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3 Reasons Why It's Silly To Say That VR Games Help Train Mass Shooters

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Typically, whenever there's a school shooting or other horrific mass shooting, the subject of gun control is hotly debated. The various sides in the debate argue and deliberate, and ultimately very little is dun to prevent gun violence, which goes well beyond mass shootings, taking tens of thousands of American lives each year.

Occasionally the debate veers away from the issue of guns---the deadly tools used in literally every mass shooting---to entertainment. Movies and video games are regular bogeymen used by various pundits and politicians to steer blame away from feckless politicians, powerful lobbying groups and gun manufacturers, and direct it instead toward violence in games and film.

 Credit: Vertigo Games

Arizona Sunshine won't teach you how to survive the zombie apocalypse.

This is exactly what President Trump recently suggested. "I’m hearing more and more people seeing the level of violence in video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts," the president said in Florida recently. Thankfully, scientific studies---not to mention the Supreme Court---suggest otherwise. For the time being at least, the First Amendment remains outside Second Amendment hardliners' cross-hairs.

Still, the hot takes keep coming.  Writing at CNN, Jeremy Bailenson, author of Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do and director of Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, argues that VR could be a dangerously accessible way for mass shooters to learn how to kill more efficiently.


Bailenson argues that "virtual reality is the ultimate training machine" though he's quick to point out that his argument "is not that virtual reality games are going to cause people to become violent, or that law enforcement or the military, for example, shouldn't have access to them." Rather,"if a possible mass-shooter wants to hone his craft, we shouldn't hand him an over-the-counter digital boot camp."

This is a rather extreme claim with frankly staggering implications. It's also incredibly silly, bordering on preposterous. Bailenson doesn't argue that we should censor or ban VR shooting games, but he does come up with some odd suggestions to make them less effective as "virtual bootcamps" despite, well, not being that at all.

Let's look at these one by one.

#1) Change how bullets shoot in VR games.

Here's Bailenson:

First, let's change the physics of bullets. Think about a Frisbee. In order to hit a target straight ahead, one needs to arc it to one side, to account for its return swing. If virtual reality bullets also traveled with a slight curve, then virtual shooters would always be pointing away from a target in order to eventually hit it. This learned side-aiming would likely carry over to the real world, and people would have trouble hitting a target straight ahead. A more subtle example can be seen in paintball, which has pellets that move slower than real bullets, and subsequently slightly change the way shooters aim the guns based on gravity, wind and other factors.

I would like to point out here that aiming in VR is already incredibly difficult, no matter which system you use and regardless of whether you're using a gamepad, PlayStation Move controllers or the motion controllers for the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift. First-person shooters are far clunkier than they are in traditional 2D games. The act of pointing a stick with a colorful ball at the screen remains far, far different from shooting a firearm. Anyone who has actually shot a gun will know this. Depending on what kind of gun you're shooting you'll have various degrees of recoil, for instance, that are poorly represented in games even with motion controllers. That's just one difference, but there are many more. Guns are also loud. Shooting produces a distinct odor. You shoot in the actual real world where bullets actually hit things. I've shot guns and I've played games in VR and traditional 2D and the two activities are nothing alike.

Still, the lack of any kick to VR guns would certainly have just as much a chance at negatively impacting a potential shooter's accuracy as some ridiculous change to how bullets fly. Meanwhile, the 99.99% of gamers who will never go on a shooting spree would be severely impacted by this absurd gameplay tinkering. Does Bailenson really believe that this change would be accepted by gamers? That we would all just happily give up actually aiming in games and learn how to "side aim?" I doubt it.

Finally, any potential shooter out there can just go buy a gun and go out into a field and practice shooting it. This will give a potential shooter all the training they need and it's totally legal. Bailenson brings up Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik who said he used video games to help him train for his own killing spree. Of course, there is no actual data proving that aiming a gun in Call of Duty actually makes you a better shot in real life (though games can help with reaction time and reflexes, etc.) Also, Breivik trained with his very real guns and then used them against helpless children.

 Credit: Metaverse

This doesn't look like a mass shooting bootcamp to me.

#2) Guns shouldn't operate like real guns in VR.

Here's Bailenson again:

Second, guns in games shouldn't have the mechanics of real ones. You shouldn't hold a realistically weighted, gun-shaped object and pull a trigger in virtual reality. Instead, to operate a virtual gun, you should flick your wrist or bend your elbow. Before you discount this idea, think about the wildly entertaining types of weapons one typically sees in superhero movies -- guns that are far too big for normal people to carry, for example. This way, muscle memory for virtual guns will be abstract. A player can log hundreds of hours as a virtual shooter and be utterly perplexed when picking up an actual gun.

Video game guns already don't operate with the mechanics of real firearms---neither in VR or in traditional games. For instance, when I play Until Dawn: Rush Of Blood, a game in which you ride through a creepy amusement park shooting at creepy clowns and ghosts, there is nothing about the experience that is even remotely similar to actually shooting a gun. You hold the PlayStation Move cameras and press buttons. Your two disembodied hands hold said guns out in front of you. You press buttons and sort of vaguely aim at things and hope you hit and the guns sort of wobble around as you shoot them. As I noted up above, nothing about this is even remotely like shooting an actual gun. There is no real recoil. You certainly don't feel the weight of a gun while holding a plastic controller. You don't get buffeted by wind, you don't have to deal with your gun jamming, you don't have to lug around a heavy rifle.

This is just a non-argument from someone who seems to not understand very much about how shooting works---in games or the real world.

#3) Make enemies non-human in VR games.

Once more, Bailenson:

Another change that makes sense -- and I am happy that most, though not all, virtual reality games are adopting this strategy -- is to have the targets in games be nonhuman. For example, virtual shooters should aim at robots. Robots move and are shaped differently from humans. But designers can animate them to move much faster than humans, or to have skills that humans don't, like flying. Hence virtual reality would teach skills that would not work as well when aiming at people.

Again, aiming at a moving stack of pixels that's animated to look like a human being won't actually make you better or more likely to shoot at real human beings. A shooter in a mass shooting type situation is often just spraying bullets anyways and it's deadly effective given that these shootings typically take place in crowded areas like schools, movie theaters, offices and nightclubs. Using a plastic controller or motion controller to aim at animated pixels in a virtual setting does not actually make you more accurate and certainly is less effective than training with an actual gun which you can legally obtain and take to a shooting range, where you can then aim at actual human shaped objects with targets painted on them.

Yes, there are uses for video games and simulators. Flight simulators can be especially good at teaching people the basics of flight, but they are designed around mimicking actual controls in a plane and conditions in the air. Video game shooters are not actually murder simulators. Just because an arcade gun is shaped like a real gun doesn't mean it operates like one. Video games can also teach teamwork, cooperation and tactical thinking, which is why the US Military uses video games as part of its training. But the military doesn't expect a game like America's Army to make its soldiers better shots; the primary purpose of that game is recruitment (a far more troubling use of video games.) The military does use VR in various training scenarios, from flight sims to team-building scenarios, but by and large training to shoot involves real guns, not virtual ones. VR is considered merely supplemental training by the military, not a replacement. The military also uses virtual reality in its treatment of some veterans suffering from PTSD, though the effectiveness of this treatment remains disputed.

In a later tweet about the article, Bailenson  responds to criticism from researchers Craig Ferguson and Patrick Markey, writing that he was actually "talking about VR training simulations (and games which might be modeled after them) which are a few years out. Things I have seen in the pipeline" despite making no such claims in the article and going so far as to reference Call of Duty. But even if this is the case, even if someday VR becomes so realistic and VR controls so accurate that we can have completely realistic training in video games I would still argue that this is a non-issue and a distraction. You can't kill real people in a VR game. You have to buy a real gun to do that, and you can still do that and train and go on a shooting spree that doesn't require much training to begin with, because in the United States we allow civilians to own high-powered weapons that can be modified into fully automatic weapons, unlimited ammo and high-capacity magazines and we don't even require something as non-invasive as a driver's license.


@StanfordVR I have to agree with Patrick with this one. Too much was made of Brievik, it was several pages from (as I recall) from about 1500. We could just as easily suggest limits on history books. I see little evidence learning transfers from games to real guns.


Thanks Chris and Patrick, I appreciate the feedback. If I could rewrite the Op Ed, I would definitely make clearer that I am talking about VR training simulations (and games which might be modeled after them) which are a few years out. Things I have seen in the pipeline.


There are many good reasons to be critical of the video game industry, including how games can glorify war and serve as propaganda for the military. But let's not kid ourselves into thinking we should change how VR games play (or any video games, for that matter) just to make it harder for a potential mass shooter to train. If we want to make shootings less likely, if we want to diminish gun violence and save lives, let's talk about guns, not games.

Guns, gun safety and smart gun laws that require better background checks, a higher age limit to purchase and make it harder for these kinds of things to happen in the first place need to be at the forefront of our national debate, not whether or not we should make already unwieldy VR shooters even harder to control. People play VR and video games all over the world in countries that simply don't have this issue to begin with. VR and video games aren't the problem, and suggesting they are---even in a more mild manner than Trump---does nothing to make anyone safer.

Writing op/eds about virtual boot camps is only good for one thing: To provide virtual ammunition for the NRA and its toadies in government to steer the conversation away from guns and toward a scapegoat.

Any scapegoat will do.

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