Oculus Shooter Bullet Train Complete Playthrough: Response to Facebook pulling the VR game from CPAC

Today, I woke up to an article from Gizmodo about Facebook pulling a demo for a virtual reality shooter called Bullet Train from the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). I remembered that when I first got my Vive (and set up Revive) that I scoured the Oculus store and downloaded every free Oculus game, one of which was Bullet Train. This games drops you into the role of a soldier (?) who needs to defend him/herself from an army of soldiers and a giant flying robot. I played through the game months ago, but I wanted to give it another go. The game is very short; the entire playthrough is a little under six minutes. You can watch my playthrough recording below if you'd like. 

It is a tricky stance being against assault-style semi-automatic weapons and then being a fan of shooter games. I do not own a gun. I have never hunted. I've held a gun only a few times courtesy of my father-in-law and grandfather. I have memories of my grandfather handing me rifles in his backyard and asking me to shoot at trees when I was young on a few occasions. I also remember my father-in-law bringing a rifle to my home only a few summers ago because we had a serious groundhog problem in my backyard. We lived in the country where if you had a problem with little critters, you took care of them yourself. So, he thought it would be a good idea to bring up his rifle and put an end to my problem once and for all. So, after taking a few shots himself, he handed me the rifle, and since I had almost zero experience, I held it too far from my shoulder and when I shot, it kicked back and gave me a shiner. The groundhogs were safe. I haven't shot a gun since. Yet, playing a video game shooter can be a thrilling, pulse-pounding experience. Some of my favorite games including Halo and Overwatch are shooters, where the only goal is to shoot the enemy, which, of course, is completely justified in the game world. You cannot win the game without killing.

So, I played through Bullet Train again and this time I thought about other console shooters that I have played that are way more violent than this one: Call of Duty, Doom, Left4Dead, Bioshock. Howevcr, playing a shooter on a console and playing one in VR are two completely different experiences. In VR, it feels very real. You are aiming with your actual arm. You are pulling the trigger with your actual fingers. When someone is close range and you are shooting at them, it can be very tense, because they are. literally, right in front of your actual face. I also thought about whether or not I was the good guy or the bad guy in this game. There is no story and the bad guys have red uniforms, which, I guess, can indicate "bad", so I assumed I was the good guy trying to stop some sort of siege; however, it is ambiguous. The official game description reads, "Use motion controls in the role of an agent undergoing an infiltration simulation set inside a modern train station." I still think this could swing either way. 

Anyway, I can completely understand why this game was pulled from the conference; however, there is a war against violent video games going on right now and this news regarding Bullet Train being pulled will only give those against them more ammunition. Games, like movies, do have ratings; a game rated MA is not meant to be played by people under 17. Shooter-type games, like Bullet Train, can be extremely violent. Some are cartoony like Borderlands, but some look very real like Bullet Train, and parents should monitor their children's game activity like they would monitor anything else they are doing or watching. However, I have played violent video games (as have millions of other people) since I was much younger than 17 and have had no desire to ever touch a weapon in real life. Patrick Markey and Chris Ferguson over at Rolling Stone recently wrote an article stating that only 20% of school shooters ever played violent video games with any sort of regularity and that there are no studies that show that because they played them, they decided to commit murder. I can say, however, with absolute certainty that 100% of school shooters had access to or owned guns though - many right under their parents noses. But, that is besides the point.

As someone who wants to be a scholar, I think it is important to view this from both sides of the argument, and although I am a gamer, I want to put aside any biases I may have around this issue. So, maybe, I'll try to answer a few questions that just pop into my head: 

Why don't I let my children play Bullet Train or other shooters if they cannot influence behavior? Well, I didn't say that, so quit putting words in my mouth. :) My simple answer is because I don't want them to see or partake in violent activities.

Why don't I want them to see or partake in violent activities? Because I think they are too young. I really want to avoid exposing them to this side of human nature for as long as possible, honestly. Maybe, I don't think they are ready to separate the imaginary from the real. Their experiences may give them nightmares or cause them anxiety. Sidebar: my girls once played Street Fighter and afterwards attempted to drop kick one another. Does this mean if they play a shooter, they will want to behave like the characters? Perhaps, they would, but only as role-playing. Let's be honest: How many people grew up without ever having a pretend gun fight? I, for one, had them once or twice a week during the summer growing up out in the woods with a handful of neighborhood friends. I still do not or ever wanted to own a real gun. 

What is wrong with violence being a part of human nature? (Damn...I am really throwing some tough questions at myself!) Violence IS a part of human nature, I know, and I am not sure why I (or anyone else) would choose to play a game where you shoot people in the face for points. but for some reason, I do. I know people want to hunt for food and that war is an unfortunate part of human existence. I know that people like to watch car crashes and hack-n-slash horror films; I personally love horror movies. There is nothing 'wrong' with admitting that violence is a part of the human experience, but there is something wrong with pointing at one particular thing and saying, "It is because of that!" The world is far more complex. 

Maybe, Vygotsky can help shed a light on the effects of play. In 1978, he wrote, "A child starts with an imaginary situation that initially is so very close to the real one. As play develops, we see a movement toward the conscious realization of its purpose. Serious play for the very young child means that she plays without separating the imaginary from the real one."

If you apply this to any violent media or sex-related media including books, movies, music, and TV, you should be able to see that imaginary play involving those elements may negatively affect children if they cannot separate the real from the imaginary. Vygotsky is also talking about wee little kids here and definitely not teens, so maybe he can't help me after all. But, I do think EVERY experience shapes our identity. Every interaction, experience, encounter.

However, even if play is a "prototype" (as Vygotsky puts it) for actual real-life activities, it still does not mean that if a child role-plays at being a gunman, he or she will actually want to shoot someone in real life just as if a child role-plays at being a doctor, he or she will want to save someone's life the second they see someone injured. Play is play and real life is real life. If someone commits an act of murder, there must be something already within his or her psyche that allows him or her to do that. 

He finished the chapter on play by suggesting "play bears little resemblance to the complex, mediated form of thought and volition it leads to. Only a profound internal analysis makes it possible to determine its course of change and its role in [cognitive] development." I think people know this: Play is not real life.

Maybe, Hannah Arendt can assist with my thinking this morning? She suggests that those who feel powerless are more apt to violence even though that powerlessness is often an illusion. She wrote that "every decrease in power is an open invitation to violence". I read the Florida shooter had been removed from one school (several schools?) for his behavior. We could come to the logical conclusion more aptly by saying he was upset about his removal from the school than we could trying to argue that he played violent video games and then decided to reproduce those experiences in the real world. 

Did I answer that question? I donno.

Do you think violent videos games make people want to commit violent acts? (very direct question) No, but maybe violent media could bring out the worst in bad people. I also do think that real-life people and real-life experiences can harm children much worse than any game ever could. Being subjected to racism and sexism growing up can negatively impact a child moreso than their gameplay experiences. I think there are also two other issues that need to be examined: seriously mentally ill people and parental neglect - both of which exist in the real-world and not within a game. Those are topics for another day, but I do want to add that I was a teenager in the late 80s and 90s. I was free to roam the streets, the parks, and play whatever I liked. I was permitted to watch most films; my brothers and I would watch John Carpenter's The Thing when I was 8 years old on the reel-to-reel projector in our basement. People today, I would argue, know more about what their kids are up to than people back when I was a kid. True, video games have come a long way since then, but real life experiences are more influential in identity development than the media regardless of how it has evolved. 

Anyway, I found it interesting to sit here and think about this and about our current gun climate. Do I want a ban on certain guns? Yes. Do I want a ban on violent games? No. One is real life and one is not and there is no proof that violent play will cause acts of real life violence. I do think that, like anything else, parents should be cognizant of their children's gameplay just as they should be monitoring their children's online activity, movie watching, music listening, etc. We all should talk with our children including those we teach about these issues as well as the concerns of those for and against violent video games, but there is something bigger at play here in 2018. Something is fundamentally different with the way people interact and the way people think about themselves and about others. 

I want to end with another Arendt quote that I found interesting and relevant. She wrote,"the socially conservative come to deplore violence in general, exposing themselves as either idiotic or hypocritical, feeding the worst fantasies of their enemies, so that both— oddly refuting their own arguments—then demand more violence against their opponents: that is good violence or legitimate violence, not just any old violence."

Those conservatives who support gun rights and choose not to remove access to them in our "real" world are the ones upset about them being in games - in our imaginary spaces. That, to me, is the strangest thing about all of this. But at the same time, I wonder why I can play through Bullet Train without any reaction to the violence. I am positive my grandfather - with all this guns and conservative ideals - would call me crazy for finding entertainment this way.