Real Violence, by Jordan Wolfson, has torn opinions. Hosted by the Whitney Museum in New York, the artist’s installation prompts visitors to don Oculus headsets and noise-canceling headphones, and to grab a rail for balance.
The viewer is then thrown into a virtual New York street scene, where the artist himself, staring vacantly, proceeds to beat and stomp a man to death on the sidewalk, cracking his head with a baseball bat before kicking him so hard his jaw hangs open. All the while, the sound of a Jewish Hanukah prayer drifts through the virtual air.
This lasts for two minutes and twenty five seconds. Few make it the distance. This kind of violence, of course, occurs everywhere in the world, all the time. But it has not shielded Wolfson from accusations of providing cheap thrills–and even debasing the human experience (the video’s victim was animatronic, in case that matters).
Whatever the merit of his latest artwork, Wolfson’s VR horror asks extremely serious questions of the platform, as its star rises from tech sideshow to mainstream entertainment.
Virtual reality, we are told over and over, is the future of gaming, movies–even apprenticeships. That is almost unquestionably true. Just hours before visiting the Whitney Red Herring’s correspondent was at a ‘VR Bar’ in one of Brooklyn’s trendier corners.
Games that were pretty shoddy just a year or two ago have been honed: shooting robots and climbing candy were immersive and immensely fun ways to spend a lazy afternoon. A week before, at CeBIT, the world’s largest computer trade fair, entrants delighted at virtual quidditch. One tone-deaf display pitted gunmen against airport foot-traffic: a game whose content seems particularly tragic given the events unfolding today in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Real Violence decontextualizes such brutality to an unsettling degree. Of technology, it asks: how real is too real? If we witness an event so cruel and detached from humanity–even if that event is staged–where does it leave its viewers?
VR will very soon have progressed to the point where, rather than shoot robots in a spaceship, players will be able to mete out fatal blows on realistic-looking human beings (and will even, perhaps, have the chance to decide which real-life people they will be able to maim/kill/have sex with). Even the VR Bar’s owner, Kishore Doddi, admitted he would not be taking out a long lease. “Soon you won’t have the cables, or the console, or even a TV,” he said.
Back in 2015 developers admitted to Wired that VR violence could overstep a cultural line. “It’s more intense, you can look away from it but you can’t escape it,” said Guerrilla Games’ Piers Jackson, who is now at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe.
Moral indignation at something new is not, well, new: back in the Victorian years critics worried that motor cars speeding above 15mph could permanently damage the human brain.
But VR is different. We will ‘live’ the experiences developers create for us. They will be personal, and invasive.
Sex and violence are the core pillars of all forms of entertainment: VR is no different. The tech industry is great at many things: self-regulation is not one. Wolfson’s work is flawed in its execution, but it asks a serious question of one of tech’s hottest topics. Whether developers will be responsible enough not to attract censure is questionable. At the VR Bar, Red Herring’s reporter asked a friend whether the robot game would have been as fun had the robots been real people.
Their conclusion: probably.