Forced to recount the litany of sins that we have committed in the virtual world to a priest, the average video game player might not exit the confessional booth for some time.
It’s not just the body-count, which, for even the mildest-mannered of players, is of genocidal proportions. There’s also the colonialism we have promoted in Civilization, the social manipulation we’ve engaged in while puttering about in Animal Crossing, the fornication meted out in Leisure Suit Larry, and the thievery of, well, Thief.
We brush off most virtual transgressions as playful tomfoolery. The casualties of our gamely actions are, after all, no different to fallen tokens in a boardgame (nobody grieves the toppled pawns in the grisly aftermath of a chess match). But as technology renders the virtual worlds conjured in video games with ever greater fidelity, old questions are being asked with new urgency.
Should any actions be disallowed within the seemingly consequence-free context of a video game? Should any scenarios be considered taboo? Moreover, does photorealistic rendering, or the full body trickery of virtual reality, challenge the golden rule that no subject should be off-limits to an artist?
These questions are challenging a new generation of virtual reality designers who are working in a medium where the effects on the human brain are yet to be charted, let alone understood. In 2016 Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, two researchers from the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany, published a paper in which they point to evidence of “a lasting psychological impact” after subjects return to the physical world.
"Does photorealistic rendering, or the full body trickery of virtual reality, challenge the golden rule that no subject should be off-limits to an artist?"
“The power of VR to induce particular kinds of emotions could be used deliberately to cause suffering,” they write. “Conceivably, the suffering could be so extreme as to be considered torture.” As a result they recommend “careful screening of subjects to minimize the risks of aggravating an existing psychological disorder or an undetected psychiatric vulnerability.”
As Scott Stephan, currently at FoxNext VR (and formerly a designer at L.A.-based studio Wevr) puts it, the way that human beings process virtual reality games and experiences is “not through the eyes of a person using their critical media-viewing faculty but through the eyes of I, the self, with all of the very human, systems-level, subconscious voodoo that comes along with that.”
Stephan refuses to include any threat bigger than a small dog in VR scenarios; anything larger, he says, and the experience shifts from the kind of enjoyable frights of a rollercoaster to something that is earnestly terrifying. “In VR, players are always careful not to collide with other scale models of human characters,” he says. “It’s clear sign of a closure in the gap that has occurred between brain, body and fine motor-skills.”
As VR designers (and, in the case of the doctors who are using VR to treat soldiers suffering from PTSD, the medical profession) begin to consider the effects of actions taken in virtual spaces on the brain’s fight/ flight systems, it follows that we must also consider the effects of our virtual crimes on the heart, and what continued exposure to the kinds of power fantasies in which games have traded since their inception might mean.
Epic Games' Robo Recall
Epic Games’ Nick Donaldson describes his VR game Robo Recall, in which you play as Blade Runner-style robotics contractor removing defective robots from circulation, as being the very definition of a power fantasy. “One of our design pillars of the game was to make you feel like Neo from The Matrix, so we allowed the player to catch bullets, teleport all over the place, and throw things with superhuman strength,” he says.
Donaldson defines the video game power fantasy as a virtual context in which “a person is able to do something that they wouldn’t have the means or ability to do in real life.” It’s a definition to which video games have long cleaved, giving players, across the decades tens of thousands of opportunities to live the lives of soldiers, space marines, professional football players and race car drivers.
“Power fantasies are relatively easy to create in video games but have big emotional pay-outs,” says VR game designer Shawn Patton. “Mastering a vocation in real life is very difficult. Training your mind and body, that takes a long time. Video games allow you to be the best adventurer, fighter, detective, assassin, athlete, or soldier in a matter of hours.”
Donaldson agrees that it is human nature to want to engage in power fantasies, and they may be even more appealing to young people, whose agency in the world is necessarily limited. “Who doesn't want to experience something they'll never get to do in real life- to be just like that super hero they saw in a movie, you know?” he says. “Being capable and powerful is a great feeling, both in real life and in a game.”
In life, with power, so the saying goes, comes responsibility – a lesson which, only in 2017, is being learned by some high-profile men who have abused their positions. In the context of the video game, unless a designer actively implements punitive systems to discourage the player from certain behaviors, there is no responsibility or consequence for what might be considered abuses of power in a real-world context. Trying to reconcile the player agency with moral boundaries is a knotty design conundrum, one that can lead to fiction-spoiling compromises, such as in the Fallout series, where players can attack and kill any character they meet save children, who are weirdly rendered invincible.
The theme, long a provincial concern for video game makers and commentators, has, in recent months, gone mainstream. Westworld, HBO’s recent and lavish remake of the 1973 film of the same name, is set within a giant Wild West-themed amusement park staffed by costumed cyborgs that are indistinguishable from humans. Entry to the park is expensive and, as a result, customers expect to be able to behave however they want within the boundaries of its magic circle.
Visitors sleep with the park’s robotic staff, shoot them down in cold blood during scripted missions and, generally, exercise complete free will without the threat of consequence. Like video game NPCs, the park’s staff are no more than objects created in humanity’s image; Nobody is earnestly hurt, abused or imperilled by the players’ actions, and like the murdered video game NPC, the cyborgs are repaired and restored the moment the stage is reset.
As well as examining the question of robot rights, Westworld examines what effect unrestrained power fantasies might have on those carrying them out. Shooting a robot sex worker that is indistinguishable from a human woman in the chest at point blank range may be functionally no different to, say, throwing a toaster into a trash compactor, but does the action not morally degrade the human being in the equation in some way?
“Games have been capable of depicting violence in high fidelity for a while now, so this isn't really new territory, but it’s definitely something we think about,” says Donaldson. “Given the extra immersive qualities of VR, we made a conscious effort to avoid having humans to shoot in Robo Recall.”
It’s revealing that Americans often talk about ‘beating’ a video game, in a way that nobody would talk about ‘beating’ Moby Dick, or Schindler’s List. The inference is that games are things to be defeated, and victory is, in most spheres of life, won via a dominant exercising of power. But the terminology isn’t only clumsy, it also limits the medium, tying players and designers alike to an idea that every game must designed in such a way that it can be won. This artificial narrowing confines the artistic imagination: what about games that explore failure, death, loss, pain -- the kinds of insurmountable challenge and set-back that are commonplace in existence
Since the early 2000s, the rise of the so-called disempowerment fantasy has become a regular feature of the underground game-making scene. Games such as Darfur is Dying placed players in the shoes, not of a marine, superhero or secret agent, but of a displaced Sudanese child, caught in the impossible situation of scavenging for water while evading capture.
Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life
More have followed, including breakout hits such as Cart Life, in which you play as a succession of down-and-out characters living in poverty in contemporary America, and Papers, Please, in which you balance the twin pressures of your impossible job as a border agent, and your starving, sick family. That Dragon Cancer examines the rigors and stress of living with a terminally ill child and, in doing so, presents a puzzle without a solution, a game about surrender, not dominance.
“Just as games are able to put you into the shoes of a powerful hero, so they allow you to experience the life of someone working day-to-day or a border agent witnessing stories of oppressed people,” says Donaldson. Games such as Darfur is Dying “invite us to step into the smaller, more uncomfortable shoes of the downtrodden rather than the larger, more well-heeled shoes of the powerful,” Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost writes in his book How to Do Things with Videogames. The academic Ian Bryce Jones identifies freedom, interactivity, and achievable goals as the three pillars of the video game power fantasy. Disempowerment fantasy inverts these pillars. “[They] deny player freedom, emphasize their lack of interactivity, and include goals that cruelly cannot be achieved,” he writes.
"We’re starting to transgress the traditional boundaries of media consumption. We’re not putting images on a screen, we’re not providing you with the useful comforts of abstraction, we’re putting you there and, in many ways, tricking you into believing it's true."
It’s tempting to argue that the disempowerment fantasy could be a solution to the concern that VR could make tyrannical monsters of us all. But just as there are risks to the video game power fantasy, there are risks and limitations to the disempowerment fantasy. In reality, a trafficked woman or child slave is robbed of the ability to make autonomous decisions. Games that tackle these difficult situations risk implying that real people in these situations need only make the correct sequence of decisions to escape their circumstances – a criticism which has already been levelled at David Cage’s forthcoming Detroit: Become Human, whose design appears to suggest that domestic abuse is something that can be overcome via a decision tree.
There’s also the issue in VR, of the psychological risks associated with putting players in situations where a powerless avatar’s safety is imperiled. “I'm not going to go as far as to say that you could be traumatized by a VR experience, but the fear is fear and not the abstract, fun, roller-coaster-kind-of fear,” says Stephan. “It doesn't mean that you can't push boundaries or do extreme content, but I do think it means that you have to really, really think about how people are going to interact with your content and how they might feel about it.”
Stephan believes that, regardless of the long-term success of the current VR boon, the rules have somehow changed, “We’re starting to transgress the traditional boundaries of media consumption,” he says. “We’re not putting images on a screen, we’re not providing you with the useful comforts of abstraction, we’re putting you there and, in many ways, tricking you into believing it's true.”
The complications of the disempowerment power fantasy may remain a peripheral issue for most game designers. In the foreseeable future Patton thinks it’s unlikely that the traditional video game power fantasy will retreat from its position of dominance and focus in the medium.
“Blockbuster games, like movies, have to follow tried and true formulas because they have to make money,” he says. “If enough serious games make money, then certainly we'll see blockbuster games that attempt to cash in on that, but only if it’s a sure thing.”
For now, game designers continue to wrestle with the old questions of how to create video games in which players aren’t problematically flattered through power fantasies, or empowered to behave in ways that degrade the spirit. And while they do, the uncanny valley closes, and the stakes raise.