Monday, December 19, 2016

Arthur Answers, Part 4: Murder in the VR degree

In today’s question, Roger Green asks about something quite theoretical—and fascinating, I think:

Do you think murder in VR should be banned?

Roger provided a link to a piece entitled, “Murder in virtual reality should be illegal” by Angela Buckingham and originally published on Aeon. The tl;dr version is the final paragraph:

“In an immersive virtual environment, what will it be like to kill? Surely a terrifying, electrifying, even thrilling experience. But by embodying killers, we risk making violence more tantalizing, training ourselves in cruelty and normalizing aggression. The possibility of building fantasy worlds excites me as a filmmaker—but, as a human being, I think we must be wary. We must study the psychological impacts, consider the moral and legal implications, even establish a code of conduct. Virtual reality promises to expand the range of forms we can inhabit and what we can do with those bodies. But what we physically feel shapes our minds. Until we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us, virtual murder should be illegal. ”

I am always suspicious of moral panics, which is what the piece sounded like to me. Generally speaking, such things are based on spurious claims, and tend to suggest the broadest possible approach in the first instance, and that’s not usually the best approach. The main problem right now is that the facts don’t support her argument. Still, should be heed her call, anyway?

First things first: The virtual reality—VR—that Buckingham envisions doesn’t actually exist, and likely won’t for a while yet. It’s simply not possible to physically “feel” anything, so when she writes of a VR “murder” and says “you feel the density of his body against yours, the warmth of his blood,” she’s talking about something that is entirely imaginary. Someone using VR SEES things, but cannot touch or feel them. Which makes VR porn equally odd, though in a Rule 34 sense its existence is predictable.

Second, seeing things in VR requires bulky goggle-like things, and giving touch would require some sort of glove-like things. That’s not true to life at all, and that artificiality undermines Buckingham’s argument: If it’s no more “real” than a game someone might play now, how can it really be any worse?

I think this matters: If the experience is only visual and vicarious, I don’t believe that it can cause an increase in violence any more than watching violent movies or playing violent games do. The phrase “any more than” is important: I’m not suggesting that watching violence or taking part in it through a game or even VR can’t lead people to be more violent, merely that it’s no worse.

However, the science is still inconclusive on whether vicarious violence can lead someone to become more violent, with the preponderance of evidence suggesting that it doesn’t for otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy people.

But, what’s the harm, then? If the evidence is still unclear, why shouldn’t we ban VR murder until, as Buckingham says, “we understand the consequences of how violence in virtual reality might change us”? Because there’s no evidence to suggest that would do any good, either.

If something is made illegal, it doesn’t go away, it just becomes more difficult to obtain. But that’s just a pragmatic point: The bigger issue here is that banning and censoring things is a restriction on liberty, and that ought to be a last-resort, after there’s real evidence of clear and obvious harm that cannot be prevented in any other way.

By all means, restrict such things to 18+, and criminalise giving such materials to minors, as we do with other things deemed unsuitable for them. But banning them from all people when the evidence of harm is weak and the probability of censoring free expression is great? I can’t see any good that would outweigh the harm in loss of liberty.

There are a couple things that might persuade me to agree with Buckingham. First, if the technology were to evolve to be more like real-life—for example, entirely within one’s own head, Matrix-like. But that would raise all sorts of other questions and potential problems, too. The point here is that the artificiality of VR would have to be greatly reduced for it to pose any sort of unique threat.

The other thing would be if there was a lot more credible research indicating that vicarious violence permanently increases the propensity toward violence among otherwise mentally and emotionally healthy individuals. I’m a bit dubious that such a thing is likely.

So, at the moment, no, I don’t support making “VR murder” illegal, at least not until research provides good evidence that it could cause harm bad enough to justify the loss of freedom and liberty.

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