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No, Murder In VR Shouldn't Be Illegal Because It Isn't Murder

Another day, another ridiculous article at Vice’s Motherboard blog.

Last time, they trotted out the old, irritating argument that violent video games make people violent in real life. The author of that piece warned that games were turning “genocide viral” as though playing Destiny is merely the first step toward becoming Hitler.

Today’s censorious, fear-mongering post, by Angela Buckingham, has a headline that reads like it came from fake news site The Onion: “Murder in VR Should Be Illegal.”

Had this been a satirical piece, I could get on board. Had the suggestion been that virtual reality murder should have virtual reality consequences, fine. Hey, if this was just a clickbait headline with a more nuanced argument underneath, maybe I could at least have some patience for it.

But what Buckingham is arguing is that fake murder—murder carried out in a video game that you play by strapping a big, uncomfortable headset to your face—should be something the government can arrest you over and throw you into a real-life prison. More likely, of course, the government would simply make it illegal for developers to create VR games that include killing, effectively censoring companies because maybe, just maybe, killing things in virtual reality will have a negative impact on people. In the U.S. this sort of censorship is considered unconstitutional, though many have tried over the years to ban various parts of speech they dislike or don’t understand.

Read More: Are Video Games Breeding An Assassination Generation?

“In an immersive virtual environment, what will it be like to kill?” asks Buckingham. “Surely a terrifying, electrifying, even thrilling experience. But by embodying killers, we risk making violence more tantalizing, training ourselves in cruelty and normalizing aggression. The possibility of building fantasy worlds excites me as a filmmaker—but, as a human being, I think we must be wary. We must study the psychological impacts, consider the moral and legal implications, even establish a code of conduct. Virtual reality promises to expand the range of forms we can inhabit and what we can do with those bodies. But what we physically feel shapes our minds. Until we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us, virtual murder should be illegal.”

First of all, there’s simply no good reason to ask this question. You can strap on any of a number of readily available VR headsets and go kill someone in virtual reality right now. It’s a very simple way to test a hypothesis. I recommend trying it before writing silly, breathless articles urging governments to trample all over our rights.

I’ve killed a few virtual baddies in VR, and it was far from a “terrifying, electrifying, even thrilling experience.” Actually, I find most combat in VR to be rather clunky and imprecise, though that varies quite a bit from one game to the next.

It’s simply baffling to me that so many people seem so intent on calling for bans of things they don’t understand. It’s always some version of “protect the children” and it’s always couched in the language of reasonableness, whether it’s Jack Thompson or Vice.

Buckingham merely wants to “understand the consequences” and then, once we do, and presumably once people like her and various elected officials have their say, then we can decide what’s acceptable speech, acceptable entertainment. What will protect the children adequately. What we can do with our own minds, our own bodies. For the children.

It’s the very worst sort of condescending claptrap. VR is just that: virtual. What happens in VR is not real, and at this point doesn’t even seem real. Maybe someday we’ll get to a point where virtual worlds are indistinguishable from the real thing. Maybe someday we’ll have to discuss the regulation of jetpacks and teleportation devices. For the time being, killing video game avatars in VR is as meaningless as killing them on your flat-screen.

I’ll just quote the Bard:

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