Not long ago we were hearing and seeing examples of virtual reality technology in testing stages. Now, for example here in Ottawa, there is at least one popular shopping centre which has limited virtual reality gaming in one of its stores.
We have also become exposed to video games, in person, through advertising, or on TV or movie screens. Many games not only exhibit a dramatic range of scenarios putting the player’s POV (point of view) into the action, but also have hugely expanded the dimensions of war and other fighting themes, complete with reams of carnage.
What happens when these technologies merge? According to an article in Psychology Today, the results could be, well, quite disarming.
Consider an extension of the impact of Call to Duty, a video game ‘franchise’ which has sold more than 250 million copies in the last thirteen years. Its heavy violence is not at all unique in this business. “Now imagine such scenes rendered in virtual reality…you could literally crane your neck down to see the Japanese soldier begging for mercy at your feet” – and see the resultant gore if you were not merciful.
With the emergence of ‘immersive reality’ consumer devices, developers are creating games for such technology. Yet awareness and nervousness are also growing about “the implications for players’ mental health”.
Concern about desensitization – an increasing issue in our culture – is at the forefront in this assaultive arena. Pointing a gun in the video world reduces qualms about the act of killing. Add virtual reality and such ‘games’ will likely “multiply the effects of desensitization by a factor of 10, if not 50”. Given the vulnerability of many in our culture to violence, this ratchets the sobering implications.
While evidence doesn’t support the idea that video games in themselves cause crimes, they do have a negative effect. A 2010 Ohio State study of more than 130,000 people found that being exposed to violent video games did indeed correlate with more aggressive behaviour.
The degree of impact in adding virtual reality (VR) is still uncertain. However, “one of the strongest indications about potential negative effects can be extrapolated from VR’s ability to induce positive effects. VR-based therapies have been shown in lab studies to help with a wide range of behavioral health issues, including PTSD, depression, phobias, substance abuse, and body image disorder… There’s a permeable membrane between virtual life and real life.”
Additional VR concern extends to the effect of ‘the sheer terror of the experiences’, that they could “invoke the same neurological and physiological fear-responses that they might in real life, and with real-world consequences”. In fact, the impact could be the reverse of the positive effects referred to above. Philosophers at a German university published a paper earlier this year in which they “recommended that people not be allowed to do things virtually that they wouldn’t do in real life, as the sense of embodiment in VR is so strong”. They further expressed concern that some might literally confuse virtual life with real life. Even if the proportion of those who might be so forcefully effected is small, implications for the public could still balloon.
Even game creators are developing reservations. A company based in Amsterdam has limited its first-person shooter game so players can shoot but not kill. The decision was made to protect players, because VR death “is more intense”.
However, some game creators are forging ahead with pushing the envelope. In what may be considered one of the most tasteless concepts, simulations are being developed to replicate the 9/11 attacks, “complete with the experience of jumping to one’s death”.
For those of us tempted to take a sigh of relief that we are not gamers, and thus less likely to get caught up in such tentacles, consider this: according to a commentator on the Charlie Rose PBS interview program this week, in three to five years, virtual reality movies will be out in which the audience viewer can become a film character.
As the lines between virtual reality and actual reality blur, and in some ways meld, the consequences to ‘normal life’ become less clear, as well as more ominous.