The future for shooters in VR gaming

I was 11 years old when Jonathan Cott first brought a gun to school. It was bright red, or maybe dark blue – colours tend to fade first in the memory – and the paint was chipped at the corners. Cotty, as we called him, was always in deluxe kinds of trouble. Once, while we sat at our desks awaiting the arrival of a long-suffering English teacher, Cotty balanced a large cardboard box on the frame of the classroom door. When the teacher entered, the box fell over his head, trapping his arms in such a way that it took a good 15 seconds for the man to unsheathe himself by bobbing his head back and forth, fellatially.

Cotty’s gun fired potatoes, or, to be more precise, tiny chunks of potato. To reload the gun he’d simply plunge the barrel into a King Edward that he carried in his left hand, before squeezing off a shot. Potato fired from a spud gun hurts a lot more than you’d think – especially if it manages to find its way toward a budding bollock. At 11 years old I witnessed the mysterious power of the gun, and the way in which it transfers that power, instantly and sometimes irresistibly, to its holder.

Video game designers become familiar with this power early into their careers. The virtual gun is the most useful tool in the game designer’s box. Nothing better extends our reach into the television screen, granting, with a click and a phut, the ability to affect objects both near and far. Virtual guns make us feel powerful, suddenly and in illicit ways. Change the class of gun and you alter the game’s pace and rhythm.

Shotguns require thought and intimacy. Sniper rifles offer remote omniscience. Machine guns spray and niggle their targets, while you sprint about in frantic circles. In many blockbuster video games the gun nods away, stubbornly positioned centre screen, lending the appearance that the game world has been built around the totemic weapon. So prevalent is the digital gun that some arms manufacturers even license their weapons to game companies in the hope of an advertising opportunity.

For all its promise of new kinds of digital adventuring, guns appear to be a central tool in the emerging world of virtual reality, too. Their usefulness has translated intact across mediums. Shooting guns is the primary interaction of many of the early VR gaming releases (although not all: the droll Job Simulator, for example, has you wielding a frying pan as a chef, or a spanner as a car mechanic). In one early game you must assemble a weapon from a clutter of glinting pieces laid out on a table in front of you, before using it against incoming enemies. One ad for HTC’s Vive headset declares “VR is here” next to a photograph of a woman wearing the headset while shooting a virtual laser gun. So much for progress.

And yet, while guns have lost none of their efficiency in translation, the act of shooting in virtual reality has gained a new impact. Firing a digital gun at a digital human feels inconsequential in most video games, where we remain cognisant that the violence is playful, not in earnest. “VR breaks down that wall,” Scott Stephan, an American VR game producer recently told me. “Do I want to shoot people in VR? I really don’t think so.” BeAnotherLab, a research collective, believes that VR blurs the psychological line between fiction and reality so well that the medium could be employed by the military as a device for torture. The psychosomatic dangers of firing VR guns could finally dislodge the virtual weapon from its position of creative dominance in the games medium.

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