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Censorship in the Future of VR

by Drew Saylor
Gamer News Daily Contributing Author

After a short experience in VR everyone’s mind tends to wonder how real of an experience we can create. Virtual reality has nearly endless potential ranging from travel and real estate to education and training for the armed forces. How real could the experience of flying a plane or racing a Formula 1 car become? How could VR let you see the world or go far into the stars? However, how immersed should VR let you become in games like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and other realistic shooters? The concept of experiencing something you otherwise couldn’t is exciting until you think of all the things that happen in games now that you may not want to truly experience without the safety barrier of a screen. In the new landscape of VR, what content goes too far?

The effects of violent video games on young minds has been hotly disputed since violent video games were first created. The debate intensified as games became more and more realistic. The debate led to media coverage and subsequent studies on the correlation between video game violence and cognitive development, as well as the effects on violent action. These studies have shown numerous times that violent video games are linked to an increase of violent thoughts and aggression. However, it isn’t all bad news for shooter developers, this alone was shown not to lead to an increase in violent or non-violent crime. Researchers that have worked with school shooters before have attributed bullying, abuse, mental illness, and social isolation as the main risk factors with violent video games have been shown to be a small portion in creating violence. No censorship has been placed on game violence in the US, instead it was left to be policed by gamers themselves. Ratings were more publicly displayed and explained in media campaigns to help gamers understand the nature of the more graphic games in question. In the future, we’ll be presented with situations where games become so engaging that we’ll have to address the issue of whether a rating is far enough. There are some things that many people would argue aren’t okay for anyone to experience with a high level of immersion.

As games become realistic, we must address the problem of how far is too far? Are we willing to have fully immersive, realistic, scenes of executions or terrorism in video games? Take Call of Duty, for example, a fairly realistic first person shooter with terrorist themes, especially shown in Modern Warfare 2. In the game’s fourth mission, “No Russian”, the player is tasked to shoot into groups of civilians in a Moscow airport and take part in a terrorist attack. The level was subject to censorship in multiple international versions. Notably, the level was totally removed from the Russian version of the game. Additionally, after leaked footage of the level hit the internet, the developers added an option to skip the level with no penalty. Imagine a more immersive experience of the level. An experience where the player no longer feels the safety of looking through the barrier the screen presents. Given the media coverage from “No Russian”, gamers can expect the media to pick up the topic of graphic games again as VR becomes more widespread.

With increased immersion comes increased psychological and developmental effects. The correlation was first shown when studies concluded immersion in videogames made them much more impactful than movies. While studies have yet to be published, experts think VR will have a far more significant effect on today’s youth, and, potentially, an effect on adults who, according to current ratings, can play any game.

There are other issues with VR associated with cognitive dissonance created by seeing and hearing things without tactile stimulation. There are VR games as simple as being placed in a bar where your goal is to get in fights with other patrons. It sounds simple enough, and is truly good fun, but once you get “hit” with your first punch you’ll experience a weird effect. VR can inhibit your brain’s ability to distinguish between what you see and your actual body placement and tactile senses. As the punch passes through your head instead of making contact the feeling of dissonance becomes magnified.

The combination of immersion and dissonance makes horror games all the more exciting, but again it comes back around to the question at hand: how graphic is too far? Could a virtual reality experience being robbed at gunpoint or kidnapped feel too real? The difference between VR and standard gaming is that everything happens to you rather than an avatar. Your avatar doesn’t get shot. You do. A monster doesn’t jump out at your character. It jumps out at you. This is the core difference between VR and film or traditional gaming. You lose your safety net. This is where VR truly differentiates itself from traditional gaming. The sense of truly experiencing something is where the value of VR comes from. The idea of truly experiencing some sinister missions in games now is a frightening thought.

I came into this article thinking there would be absolutely no way I could back any form of censorship. On principle I have never been able to support the idea except in the most extreme cases. VR, however, feels like a gray area to me. On one hand, I believe that everyone should have an opportunity to decide what content is too much for them. On the other hand, I’m not totally convinced that an immersive experience of committing acts of terror is truly a good thing for anybody. Until VR get smoothed out and hits a more mainstream price it will be hard to tell. In the very near future, a major game developer is bound to release a realistic VR shooter title, and we’ll be charged to create the barriers of what we are willing to experience in VR on a mainstream stage. The way gameplay mechanics work in VR is being totally rewritten, but it might not be a bad idea to address the content you can experience.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!

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