Who is Jeremy Bailenson? His editor at CNN described him as “the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and a professor in the Department of Communication,” and according to his publisher, he has “two decades spent researching the psychological effects of VR and other mass media.” In other words, he’s spent years and years and years thinking about the effect of video games on society.
If this makes you wonder whether he’s full of shit, like so many other people who opine about video games, you might want to read his latest CNN piece for more data. He begins:
Last week, Dick’s Sporting Goods banned the sale of assault-style rifles and Walmart raised the age of all gun buyers to 21. While our politicians debate next steps, these companies took swift action. Virtual reality hardware and software companies, which design top-selling video games, should follow suit.
How are VR and video games connected to the Nicolas Cruz shooting and the associated gun-control debate? They aren’t, as far as I know, but that doesn’t stop Bailenson from pretending his subject is relevant:
There is at least one documented case of a killer using a first-person shooter game to improve his combat skills. According to the Guardian, the Norwegian shooter Anders Breivik told the court in 2012 that he used “a holographic aiming device” in the game “Call of Duty” to develop his target acquisition abilities.
That Guardian story is from the same month that Oculus announced the concept of the Rift headset (according to Wikipedia), so the connection between Breivik and consumer VR is unclear. (The connection between Breivik and Call of Duty is also unclear, if our only source of information is the guy who wrote the Breivik manifesto.)
But whatever. Bailenson isn’t done yet:
Players can look all around the scene instead of just staring at a screen. Handheld devices vibrate to simulate touch. Most importantly, players use their arms and body to engage in actual combat moves, instead of just hitting buttons. As a result, the brain’s motor system is engaged.
He has suggestions for the gaming industry, ranging from the annoying:
First, let’s change the physics of bullets. Think about a Frisbee. In order to hit a target straight ahead, one needs to arc it to one side, to account for its return swing. If virtual reality bullets also traveled with a slight curve, then virtual shooters would always be pointing away from a target in order to eventually hit it.
(I don’t know which games Bailenson plays, but I aim with the on-screen reticule anyway, not with the gun model. And if the reticule is off, that’s just bad game design.)
…to the uninformed:
You shouldn’t hold a realistically weighted, gun-shaped object and pull a trigger in virtual reality.
(As gaming critic Jim Sterling points out, VR controllers bear no resemblance to realistically weighted, gun-shaped objects.)
…to the ass-backwards:
Another change that makes sense — and I am happy that most, though not all, virtual reality games are adopting this strategy — is to have the targets in games be nonhuman. For example, virtual shooters should aim at robots. Robots move and are shaped differently from humans.
Jim Sterling also had something to say about making it even easier for spree killers to dehumanize their victims. (I agree with at least half of that video, actually.) I’d also add that human-looking video-game enemies, which come at you as antagonists, behave about as differently from fleeing helpless noncombatants as Bailenson could hope for if he were to actually think this the rest of the way through.
And let’s go back to the “physics of bullets” thing for a minute, because Bailenson also wrote:
A more subtle example can be seen in paintball, which has pellets that move slower than real bullets, and subsequently slightly change the way shooters aim the guns based on gravity, wind and other factors.
Paintball pellets aren’t designed that way to subtly interfere with other shooting skills. They’re designed that way to keep them from causing serious injury and death when you fire them at someone.
In summary, pfffft.