Jake Green is currently a 5th-year senior here at USC majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in both Cinematic Arts and Astronomy. From September 2012 until May 2013, he was part of a project here at USC called Project Holodeck, which created both a virtual reality system and a game to go along with it. Since then, he has kept his eye on the VR industry, Recently, he began delving deeper and trying to create a project of his own. This desire for VR stems from a deeper passion of creating wonder and excitement in a world of increasing mediocrity. He wants to help influence our interaction with the world and help motivate people to do great things. VR just happens to be a perfect outlet for that. Because VR is so new, he wanted to explore some of the questions that people haven’t really asked yet and investigate a bit into what should be allowed in a medium that has the potential to perfectly recreate reality.
Note: This is merely an excerpt of Jake’s longer article. Please contact Scribe at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the full version, or to see sources.
The Reality of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality has been praised as being the next step in gaming. Its enhanced realism and direct control of the environment give the player a more personal experience and a greater feeling of power. However, the problem lies in how real situations can be.
Real Life Can Be Painful
Virtual Reality eliminates the distance between the screen and the observer, renders the scene in three dimensions, and allows the player to perform every action that a normal person could in real life. VR can allow the player to slowly drive the knife into a pleading victim or become the victim themselves. This has the potential to be an extremely traumatic experience.
In virtual reality, anything from simply picking up an object to decapitating a hostage is possible and in some cases, encouraged. The player can feel and experience any and all scenarios from happy and fun to traumatic and heart-wrenching. Anything is possible in VR and it allows the player to even experience situations that are either morally impermissible in the real world or physically impossible.
The Game is No Longer in Control
Even if the player is not experiencing traumatic events on a daily basis, VR still is still more realistic than traditional games and recognizing this realism is important to understanding it. In regular video games, the designer can limit the interactions that the player experiences. The player only has a certain number of buttons that they can press to perform actions and to interact with the world. Now, if the buttons were pressed a short time from one another, a different action could occur. Even with this addition, however, the amount of possible actions the avatar can perform is still limited. The developer of the game has control over the types of interactions based on the amount of actions the buttons can do.
In virtual reality, this controller layout is eliminated. They can crouch to different heights, peek around corners, dodge, roll, punch, and do anything that they can do in real life. Theoretically, the capability to react to every action is available. Thus, if the designer does not want the player to punch an innocent bystander, then instead of taking away the ability to do so by not being able to press the ‘hit’ button, they either must tell the player not to hit them or just make it so that the bystanders don’t respond to the hits (which significantly decreases the realism felt by the player). In order to try to make as immersive of a game as possible, the designers must allow freedom of motion into the game, which will mean that a majority of the actions that the player can do will be accounted for in the game.
Now, in video games, the player also experiences another instance that removes their ability to interact with the virtual world: the cut-scene. The cut-scene tries to add a more cinematic approach to the virtual world and in doing so, removes any responsibility the player has for the events that occur. As the cut-scene plays out, the player cannot interact at all with the world and is therefore helpless against the changes that occur in the game. In VR, the cut-scene is still possible. However, since the player truly feels like they are in the world, having a movie play over the player’s vision can be extremely distracting and disjointing. In order to keep the player feeling as if they are really in the world, players’ actions must have repercussions at every point in the game. The player must be the sole person responsible for how the game progresses and how the characters interact with the player.
This “do anything” capability is the double-edged sword that makes VR both alluring and problematic. On the one hand, ethics need to be applied to regulate the player’s behavior and their interaction with others. On the other, the player needs to be able to maintain the freedom that they expect from a fully immersive virtual world. What are we to do with a system that has the capability for so much enjoyment while at the same time so much capability for harm and malice?
How to Proceed with VR
Virtual reality is a puzzling concept. Everything it can do is an exact imitation of reality, except it can put the player in any situation or world. It exhibits qualities of both the real world and video games, which indicates that it needs to find common ground between the two in terms of morality. In games, there are two distinct aspects that need to be examined: interactions between the player and other players (interpersonal) and the interactions between the player and the virtual environment (inter-environmental). Each of these aspects has a different set of morals governing them. In video games today, there is a similar separation of rules that can be followed in both cases, with a few modifications.
Interpersonal (or Multiplayer) Interactions
When a player interacts with another player, the situation is almost identical to a face-to-face confrontation. Even though avatars are used as a representation of the player, the players’ voice, actions, and emotions are transmitted into the virtual world. It would be the same as a conversation over the phone, except the player can move his or her avatar around [2, pp. 15-16]. In VR, the same applies, except now the player is fully represented in the virtual world. It is at this point where the morality from the real world is the most useful.
Interacting with other players in a non-hostile environment is equivalent to interacting with people in the real world. Games like The Sims and Second Life are designed around anonymity and the idea of living a normal life as another person. The “rules” or “laws” that a government might institute may not be in the game, but the general rules about being a good person should. Aristotelian virtue ethics calls for everyone to strive for a good and virtuous self and it seems to be the best set of ethics to use in this case. VR is no different because the only real change is how natural interactions with others are.
A hostile or competitive environment, on the other hand, needs a slightly different guiding hand. In such competitive video games, actions are very limited. In online shooters like Halo and Call of Duty, the player cannot drop his or her gun and use Kung-Fu moves against an opponent. So players still have to operate within the confines of the game and can only perform certain actions. Now, with every game and situation that has rules, there are people who try to find loopholes to exploit and use. Some of the time these loopholes can be used to benefit a player, such as a loophole that allows a player to get a lot of in-game money. However, some people want to show off and disrespect other players. Even though the game doesn’t explicitly allow this, players use loopholes they find, such as “tea-bagging” or “spawn-killing.” Tea-bagging is a sign of disrespect used by players on the body of the enemy they just killed. The crouch button is tapped multiple times on the corpse of a recently killed enemy, showing the other members of that enemy’s team, and the specific enemy that was killed, disrespect. This act is allowed by the mechanics of the game (because it is only crouching multiple times), yet it is frowned upon by the gamer community in general and can sometimes result in being banned from that particular match or the game in general. Spawn-killing is also allowed in the mechanics of the game. It doesn’t manipulate the buttons on a controller; rather, a player discovers where the enemy respawns after being killed and continually aims right at the spawn point and keeps killing enemies that spawn there. This is also looked down upon in the gaming community, although it might not warrant a ban. Even though these actions are physically allowed by the game, the gaming community has taken on a set of morals and rules of its own accord that try and make gaming morally acceptable. In virtual reality, however, there are more than just a “few loopholes.”
In VR, it is difficult, if not impossible, to limit the freedom that people have in a VR suit. People can do more than just “spawn-kill” enemies; they can disrespect the enemy in more ways and perform vulgar actions that are not possible in normal video games. All hostile interactions within a VR game are essentially a competition, so it would make sense to appeal to real-world competitions, such as football and hockey. Within these two sports, physical contact is accepted and encouraged. The penalty for fights in these sports is not jail time, but rather a trip to the penalty box. In each of these games, violence is permissible and even encouraged as long as it is within the confines of the game. Both sides agree on the rules and agree to subject themselves to that kind of rough physical contact. Outside of these games, however, this sort of rough contact and fighting is unacceptable and results in some sort of punishment.
This sort of conduct can be applied to video games as well. When a player picks up a shooter game and begins to play, they are agreeing to the conduct of the game; in this case, they are agreeing to shoot other people and get shot at. They are agreeing to work as a team against another team to complete an objective. It is when behavior is outside the context of the game that problems arise. In video games, any player caught using behavior outside the rules of the game is kicked out of the game, as it makes the game unfair to other players and subjects them to undesirable situations. Responses to behavior such as this can also be applied to VR.
The amount of freedom in virtual reality brings a different kind of gameplay to gaming. As long as players agree to the type of behavior that is acceptable in the game, most types of behavior are allowed. However, the freedom of VR makes adhering to a set of rules subject more to the players and less to the game itself. Going back to real-world games, almost all major sports implement a referee system. These referees ensure the players cannot use their freedom as human beings to influence the game in any way, by punishing violations of the rules. This type of system is better than the current system in video games because it addresses the issue of freedom of motion with which VR wrestles, while still allowing players to use that freedom. Other methods could include tracking the movements of each player and alerting the game if the player makes an illegal move, and programming the game ignore certain actions not allowed by the rules. All player-to-player interactions can be thought of as an extension of the rules of everyday life into the VR world. However, when the player is alone in a game, a different set of moral principles applies.
Inter-Environmental (or Single Player) Interactions
Single-player games bring up another set of moral issues because everything in the world besides the player is not real. The player does not interact with other live people and does not adhere to a set of established rules. None of the characters in the game can feel actual pain. In normal video games, the player can only perform actions the game allows them to perform. Games like Super Mario only allow the player to jump, crouch, and use a few abilities, while games such as Street Fighter allow the player to use numerous actions to defeat the opponent. In VR, as discussed before, the controller is gone, leaving the player total freedom when it comes to movement and actions. In order to achieve maximum immersion, the player’s movements cannot be restricted by the game in any way. Since VR has been established as recreating reality, and the players can act out any scenario, the question is whether players should be subjected to the sort of violence and cruelty that is possible in VR.
This transition between modern games and VR games can be compared to the transition from 8-bit games to modern games. Initially, 8-bit games were so simple, that blood, gore, sex and violence couldn’t be portrayed realistically, which left games cartoony and unrealistic. As games progressed and graphics improved, games looked more realistic, leading to the development of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). ESRB ratings became necessary to make any game credible and provided the consumer with knowledge as to what the content of the game would entail. Each game would get (and continues to get) an E, E10, T, M, or AO rating depending on how adult and graphic the content was. This rating system allows the players to know and consent to the content that they were going to play in the game. Also, with games rated M or above, game retailers became obligated to check the I.D. of the person buying the game and make sure they are over 17. The ESRB rating system does not restrict the type of content that can be published; it just makes the public aware of the content in the game and put a simple restriction on adult content.
The ESRB rating system used today is a perfect model to use for VR games and VR systems of the future. The VR system itself is not inherently bad, but the games that can be developed for the system can be extremely gory and traumatic. Aristotelian virtue ethics is of most use in this case because it allows each individual to develop their own virtuous self, rather than having an external body regulate what is right and what is wrong for them. This self-governing of moral values matches up perfectly with the rating system and can be used for future VR games. Now, the ESRB rating system focuses more on the adult content that the player will experience. The VR rating system will need to use a similar approach, except the situations the user will be put into will need to be added. For example, in a normal game, the player may experience a cut-scene that depicts intense violence. For the rating of the game, this intense violence is spelled out on the front cover, letting the player know what to expect. With VR, the player might instead be subject to slowly killing another individual. This sort of personal encounter needs more than just an “intense violence” label on the front cover. It needs to truly inform the player of the severity of the actions they will be performing, which will need a slightly different rating system than the current one. Also, there should be some age restrictions for those attempting to buy violent games that utilize VR. The rating system is a good measure to limit the access younger people have to more intense games while still being able to experience the positive environments that VR can offer.
As video games have become more graphically intense and more violent over the course of their evolution, controversy has also grown as to the amount of “morally inappropriate” behavior these games are subjecting younger individuals to. The bulk of this controversy is geared at violence in particular, saying that violent video games are the cause of the increase in violent behavior. This controversy can only be heightened by the addition of VR. Virtual reality can subject the player to a real feeling of committing what some consider being morally wrong actions. Earlier in this paper, it was mentioned how the self and the virtual world are connected. Thus, events in the virtual world can translate to real-world harm . This line of thinking is very understandable and there should be concern for the moral well-being of gamers. However, what actions should be taken if VR has the capability of promoting bad behavior?
One method could be just stopping VR from being developed for video games, but this is a very narrow-minded viewpoint. VR has the capability of opening the doors of the entertainment industry and essentially becoming the future of games. To deprive society of this technological advancement and people of such a powerful experience would be a complete turnaround from our innovation and creative drive as a species. Stopping the development of VR would be like shutting off the Internet because it has the capability to subject us to morally wrong behavior.
Since VR itself does not promote bad moral behavior, it should not be subject to moral and ethical principles. It is like the Xbox or PlayStation, both of which are gaming systems. They are essentially tools that translate the games made by developers into the world that the consumer experiences. Instead, the people making the applications and games for the VR systems as well as consumers should execute good judgment as to what type of moral principles they want to uphold. The development of the virtuous self should be stressed for individuals, but cannot be forced on people or used to regulate purchases or behavior. Standards of morally wrong behavior in society should not be used for regulating the purchase or playing of these VR games, but they may be used within the games as a means of regulating the behavior of the players.
 Non-Hostile means any virtual environment in which the player interacts with other players and is not trying to hurt or kill them. This ranges from social interactions to killing enemies together.