Augmented Reality Games and Ethical Desensitization

Beloved American author Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Fig. 12._ GTA

A scene from Grand Theft Auto

Few issues are more hotly contested in contemporary social science as the question of whether violent video games contribute to violent behavior in children.  There is evidence on both sides of the debate. All of this research, however, has been confined to present-day, two-dimensional media. Although video games are interactive, they are still a 2D simulation on a flat screen.There is every reason to expect that augmented experiences will have a far more powerful effect on our habits and thought patterns, precisely because AR is designed to be perceived exactly as we experience actual, physical reality.

Unlike—or, at least, to a much greater extent than—traditional video games, AR can convey muscle memory, “a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.” As suggested by the common phrase “it’s like riding a bike,” many believe that muscle memory cannot be un-learned, but rather, at most, only covered over with new habits.

Industry and the military alike have already lauded AR as a training mechanism for this exact reason. In each of these examples, and countless others like them, the goal is to acquaint a person with the movements and sensations involved in a particular task through repetition, until it becomes second nature to them. When those tasks are (in reality) dangerous or intimidating ones, such as welding or warfighting, the goal is also to desensitize the user to that fear in the augmented simulation before they encounter it in the flesh.

There is no principled reason why playing games in this manner would not produce exactly the same sorts of muscle memory and desensitization. Indeed, the growing use of gamification in various industries suggests that many of the “serious” training programs will have game elements in them, and educational “games” are (as with today’s variety) likely to include many “educational” aspects. So there will be very little practical distinction between an augmented “game” and “training program.”

What will this mean for augmented video games containing violent, misogynistic, sadistic, or other escapist role-playing? We know by both intuition and actual examples that the demand for such content is, and will be, high. One of the world’s most popular video game series, Grand Theft Auto, is notorious for rewarding players who commit random acts of unprovoked violence and for engaging prostitutes to gain “health.” This is just one example in the long-running controversy over sex and torture in video games.

Bringing games like these into the augmented medium will change the debate on whether it is ethical or socially responsible for anyone—let alone children—to play such games. If repeated experience through AR simulation is so widely acknowledged as a training tool in every other facet of life, it will no longer be plausible to deny that similarly repeating violent and prurient actions in the same manner will have the same effect. Just as AR uses high-resolution 3D video and haptic feedback to impart muscle memory to a surgeon, welder, or soldier, so too will Augmented Grand Theft Auto players gain muscle memory of what it is like to steal a car, torture a rival, or bed a prostitute. It seems inevitable that such training will encourage players to replicate those behaviors in real life, if only out of ingrained habit.

In some senses, though, whether that proves true will hardly even matter at that point. By repeatedly simulating the actions and experiencing the consequences through their own physical senses, the effect on players’ own ethical sensibilities may be the same as if they had committed the actual acts. They will, as Vonnegut warned, have become what they pretended to be, with all the emotional desensitization and altered moral outlook that comes with it.

This post is adapted from my forthcoming book “Augmented Reality Law. Privacy, and Ethics,” to be published later this year by Elsevier’s Syngress imprint.