When Does Virtual Reality Violence Get Too Real?

by Joe Durbin • March 16th, 2017

I’ve killed a lot of people in virtual reality. Last night alone I wracked up well over 100 kills in just one experience called Pavlov VR. For each of my victims, I pulled out a gun, aimed for their heads, pulled the trigger and watched with satisfaction as their bodies jerked into lifelessness complete with low-poly blood spurts. Sometimes, if they managed to get too close, I even had to pull out a knife and slash them repeatedly. That’s a lot of violence.

With each kill my team’s score went up and each opponent I felled was instantly respawned for a chance to exact their own murderous revenge. Pavlov VR, Onward, and other games like them are quickly becoming the most popular VR games on the market. With VR shooters rising in popularity and prevalence a question must be asked: is it time to start considering the moral and psychological ramifications of shooting, attacking, and ultimately killing other humans inside a hyper-immersive VR headset?


Dante Buckley is the creator of the aforementioned Onward — arguably the most popular VR shooter available today. Buckley is a 20-year-old, self-taught game designer who built the entire game by himself. He is currently occupying a space in one of the world’s video game Meccas: the Valve offices in Redmond, Washington. UploadVR had the chance to speak with Buckley recently for a general interview and during our talk he expressed his growing concern with depictions of realistic violence in VR.

“Something that I’ve been thinking about lately is the ethics and the consciousness of violence in VR shooters,” Buckley said. “VR right now just doesn’t have enough power to create visuals that make you feel like what you’re doing in the game is real. It’s like you’re playing paint ball or like an advanced version of tag. But when things do start get more real for a game like Onward, or another first person shooter, there’s going to have to be a responsibility for people to consider.”

In Buckley’s mind, one way to address the issue as the fidelity of VR shooters improves would be to make the games more “casual” with a diminished focus on realism. This is somewhat surprising coming from the creator of a game like Onward. Right now, Onward’s main selling point is its realism. In this game when you die you’re dead for the rest of the match. There are no respawns, radars, or mini-maps. It’s just you, your team, and your gun. Despite the success that realism has brought to his game, Buckley says that he is prepared to take a different approach if there is no other way for the violence problem to be solved.

Video game purists have long turned up their nose at “violent video games create violent people” arguments, but it does seem that the debate should be given new light in the wake of such disruptive new hardware. VR games simply are not the same as 2D titles. The entire point of the technology is to make you feel immersed in your environment. Light needs to refract correctly, wind needs to blow with believable physics, and — in order to protect immersion — kills need to feel as realistic as possible.

As Buckley points out, right now no VR shooter is graphically powerful enough to truly make you believe that by shooting a digital enemy you’ve actually shot a living, breathing person. But that may not be the case for long. Upcoming VR games are already looking and playing better just a year after the hardware launched. Titles like Arktika.1 are jaw-droppingly beautiful, including the human enemies you’ll be shooting. What affects, if any, will this have on the human mind and spirit?

Arshya Vahabzadeh M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer at a VR startup called Brain Power and serves on the faculty at Harvard Medical School as a lecturer in psychiatry. We reached out to him to ask if a platform as immersive as VR could possibly cause people to contract real life psychiatric afflictions such as post traumatic stress disorder.

According to Dr. Vahabzadeh:

“Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is commonly caused by a directly witnessed real life event that is life threatening or violent in nature. Current clinical diagnosis of PTSD excludes exposures that occur through electronic media, including movies and pictures.

However, given the immersive and interactive nature of VR, and the increasing ability to stimulate a range of senses beyond sight and sound, including tactile and olfactory sensations, one has to wonder if at some point these experiences may result in the rewiring the the brains fear centers in a similar way to that seen in PTSD.

One could postulate that if a person felt the VR experience was real, that they genuinely felt they were at risk of harm, and that they did not have a way of voluntarily ending the experience, they could experience rewiring of fear circuitry of their brain in a manner similar to PTSD. They would then perhaps have a range of PTSD like symptoms. Clearly this is an area that will need further research as immersive technologies become more realistic and widely used, and potentially abused.”


For now there seems to be a growing consensus from both medical professionals and VR game designers: violence in VR is not a problem…yet. But, as the industry matures so too should its understanding of the types of effects it can create and the scope of damage it might do.

What do you think? Does violence in VR concern you? Let us know in the comments below.

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What's your reaction?
  • GodMk2

    The answer to the headline is yes. Of course. The moment the answer becomes no, then the armchair offended have won. VR makes thing more real for sure. In fact for the first time ever in an FPS when playing Onward I felt remorse when killing another player. Just something about the way they slumped to the floor hit a low level pang of sadness. Likewise I’ve done the execution kills, where you are making sure someone can’t respawn and you hear the other player (jokingly) shout “you don’t have to do this… I have a family”. But there is a feeling of this is wrong. It also flashess into your mind they are going to be stuck in the lobby watching the rest of the game, not playing.
    There’s also the issue on how VR affects memory. I can still see most things I’ve done in VR as if they were real world events.

    But the counteract all this, at no point have i ever forgotten this is a videogame and not reality. I don’t take off the headset and think, right where is my hunting knife I’m going to run out and kill some real people. I don’t sit there worrying about how many players got killed as usually my kill/deaths ratio is negative lol.
    In summary I’d say VR is awesome, it makes games give you feelings, can make you flinch, I jump, and feel, but ultimately they are still games and a medium, with just the same emotions a good film can bring out of you.

  • xebat

    Fuck off social justice warriors. Even asking this will lead to more exaggerated overblown moral zealots coming out of their holes to undermine freedom of speech, creativity and expression in VR.

    • Leper Messiah

      If your main concern is that you can’t defend VR, maybe your convictions are not very strong.

      • Frid Kun

        You do not argue with terrorists and the loonies.

      • bilabus123

        VR doesn’t need defending. The “V” stands for “virtual,” which for the slow, means when paired with “reality,” “not real.” Not real electronic doo-dads don’t need any more defending than do television, books, movies, or drug-addled fever dreams.

        • Leper Messiah

          That right. Just like a “flight simulator” couldn’t possibly make you a better pilot.

          • Flimmy

            You people have existed for years, blaming movies, rock n’ roll, hip-hop, and now games. Maybe you think you’re doing good but it’s frankly disgusting and insulting how you undermine real issues with such blatant scapegoats. The issues being bullying mental health and education.

            Little Billy didn’t go shoot up his school because it looked cool in X movie, sounded cool in Y music, and was fun to do in Z video game. He did it because of likely years of continuous bullying and from that, poor mental health. Taking the “easy” route and blaming fictional content is both undermining serious issues, and stifling progress in those areas.

            The discussion has not changed from 2d games 3d games and now VR. Just a click-bait title.

          • DeafeningSilence

            Now that’s a stretch. Training simulations are very different then psychological conditioning due to performing a simulated task.
            The question is, is a psychopath attracted to violent content or does violent content create psychopaths? This carries every exposure of any individual to any external stimuli. Many people can read the same book, some find inspiration, some find hope and others yet will find a reason to commit violence. What’s unique is the individual and what they bring to the book and in turn what they take from it.

            After playing a game where the player is able to fly, how many players would continue to believe they can fly after the game has finished? This shows a definite distinction and strong ability in the human mind to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Concepts of play and make believe are part of the human psychological makeup. Not every child that plays Army men or Cops and robbers will grow up to be in the military or serving time in a penitentiary. Nor will every child that plays Doctors and Nurses seek a career as a medical practitioner.

          • A psychopath is normally someone with personality disorder, and the term you really looking for is ‘mentally ill’ and sadly there have only been a few legitimate studies, but they have been buried due to the push to show no ill effects by the game industry.

          • I have seem to lost your reply to my last comment. But let me say first I am not opposed to violent games, I have played my share of them and like them. I also played a lot of physical sports, including some boxing, Karate, and wrestling, so I agree that many people can play these games and not act violently in the real-world, but my concern is those who for whatever reason are not getting diagnosed and medical treatment and also playing this violent games. There are few studies done in the 2007-2009 when “video gaming addiction” was the other issue at the time, and it did show some people were more susceptible and showed higher elevations of neuro-chemicals associated with anger & rage and when interviewed normally had different responses to how they felt towards other players and how they would respond if they there in real life than the majority of subjects. With video gaming being so physically isolating, we have no way of measuring how a person is being affected in the long run. This is why most “shooters” are diagnosed with cormididity after the fact.

            With that being said, I feel we need to be responsible as developers on what we are developing and the possibility that one person may in fact use these games or tools to plan, train and experience an event before actually performing it in the real-world. What I have been doing in my own research and development, has shown that we are not creating extremely immersive environments, but also showing through a wide number of examples that many people react to the simulation as though they were real. For instance, I am using a Airsoft Walther PP 99 CO2 Blowback replica with a new Vive Tracker mount I invented that allows a very convincing experience. The purpose of this research and development is to create an awareness VR app called “Active Shooter Simulator,” for educational centers to set up and allow those making policy that just allowing a person with target shooting experience, that finding and shooting an assailant in a room full of students who are also being affected by situation; if not in a full panic state that if you are going to use your weapon, you better be sure that you can react in a heightened emotional state. Of course the VR simulator will not replace proper gun training and should not be used until you have proper training, which is why I won’t make the tech and the simulator available to the public.

            One more thing to keep in mind, I have also created a “shock wrist/collar” BT device that applies a mild shock whenever you are hit. The purpose of this at least in a simulator, is to provide a mild discomfort when you have been shot to accentuate the screen and audio effects that run in parallel. Without actual real-world consequences we find it more difficult to react in realistic manner to a synthetic situation and no learning actually occurs.

          • bilabus123

            Well, not a great comparison, it’s more like you’re saying “IF YOU CRASH IN FLIGHT SIMULATOR–YOU DIE FOR *REAL!*”

    • What is your opinion of using VR for pedophilia? Or the fact there are social games specifically to entertain pedophiles? Do you think they deserve the same rights you are arguing for here? One could say since they are only acting out in VR that there is no harm done? Sadly, the studies have not shown that, as was the case in undercover sting operation “Sweetie.”

  • indi01

    Of course it’s right. They are not real.

  • Mario-Galouzeau de Bocsa

    At this point, I don’t see why not. VR is way more immersive than flat screen, no doubt, but not THAT immersive… yet.
    If it gets too realistic and uneasy, we still have the option of replacing humans by robots or zombies. Devs didn’t wait for VR to do that.

    • Xilence

      But get this, some people aren’t bothered by it so let them have the games they want. If you don’t like it, play the robots and zombies. I hear Raw Data is friggen’ epic! Seriously, if you don’t like something, doesn’t mean someone else has to not like it too. See what I mean? We can all be gamers together and love what we love.

  • polysix


    it’s not real.

    that’s the whole fucking point.

  • wowgivemeabreak

    Of course it is OK. Anyone who thinks otherwise should just go kill themselves right now so they’re not having valuable resources wasted on them.

    • Good profile title, but sadly some of us with different viewpoints will not just wither up and die so you can consume the resources I need to survive.

  • Get Schwifty!

    Yep – in fact I would say stabbing, shooting or killing people in VR is even better than in 2D 😛

  • Passenger_Zero

    Did the writer just start playing video games?

  • mellott124

    Yes. Next question.

  • NooYawker


  • shanemn

    The fact that 99.99% of people are not murderous psychopaths, is enough. I think consumers will do a good job of policing themselves. I have faith that if someone began to have even a hint of antisocial behavior because of a game (regardless of how immersive it is), they themselves would start “considering the moral and psychological ramifications”.

    • This has not been the case, if anything it has only strengthen their conviction they are superior to those they are killing virtually, especially if it is another human behind the avatar. But one must know what really drives someone with personality disorder before assuming we will police ourselves. Sadly, we don’t do a good job of that on many narratives, even when video games are not involved.

      • DeafeningSilence

        I think that is the point, mental illness is a societal problem and not specific to video gaming. From what I have read It seems that you are suggesting in this thread, that because a very small amount of people may utilise a knife as a weapon, that we all should have only plastic butter knifes to prevent them being used as weapons. Society seems more and more to think along the lines of the perpetrator as a victim, and it’s our responsibility to protect the victims. In an example, someone reads a book and then commits a violent crime similar to what they read in that book. When did we change to saying the book is responsible and not the individual for their own actions? By default isn’t any individual who is capable of murder or violent crime mentally ill?

  • Anon “SaviorNT” Field

    Funny how I was the one that, more or less, originally brought this up, right after Oculus started up their forums. I also mentioned the PTSD like symptoms that one could “achieve”. Not that I am against violence, I just feel that developers should take the psychological effects into consideration during development.

    • Dez Tron

      Kill yourself.

      • Leper Messiah

        You’re dead inside.

        • hurin

          Are you triggered? Suicide will solve that.

          • Leper Messiah

            Fools and extremists are always so sure of themselves. Wise people are so full of doubts.

    • Xilence

      I’m sure consideration may be taken but honestly, I don’t think it’s that much of a problem. If you can’t handle it, don’t play it bro. No one has the right to censor or otherwise restrict my media because others have issue.

    • hurin

      Lol! The only thing developers will take into consideration is the vallets of Gamers.
      This is our world, and your opinions are the dirt beneath my boots.

  • Jonas

    >Video game purists have long turned up their nose at “violent video
    games create violent people” arguments, but it does seem that the debate
    should be given new light in the wake of such disruptive new hardware.

    And vaccine purists have long turned up their nose as “vaccines cause autism” arguments. Doesn’t mean they’re *wrong*. The claim was stupid to begin with, and if that wasn’t enough, every scientific study conducted has found no such link existing. So fuck off.

  • ker2x

    VR will make the shittiest murderer ever when they’ll realize they can’t teleport behind their target, can’t dodge a bullet in slow motion, or realize that a kick in the guts actually hurt for real 😀

    • That is funny, but sadly some mentally ill people do not have your awareness of this and will act even though the consequences are never in there favor.

  • Simon Clarke

    The answer to the question. Yes. Yes it is. Anything else betrays an inability to separate fantasy from reality

  • Neptunium

    Idiots everywhere. They’ve taken over!

  • MrLonghair

    If somebody cannot take killing or being killed in VR, they have the ability to do something about it. If a VR experience makes me recollect the traumatic memory of drowning as a child or the other wonderful things that helped make me the man I am today, I can choose to do my best to deal with it and consider it a safe form of treatment that does not get me wet, I can opt to spend my time with another VR experience, or I can do something else entirely and (gasp) take the headset off.

    So hell yes it’s okay to kill in VR. (Also, give me tips on VR with the most realistic water and under-water experiences, I’d like to be able to learn to swim some day without panic attacks.)

    • CazCore


  • MosesZD

    I think you need to find something else to do with your life than trump-up non-existent dangers and moral panics.

    Seriously, the silliness of moral panics is long and fruitless. Just in my lifetime:

    1. Rock-and-roll didn’t destroy society despite the on-and-off again moral panics we’ve seen since the 1950s.
    2. Video Games do nothing to anyone but provide entertainment as far as science can tell yet people like you (left and right) have been stirring up moral panics since the 1980s.
    3. Dungeons and Dragons doesn’t make you a devil worshiping murderer. Yet we’ve had that moral-panic on-and-off since the late 1970s.

    I know there are more. But those are the most relevant.

  • Xilence

    Sorry, but I cannot fathom why you waste your time to write something so long when you or anyone else 1. Obviously have no rights to stop people, no matter WHAT happens in virtual reality and 2. Freedom of Speech is not just in the Constitution, it is a human right that should be observed by all.

    Oh and just in case if you guys were wondering if you wanted to tackle a different topic, it also applies to sexual things as well as violent things. Censorship has no place in a modern society.

  • Cats736

    >Is it Okay to Stab, Shoot, or Kill People in Virtual Reality?

    Yes, dipshit, it’s perfectly fine.

    >Video game purists have long turned up their nose at “violent video games create violent people” arguments, but it does seem that the debate should be given new light in the wake of such disruptive new hardware.

    The ‘debate’ does not change with the hardware used, video games do not cause violence.

    >VR games simply are not the same as 2D titles.

    Yes they are, games do not change just because you strap a fancy display to your face and use motion controls.. They are all games, they’re fictional, everyone knows this but dipshits like you seem to have a problem.

  • Always the same debate…

  • Chester Chesterton

    Hey, I’ve been playing RE7 and I don’t feel affected in any wa-….MUST KILL ALL HILLBILLY FAMILIES…. *leaves keyboard to remove shotgun from my wall mount*

  • Leper Messiah

    The irony is, the same people who will tell you about how convincing VR feels; the presence, the immersion, the realism, that’s it’s so much more than just having a screen strapped to your face… they will also tell you that it’s “just a game.” You can’t have it both ways, fellas!

    • Caven

      A person can have it both ways. No matter how real immersive or realistic VR may appear, it is in fact not reality. Just as in a Grand Theft Auto game, a murder spree in VR leaves nobody injured or dead in real life. Simulated violence comes in far more realistic forms today than VR. Whether it’s boxing, martial arts training, airsoft skirmishes, or even TV and film actors who use realistic weaponry to shoot at people who then have bloody squibs explode on their bodies, we already have plenty of cases where people use their real bodies in the real world to commit simulated violence with real or realistic weapons against actual people. And when it comes to boxing and martial arts, in many cases the violence is real, not simulated. We don’t suddenly have an epidemic of boxers, MMA competitors, airsoft skirmishers, Civil War re-enactors, and action movie stars maiming or killing people on the streets.

      Pretending to commit violence–or even committing actual violence in controlled, authorized circumstances–will never be the same as committing unlawful violence against another person, because the victim doesn’t actually exist in the former case. Should we subject someone who kills 20 people in a VR game to the same prison sentence an actual mass murderer would receive? Of course not, because nobody actually died in the VR game. It doesn’t matter how realistic the VR experience turns out to be, there’s not some magic threshold where characters in a VR game suddenly become real enough to have actual lives and rights, and there’s definitely no magic threshold where video game weapons suddenly become real enough to kill people with.

  • ectocooler

    Yes, it’s OK. What an asinine question to ask. You really need to get a hobby. Preferably one that takes you far away from us.

  • koenshaku

    He does have a point, I played Pavlov VR also and people seem really get off on the game and there is a surreal feel to it that is slightly disturbing. I didn’t play it for long though since the locomotion gives me a headache. >_>

  • Alnilam81

    Yes it is fine. I am not a moron and can unterstand the difference between reality and non-reality. If you struggle with realising what is real and what isn’t, and you enjoy killing while thinking it’s real then maybe YOU have issues. However, no one I know thinks games are real, just like no one I know thinks comics and movies (which have far more realistic death and murder) are real.

  • rabs

    We are still very very far from something that can be misunderstood with reality, even if it’s the most immersive medium right now. I guess it’s mostly risky for kids development, like violent things in other mediums. And of course for crazy people, for which VR will be another mean to display a symptom.

    People afraid in VR do uncontrolled panic reaction instead of properly removing the headset, but it ends the experience anyway. To create a PTSD, I guess it would require a hacked direct brain interface with safety disabled, or some very coercive methods added to current technology.

    On evaluating entertainment, we often see people concerned about the one liking what they see as frightening or disgusting. That’s a normal reaction, but people don’t experience the same thing because of different perception and taste.
    For example, for me the cartoonish level of gore and jumping helmet in Pavlov VR is part of the fun and impact feedback.

  • DeafeningSilence

    If an individual is in such a weak mental state that they cannot separate actual reality from fantasy, I would say VR violence exposure is the least of their worries. With factors such as Religion, Politics and Mass Media saturating almost every aspect of modern society. All of which have the potential to push people to extreme mental states.

  • Florian Hoenig

    Since when is Valve in Redmond? #journalism

  • Elijah

    Bruh I get 60 kills PER ROUND

  • Elijah

    This article is completely fucked. One should stop wasting their time on the “ethics” of this. Humans have been killing humans for hundreds of years. If anything this is a form of release on some primal level.

    The thing we SHOULD address is the possibility of actual mental TRAUMA that performing these acts can do to a more mentally unstable individual.

    This is still very new technology, let’s take care with who we expose to it, friends.

    Also , meet you in pavlov. I’m the guy winning every round with a glock. 3 headshots ftw

  • Chris Orris

    Agreeing with the comments here that killing in VR should be fine. But interesting how many of those comments, that say virtual killing doesn’t make them hateful/violent, are telling people to f**k off and kill themselves.

    • Graham J ⭐️

      That’s what I was thinking; it’s a pity so many people can’t elucidate their opinion without vitriol.

  • Guy Smiley

    hey remember when everyone was saying violence in video games was so bad remember? I do remember the studies that were shown that those that were released of stress through violent games tended to be less violent? I remember that study! so. lets talk about VR cause VR is different so it must mean violence will cause more people to be violent right?…….. go right on and fuck yourself you fuck can’t believe I wasted my time reading this article then wasted more time writing my comment

  • Graham J ⭐️

    I prefer to reserve concern for problems that are real, not hypothetical. It is an interesting thought experiment to wonder whether the amount VR affects subsequent behavior will increase in proportion to its realism. If it’s shown to be true in the context of violent games then there may be cause for concern, but not before.

    There are plenty of very real problems to deal with in the world. Let’s focus on those, not hypotheticals that could damage this nascent technology.

  • GamesMadeMeViolent

    When I was a kid we played war and hit eachother with sticks. if you got hit you where “dead” until the others on your team either won or got hit. Super realistic. We all grew up to be killers. I sexually identify as an Apache Attack Helicopter.

  • Toahero

    Look up the “Fear of Heights” VR demonstration.

    It was an experiment where people walked across a plank to rescue a stuffed kitten, while the VR headset made it appear that they were 30 stories off the ground.

    Yes, it’s a fabrication, but that didn’t stop people from screaming, panicking, and practically crying as they crawled across a beam 5 inches above the floor.

    In addition, VR has been proven effective in therapy and treatment of PTSD and Social Anxiety Disorder – Just because you’re in a game, doesn’t mean the situation can’t mess with your your brain. While it is currently being used for good purposes, there’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t have a negative effect in other circumstances.

  • Pyro

    Never, it’s a bunch of pixels on a screen. If you can’t psychologically handle it and separate reality, you shouldn’t play it. You probably shouldn’t even have access to the internet. When has violence ever been undebatably “too much” in any movie or non-VR 2D, even 3D video game?

    • Sadly many things we regulate are because people cannot do the right thing without it.