Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 21, 2016
Not a murder simulator

I am not yet totally convinced that virtual reality devices are the future of gaming, and there are some serious challenges to overcome. But if we imagine that in a few years everybody is playing with VR goggles on instead of in front of a screen, what does that mean for the games that we play? If our experience with virtual worlds becomes "more real", do we still want the same virtual worlds and game mechanics that we have now?

Developers are starting to think about it. At the GDC 2016 there was a talk about the fact that sexual harassment becomes a lot worse when it happens in VR as opposed to on a screen. But personally I was thinking of something else: Even in the absences of perverts and griefers, what kind of virtual lives do people want to live?

I spent my weekend playing the excellent Stardew Valley, which is an indie game on Steam that resembles (and improves upon) the console game Harvest Moon. Not futuristic VR graphics, but pixelated 2D graphics. But what stood out most when playing the game was that I was never ever killing anything while playing it. In my huge Steam library there are very, very few games which don't involve killing enemies, be that AI-controlled "monsters" or other players. Sure, no actual blood is spilled, but do we really want all of our games to be murder simulators?

In real life some people use their holiday to go out and kill stuff. But that is a rather small percentage of all tourists. Most people prefer to travel to just see things and do different peaceful activities for the experience of it instead of killing things. A cynic might remark that this could be because hunting people is illegal in real life, and computer games thus offer an opportunity that you don't otherwise have. But if you look at all games having beautiful 3D virtual worlds you can visit, you'll find that the percentage of them which aren't murder simulators is tiny. Surely there must be a bigger demand for virtual experiences that aren't about killing!

And virtual reality might be the tipping point in a development towards more peaceful games. We know that soldiers, in spite of having trained for it, and in this day and age certainly having killed stuff in games, can suffer from PTSD when actually killing somebody for real for the first time. If VR makes the virtual experience more visceral, then maybe more people will to some degree feel uncomfortable with killing, especially killing virtual humans in a gory fashion. And that could give rise to totally new gameplay mechanics, e.g. a photo safari game where getting close to the animals without disturbing them is as important as the "aiming and shooting" part. We could have virtual world tours as time management games (comparable to 80 Days but in 3D VR). And there sure are lots of other ideas where the virtual reality can be used to create great experiences that don't involve killing. Murder simulators will always have their place in gaming, but not every game has to be one.

There is still combat in the mines section where you kill slimes and bats etc but it is entirely optional like most things in Stardew Valley.
Cannot stand the type of self-righteous, proselytizing of Polygon. There are risks when playing a VR game, as many are soon to find out when it becomes a more popular medium. The less restricted they are, the more people will need to decide whether or not they are comfortable playing them.

Those articles always remind me of religious rantings against movies with violence, nudity, etc in them except that now it is the left that does the raving.
The less restricted they are, the more people will need to decide whether or not they are comfortable playing them.

Most media are restricted in one way or another, with the exact nature of the restriction being strongly influenced by local culture. There is this old joke that you can't show a naked breast on US TV, unless that breast is currently being cut off with a chainsaw. While Europe tends to be less restricted on sexuality, and more restricted on violence.

The thing is that "new media" have to tread carefully here. Sometimes it is better to auto-censure to avoid being censured in a far harsher way. Absolute freedom is usually impossible, and often it doesn't really serve a good purpose. Why does a game like DayZ need the option to tie up and torture other players? Why would a more realistic VR version of a game need such an option? Why would a game need mechanics that allow sexual harassment? I'm not part of the political correctness brigade, but the question why we would need this sort of "freedom" in VR games is one that needs to be asked.
I think the same argument could be made for a lot of movies though, too. Just look at the SAW series. Do we really need movies that show a mechanical device that rips open someone's chest cavity? Is it surprising that something that graphic falls under "entertainment" in the modern age?

When VR hits mainstream, I'm sure consumers will decide what kind of games and freedoms they want/feel comfortable with. And at the end of the day, we're talking about a platform that simply requires taking off the headset in order to end the experience. Publishers will find out how players react to certain stimuli and how their systems are being abused and find ways to stop it; not just to self-censor, but to protect their own bottom line.

Very much feel it is a faux-controversy. Let's get back to real issues, such as the War on Christmas...
I've never heard of a farmer who didn't kill LOTS of creatures.

I really doubt there is any danger of VR approaching a "real life" grade experience any time soon. If anything, it will get to the point of watching a wide screen movie, and gory entertainment seems popular enough there.

We're not going to cross the "line" where virtual and real merge for a while, and it will require far better resolution and tactile response. Until then, the brain will always be able to tell the difference between "fiction" and "reality."

When that DOES happen? I expect "murder simulators" to be very unpopular and only used as clinical psychiatric tools. Assuming, of course, the human race has survived that long... as the obvious and wide spread application for that would reduce the birth rate.
I think the same argument could be made for a lot of movies though, too.

My question isn't so much "why do murder simulation games exist", rather than "why are games that aren't murder simulations so rare?". Yes, there are violent movies, but there are also romantic comedies, non-violent dramas, and a host of other genres. But as the first commenter remarked, even Stardew Valley has an (optional) killing creatures part.
"Too real for me" is something I've been experiencing already with common videogames, maybe because I have kids, maybe because I'm 41, I don't know. I couldn't handle GTA IV (and GTA V) extreme sadistic violence, for example. Beating people for the fun of it, executions, and mych more.

The more real stuff becomes, the more it haunts my dreams. I noticed that I am enjoying simple games where even if you actually "kill", you just hit pixels in a game. Sometimes that doesn't happen and it triggers a "dammit, what am I doing?" effect.

No argument here. I've never played any of the "GTA" series, because quite frankly, I don't see the appeal of it. I think my tolerance for "depictions of realistic violence" in video games had reached it's limit already.

Sure, I've slaughtered villages in WoW because I ran into a guy on the road that said one of the villagers owed him money, and he'd give me half if I took care of them... but that's completely different, as the visceral aspect of the killing itself isn't the core of the game. It's more like moving counters from one side of the board to the other. And of course, as you're leaving the village, you can look back and see the villagers coming back to "life" as if nothing had even happened.
Another aspect of this, related to the second link in the post:

Remember 3D TVs? How they were "awesome" and the future? How many do you see now? None? The pain in the ass factor of a 3D TV (Wear the glasses, sit directly in front of it, etc.) was way more of a pain in the ass than the 3D was worth. Very little "3D content" was produced, so no one wanted them after the hype dissipated.

When I finish a raid in WoW? I can't get those damn headphones off my head fast enough! I would NEVER wear them when not using voice, they are too much of a pain in the ass, and I can't hear other things going on that might be important... like an animal on my porch or the house burning down.
My question isn't so much "why do murder simulation games exist", rather than "why are games that aren't murder simulations so rare?".

IMO the answer is "conflict".

Pretty much every story told in literature, film, games, has at its core some kind of conflict that needs to be solved. Astronomically speaking mankind is just a step ahead of wild beasts, sadly so far the only solution we came up with to resolve our differences is violence. Not always all out violence including murder, but always some kind of "I am stronger than you".

Video games reflect that, and the death of your opponent is the ultimate winning condition.
"I am not yet totally convinced that virtual reality devices are the future of gaming..."

I become more and more convinced that they are NOT the future of gaming at all. It's just a glorified monitor at this point, and there is no real reason to believe that will change.

The problem is the control interface. Even with a control system that you don't really have to "look at" like a console controller, you still have to use the controller to interact and move. Rendering the VR headset to being a glorified monitor.

Ok, you could say... "What if it came with wireless gloves, too? So you could touch things in the virtual game world?" Ok fine. How do you do anything else? At some point, and it happens pretty fast, pressing a button is just a lot easier. And, how would the wireless boots work when the gloves fail and the next step comes into question (pun intended.)

The problem is people want the "Holodeck VR simulator" and that's not going to happen at the very least, any time soon. It's the same thing with "3D printing", it's nearly useless at this point, unless you actually want to make prototypes or molds for casting prototypes... ok, that's one out of a thousand people. But people have this fantasy of pushing a button and a little appliance makes them a new phone or whatever.

As such, people just won't buy these things in meaningful numbers.
The non-violent games I have played include Portal/Portal 2 and a few other puzzle games, Uplink, Game Dev Tycoon, Offworld Trading Company, and the Guild 2. Racing games are the other big genre of games without violence.

I could see a demand for more Portal style puzzle games, but I'm not sure builder/manager style games work any better in VR (probably not as well).

However, I could also see more Telltale Games style of games, where you are "living" through a story that your decisions affect, and these would not necessarily require violence.

I do see your point, but I think the near-universality of violence is more to do with killing/defeating an enemy being a very concrete and satisfying win condition, where there is a general lack of alternative win conditions. The existence of VR really doesn't really create new win conditions to use instead. Also, VR doesn't have to mean realistic graphics. Defeated enemies could disappear in a video-gamey explosion of pixels or something similar.
I wonder if we might not see a certain split of genres re: "realism" games versus "immersive" games if VR takes off. It's not the precise wording that I want to use, but it'll do for now.

Basically, I'm referring to one subgroup of game players who are basically playing an idealized version of themselves in a game (like what Belghast does), who might seek out "real" feeling experiences and be more prone to blending emotions from the VR self and the real self. We would expect this group to feel potential sexual harassment issues more keenly, as they'd apply any emotions evoked onto the real self as welll, and possibly be adverse to too much gory violence or whatever.

On the other hand, I do think there's room for a roleplaying audience that are looking for games/VR that let them become different characters from who they are in real life. This would be similar to playing something like The Wolf Among Us, you're given a role, you're Bigby Wolf, here's how this character sees the world, here's the larger than life situations he gets into, it's up to you to get this character as your avatar out of them. VR then is a sort of more immersive, more interactive movie, that gives the player a perspective they wouldn't have normally - how it feels to be a tall person if you're short in real life, how it feels to be short if you're tall, how it feels if you're playing a woman when you're a man in real life, vice versa, unsoweiter.

We might expect that a more "real life, simulation" VR game where you play yourself, or an idealized version of yourself, might involve more peaceful scenarios where random violence, horror and other such stuff is much less common or popular. On the other hand, the "immersive" VR's selling point may be exactly that you get to experience being Ripley trying to cram yourself into a dark broom closet while the Alien sniffs around outside.
I think people are missing (except for Rugus) that probably as you get older your testosterone level drops and you probably become less kill happy.

No, the violent games will continue because 1. Testosterone 2. Young males seeking some kind of social recognition in a civilized world that doesn't need violent young men - and the only thing other young males respect is 'Kills!' 3. Millions of young men with money makes for a highly value target.

Sure, capitalist companies could try and engender a better culture amongst the next generation - but why the f' would they when it gives even a small chance of reducing their fiscal return?
@Cairo Silver: do you really think that "young males seeking social recognition" are a significant part of the gaming market? Yes it's a trick question, the answer is very clearly give in the ESA report: 18% of the population. And they definitely have less money to spend than the 30+ people with a job.....

I agree with bryksom that the reason for all the killing is that games are about conflict. In real life, of course, we have to tone down the conflict a bit as the death penalty is harsh. In video games, there's no real death penalty, and often people feel losing some 'progress' or waiting ten minutes is too much.

Of course the gaming reasons interact with the video reasons (fountains of blood are dramatic).

That said, there really are plenty of (non-puzzle) games that I wouldn't consider murder simulators.
Combat is an extremely easy way to inject tension, excitement, and conflict into a game. Writing a *good* murder mystery, or soap opera, or social situation that creates tension is actually really hard to do. But toss in some violence? Boom, easy rising action.
Helistar, since when is 30 not young? It's not the dark ages anymore where 40 was an old man.

Further, is that an independent report?

I'd be more convinced if the remaining 80% were somehow easily covered by the one product. If there's a spectrum of interests in the 80% that are all less than 18%, then the 18% still stands as the most easily targeted demographic.
This is still an argument predicated on how much people conflate virtual avatars with reality, or the empathy of such. We are still an enormous distance away from the point where virtual violence will "feel" like real violence or violent acts against real people to the extent that we are compelled to respond to it as if it were, and I would be surprised if the first gen VR coming up will bridge that gap.
Yay, here's to another return of point-and-click adventures!
Also, I happen to like racing-games.
Am I the future?

It'd be interesting to measure levels of road rage after playing violent games.

I mean no one goes out and shoots people after a violent game. But road accidents can have fatal effects and is a common part of daily life (where as gun play is not)
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