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Research Proposal:
Does Virtual Reality impact feelings of aggression when playing violent games?

NOTE: This article has been adapted from a more detailed research proposal, which can be downloaded HERE.

I have been playing games my whole life. Yet somehow, I am not a bloodthirsty murderer. My mother is as astonished as I am. The moral panic surrounding video games has died down over the years, and games haven't changed much in the last 50. This is all about to change as Virtual Reality (VR) headsets are making their way into people's homes. There are videos on the internet of people playing VR games, screaming, and running for their lives - straight into walls. You laugh, as did I, but you never truly understand the power of VR until you put on those goggles. The effect is transporting. I was gleefully flailing my arms around with full force, cutting up baddies into a bloody mist. It planted a seed in my mind that VR had something in it that traditional games didn't have.

What could this be? What might happen to my brain after the goggles come off? What sort of conversations should we be having about this technology? What should be the ethical considerations for those who make VR content? Is it maybe time to reconsider violence in video games?

What does the literature say?

The keyword is presence. Back in 1997, Lombard and Ditton foresaw emerging technologies like 3-D films and flight simulators as paving the way for what VR will eventually be today. Each iteration of immersive entertainment increases the amount of presence for a user. It can be defined as the feeling of physical existence in the virtual world. Cognitively, our brains can process the difference between reality and media, reality vs. fiction. Reactions that may be appropriate for real-world situations may not be suitable for fictional ones. The inverse is also true. You could easily imagine how head-mounted, stereoscopic 3-D goggles amplify presence compared to sitting in your living in front of the TV. Immersive displays create 'realistic' reactions to virtual stimuli.

Motion controls are another aspect of VR that increases presence due to the one-to-one replication of movement in the virtual world. The weapons effect explores the idea that even images of weaponry positively correlate with cognitive aggression, reinforced further when holding weapons - even virtual ones. Games like Onward may be a cause for concern as highly detailed modern weapons replace your own hands in VR. Remember the Nintendo Wii? I was one of those silly children who convinced a grown-up to spend £40 on a stupid gun-shaped bit of plastic. There is simply no comparison in the immersive power of the "Wii Zapper" to a carefully crafted digital AK-47.

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Wii Zapper

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Onward VR

Wilson and McGill have one of the most up-to-date VR studies. They successfully highlighted that our age rating system is simply not a suitable signifier as to what a VR experience might entail. They explored the difference in experience between playing Resident Evil 7 on TV vs. VR. The two versions of the game are considered "meaningfully different". You are an active observer in the former and an active participant in the latter. The study cemented facts I already knew. I will never, ever touch a VR horror game for the sake of my sanity.

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Resident Evil 7 VR: Ever, ever, ever

This study is interesting as it reinforces that VR is just that different. The multitude of uses of VR outside of entertainment underlines the blurring of the virtual world against reality. Studies have explored the power of VR to address psychiatric disorders like PTSD, autism and addictions. If VR can heal the psyche, it would not be a leap to consider it to have the opposite effect if a participant was exposed to graphic content. VR is also used in the medical profession, workplace safety and even the military for skills training. Research suggests that skill retention with VR is promising. This begs the question,  "Can violent 'skills' be learned and retained?". While VR weaponry has no weight or realistic feedback, the technology is ever-evolving and could reach parity with reality.

Virtual Ethics

The burden of ethics lies with the content creators. Just how far are some people willing to go? Everyone knows that controversy sells. Well, there is a reason children are not in Grand Theft Auto. Even though GTA has been a hotly debated game for its raunchiness, the creators - Rockstar Games, know where to draw the line. These are not the types of experiences developers want people to have. These billion-dollar corporations deem them not worthy of the hate. But what happens when you're a singular developer or small group with nothing to lose in the wild west of the internet? It's easier than ever for people to create and self-publish their games. A VR school shooting game by an independent developer has already been published and removed from the Steam online games marketplace. I don't know what playing something like this might do to you if you are unaware of how this might mess with your head. Generally, I do not think that games can make someone violent. I think these days people would have the same opinion. But when I say that, I am not thinking about horrific 'games' like this. It makes me uncomfortable that games like this can be made and sold without research in this area. The excitement of this new technology opens Pandora's box for developers. The old rules no longer apply as uncharted territories can be explored. Social convention ignored. It is not the technology itself that perpetuates something problematic. Instead, people now have a way of expressing these things in a way that I feel is unhealthy. Freedom to make art also opens up the freedom to make rubbish. We must understand the effects of VR on violence and aggression so developers and vendors can begin to draw boundaries. This would help both content creators and consumers. Creators should be able to push the artistic and aesthetic boundaries of the medium without potentially causing harm.

These aesthetic boundaries only extend as far as the technology allows it. Currently, gaming culture is unanimously favouring flashier graphics and more immersion. These things even catch the attention of non-gamers. Graphical fidelity is the most visible and quantifiable aspect of the medium. When companies show off their new graphical advancements, we never fail to clap. This view of technology is called Technological Determinism. It's the belief that any technological progress is progress for humanity in and of itself. All new developments and knowledge are inherently good. "Progress towards what?" You might ask? It isn't a question you should ask because you cannot stop it. Technology drives social change and should not be stopped. This is a strict determinist view. The reality is much more complex. Neither one determines the other. Instead, a broad set of multidirectional influences allows them to co-shape each other. Nuclear bombs did not make the Cold War, like stirrups didn't make feudalism. This could be a worrying view to have. Assuming the world doesn't end, we can expect VR technology to evolve. Eye-tracking, haptic feedback, hand tracking. Smaller innovations with huge impacts over time. Far into the future, unless something stops it, it would be fair to assume that the technology will become indistinguishable from reality. The point where violence in VR will most definitely negatively impact people and society. At the risk of sounding too futurologist. It is fundamental to start talking about VR now because we could reach the point where it becomes too late to establish guidelines, and we begin to head somewhere that we do not like. Who is to say we are not already there? Advances in foveated rendering or haptic feedback (not necessarily in their current forms) could be the final domino pieces that finally lead us into The Matrix. It can always be too late to start thinking about it, but it can never be too early.

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When is it too late?

Understanding VR at this level is, unfortunately, a terrible commercial move for VR manufacturers. There is no incentive for manufacturers to study the impacts their machines may have. Were research to coincide with the work already done in this field, we may end up with a situation similar to cigarette companies labelling packaging with the ugly consequences of their products. Of course, it's not the actual technology that is the issue; it's problematic content. Maybe we should focus on the sales-fronts of games? Should we ask them to take more control over what they publish and sell for VR? Or find some way to control what certain underprivileged users - like children - can buy? Or are simple content warnings sufficient? Some developers have already taken steps to include "comfort settings" for users. This is usually for physical effects like nausea, but some games have taken steps to consider mental impacts. VRChat has created a "personal space" option that stops others from appearing too close to you if that bothers you. Since there is evidence showing that VR could affect someone's psyche, all parties involved with selling the VR experience (shops, publishers, rating boards and developers) should be held accountable to properly inform their customers of what they are getting into.

The Bottom Line

There is a difference between someone holding a knife up to what is implied to be your neck but is just the bottom of your TV. And someone holding one up to what you're convinced is your neck. While there are no explicit links to show that video games cause violence, VR stands to change that. The research surrounding consumer-grade VR is sparse. However, past research has explored its constituent parts and illustrated the power of VR to change someone's cognition. What weak influences violent games have on someone's aggressive thoughts were amplified by presence and immersion from the visual and motion-control side. These feelings are what make VR an effective tool in education and training. But this ability to convince us of realism is a thing that can also have harmful effects on us psychologically. But will players of violent VR games become violent people?

Probably not, maybe, but not yes. Considering the worst-case scenario, we need to start a conversation about what we can do about it. Creators need to be more conscious about what they're making and try not to make demented rubbish. As a culture, we need to be more aware of the direction VR technology is going and make noise if it's going in a direction we don't like. Hopefully, sooner rather than later.

My goal with this article isn't to convince you that VR is destroying the world. It's just to make you think about it a little bit more. It's been hard playing devil's advocate for a pastime I enjoy. Especially in my experiences, VR games have brought me nothing but joy. Of course, I am excited to see how this technology will develop. I don't want a small few to ruin it for the rest of us.

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