I clearly remember hearing about a new kind of game back in the late 90s- a friend handed me a magazine while I was playing Descent. The article detailed a new genre of game: Alternative Reality, in which the content of the game connected with the real world, and the gameplay was woven through physical space as much as game space. The article focused on a game called Majestic. Even before law school secured my youthful cynicism, I was already concerned about the potential for disaster with this game: trespassing, distracted operating of motor vehicles, unfortunate confusion with actual crime- by both police and criminals, etc. The game, and the genre, never really took off, and so a lot of the issues got pushed aside and ignored for a decade and a half.
Then Pokemon Go came out.
I) How do we Distinguish Alternative, Augmented, Virtual Realities from Plain Ol’ Boring Reality?
As Jerry “Tycho” Holkins has pointed out, when someone is experiencing a reality that differs from the reality that others are experiencing, we usually conclude that the singular experience of reality is a hallucination of some kind. So, inviting a parallel version of reality is a bit ambitious for a species that still has some fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the capacity to perceive it. But humans tend to be ambitious.
Metaphysics has tried for several millennia to explain what reality is, and epistemology and philosophy of mind (now backed up by nascent efforts of neurobiology) have tried to understand how the human mind interacts with whatever reality is. These kinds of questions seem tiresome and sophomoric because they seem to be trying to solve a problem that we don’t have. Fortunately for philosophers, scientists, and lawyers, humans are good at creating interesting problems.
II) Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Social Media, and AI: A Combination for Confusion
The biggest danger isn’t really just immersing the human mind in an alternative reality. Literature and media have been doing that since the first tools of imparting imagination were created. However, there have always been clear markers about the borders of fiction and reality: the edges of pages, the entrance to the theater, the “play” button. Since video games started making recognizable depictions of reality, political bodies have been concerned with the ability of the mind to keep the fiction of the game separate from reality.
Some games have recently made a deliberate effort to blur the distinction between the game and reality. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, the villain Scarecrow created a visual effect that looked to the player as though the game-machine itself was having technical problems. Metal Gear Solid villain Psycho Mantis had similar behaviors, interfering with the usable controller ports on the Playstation, reading memory cards to learn what other games the player plays, and giving the appearance of technical problems with the visual display.
The connection of games to social media platforms and profiles perforates some barriers between games and reality. These perforations tear wider the more the game uses them. How much more of a leap would it be for a game to read the social profiles of a player and allow a villain to make threats against the actual friends and family members of the player?
This trajectory, combined with increasingly better artificial intelligence programs that can learn and affect both game worlds and real worlds, creates the potential for some bizarre problems that will still seem like science fiction even after the first time we read an article reporting on why a 22 year old is dead after a cat walked across her keyboard while she got a soda. It may not be long until someone is arrested in real life for a murder committed in a game due to a bug or an AI program getting out of control. Or, perhaps even more likely, some hacker will make use of the obfuscated and blurred boundary between the game and reality to either commit a crime or frame someone for one.
III) Pokemon Go: Traps, Muggers, Molesters
If these possibilities seem like pure fantasy, we should remember that we’ve already seen some of the first iteration of the dangers of people trying to handle two realities simultaneously. Pokemon Go serves as an example the nature of the problems and the sometimes tragic stakes of not handling the problems well. There have been reports of muggers and sex offenders using the game to their own malicious ends, as well as reports of accidental deaths and car accidents from the simple carelessness of distracted (or overly-ambitious) players.
If you die while playing Pokemon Go, you die in real life.
IV) Philosophy is still relevant
In 1967, Phillipa Foote introduced the famous “Trolley Problem”: a hypothetical dilemma of choosing to allow a train (or trolley) to kill several people, or choosing instead to intervene and divert the train to kill only one person. The problem was meant to probe people’s moral intuitions, as the goal was not so much the answer to the problem but the justification for the choice. Many people outside of philosophy dismissed this hypothetical as irrelevant nonsense that showed how stupid and meaningless academic philosophy had become in the enlightened, advanced age of the 20th century. Then, in the early 21st century, automotive engineers and programmers confronted the exact problem in determining how to program self-driving cars when confronted with similar dilemmas.
The story for the philosophical field of Aesthetics (the area concerned with understanding art and beauty) is similar. In the coming years, the interactive entertainment media industry will have to confront problems of understanding the boundaries of how, when, and why fiction is experienced. The analysis of essays on the use of the fourth wall and meta-humor will be important to cutting-edge games looking to balance novel thrills with consumer safety.
V) Solutions: Design for Safety, Be Helpful
The law can make some efforts to protect the public, but it’s almost always going to be reactive, not proactive, in these matters.
Developers should design for Audience Meta-Awareness. Yes, the much-touted quality of immersion adds fun to the experience. However, it is necessary to provide safety outlets for that immersion. The game creates a space- players need to always be able to see the door to the space and get out of it. They need to be clear about when they are in that space and when they are not. Games that actively seek out players to update them about the game undermine that distinction. Games that don’t allow players to put down the game, or don’t allow players to know when they have put down the game, are looking for problems.
The community can create safety nets, as we saw with Pokemon Go players acting as safety guards in potentially dangerous scenarios. However, if we’ve learned anything from the internet, it’s that groups of people knit together by cyberspace are not always a recipe for safety and well-being. Still, the more that games resemble mind-altering drug experiences, the more important it is to have a sober friend nearby.
4/14/17 UPDATE: One of my favorite web series on game design, Extra Credits, apparently also thinks this is an interesting subject. They provide a lot of examples of the concepts I addressed.