Magazine article Psychology Today

Warped Reality

Magazine article Psychology Today

Warped Reality

Article excerpt

IT'S1944. You're an American G.I. on the Pacific island of Peleliu with X a Japanese tank creeping your way. You aim your bazooka and pull the trigger, sending the tank flying in a cloud of fire and molten steel. Somebody yells, "One down, keep it up!" You run toward the burning wreck and see a Japanese soldier, whose legs have been blown off, writhing in agony. You pull out your machine gun, point it at his face, and fire.

This execution of a wounded soldier is one of hundreds of savage scenes in the video game franchise Call of Duty, which has sold more than 250 million copies since its introduction in 2003. The game's violence is hardly unusual in this multibillion-dollar industry. Now imagine such scenes rendered in virtual reality, or VR-you could literally crane your neck down to see the Japanese soldier begging for mercy at your feet and, when you fire, watch his blood splatter up at you.

After years of anticipation, a host of "immersive reality" consumer devices are beginning to roll out, and game developers are hard at work creating games for the technology-perhaps its most obvious application. Yet some researchers and even industry figures themselves are nervous about the implications for players' mental health, arguing that known correlations between violent video games and aggression, coupled with the intensifying nature of immersion in VR, should give us pause.

"The most immediate concern is desensitization," says Victor Strasburger, a professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico who studies the effects of media violence on children. "When you're used to pointing a gun, whether in virtual reality or on a video screen, you're desensitized to the act of killing. I imagine that virtual reality will take Halo or Doom or Manhunt or Call of Duty and multiply the effects of desensitization by a factor of 10, if not 50."

Decades of research on violent video games haven't turned up any evidence that they alone cause realworld crimes, although they're not entirely benign either, despite insistences to the contrary by their passionate defenders. In a 2010 meta-analysis of studies of more than 130,000 people, published in Psychological Bulletin, Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman and colleagues found that "exposure to violent video games was significantly related to higher levels of aggressive behavior." Numerous other studies have found links to physiological arousal, stress, anger, and diminished empathy.

It's unknown how these factors may be affected by VR, in part because the technology is so new and the games aren't yet widespread. But one of the strongest indications about potential negative effects can be extrapolated from VR's ability to induce positive effects. VR-based therapies have been shown in lab studies to help with a wide range of behavioral health issues, including PTSD, depression, phobias, substance abuse, and body image disorder. Using sensors that measure galvanic skin response, researchers have shown that the illusion of immersion in VR along with the restriction of other stimuli fools the brain into perceiving the virtual world as real. The positive effects suggest that what happens behind the VR mask doesn't stay behind the mask and that there's a permeable membrane between virtual life and real life.

Jeremy Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist who heads the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, has studied the effects of VR for more than a decade, and his research has shown that immersion acts as an amplifying factor-which is why, he says, there should be cause for concern. …

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