Trigger Warning

I’m scared of the new Xbox, but probably not for the reasons you’re thinking.

It’s not so much the privacy stuff for me. Yeah, the Xbox One’s microphone is technically “always listening,” whether off or on, to everything going on around it. And it’s hard not to feel a pang of terror at the idea of a video game system always recording you – even only temporarily. Just like everything, though, we’ll get over that.

It’s not Microsoft reassuring me that my TV and I are “gonna have a relationship.” It’s not Don Mattrick’s voice triggering the Kinects of Xbox users streaming Tuesday’s event, creating a recursive loop wherein Xboxes all over the countries disabled themselves in a terrifying portent of things to come. It’s not the startlingly in-depth biometrics that the new Kinect picks up on, including your heart rate, your muscle tension, and way, way too much more. It’s not the fact that the Kinect – which, remember, is always on, always watching – can see you in pitch-black darkness with unbelievable clarity, or the fact that it will probably count the number of warm bodies in your room to make sure you’re not watching the movie you just purchased with “too many” people. It’s none of those things.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, all that shit’s way creepy – but it’s funny-creepy, not scary-creepy. Maybe it’s because I already live my life pretty publicly or because I know Microsoft doesn’t give a shit what I’m doing in my dingy apartment any more than it does any of its other trillions of inevitable customers. Or maybe because it’s 2013 and privacy is a myth and will be 100 percent dead before most of our kids are born. Whatever the case, that’s not the stuff that’s haunting me from the #XboxReveal event.

I’m scared of the new triggers, man.

Hear me out. The new Xbox One controller is, in almost every way that matters, identical to the Xbox 360 pad we pretty much all love. There’s only one major new feature that stands out – to me, at least – and that’s the triggers’ “dynamic impulse” feature. This little guy “allows creators to program feedback directly into the triggers,” according to the press conference. A fact sheet on Microsoft’s press site says they “offer precise haptic fingertip feedback,” which is a sentence that means almost nothing outside of “feedback,” but there you go.

If they were just rumbling triggers, that would be one thing. But Microsoft says there’s more to them than that.

While trying out the new controller in Redmond, my Revision3 coworker Adam Sessler got to try out a few impulse trigger demos – revving a car’s engine, firing a laser pistol, feeling a human heartbeat, among a handful of others – which inspired him to ask the Microsoft rep point-blank if the triggers are capable of providing not just subtle vibration but actual resistance (think force feedback in a racing wheel). The response he got: “It’s possible.” As in, pulling the trigger for a gun could actually resemble…pulling the trigger of a gun.

I’m not sure we’re ready for guns in games to feel like guns, even a little bit. Here’s why.

First, the obvious thing: there’s a high possibility that games – some games – are gonna look pretty damn real on the Xbox One. Technologically speaking, the One (man, it’s gonna take a minute to get used to saying that) is a leap almost a decade into the future for consoles. We’re talking about almost eight years on top of the Xbox 360, a box that today is handily running games like Max Payne 3 and Hitman: Absolution – games that are totally fucking gross in the violence department (and even more gross when they break, but I digress). That means that, more than ever before, people will look more like people, the blood will look more like blood, et cetera. This is the easy shit, though, right? We’re gonna be shooting real-looking dudes. That’s whatever.

As we’ve watched games get more and more lifelike over the past couple of decades, we’ve always been able to defend video game violence by throwing the “pulling a trigger on a controller is nothing like pulling a trigger on a gun, dummy” tarp over the whole mess. And I guess what I’m wondering is: what happens when that’s not true anymore? I think of the small number of times that pulling a gun trigger in a game actually meant something to me – the bit with Duck in the forest in The Walking Dead, that one scene with Mordin in Mass Effect 3, a couple of key moments in Spec Ops – and I wonder how differently it would’ve felt if the trigger I squeezed had the click and give of an actual gun instead of just a springy, toyish piece of plastic. It freaks me out a little bit, to be honest with you.

I don’t think it’s dangerous or whatever. It’s still a video game controller shaped like a video game controller. But between this, the Oculus Rift and that dumb-looking treadmill thing, we’ve seen the abstraction we so often point to as making video game violence okay eroding all around us, even just these past few months. And it’s not a thing that’s going to stop.

This makes me uncomfortable, which is a word I almost never use. I don’t think I want shooting dudes in Far Cry 3 to feel like shooting dudes in real life. I treasure the abstraction. It’s a game! I kind of need it to feel disconnected and a little silly. Immersion or whatever is all well and good until we’re strapped into virtual reality headsets just totally stabbing the shit out of a fake dude using a fake knife with haptic feedback that lets us feel every stab. And that shit comes out, like, TOMORROW, basically. Woof.

Look. Things are about to get weird. The defense of hyperviolent games as disconnected fantasy in abstracto might not survive the rest of this decade. Calling our favorite games “murder simulators” ironically is still a cute bit of sarcasm now, but I don’t see that lasting. It feels like we’re maybe on the verge of some potentially gross, potentially indefensible stuff – not just these triggers, obviously, but all of it – this “immersion” tech in conjunction with a world of triple-A games all seemingly embroiled against one another in an interminable torture-porn-grossness contest. All I’m saying is: lines will be crossed. And when the impending shitstorm from the rest of the world catches up on this stuff, I hope we’ll all stop and think about how cool we are with this stuff before hopping to its defense. Deal?


Follow Nick Robinson on Twitter @babylonian.

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