I AM terrified of guns, of any kind of violence, in fact.
Even the sound of a raised voice scares me.
So when my son-in-law suggested I try Oculus, the virtual reality phenomenon that is creating massive financial losses for Facebook (now Meta), I said sure, why not. I figured being a virtual reality experience, it would take me to places I had never been or fly me through galaxies not served by commercial airlines.
I also figured that at the rate Facebook was losing money on this virtual reality gig, (more than $10 billion in 2021 alone) there was no telling how long the opportunity to try it would be around so I’d better jump at this invite.
Of course, I had no idea the software on this particular Oculus set which my son-in-law had borrowed would include a game with guns.
First, a brief on Oculus.
Oculus is the amazing Metaverse reality that takes video games to a new dimension. Trying it is a life-changing event. Once you have experienced it, you will never be able to un-know virtual reality.
Here’s how it works. You stand in a safe spot with plenty of room to swing your arms, slip the headset on, tighten the straps for a secure fit, look through thick protruding eyes and grab hold of controls in each hand that with learned dexterity will allow you to move, track, attack or slay whatever is coming straight at you from somewhere out there. Don’t try this alone, at least not the first time. Once you are set and have watched the tutorial, you’re good to go - racing to keep up with artistically-designed pieces that come flying at you so fast your heart is thumping, adrenaline pumping, there’s no stopping you now. You’re in the game, hand controls flying in split-second movements, forward, back, faster, closer, up, down, sideways, pushing, punching, moving, tracking.
Game One. Blocks of all colours and I’m learning the controls, getting better by the mini-second. Heart beating faster. Game over too soon.
“That was fun,” I said to my son-in-law, catching my breath. We are standing in the kitchen, dining area, occupying our time while the baby napped.
“Ready to try another one?” he asked.
I strap the headset back on, grab the controls and get set. And then it happens. A gun appears, a pistol flying at me. I start to scream and then remember the baby sleeping. “Stop it, stop it, please,” I beg, rushing to yank the headset off.
The gun was only virtual but the panic I felt was real. I have no idea why. My son-in-law, you might as well know, is a pretty cool head and he talked me out of my fear and right back into the game which he re-started. I put the headset back on.
Calmer now, I breathe in. The game starts. The gun is coming at me. I grab it and start shooting. Suddenly I could not stop. Faster, faster, I wanted to slaughter every virtual object that came my way. I wanted to rule, to win, to be the best shot there was.
The score appeared on the screen. I was about as lousy a shot as you could be, level failed.
That did not matter. What mattered was that with a gun in my hand, even a fantasy gun, I was transformed into something I did not recognise.
The power was intoxicating and if it could do that to an individual who cowers at the sound of a voice raised in anger, what could it do to a young man at risk who was abused or neglected as a child?
What could it do to the gang member whose identity is dependent on showing he knows no fear?
What could the reality of fantasy violence as a tool do to the behaviour of society as a whole?
Now I understood what all the talk about video games and their impact on violence was about, conversations that I have to confess I never paid much attention to partly because I was never a gamer and partly because I think entertainment, like music, is a matter of personal choice. The fear of regulating what people listen to is greater than the fear of what that music or that game does.
But now I saw first-hand the transformation from woeful wimp to virtual bully, a silver-haired gun slayer.
There is a body of evidence supporting the links between seeing, hearing and playing with violence and what happens in some, but not all, societies.
In the Far East, for instance, where some of the best video games were created, the incidence of criminal violence is far lower than it is in the US or The Bahamas, though there is growing concern in India where adolescents seem hooked on tech games. Studies from Harvard, the Pew Institute and the American Psychological Association all confirm a direct relationship between extensive video game absorption and not only violent behaviour, but equally concerning, a reduction in empathy and compassion for others.
A report from the National Center4research. org says “Studies have shown that playing violent video games can increase aggressive thoughts, behaviours, and feelings in both the short-term and long-term. Violent video games can also desensitise people to seeing aggressive behaviour and decrease prosocial behaviours such as helping another person and feeling empathy…”
And another source: “According to many studies, video games can increase aggressive behaviour, cause emotional outbursts and decrease inhibitions in many people (Kardaras 2008). As a result of the increased exposure to this modern phenomenon, a mounting body of research is linking video games to violent, aggressive and anti-social behaviour.”
It has been a 40-year long journey since the days of Donkey Kong and the lead Super Mario, nearly a half century of growth in an industry that has the power to sharpen skills and potentially dampen respect.
Where will it grow from here? Metauniverse has a chance to take the technology it developed for its mind-blowing virtual reality experience and put it to good use.
Imagine students in classrooms with headsets learning about how vast the galaxy is by flying through a night sky filled with millions of stars? Or a group of students experiencing what it is like to grow rice in China or grapes in France or what it feels like to lose a loved one to gunshot in a barrage of fire in a school shooting and follow that shooter, should he survive, through his life in prison.
Then virtual reality will truly be a game changer. Right now, the message is mixed but given the tragedies of the past weeks here at home and the availability of the most incredible technology that could create good and may be contributing to bad, it’s time to take a look at the most unlikely places for solutions, transforming the world of video games.