Simulation, stimulation and emulation 

A gentle rain falls on lush vegetation. The night sky peeks through a clearing in the trees. A rumble from an approaching thunderstorm rolls across the distance.

"Can I help you?" the waitress asks.

In one jolt I’m transported back to the Rainforest Café at Auburn Hills’ Great Lakes Crossing mall. The atmosphere here is a moody, Disney-inspired jungle landscape – a represented reality that is not truly real.

Feeling this slippage in reality makes me a bit nauseous, which experts say is a common response to the first few moments of experiencing Virtual Reality.

As themed establishments such as the Rainforest Café have shown, VR isn’t just for video games anymore. Restaurants, brewpubs and retailers are ringing up profits using hyperreal, video game-like decor. From the Amazon rainforest to fabled Alcatraz prison, consumers are finding themselves immersed, VR-style, in a hyperreal environment.

It’s the next step, one might assume, from the VR of video games. The atmosphere is just as revved-up, just as noisy. The only thing lacking is gunplay.

Such virtutainment feeds on a bastardized version of Americana, appropriating from a lexicon of cultural images and time periods from ’20s gangland Chicago to ’60s sci-fi, blending it with a ’90s pastiche. Romanticized American clichés, most centered around violence, are pumped out to a public primed to receive them since it first played Pong.

The most upsetting aspect of virtutainment, the unabashed packaging and selling of violence, is nothing new – in the early ’70s, the first home video games came with two controllers and a gun.

It’s a brief walk from the Rainforest Café to Gameworks, a video arcade which sheds flickering light on the more pure forms of virtutainment. There, I scope out the chaos. The act of gunning down digital villains is solitary and insular. A woman twists with the action on the screen in front of her. A man slams the controller in frustration, crushed at his failure to save the Rebel Forces from the Imperial Walkers.

The VR of video games lets you live out fantasies, giving rein to aggressive tendencies seldom acted on in real life. The most popular games fulfill our dreams of violence. They’re what the video game industry terms "first-person shooters," where you fend off attackers in a flurry of gunfire. In The House of the Dead, you stalk a deserted villa, mowing down zombies in a shower of gore (it’s OK, they’re already dead). In Time Crisis, you blast away jackbooted thugs who duck and cover as if they don’t want to die. The gun kicks back on every shot, assuring you the closest experience to a murderous rampage you can get without the lengthy jail sentence.

"It’s fun that you’re sort of in control of where you’re going most of the time," says player Stuart Segal, 18. "And shooting things is kind of fun, too."

Virtual reality lets you suspend disbelief and responsibility, cross societal bounds of morality without suffering the consequences. The trouble comes when the line between virtual and reality blurs.

First-person shooters such as The House of the Dead were blamed for creating the boys’ violent mindset in the Paducah, Ky., and Littleton, Colo., high school shootings

Jack Thompson, an attorney representing the parents of three victims in the Paducah shooting in a lawsuit against major video game companies, says, "These (games) are murder simulators."

Playing them, it’s easy to understand his point. They’re like drugs – your face flushes, your heart rate goes up. You need more and more to get the same high.

And yet, perhaps it serves a mitigating purpose. "It gets out some bottled-up aggression," says player Ryan Ferguson, 19, after a round of Time Crisis II. "All the shooting games do."

Still, it’s not hard to see how someone could jump from virtual killing to real murders. Unlike passively watching a movie, video games allow players to actively participate in the carnage.

Thompson’s lawsuit alleges video games trained the Paducah gunman to be "an effective killer without teaching him any of the constraints or responsibilities needed to inhibit such a killing capacity."

But Ferguson disagrees: "You can tell the difference between reality and monsters getting their heads blown off."

Regardless of how game makers try to dehumanize their villains by making them into zombies or thugs, they’re still human enough for the American Psychological Association, which warns, "seeing a lot of violence … in video games can lead children to behave aggressively."

According to Brad Ebben, director of group sales for the Detroit Gameworks, "Gameworks takes this issue very seriously. We don’t allow (people) under 18 years old in by themselves. We label our games. We are an adult establishment."

If it sounds like the party line, that’s because it is. Apparently, a recent "60 Minutes" profile on video game violence didn’t sit well with Gameworks. When I press for further comment, I’m referred to Monica Czarnik, marketing manager for Detroit Gameworks, who reiterates Ebben’s statement.

Everyone’s looking for someone to blame, and maybe the blame doesn’t fit snugly on the video games. Kids exposed to virtual violence don’t always grow up to kill their classmates, but the APA suggests they’ll be more likely to resolve conflicts with violence.

Still, youth violence expert Leonard Eron, a research scientist at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, says that while video games are an effective way to train kids for violence, "Video games by themselves don’t cause problems."

At Gameworks, I’ve finally reached my saturation point. I have a headache from the noise and I’m a bit nauseous from the submersion into VR. But most of all, I feel violent. I’m angry for no reason.

Leaving, I pass the Rainforest Café again. The mechanical crocodile in the coin fountain has gone to sleep. At this late hour, the reality peeks out from behind the virtual, and the falseness takes on an almost morbid quality. Not as morbid, though, as Alcatraz Brewing Company, the nearby brewpub designed to simulate the famed penitentiary. You could do some time here, if you needed to assuage the guilt built up from two hours of gunning down your fellow man. It definitely skirts the darker side of VR-inspired marketing.

What next? A bar and grill dedicated to Jonestown, where every 15 minutes the staff stages a mass suicide while an animatronic Jim Jones spews Bible verses? Where the gift shop sells T-shirts that read: "I Drank the Kool-Aid at Jonestown and survived."

In the effort to reconcile our dream life with our real life, we seem to end up with something unsatisfying on both counts. Why do we need to make reality into something bigger, better? Some will say that reality bites. But virtual reality, naturally, has bigger, sharper teeth.

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