.

I seem to want two seemingly contradictory things equally: a world in which real gun violence is rare to nonexistent, and violent entertainment in which guns are plentiful and never run out of ammo. Does this make me crazy?

Guns and Video Games

I’ve never owned a console game in my life and played video games sporadically, mostly in arcades. I was a fan of Road Blasters, Moon Patrol, Centipede. I realize that dates me terribly. I was always drawn to any arcade game that invited me to pull a trigger.

In recent months I’ve been meeting game designers and others in Seattle’s virtual reality industry who have strong opinions about guns in VR. One of the reasons why VR is getting such great traction in Seattle is that it relies on the same tools that game designers have been using for years–Unity and Unreal Engine. These are the same tools with which designers have created numerous first-person shooters for console games. It only makes sense that designers would create first-person shooters for VR.

I’ve played a few of these games. Last week I played The Brookhaven Experiment at HTC’s headquarters in Pioneer Square. Having experienced a few games like this, I knew what to expect when the subhumans got up in my face, but I still jumped and cried out when I turned around to discover a zombie behind me. Yes, it’s scary as hell, but at the end of the day it’s scary in the same way a haunted house at a carnival is scary. I found Brookhaven‘s sound design to be phenomenal. Every time you squeeze the trigger, the resulting shot is deep and percussive. There’s something deeply lizard-brain satisfying about blowing off the heads of zombies.

A couple days later I visited Ryan Smith and Victor Brodin of Invrse Studios in their coworking space across the street from Oculus’s Seattle HQ. A couple months ago Ryan let me play The Nest, a shooter in which you’re a sniper picking off robots from a little room perched above a futuristic, bombed out city. Ryan showed me the latest iteration of the game, and had me wear a sub pack–a backpack containing a subwoofer connected to the audio. This added a whole new visceral dimension to VR that I hadn’t experienced before; the rumble of the music, the booming of the weaponry, all of it literally shook my body and contributed greatly to the drama and presence of the game.

A view from The Nest

And The Nest is crazy fun. I played a new level, a night-time scene in which the scope of the sniper rifle converts to green night vision, that is exquisitely designed. I ducked out of the way of incoming fire and picked off robots, peeked around the corner to the shifting sands of this apocalyptic hellscape, and felt I was truly there.

It also occurred to me that I was having so much fun playing this game right after four police officers were ruthlessly murdered by a sniper in Dallas. Was there something wrong with me?

Consider the Trigger

I sat down with Ryan and Victor and had a philosophical discussion about first-person shooters in VR. The most immediate takeaways were that these guys think about this stuff constantly, they’re as revolted by violence as anybody, and they’re horrified at the thought that the games they make and play could be linked, in any causal way, to real-world violence. They struck me as progressive guys who want to live in the same kind of gun-free society that I want to live in. I also sympathize with Ryan, who has endured the unique and rare suffering of having been mistakenly called “Brian” his whole life.

Smith told me that while he was designing a zombie-fighting game called The Wake, he was hit with moments of empathy and fear that he hadn’t expected. He was disturbed when he started prodding a corpse that was lying on the ground in the game, and he’s been thinking about the implications of what he creates in new ways ever since. Keep in mind that his were the reactions of the guy who designed the game in the first place.

Then Victor said something that kind of stopped me in my tracks. “The controllers are perfect for guns on the Vive.”

HTC Vive controllers

Oh, right. The hardware. When you pick up the Vive’s hand controllers, your index fingers naturally rest upon what, for all practical purposes, feel like the triggers of guns. To further accentuate the point, Smith opened a box containing the yet-to-be-released next generation Oculus controllers, which felt ergonomically satisfying in my hands. My index fingers rested on triggers of these controllers as well.

The very hardware of VR devices practically begs designers to develop first-person shooters. If VR games are biased toward guns, it’s because the controllers are biased toward guns. I left my conversation with Ryan and Victor thinking that any debate about violent games in VR must involve a conversation about the hardware.

Women and VR Violence

One of the most important and powerful features of the Seattle VR industry, as I’ve blogged before, is the leadership and inclusion of women. In researching an overview of Seattle’s VR scene that I wrote for Seattle Met, I’ve met a number of women who are making contributions to this new medium, both in designing content and envisioning its potential. Evie Powell, Eva Hoerth, Kayla Didier, Adrienne Hunter, and many others are working–most often in a volunteer capacity–to expand both the scope of who is included in the VR industry and what kinds of experiences are created. I think Seattle’s indie VR community is incredibly lucky that these enterprising women are taking the lead. I also think it’s important for men to listen closely to what women have to say about violence and games.

After the Women’s VR Create-athon at UW, I heard a couple participants proudly point out that of the hundred women who took part, not one created a first-person shooter. It’s easy to interpret this sentiment as an indictment of FPSs, but I think there’s a more nuanced way to parse it.

I have yet to hear anybody suggest that FPSs for VR should be banned or not created in the first place. Dr. Powell told me that she grew up enjoying violent video games herself. But there is a sense, too, that this new, empathetic medium has the potential for so much more than the kinds of shoot-em-up games that have moved so many Xbox and Playstation units.

Perhaps VR is a tool that can teach us new ways to confront violence in the real world. Maybe the empathy and presence we feel in VR can help us further sequester our human proclivities toward violence within make-believe worlds. One can hope.

Some Thoughts on Possible Next Generation VR First Person Shooters

How might FPSs evolve in VR?

What if FPSs in VR were to embrace ballistic realism? By which I mean, the guns actually operate like guns. In your typical console FPS, you’re essentially using guns as gardening tools, mowing down enemies with the subtlety of using a weed-whacker to trim hedges. The ammo rarely runs out, the guns never jam, you reload by shooting a hovering icon of a clip, you pick up a new gun that’s hovering in front of you by shooting it, etc. The actual mechanics of video game weaponry is beyond unrealistic.

What if someone designed a game in which you actually ran out of ammo, then had to reload your gun by manipulating the magazine in precisely the way you do in the real world? I suppose this might be a lot to ask when we’re using the kinds of controllers that come with the Vive or Rift. But what will happen when we start using gloves? Maybe we’ll see games that require far more fine-motor skills, including the skills of actually loading a gun that itself might jam or overheat.

And what if there was a first-person shooter that resulted in really harsh consequences for every life taken? What happens when, instead of snarling zombies, you’re facing realistic, human avatars? What happens when those avatars represent other real people who are playing against you in a multiplayer environment?

What if there were virtual FPSs that had settings that corresponded to the gun laws of various societies? For instance, I could play a game in “USA mode” and have access to the kind of arsenal any red-blooded American can get their hands on without so much as a background check. Or, I could play in “Sweden mode” where I might be able to get my hands on a biathalon rifle or two.

What if we could “demo” various proposed gun laws by enacting them in a virtual world? I imagine a tech-savvy politician (hey, I can fantasize) saying, “If you want to see how my law would work in the real world, visit this virtual city that reflects the regulations I wish to enact.”

Are there ways that VR can help address and reduce real-world gun violence?

Some Final, Somewhat Meandery Thoughts

I am profoundly troubled by gun violence in America and I want my kids, and other peoples’ kids, to be safe. I’ve also had a hell of a good time shooting zombies and robots in virtual reality. There is a wall between real violence and fantasy violence, and I recognize that this wall is harder for some people to maintain than others. Of course this troubles me.

We’re a species that has always been entertained by violence, from recreations of the hunt on cave walls to the gore-fest of Virgil’s The Aeneid to the bloodbaths of Shakespeare’s tragedies to the vicarious thrills of Grand Theft Auto and Tarantino’s bullet-riddled Grand Guignols. It’s also true that, despite how it may seem, human civilization has probably never been less violent than it is right now.

Everybody I’ve met who has been working in VR, whether from an educational or enterprise standpoint or as a designer of bloody zombie games, has struck me as a fundamentally good person who wants to do right. It would be a mistake, I think, to reduce discussion of VR FPSs into a simple pro-vs.-con dichotomy. I think VR has given us an opportunity to have a much more sophisticated conversation about violence than social media’s conveyor belt of outrage would suggest.

I had a thought the other day that an empathetic medium requires creators who are themselves empathetic. Part of what it means to be empathetic is to assume good intent on the part of other people and to continually put one’s self in other peoples’ shoes. To imagine what it’s like to be scared around police just because of the color of your skin. To imagine what it feels like to lose a family member to a madman’s bullet. To imagine that it’s you who pulled the trigger, and to imagine what it means to be a human being who’s capable of such a thing.

Virtual reality has the potential to change our relationships with other people and our society as a whole in part by elevating our conversations about violence. I’m hoping that as virtual reality’s creators explore these questions, we’ll see the real world become a safer place to live.