'Real' violence: coming to grips with the ethics of virtual reality brutality

Two VR artworks at this year’s Dark Mofo ask the viewer to endure confronting simulations. Are we complicit if they give us a thrill?

It’s morning, and the first thing that comes up in my Instagram feed is a picture of seven smashed and bloody faces. The photo is a gleeful post from Dana White, the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The caption reads: “Tony Ferguson’s last seven opponents.”

My Instagram feed is full of pictures of violence, interspersed with advertisements for butt-enhancing leggings. They are “inspo” pictures, because I’m interested in martial arts. To me, a pulpy face is a sign of peak fitness. That’s the personal context I bring to it.

It’s a 2D taster of what I’m later going to see in virtual reality form: Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence, one of two violent VR installations at Tasmania’s midwinter arts festival, Dark Mofo. This is a two-minute street scene in which the artist himself is rendered virtual and repeatedly stomps on and takes a baseball bat to the head of a defenceless man. People sat in passing cars don’t even turn their heads to look. Only you, in your headset, and you’re not stepping in to help either.

Perhaps there is more than one way to view the experience. I wonder, for example, if using VR to watch violence might be comparable to choosing to read details of violence in the news. It’s a very human response to imagine the worst. We gauge how much we personally could endure and what death might feel like when it comes.

But then, Wolfson has titled his work unambiguously. As he put it to Art News, “You might say to me, how is this real violence if it’s fake? The real violence isn’t depicted by the person suffering. The real violence is actually depicted by the person implementing the violence. And that’s me.”

He seems to be implying that by watching Real Violence we are endorsing a graphically violent act. The man Wolfson beat to near-death does not exist, but by putting on the headset we are complicit in deriving a thrill from it.

Back in 2005, Senator Hillary Clinton waged a war on violent video games, holding a press conference to propose a bill called the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would criminalise selling violent games to children.

To follow Clinton’s logic that violent games breed violent actions, experiencing a game in VR mode should, in theory, be far more extreme (although, as reviewers of consumer games point out, technology isn’t really up to speed yet so at this point the standard mode is more realistic).

Viewers watching Real Violence by Jordan Wolfson, a violent virtual reality artwork, showing at Dark Mofo in 2019.
Viewers watching Real Violence by Jordan Wolfson. Photograph: MONA

Philosophy professor Thomas Metzinger, of Johannes Gutenberg University, warned New Scientist that fully immersive experiences have a bigger and more lasting impact on behaviour and psychology, including depersonalisation. And a 2014 study from Portugal found that unpleasant stimuli activated the right amygdala – associated with negative emotion – more strongly when presented in 3D than in 2D.

If I’m honest, when watching Real Violence I was hoping to see the victim’s eyeballs shoot out, but they did not. My reasoning was: in for a penny, in for a pound. More genuinely disturbing to me was Paul McCarthy’s CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach VR experiment: Mary and Eve, a sexual psychodrama with an American western vibe.

Before donning the headset, participants are asked if they’re OK with scenes of child sex abuse. Mary is a young woman, and Eve a young girl. The pair start to duplicate until the viewer is surrounded by them. At first, Eve is the target of Mary’s malevolence, the kind of harassment that men might target a lone woman with.

“What’s your name?” “Where are you from?” “Are you stupid?” “Fuck you, Eve.”

Then the pair turn on the viewer and begin to crowd in. “She asked you a simple fucking question! Answer the fucking question!”

Turning away from one looming figure reveals another face, close up behind. There is violence of a sort – Mary simulates the rape of Eve through their clothing – but more unnerving is the implied violence. In Wolfson’s Real Violence you are the observer. Here, the sense of threat is absorbed by you.

A still from Paul McCarthy’s CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment: Mary and Eve.
A still from Paul McCarthy’s CSSC Coach Stage Stage Coach VR Experiment: Mary and Eve. Photograph: MONA

Both artists have previously explored these very different perspectives of violence, and oddly, both used puppets. One of Wolfson’s works, Colored Sculpture, was an animatronic boy viciously yanked by its chains around spaces like the Tate Modern. Wolfson told the Guardian, an echo of what he told Art News about Real Violence, “This is real abuse, not a simulation.”

In McCarthy’s Pinocchio Pipenose Household Dilemma, the artist dresses as Pinocchio and slams around the set angrily, before committing violence against another Pinocchio. The viewer watches on video through an interface in their own Pinocchio mask.

Context is everything. VR-induced discomfort has proven to be a useful therapeutic tool, not only in terms of exposure therapy – such as OCD sufferers who experience escalating anxiety based on their fears around dirt and disorder, in a safe environment – but also in promoting empathy. One 2018 study, for example, put domestic violence offenders in the virtual shoes of victims. Results revealed that offenders have a significantly lower ability to recognise fear in female faces compared to the general population, but after they were embodied in a female victim, this was reduced.

Perhaps watching violence can also be a useful outlet, even when masquerading as entertainment. I ask Melbourne hardcore wrestler KrackerJak about this. His death-matches utilise props such as staple guns, box-cutters, barbed wire and baseball bats. The outcome is predetermined, but the audience is there to get its jollies from nasty-looking violence. He says it’s a way for him to let off steam, too.

“I used to think it was cathartic,” he says. “Now I’m not so sure. I’ve read some stuff where they say that engaging in that behaviour just reinforces the neural pathways that in turn reinforce your capacity to get angry or violent. Now I think it’s playing around in an area of my mind that is easier to get to the more I do it. But it feels so fucking good.”

• This article was amended on 23 July to remove a still from Jordan Wolfson’s Real Violence


Jenny Valentish

The GuardianTramp

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