I crawled through a vent with a loaded weapon in hand, hoping a creature wasn’t waiting up ahead. There was a clang in the vent behind. I panicked, spun around to face what was coming, and bumped my head. Pain blossomed; the illusion was broken. I’d hit my head on the rowing machine leaning against the wall.
Lifting the virtual reality (VR) headset, I found myself where I’d been since early afternoon, in my brightly lit living room. Actual reality set in. I wasn’t on a mission to save the world with a supportive cast of characters. Nor was I fighting alien invaders. I was playing the shooter game Half Life: Alyx, and I was alone.
In 1935, American science fiction writer Stanley Weinbaum’s 30-page short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles managed a conceptualization of virtual reality eerily similar to modern-day notions. His narrative provides insights into the perspective of a first-time user of reality-bending spectacles and pushes the reader to grapple with emotional and ethical questions about the nature of reality and the realities humans might create. Nearly a century later, humans are finally in a position where asking similar questions isn’t futuristic science fiction; it is, well, reality.
Virtual reality aims to provide abstract, true to life, and hyperrealistic content engagement by providing interactions across multiple natural human sensory and manipulation modalities. This is achieved by using sight, sound, touch, and movement. The expectation is that by including such range of interactions, the user experience will be made more immersive than other digital narrative formats. Research suggests that this hope, even with current technology, is already being realized. It is difficult to draw a causal link between violent media and acts of violence in part due to complexities of most incidents. However, some argue that in cases like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting violent video games could have played some kind of role. Even still, entertainment, including movies and games, have produced troubling side-effects, such as their ability to alter human behavior beyond the time spent viewing or playing. Such altered behavior is likely to be exacerbated by the deeper immersion that virtual reality provides.
Developers and technologists differ on how good and how cheap virtual reality technology will be when it’s refined. They also differ on the timeline for its improvement. Still, they seem to agree on the experience’s utility. Rather than looking at claims about how quickly this technology could come into general use, it might be worth focusing on the difficult issues society will have to grapple with as humans adopt this technology more widely. These issues fall into two main categories: ethical and social.
For three decades, modern societies’ access to technology and the internet has been increasing at astonishing rates. Some 85 percent of all United States citizens have access to a smartphone, and before the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the average American adult spent 11 hours a day looking at digital screens. During the height of the pandemic that time increased to an average of 19 hours a day. At the same time, connectivity is increasingly influencing the way humans live and even how they design the spaces in which they live. Obviously, not all the ways that increased connectivity affects society are good. Social media use, for instance, is linked to depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in adolescents. Simultaneously, social media platforms employ algorithms that often reinforce user beliefs to ill-effect. Researchers have found even sites like YouTube generate so called filter bubbles, which prioritize content that bolster, or relate to, a user’s views and current interests, and that repeated exposure to agreeable or disagreeable information tends to make humans more extreme in their opinions. At the same time, studies have consistently shown that loneliness is on the rise, and that in 2021 more than a third of Americans were experiencing “serious loneliness.” While these issues do not lay squarely at the feet of digital innovation, it is clear that the shifting technological landscape is playing a role.
There are an estimated 170 million users of virtual reality worldwide, and as with much technological innovation, adoption is growing quickly. Steam, one of the largest sellers of PC games, has seen exponential growth in users on their platform using virtual reality headsets, and major game developers are aiming to add virtual reality experiences to their catalogs. Companies, including Microsoft and Meta, are developing technologies that use virtual and augmented reality in workplace applications. Researchers are even using simulated experiences to help sufferers of addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder improve. Most new technologies introduce disruptions to the status quo, and if virtual reality lives up to its promise, it has incredible potential to fundamentally reshape the ways humans experience the world.
Entertainment, connection, and learning. To explore this topic, I wanted to decide not only what I thought of the current virtual reality experience but to also imagine my feelings towards a future, more complete, Pygmalion’s Spectacles experience. I bought a Meta Quest 2 headset and a series of accessories and then collected recommendations from gaming and general virtual reality enthusiast communities. Most of the folks recommended games, video media, and collaborative experiences; I tried a smattering of suggestions from each category and found that every experience left me with a different impression.
I play games and might even go as far as to consider myself a gamer. This was my entry point into virtual reality. I thoroughly enjoyed playing games in simulated environments and had some of the most interesting gaming experiences of my life, just standing in my living room. And it’s not just me; researchers have found that gamers report improved overall gaming experiences when using virtual reality platforms. My virtual reality gaming experience transported me to the tops of mountains in Skyrim VR (a role playing action experience) and the depths of alien oceans in Subnautica (an underwater adventure). In many of these virtual spaces, I had experiences that went beyond what is possible in reality, taking me into the space of hyperrealism that, in my opinion, is the most compelling feature of the virtual reality experience.
VRChat, and several other socialization applications, allowed me to talk and interact with a surprising number of friends whose presence on these platforms I wasn’t aware of. It also gave me the opportunity to meet many other people for the first time, virtually. Immersive collaborative experiences—group art, puzzle solving, and even watching online content inside these virtual environments—added a layer of connectedness that I’d never experienced online, and in some cases that I’d never experienced offline. This shouldn’t have been surprising; it’s been shown that, at least for small groups, virtual reality users on social platforms experience emotional responses similar to those of face-to-face interactions.
Virtual reality applications for learning might be the most practical use of the platform. While the extent of my learning took place in guided virtual tours, even in that format acquiring facts about places I’d never been was augmented by being embedded in the environment. What’s more, I didn’t have to leave the comfort of my home for the experience.
But even while having these fantastic experiences, I was concerned.
Isolation, violence, and addiction. Whenever I took off the virtual reality headset, the realization that I was alone was disconcerting. Alone Together is both the title of a book exploring increasing isolation and loneliness found through technology and a descriptor for what the phenomena looked like in 2011 when the book released. At the time, author Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at MIT, remarked on the interplay between digital connectivity and physical isolation. Since the book’s release more than a decade ago, technology use has only increased, and with it so has loneliness.
When playing Blades and Sorcery, a sandbox sword fighting game, while slashing and stabbing enemies with my right hand, I conjured lightning in my left hand and electrocuted someone with magic (in VR, of course). Unlike the others, this enemy’s body fell towards me instead of away. I reflexively pulled back and only then reflected on the number of enemies I’d killed and how I killed them. Researchers have found that people who played violent video games display greater short-term increases in their aggression and decreased empathy when compared to those who just watched violent content. This suggests that interactions in video games have the potential to induce behavioral change. If these findings extend to even more involved interactions possible in simulated environments, then virtual reality has the potential to induce even greater effects on its users.
Current virtual reality experiences appear to have addictive qualities as well. This shouldn’t be surprising as most entertainment modalities—like video games and social media—possess similar habit-forming potential to differing degrees. It’s reasonable to expect that the increased immersion of virtual reality might confer more significant addictive capacity for users.
VR ethics. Because virtual reality aims to mirror and, in some cases, go beyond reality, it is reasonable to expect users to experience feelings about these simulated spaces as they would about the real world. If virtual environments can make convincing simulated realities, how much should the ethics of reality bound these virtual spaces?
Shows like West World, The Peripheral, and tangentially Altered Carbon all tell stories largely based around simulated realities. West World immediately confronts viewers with scenes of cruel and realistic violence while repeatedly reminding the viewer that it is all taking place in a virtual world. What should a viewer feel when presented with this incongruence? Should people have differing moral frameworks for evaluating acts in the virtual versus the real world?
Even without adding the immersive capabilities of virtual reality, users feel connected to their online gaming and social avatars. Some even consider their avatars to be an extension of themselves. In virtual reality, this connectedness will likely only increase. How strongly do humans consider that extension when contemplating harm that might come to an avatar in a simulated space? Already, during the short time that virtual reality has been available to consumers, there have been noteworthy instances of virtual acts of sexual assault involving user avatars. If people’s avatars are extensions of themselves, how then should violations against those selves be handled?
Some suggest that virtual reality transgressions should be handled in the virtual world only; others believe that because simulated harm impacts someone in the real world, standard justice systems should be applied. There are several viable solutions for users causing harm to other users, but what of the cases where user actions are applied to fully virtual characters? These types of characters are referred to as non-playable characters, or NPCs. As the realism of these characters increases, is there some point at which a virtual reality user robbing or killing a non-playable character crosses some ethical boundary? Are there player actions that might be unethical, regardless of whether they cause measurable harm to anyone in the real world?
After thinking about these questions, I’ve only come up with more questions. What is clear from the reception of shows like West World and others like it is that people are fascinated with these questions. It is also clear that there are currently no satisfying answers. As virtual reality adoption increases and society begins to grapple with these issues, I think we should take heed of the virtual worlds that science fiction has explored and understand that without intervention, and maybe even with, most imaginary worlds are darker than our own.
I completed Half-Life: Alyx and had a great time overall. The game ends with an ominous speech from a character called G-Man. In the speech, G-Man offers you the chance to change the future and, with it, reality. Right now, technology is preparing to make a similar offer to us all. Are humans ready for it?