Virtual reality will change the way you think about violence

Sit down with a controller and violence happens automatically, absent-mindedly, mathematically. Killing mushrooms, aliens, orcs and soldiers has less to do with murder and more to do with the x and y of gameplay. Even calling it murder sounds ridiculous – something a slapstick vicar might say, monocle popping at the sight of Mortal Kombat.

Virtual reality, with the sense of presence it provides, has the potential to completely change all of this – bringing potency to the smallest disturbances and upending the fundamental incongruence between button mashing and the basic physicality of violent acts.

“In a normal game there’s an enormous amount of dissonance between what’s happening onscreen and what you’re experiencing,” says George Kelion, communications manager for VR studio nDreams. “You’re not really in the experience, you’re witnessing the experience – it’s secondhand almost. I think violence is entertaining when you can highlight that disconnect.

“The idea of putting a bullet in the back of somebody’s head in VR – I think that’s something that’s far less entertaining and induces much more of an emotional reaction,” he adds.

Above: The Assembly by nDreams

nDreams is currently working on The Assembly, a virtual-reality game that tells the story of a secret organisation experimenting outside of governmental or moral restrictions. While the full narrative of the game is under wraps, Kelion walks me through a demo scene where you see a scientist at a banquet table. You enter. The lights go out. When the lights return, the scientist – you later discover it’s a mannequin – has two knives sticking out of his back.

“What would be little more than a minor set-piece decoration in a “flatscreen” game becomes an affecting crescendo in VR.”

Kelion impresses on me that The Assembly is not a violent game, but that scene is nevertheless shocking. What would be little more than a minor set-piece decoration in a “flatscreen” game becomes an affecting crescendo in VR. Immersed in the scene, the dissonance between what you’re seeing onscreen and what you’re experiencing is reduced. You have a physical reaction.

The Milgram experiment in VR

The Stanley Milgram obedience experiment, originally carried out in the 1960s, examined the conditions in which a subject could be encouraged by an authority figure to harm another human being. In its most famous configuration, the subject would be under the impression they were testing a “learner’s” ability to memorise and recite word pairs. If the learner – hidden behind a screen – got the answer wrong, the subject would be told to administer an electric shock.

The voltage would be increased with each wrong answer. As the shocks became more powerful, the learner would complain and eventually urge the subject to stop. An “experimenter”, seemingly in charge of the proceedings, would tell the subject to continue. In reality, there were no shocks and the learner was an actor. Rather than memory, the experiment was set up to test whether people would perform acts that went against their personal conscience when ordered to do so by an authority figure. It turned out a very high proportion of people were prepared to obey.

In 2006, researchers from UCL and the University of Barcelona replicated the Milgram experiment within a virtual reality environment. The purpose of this version was not to explore obedience but, as a paper written by the researchers explains, “to use the paradigm to explore the extent to which people would exhibit signs of realistic response, in particular stress at giving the shocks to a virtual character”.

The experiment was conducted in a CAVE-like system – essentially a room with projections on three walls and the floor – with the use of 3D glasses and head-tracking. Importantly, the subjects were to feel immersed in the scene. Unlike the original experiment, the subjects were split into two groups: the “visible” group, who sat face to face with a virtual “learner”, and a “hidden” group, who largely interacted with the virtual “learner” via text. Analysing the skin conductance, heart rate and heart-rate variability of the subjects, the researchers observed that “the results showed that those in the visible group became more physically aroused and with greater stress than those in the hidden group”.

Above: A virtual learner in the VR Milgram experiment

While the researchers avoid making premature conclusions based on one experiment, they do attest to the strength of the subjects’ emotional reaction despite the low-quality VR: they say that the virtual learner “did not look like a realistic human, and did not behave like one”  but that, nevertheless, “the physiological and emotional responses to the situation were strong”.

Providing a physical reaction

Giving the player a physical reaction is indeed one of VR’s big promises. It’s no coincidence that much of the sensationalist reaction around virtual reality has been drawn to areas that hinge on providing an effect: horror and porn. Indeed, it’s sensationalism in a very literal sense: this will get your heart racing. This will make you jump out of your seat. This will make you orgasm. In Kitchen, a tech demo by Capcom for PlayStation VR, you are tied to a chair as you watch another person try to cut you loose. That person is decapitated off-screen, his head rolls past, and then a Ring-like spirit stabs you in the leg. Your brain is tricked into feeling like you’re there, and when the knife goes in, it’s hard not to wince.

“This will get your heart racing. This will make you jump out of your seat. This will make you orgasm.”

There are, however, necessary ethical questions to consider when shifting the player emphasis from a passive to an active role. What happens if the player takes a more active role? What if the knife is in their hand instead of their leg?

“I’m expecting to see Fox News go a little wild with this at some point,” Dan Page, organiser of VR World Congress and VR consultant for Opposable Games, tells me. “Considering virtual reality has been used to treat PTSD sufferers by bringing them back to difficult and violent situations from their past, and to help people out with drug problems via repeated exposure to drug-filled virtual parties, there’s no denying that the sense of presence is convincing enough to have some effect on a user.”

I ask Page how these concerns are being felt by VR game developers, and he points me towards recent comments by Guerrilla Games developer Piers Jackson, who spoke to Wired about the studio’s choice to exclude death from their upcoming VR game RIGS. Now, when players fighting in the game’s mechanical exoskeletons are defeated, they no longer “die” but are instead ejected to safety. Page also mentioned a recent article in Engadget, where the author spoke about how unsettling it was to see another real-life player kill themselves in Hover Junkers, citing the realistic body language of other players despite the game’s cartoonish aesthetic. “Whether he’s one in a thousand people that might react like that we’re yet to see. There’s a lot of conjecture and opportunist noise on these kind of matters right now,” added Page.

(Above: Hover Junkers by StressLevelZero)

There is indeed a lot of guesswork about the psychological impact of virtual reality, and for an industry teetering on the mass commercial release of its hardware, it’s an understandably sensitive issue. Decrying the negative psychological effects of VR without clear empirical evidence would be to miss the point, however. That VR can set off bodily reactions in its players, tricking the brain with a low latency and a wide field of view, is an enormous benefit to developers. From a director’s point of view, it means you can do a lot more with a lot less, and tease out strong emotional reactions from subtle environmental detail as much as you can from combat.

Rethinking violence

“In some ways the VR headset allows us to get at certain instinctive feelings,” games writer Rob Morgan tells me. “In a flatscreen game, you have to work really hard and create a whole atmosphere to get to that moment the hair prickles on your neck. You can get to that stuff much more easily in a VR headset, in the same way that a real-life haunted house can creep you out even if it’s less convincing than a horror film. You feel more present and it has a closer access to your body’s chemistry.”

Morgan, who has worked on a number of VR titles including nDreams’ The Assembly, tells me that immersion is also about the absence of other stimulation. When you’re sitting with a controller in your living room, your peripheral vision anchors you in the space. With a headset on your head, there is nowhere else to turn, and this immersive setup lends itself to slower and more contemplative experiences – not least because running at the speed of a traditional first-person shooter tends to incite nausea.

“We’re seeing games that actually don’t have violence as their central premise, and part of the reason for that is violence in VR does feel different,” Morgan tells me. “Violence is never what games were. Play is like a liquid, you can keep putting it in the same bottle but that doesn’t mean that’s what shape play is. It’s just that when you have a controller and TV in front of you, that lends itself to action, to competitiveness.” 

(Above: Firewatch by Campo Santo)

“Violence is a part of human nature, not to mention human drama.”

It’s pleasing to think of VR is a different bottle; a different shape for play to take, and yet I’d argue that violence should be a part of the palette used by VR developers, just as it’s a crucial part of games such as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Firewatch.

Just because these games emphasise narrative and environment over action doesn’t mean they’re non-violent. There is palpable violence in both the deserted village of Yaughton and the Wyoming wilderness, as there can be violence in a letter, or a bird, or a room, or a look.  

Violence is a part of human nature, not to mention human drama. It’s not a matter of avoiding it, therefore, but deepening our approach to it. If violent acts are unsettling in VR, then developers need to learn how to handle its weight; how to direct it, humanise it. Because by bringing our bodies into play, virtual reality has an opportunity to facilitate games that put people under the microscope, not just at the end of a crosshair.

By Thomas McMullan

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