Preparing for the Next Big Games Controversy

Oculus Rift at CES
Anthony Canepa tries to catch virtual snowflakes while demoing the Oculus Rift at CES. Click for video.

In the wake of national tragedies, games are back in the spotlight as the scapegoat. And while it’s tiresome to once again be on the defense against clueless pundits slinging unwarranted blame in the name of higher ratings, there’s something warmly familiar about being in the public eye as the bad boy. Because we’ve been here before – and if you take a look at what the future holds for the game industry,you’ll quickly realize that we’ll be here many times again in the future.

If you look back at the history of the media blaming videogames, recognizable patterns start to emerge. Let’s take a look at some high-profile instances:


This is by no means a complete list, but it’s easy to identify some of the reasons behind the media’s repeat negative attention and blame directed toward the games industry. Technological advances that allow games more realistic graphics open the door for more realistic depictions of violence and sexual content; social malcontents who go on to do unspeakable things, yet play the same games as millions of others, are cited as cautionary tales for overexposure to games; and the very real occurrence of videogame addiction has risen in prominence in the US and abroad, fueling distressed calls to neuter the capabilities of the medium as a whole.

Yet nothing will prepare the industry for the social backlash that may come in the near future.

“Oh my god, this is crazy… It’s exactly like what you would think the Matrix is.”

John Carmack and the Oculus Rift
John Carmack demos a prototype of the Oculus Rift at E3 2012.

At CES, the Oculus Rift was available for some attendees to try. There’s a video circulating of a few attendees trying out the hyped VR headset, focusing on their dumbfounded reactions on being immersed in, what seems to be, the promise of virtual reality finally brought to life.

It looks exciting. It looks innovative. It could allow a sweeping number of innovations in videogames that haven’t been attempted due to technology barriers.

And, given the proper mix of circumstances, it could also bring the wrath of the public down on the industry like never before.

“If you’re, standing you’d have – your body, your brain just naturally tell you ‘start walking.’”

Imagine the first time somebody puts on the Oculus Rift and, totally enveloped by a virtual world, walks into a door. Or into the street. These are terrible things to have to consider, especially since the unique experiences that will be made possible by this technology look sublime, but if we don’t start thinking about them now, the next Joe Liebermans and Jack Thompsons anxious to blame the industry for more endemic problems will do it for us.

“When you put headphones on and you’re in the game with this thing–” “We lose some reporters that way.”

On the other hand, what if the Oculus Rift fails? That doesn’t prevent what’s to come – not with Google Glass and the fruits of Valve’s experiments in VR and wearable computing on the way. The industry is taking tentative but meaningful steps toward virtual and augmented reality, and for the first time, we have the technology to do it right.

There will be first-person strangling games. There will be sex games. There will be vertigo-inducing simulations that will make players nauseous, or worse. How we prepare for their emergence, and our response to the world at large, is critical to making sure this next step for our industry continues its transition from a niche activity to a global cultural juggernaut, while preventing the more extreme examples from drawing attention away from the significant, meaningful cultural experiences that are being created.

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