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Oculus, VR and the loss of childhood innocence

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Offline kat

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Being old enough to remember "The Before Times", and knowing the authors background, a subscriber got in touch the other day to ask for a second opinion about a nephew playing a first-person game using an Oculus headset and controllers. The just-turned-six-year-old, yes six, was playing a 'shooter', a PEGI 12 rated game, that used featureless dummies for 'bad guys' and 'oil' for blood. It wasn't expressly graphic, at least by 18+ Triple-A standards. So, no problem there per se, yet.

Whilst screen-casting a session the youngling could be heard saying things like "you just have to rip his arm off" and "just kill it using his arm" (the aforementioned arm having to be ripped off first, character then beaten with it to death). Okay, that is a little weird, at least for a just-turned-six-year-old to be explaining to their new audience member quite so enthusiastically.

As play progressed they had difficulty coordinating themselves while attempting more difficult tasks, as most six-year-olds do, so the relative took over to continue. And this is where things got... interesting, for want of a better word, not because of who was playing the game, or even what was being done, rather how, the actions the player had to perform to drive the game onwards.

In the game mechanics tutorial, and subsequently game-proper, the player learns weapons handling, loading, unloading, readying and so on. While not specifically an issue in of itself, within the context of a VR headset and accompanying hand controllers the problem this presents is immediate; the formation of reflexive bad habits and intuitions.

At face value this seems like a nothing burger so what gives?

The way we learn about the world as children is defined by play against, ultimately, the hard cold truths of reality; a child only need stick a folk in an electrical socket once for lesson to be learned (one would hope, cue attention-deficit over-compensatory mechanism feedback loop). Virtual reality may disrupt this reactive development because it presents to the user environments that are constructed from objects grounded in a still-being-learning-about reality almost wholly without consequence (vertigo, motion-sickness aside) - the same child sticking a virtual fork in a virtual socket may be rewarded with a colourful dopamine dripping lightshow that obviously, at least to cognisant adults, doesn't translate into reality [1].

Watching the games weapons training, a high-fidelity, high-resolution approximation of a semi-auto pistol and long-gun had to be loaded and unloaded with magazines similar to inRL, albeit in a much cruder, fumbling way, like trying to load a firearm with thick fingerless gloves. Seeing this it was immediately apparent that, while these processes might be considered completely harmless operations for the target audience (12+), or using a console controller or mouse and keyboard, in VR, using a headset and handhelds, the user has a much more visceral and proximate experience when performing these tasks, especially as they explicitly replicate reality; magazine picked up from the ground in one hand that has to motion and load the ammunition in to a firearm grasped in the other.

Although it was clumsy and downright instructor-takes-weapon-away-from-a-person dangerous activity to watch, it highlights an aspect of VR gaming that harbours the potential for negatively impacting a child's development. In other words, learning bad habits by rote so early in life may be consequential in later years, especially when picking up other skills that might use those same or similar actions. Imagine then, 5 or 10 years hence, when this youngling is given a lightsabre for the first time and simply can't reflexively help themselves, flashing, buzzy, choppy thing (where's the music)!. Turns out Darth Vader din do noffin after all.

Unlike PC and console gaming there never was any real risk of their being "murder simulators" because the user often interacts passively with a screen, watching from a fixed perspective and distance, and in circumstances that typically don't promote disassociation from the reality of the immediate surroundings, i.e. sitting on a couch, cheezits and dew close at by. VR on the other hand is different. It's immediate, visceral and replicatory in ways young minds, very young especially, may have difficulty delineating from reality - vertigo inducing experiences being an obvious example of this conflation, fake environments making the body reflexively behave as though they're real.

Just to be explicitly clear here, this isn't an bad-faith malformed, misleading or misrepresentative Jack Thompson or Anita Sarkeesain politicised argumentative fallacy that's anti-gaming, or anti-VR, rather a genuine question about young kids interacting with clumsy approximated alternative realities in ways that may misinform at best, malformed at worse, their developing understanding of the world and how things behave within it, themselves included.

And yes, where are the parents, the responsible adults in this story? Why does the child have access to this sort of hardware and/or content? Is it okay for young children to use this type of technology as they grow? And more broadly in doing so, does VR facilitate the formation of coherent and cogent pictures of the world they are growing in to, especially when play is often unattended and absent any authoritative parental direction or guidance? Is the possibility of a maladjusted future really worth five minutes of temporary peace [2]?

What can be done about this, pragmatically, realistically, in a fast-paced, technologically driven world where a social credit score (self, corporate or government imposed ) demands individuals participation and interaction or a price is paid - loss of services, ostracization etc.? How does one even ethically test for the potential of malformation in order to take preventative or remedial action? What strategies can be used to mitigate minds being enveloped by the unfeeling, unemotive, unloving embrace of the machine that consumes childhood innocence and the joy of just being silly.


[1] Outside a clinical setting (non-clinical) that assesses VR's usefulness as a means to treat various disorders, ADHD, Autism and other cognitive and emotive dysfunction (e.g. Google Scholar search "virtual reality child development"), very little research has been made into VR's influence on child development more generally, so the affects, if any, are unknown.

[2] Teen suicide in the US and globally has been on the rise since around 2008. Markedly since then there appears to have been a historically disproportionate increase in the number of girls committing suicide. "Key risk factors found were: mental disorders, previous suicide attempts, specific personality characteristics, genetic loading and family processes in combination with triggering psychosocial stressors, exposure to inspiring models and availability of means of committing suicide." - Suicide and Youth: Risk Factors. Similarly rates of anxiety, depression and other mental and cognitive disorders are on the rise (not necessarily accounted for by better diagnosis), young girls being particularly prone ... "The strongest risk factors for depression in adolescents are a family history of depression and exposure to psychosocial stress. Inherited risks, developmental factors, **** hormones, and psychosocial adversity interact to increase risk through hormonal factors and associated perturbed neural pathways." - Depression in adolescence.