Grand Theft Auto V in Full Virtual Reality is Deeply Disturbing

I, like many of my friends and colleagues, am a strong supporter of virtual reality. I remember seeing early YouTube videos of a guy hooked up to a massive virtual reality headset suspended from the ceiling by a tangle of cords while walking along a conveyor-like platform that tracked his movement. Even though the clip didn’t even show what game he was playing, I was excited, but the cumbersome nature of the device made entering a virtual world seem like a luxury only the absurdly wealthy would ever get to enjoy.

Fast forward about 10 years and my dreams of total immersion are so close to realization. The popular VR headset, Oculus Rift, and the in-place movement tracker, the Omni, are available for purchase at a total price point just over $1,000. In just ten years, fully immersive VR has gone from completely inaccessible to a savings account emptying possibility, with the pricing forecast getting lower and lower each year.

One game I had imagined more than any other had to be the open world of Grand Theft Auto. Touring the vastness of Liberty City, meeting colorful characters and going into storefronts all excited me.  Not to mention the exhilarating idea of fighting my way through the endless sea of enemies brought on by committing a some petty crimes, like hitting a pedestrian with a car.  Virtuix, the folks behind the Omni, have released a video of Grand Theft Auto V being played using the Oculus Rift and their motion tracking peripheral, and I didn’t have quite the reaction I thought I would have.

My initial response was what I had expected.  Seeing the player’s movements translate directly to the screen had me clamoring to see when and how I could get my hands on the Virtuix Omni, but when the player entered a convenience store, things turned much, much darker.  The player then goes on to threatening and killing the clerk as well as many passersby outside of the store.

There’s something eerie about literally walking into a store, looking down the sights of a gun and into the eyes of a store clerk, even if it is all virtual.  It immediately creates a narrative between assailant and victim that wasn’t there when viewing the game through the window of a TV screen. He’s no longer an Apu-esque caricature, and it’s my personal choice whether to kill him or not.  The screams of nearby civilians immediately following the gunshots solidified the terror perpetrated by player actions in my mind.  I was, and even thinking about it days after initially seeing it still am, deeply disturbed.

The arguments are there that VR is a powerful piece of narrative device.  The people you play as in the Grand Theft Auto series are largely awful people, and seeing the world through their eyes is a breakneck way to deliver that message to players.  I could even see it causing emotional scenes, like pulling the trigger on Duck in Telltale’s The Walking Dead Season 1, that much more powerful, but in the case of Grand Theft Auto V, its meaning may take a backseat to just how terrifying the act of killing is.

All of Grand Theft Auto V’s clever, if at times blunt, commentary about the American dream and class warfare wither away when you see a video like this.  It is nearly impossible to show the Omni video to someone and explain to them the cultural significance of GTAV.  After attempting the feat with a nongamer friend of mine, she simply stated, “So in this game you just run around and rob people?”  Once the idea portrayed by the clip gets into your head, it’s nearly impossible to worm out.

Last year I got to use the Oculus Rift to play XING: The Land Beyond, and even though that game didn’t have the most realistic graphics, it felt stupidly real.  Despite the facts that I was holding an Xbox 360 controller in my hands and that every one of my senses except sight told me I was not exploring a tropical island, there were multiple times I found myself reaching out for objects in front of me.  It made me forget where I was, sitting down in a convention hall full of thousands of people.

I’m worried that the same sense of loss immersion during my demo of XING will be applied to Grand Theft Auto, or other violent games released in the future, by the mainstream press, who already have a history of blowing video game violence out of proportion. GTA V on Oculus Rift won’t make any person more violent, and it definitely won’t cause any deaths, but it does make the act of playing a violent game a lot harder to defend.  All it would take is a 30 minute demo to a news outlet for a video with a headline like, “What Murder Simulator Are You Allowing Your Kids to Play,” to be spread through the internet just like any of the other unsupported claims made by unsavory news outlets.

I want to emphasize that I’m not afraid of this getting into children’s hands.  If it does, that’s a failing of parents, not any of the companies related to the game or any of the peripherals used in the video.  I am worried about what this might do to a whole era of games that support full virtual reality.  What I had once envisioned as a device that would take classrooms to the surface of Mars so their teachers can explain first hand what unimaginable wonders are in our galaxy may in the future be used to simulate weapons to an unprecedented degree of precision.

We have been working so hard to define video games as an important piece of the tapestry of global culture, and now we may have to resort to the “it’s just a game” argument to keep virtual reality afloat. I have some serious concerns that we are actually going to be taking steps backwards, not forwards like I had thought, when we inevitably adopt virtual reality as a part of gaming.