The Profound and Disturbing Implications of Virtual Reality

So last week I said I’d write a blog post about Virtual Reality gaming, and because it is something I’m really excited about, that won out as the probable topic for the mid-week blog entry (Seriously, how am I doing three blogs a week; I have so much time on my hands right now).

The History

VR’s been a dream for a loooong time, but the latest surge started in 2014 when the kickstarter for a device, a potential VR headset called the Oculus Rift, absolutely exploded, raising far more money than it originally asked for. Maybe it wasn’t a surprise that a lot of people were interested in VR, but what did catch people’s attention was how well the prototype worked. Clearly this wasn’t just a con looking to trick credulous gamers–early headsets distributed to backers demonstrated remarkable immersion. For the first time, VR actually seemed to work.

Oddly enough, Palmer Luckey, inventor of the Oculus, has credited the rapid development of smartphones, with their wafer-thin high-quality screens, as a major contributor to what made his prototype possible. (Shortly after VR started to take off, Google Cardboard was “developed,” where a simple holder for certain cellphones could make a rough approximation of a VR environment. Some proponents claimed this actually retarded VR adoption, as it created a sub-part impression of what VR actually was.) Almost by accident, an unrelated field had brought tech to the point where putting a headset together was mostly doable by combining existing devices.

I’d never seen pictures of the 2014 Palmer Luckey, and I was astonished at how young he looks

VR’s close links with cellphone tech is probably why the Taiwanese cell phone company HTC got involved with the development of the Vive. The same links certainly gave Sony a leg up in their development of the PS5 headset. Facebook’s purchase of Oculus soured the internet on the brand (though many reflected that Facebook at least certainly could afford to sink a lot of money into it) and these other headsets grew in popularity. Microsoft began to openly develop their own headset, and Valve, an early collaborator with HTC, secretly started their own headset, the Index.

My Experience

This is around when I got interested in VR.  It started out when a friend at Baylor University mentioned they’d used the Oculus in their work to prepare astronauts for potential Mars missions. They spoke of the Oculus in glowing terms, so when I saw a Oculus demo available at the local Best Buy, I asked for a try.

Everybody says its hard to describe what it’s like in VR. It truly is. You forget entirely where you are. I think it’s the moment when you realize you can look all around—behind yourself, even, and move about in the space, that it really starts to hit you how big it is.  I’m pretty sure I heard the attendant laughing (or someone laughing) as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful garden environment, but I really really did not care.  I played a magic combat game (The Unspoken).  I made an ice shield just by holding up my arm, and a fireball by clenching my fist. An enormous fire snake erupted from the ground, it was looming over me, and I was terrified and took the helmet off. 

A week later I went back, faced down my terrors, and blasted the snake (along with its two fiery brothers BECAUSE OF COURSE IT HAD THOSE) into oblivion.  It was a mind-blowing experience.

Can you blame me?

I wanted a VR headset, but it was wildly irresponsible to even think about buying one on a grad student’s “salary.”  Back then, an Oculus cost 800 dollars and a Vive cost 1000—and that was if you had a computer with an adequate graphics card, which I did not. I tided myself over with videos of people reacting to VR, which are still among my favorite kind of videos to watch. There’s something magical about people’s first encounter with VR, the closest thing to childlike glee I’ve seen in adults. It’s why I still am annoyingly persistent about introducing friends and family to VR.

I finally got a Vive headset in 2017 during my first year of teaching, when the Vive was very much on sale and I’d just received a Christmas bonus from my school. (And, as I said earlier, I immediately had cause to regret this when I got in an accident necessitating major repairs to my vehicle.) My apartment was tiny, but just large enough to allow for a standing environment–one of my picture frames still has a cracked pane from where I tried to punch a monster in VR. I burned off stress from my terrible students by punching notes to a beat in SoundBoxing. I dealt with my lack of friends by going on magical quests with strangers in Rec Room. And I came nose-to-nose with an elephant in Youtube VR. I would probably have made it through my first year without it, but it certainly made it easier.

Over the years my initial VR mania has somewhat faded—despite its obvious benefits for lockdown, I barely touched it during the pandemic, except to try out the Knuckles controllers from Valve. A lot of companies which invested in VR early on, have yet to see the meteoric rise they’d hoped for from the new tech, and even with Oculus/Facebook’s Quest headset, which eliminates a lot of the barriers to VR (Cost, space, inconvenience, peripherals), adoption has been slow, to where some have suggested the market is dead, like 3D film.

The market isn’t dead.  The market, quite frankly, can’t die at this point.  It may not take off, but this isn’t 3D film. It’s a wholly new experience, different from movies and flatscreen video games as they are from radio and ping-pong. Television and film didn’t take off immediately either, but they were impossible to kill. We may not see any definitive blockbuster moments when it becomes “mainstream,” but it will become mainstream.  And that leads to some interesting—and disturbing—questions.

What Next?

First, the potential. Just in terms of gaming, VR offers wholly new methods of play and interaction.  They transform horror games to make you feel genuine terror. Climbing games become entirely different. Fighting and wrestling games are no longer a matter of button mashing. Instead of hand-eye coordination, hand-body coordination becomes necessary, where your entire body needs to move and react to what you’re seeing. Immersive VR could turn ordinary hack-and-slash games into genuine swordfighting experiences, and first-person shooters into something that actually teach you how to load, aim, and shoot a firearm (Pavlov in particular is a VR game already noted for its realistic aiming and firing mechanics). I mentioned earlier the possibility for turning gamers into physically healthy persons, but it might also make them more coordinated and talented in multiple real-life areas.  There’s even a chance gaming will build more empathetic game experiences–some players have reported increased connection with characters they look in the eye in VR.

Video games are very often drivers of innovation, since people will work hard at something that’s fun—which can often be applied later to more practical fields. So if anyone tells you video games are “a waste” or “useless,” they are wrong (certainly games can become a waste, but so can anything in sufficient amounts). In the case of VR, the innovation is already showing applications in architecture, medicine, training, and business. Facebook, naturally, is interestested in the likely implications for social media. Potential applications for education, therapy, mechanical engineering, fashion, and remote operation of robots are easy to think of. Likely more will become apparent as the tech develops. The sheer magnitude of applications and the way it will impact every level of society is likely equivalent to the development of the smartphone.

Though there’s undeniably something creepy about this image.

But then there are the equally apparent—and disturbing—implications. Players noted increased empathy with game opponents–but they still shot them. If looking into a game character’s eyes increases your connection and empathy–then what will shooting it do? Or more? A reddit post I saw offered a demo of a VR torture game (it was quickly taken down by the forum moderators.) VR porn—even VR porn games—already exist.  And if one considers the growth of deepfakes and the legal battles brewing over celebrities’ likenesses digitally reproduced in movies by corporations, even more sketchy scenarios come to mind. VR headsets are often compared to Star Trek’s holodeck, and while those were generally played off as innocent fun, even in canon there were some… questionable uses.

I want to offer a bit of a caveat here, because alarmism is all too popular in our culture, particularly about technology. Russell Moore writes about how barcode scanners were once seen as the mark of the Beast, and I recall church library books about the demonic influences of Tamagotchi and online shopping. The legal battle over celebrity likenesses is likely to end in the celebrities’ favor, in my view, and even progressives, now, are pushing for regulations against porn (David French had an excellent article about the potential of a bipartisan alliance). And everyone hates deepfakes (except when they make funny music videos or nostalgic movie scenes) so they’ll likely be outlawed too. Doesn’t mean, of course, they won’t be available on the internet, but they’ll be limited and hard(er) to find.

I’ve mentioned before my irritation with people constantly saying the next president will be the END of AMERICA

Games don’t cause violence in any more measurable a way than movies or music does. In fact, there’s an argument that games actually provide catharsis allowing an outlet for violent impulses. As violent games have gone up, violent crimes have gone down. We talk about the violent age we live in, but if you take a longer perspective–say, of an ancient Germanic tribesman or a South American pre-colonial native, or of even of the sophisticated Roman Empire, our age isn’t particularly more violent than others. You could say that the extremity even of mass shootings don’t show a more extreme mindset than, say, Southern lynchings or historical serial killers.

But I do think you see a greater flippancy toward violence. The horror of mass shootings is that they’re done senselessly, for no consistent reason. They have no real purpose–they’re violence for violence’s sake. Violent games–violent VR–might not make society more violent; it might even make it less violent. But it could might make us more violently minded, take us to a point where a human life is worth less. (though again, lives have often been devalued in history)

These are good questions, but the truth is that there’s not much that realistically can be done about it. As I said, VR is as inevitable as television was.  Banning the tech itself is not practical and would leave the nation behind.  Banning problematic games and experiences is perhaps the best attempt at a solution, though even in that circumstance, there will always be places people can find them on the web (but banning them is still worthwhile.)

In the end, every new technology carries new risks and new possibilities.  Every age must learn how to confront them, every generation of Christians must learn how to be “in but not of” the new world created by television, the internet, smartphones, etc. Isolating is rarely effective, anymore than wholehearted embrace. But one way or another, this change is coming, and we must be prepared to meet it.

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