July 4th, 2017

Wrongdoings in Virtual Reality – A study about Malpractices in the world of VR.

Fiction and Crime

In a world of fiction, violence is not something you can put away with. In fact, ‘crime’ as a genre has garnered immense popularity. If there is no crime, there is no ‘Sherlock Holmes’, no ‘Godfather’, no ‘Goodfellas’, no ‘Usual Suspects’ or ‘Fight Club’! You embrace the adrenaline rush when Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt acrobatically kicks the baddie down in ‘Mission Impossible’ or when ‘Die Hard’ Bruce Willis spoils the party of the fraudulent gang. So, violence is part and parcel of entertainment. However, moral panics have always existed around the portrayal of violence. Especially since the growth of action oriented games. But time, the greatest teacher there is, attested that vast majority of such concerns were pointless. Nobody has become a criminal just because he was addicted to Max Payne. All these years, we witnessed crime and violence as an outsider. Now with Virtual Reality on the rise, that is all set to change. We may soon be inside the world of the crime and we may find ourselves killing the characters or creatures within a narrative. Will this be the same as enjoying it as an onlooker? How violent can violence get before it starts annoying us?

The Milgram Experiment

Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University, conducted an interesting experiment in 1961 to study the conflict between an individual’s consciousness and obedience to authority. His sole aim was to investigate how far people would go to obey an instruction if it involved harming another individual. It was the atrocities during World War II that triggered Milgram to conduct the experiment. Volunteers were invited through newspaper advertisement and 40 males, aged between 20 and 50 were finally recruited for the experiment. The volunteers were just told that it was a study of learning. Each volunteer was introduced to another participant who was actually an associate of Milgram. They drew straws to determine their roles – learner or teacher – but this was prefixed with always the associate being the learner. Then, they were sent into two separate rooms. The learner’s room had an electric chair and the teacher’s had an electric shock generator. The teacher was instructed to pass an electric shock every time the learner made a mistake, increasing the level of shock each time. The shock levels ranged from 15 to 450 volts. The learner, on purpose gave many wrong answers and when the teacher refused to operate the shock generator, the experimenter gave a series of orders to continue. Two thirds of the participants continued to the highest level of 450 volts and everyone went upto 300! Milgram concluded that people tend to obey orders from other people especially if they relate the authority to be morally right or legally based.

In 2006, researchers from University College London and University of Barcelona conducted a modern day version of the Milgram experiment within a virtual reality environment. Here, the purpose was not to explore obedience but to understand the realistic response of people towards tormenting a virtual character. The study was conducted in a Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE) system and by using 3D glasses and head tracking. The subjects were divided into two groups: a visible group that remained face to face with a virtual learner and hidden group, who mainly communicated to the learner through text. By studying the skin conductance, heart rate and heart rate variability of the subjects, the researchers found that the subjects invisible group physically aroused with greater stress than those in the hidden group. Despite an average quality VR, the subjects observed severe emotional reaction. Though the virtual learner did not exactly look like a human, the psychological and emotional responses to the situation were very strong.

No Passable Violence

The violence in conventional video games can look cartoonish. There is only a certain level of realism that we expect from them. When you are attacked by an alien, you do not really care if you can feel its presence behind you. All you want is to get the better of it, no matter how. This is also the fun of such games. Being irrational or unnatural actually adds to their likeability. But in a virtual environment, that is totally not the case. There, it has to look and feel real no matter how small the object or creature is. Think of how you kill the villain blocking your way in a conventional video game. You might be grabbing a snack out of your bowl or patting your dog while on your mission. That is absolutely not possible in a virtual space! You cannot afford to be casual or the next thing you will know is a blow on your head. In other words, there is no such thing as passable violence in a virtual environment. Every little act will result in a subsequent experience. Now, this can be terrifying as well as exciting.

When you are completely wary about your surroundings the resulting impact is that you are alert full. When you dedicate your focus to each and every minute element within your 360 degree space, you benefit from a substantial presence of mind. You will even be able to put that skill to use in the real world outside the virtual environment. Additionally, you will also understand how it feels to harm someone and this might raise your awareness about violence in the physical world. But not everyone will find it comfortable. While video games remain the domain where only the interested or the ones that are comfortable with violence would enter, what happens to a narrative like a movie or a television show. Would you really want to be the kid lost in ‘Jurassic Park’? Or experience everything that ‘Rick’ went through in Mummy? In fact, these examples bring us right to the next point

Entertaining… Not Glorifying

Be it the Jurassic Park, The Mummy, Independence Day or the Avatar – take any movie that gave chills down your spine. The disasters, the actions and all the violence were used to entertain us. Not to glorify bloodshed! We were awed by the terror that shook us and the focus was not on how much blood is being spilled. We are never given the sense that cutting someone into half is a glorifying thing to do. The purpose is plain and simple. Amuse a viewer. Fear, anxiety and anticipation are wonderful tools to engage viewers in a narration. It is there that violence and crime is played upon. When your hero dodges between bullets you are nervous to know how he escapes. Not how good the bullet is! If your hero’s wife and daughter is killed in a bombing, you feel sorry for him and you want to know how he avenges their death. You don’t want to know how badly hurt they are. That is simply not the purpose of a narration. Be it in the contemporary world or future Virtual Reality. So, it is important to keep in mind that preliminary target is to keep a viewer intrigued. The narration should move forward and a viewer shouldn’t feel left out. The future Virtual Reality programs will be aiming to do just that. Throughout the history of fictional narratives there have been gigantic developments which uplifted our excitement in the form of Visual Effects, Computer Graphics, Animation, 3D etc. Every new innovation sparked new enthusiasm towards the fictional story worlds. Virtual Reality might just be the next giant leap here.


Deploying Non Human Characters

As we saw before, it might be disturbing for people to hurt fellow human like characters in a virtual environment. A simple solution that is widely adopted by Virtual Reality Game developers is deploying non human characters. So, instead of having to kill realistic people, VR gamers can slaughter zombies, aliens or monsters. In a supernatural or a literally out of the world environment, people tend to accept violence much more. The order of that world is different. You are demolishing creatures that could harm the entire existence of that virtual world. You are on your quest to save that world! Sounds much more convincing. Or maybe games can have human characters that you have to save. Maybe people are terrified of zombies or aliens and they are hiding out. Your job is to keep them safe. Maybe you are the game version of Will Smith in ‘I am legend’ or Brad Pitt in ‘World War Z’. That can make violence in VR games an enjoyable experience just like in other entertainment medias.

Should we be concerned?

As long as we continue narrating fiction, violence will be depicted in one form or the other. And if mankind has to stop telling stories, they have to cease existing! There cannot be a single person who has not enjoyed at least one moment of crime or violence in fictional narratives. Master creators have used it smartly to hook us into their narrative and not to veto for violence. If violence in movies or games could mislead us, we would have been a horrible species already! But, yes, virtual reality is about to offer a whole new realm of violence and crime. However, when the goal of the creator and consumer is entertainment, the concerns are most likely out of harm’s way.

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