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A VR Headset Can Kill a User Who Dies in a Game

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Nov 8, 2022

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Image Credit: Palmer Luckey

The Matrix films were always said to be prescient, but their premise may have just become more real. Palmer Luckey, the developer behind the virtual reality (VR) headset Oculus and a defense contractor, just developed a headset that can kill users in real life if they die in a game.

“The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me — you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it,” Luckey said.

This prompts questions about the ethics of VR itself — how far should we go just because we can?

The device is based on an anime with similar themes, called Sword Art Online. In the series, people who wear this type of headset will suffer microwave-induced brain melt if they fail to escape a mad scientist’s trap within a game world. The real headset that Luckey claims to have made? It blows up a person’s head using charge modules.

Sword Art Online is considered the forerunner of the isekai fantasy genre in anime — in which characters enter alternate worlds through a portal or through reincarnation. Virtual reality in isekai, in turn, almost came to be the precursor to the development of the technology in real life.

Since then, it’s predominantly been used in gaming — but it also has its uses in warfare. VR simulations help military personnel train in simulated battlefields. But they also help manipulate civilians into dehumanizing the “other side.” Scholars have noted how the intersection of the war and media industries — a realm in which VR often operates — turns weaponry and violence into a spectacle. Introducing the possibility of a game in which defeat equals death introduces a much larger overlap between gaming and war than ever. Experts call it the military-entertainment complex to signify the problematic overlaps that already exist — and that can instill even lesser regard for human life.


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“Virtual reality may also create risks of disconnection from the authentic; a loss of reality from education, work, and society, a loss which Baudrillard described as simulacra… [he] warned of the risks of mistaking the map for the territory as simulacra replace the simulated and become treated as reality,” notes one study on how the metaverse impacts people’s experience of socialization.

Baudrillard is a sociologist who is famous for having proclaimed that the Gulf War did not take place. Indeed, what the world knew of the Gulf War was what the American media televised — in other words, we knew a simulated version of the war. Baudrillard’s thesis was that it’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between the real and the virtual. Soon we may end up in a ‘hyperreality’ — where the distinction doesn’t even matter.

In some contexts, VR is already in use in situations where the stakes are life and death. Drone warfare that employs VR to triangulate and attack “enemies” is a form of bloodless warfare that experts have accused powerful countries of engaging in — given that the bloodlessness is on the side that has the drones.

With that, the lines between video games and warfare have begun to thin. A former United States defense secretary, Robert Gates, predicted as much when he warned that drones are turning war into video games. So far, then, game-like scenarios were brought into real violence. Now, real violence threatens to be brought into game-like scenarios — a situation that normalizes the use of weaponry in entertainment, rather than vice versa, like never before.

We’re still a ways from perfecting the headset. “The good news is that we are halfway to making a true NerveGear… The bad news is that so far, I have only figured out the half that kills you. The perfect-VR half of the equation is still many years out,” Luckey said. But asking questions about the overlap between war and gaming helps unpack what’s at stake beyond just a curiosity-satiating project.

“At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design,” Luckey clarified. But he also said: “I have plans for an anti-tamper mechanism that, like the NerveGear, will make it impossible to remove or destroy the headset.” Given the entwined trajectory of gaming and war, it’s probably no coincidence that the same person who made the headset also makes weapons — explosive drones being the latest among them. Raising the stakes of virtual reality to a matter of life or death itself changes the paradigm of technology — and it’s already permeated our world in significant ways.

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Written By Rohitha Naraharisetty

Rohitha Naraharisetty is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Previously, she was a freelance writer and independent researcher working in the intersection of gender, social movements, and international relations. She can be found on Instagram at @rohitha_97 or on Twitter at @romimacaronii.

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