News is spreading that a student at H. L. Bourgeois High School in Gray, Louisiana was arrested last week after posting a YouTube video of himself using the AR app Real Strike to simulate a machine gun attack on his classmates. As most AR technology does, Real Strike–which bills itself as the “First-Ever Augmented-Reality Gun App”–superimposes digital data on top of the physical world. And, as is true of most existing mobile games that incorporate some form of AR, Real Strike isn’t terribly sophisticated. It takes the foreground imagery of your standard first-person shooter video game and superimposes it on the view of your phone’s video camera, to create the illusion that you’re shooting whatever’s in front of you–in this case, other students.
I’ve chronicled other incidents of AR gamers being arrested or questioned because police mistook their interaction with digital objects–which could easily look odd to those who can’t see the objects–for suspicious and potentially criminal behavior. As tempting as it may be to lump this incident together with those as evidence of a backlash against AR, however, that’s not what’s going on here.
Rather, the important part of this story is that the student posted the video of himself playing the game on YouTube. Admittedly, the arresting sheriff made the comment that Real Strike is “just not a very good game to be playing at this time.” That’s a troubling comment. It’s hard to imagine it being appropriate to punish someone–even a student–simply for using this app. Sure, if someone was watching the phone screen over his shoulder as he played, the view might be a bit off-putting. But it’s hardly a threat.
Once the video is captured and distributed online, however, the AR aspect becomes irrelevant. So does the fact that it was all a game; the student could have easily made a similar video with iMovie or some other video software. Now it’s a simply as video of actual students being mowed down by a machine gun, without any other context in which to understand the video. And in that sense, this incident is indistinguishable from several others in which students played out violent fantasies against their schoolmates or teachers online. Those students were also severely punished, because school violence is far too real these days to simply ignore such ominous messages. (I’ve chronicled these and other bases for disciplining students over social media content in my new e-book.)
That’s why the local sheriff’s office arrested the student “for terrorizing and interference of the operation of a school.” His parents reportedly denied that their son had access to any real weapons. That’s probably true, but it’s hard to see how that makes a difference to how authorities should interpret the YouTube video. As one court recently said in an opinion upholding a school’s severe punishment of a student who sent his classmates ominous instant messages that referenced guns and past school shootings, “we can only imagine what would have happened if the school officials, after learning of [the post], did nothing about it and [the student] did in fact come to school with a gun.”
One thing, though, is for sure–with the burgeoning explosion of wearable video technology and AR overlay capabilities, we’re going to be seeing a lot more incidents like this in the very near future, from students and others throughout society. We need to think more deeply about where the lines of propriety and legality are in these situations.