THE “YEAR OF VR”
If you aren’t keeping up with current products, societally, we are on the cusp of two new developments within the realms of cutting edge technology. The two big buzzword terms we read about are “wearable tech”, with a focus on enabling increased efficiency in delivery of information and vital monitoring, and the current favorite flavor of the week, “VR”, short for the concept of “virtual reality”. By facilitating audio/visual signals through wearable headsets, it’s not so much new technology, as it is refined. With Google Cardboard giving basically any smartphone users rudimentary glimpses into the tech, most anyone can get a feel for it. Still, the high profile launches of Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Samsung’s Gear Headset, Sony’s PlayStation VR, and HTC’s Vive are heralding 2016 as the “year of VR”. Never have products of this type been available for mass consumption and accessible to all people for relatively low price points.
Application usage is varied, but undoubtedly, the marketing of each is appealing to the enrichment of entertainment for consumers. I’ve listened to game developers give presentations for titles and consoles for years, and a recurring talking point is “we are placing players into the game”. Usually, such talk was just that: talk, hype of the highest order. Yet, now, consumers will soon have available tech that is largely new, at least potentially in the realm of cultural influence.
It doesn’t take a university study to prove that smartphone have ushered in huge cultural shifts. New ways of instant global communication and digital information gathering became available to us all, at the cost of traditional methods of face-to-face interaction and retrieval of information through physical media. For every night of scouring social media, people seem to find less time to interact traditionally. We visit and devote attention less, despite our open predilections to LIKE and SHARE statuses and posts.
Because of this, our society is in a far better position (or worse, depending on perspective), to not only be interested in the tech, but regularly using it. Our entertainment habits are now tailor-made on preference, available on-demand, and far more needy of our time than those of generations past. For instance, to complete one season of a television series or most any video game’s campaign (or advancement in multiplayer), we not only know heavy time investment is necessary; we offer it freely. The level of output for most any entertainment, be that physical or mental, is small, whereas the level of time input is not. This leaves us with a predicament: we only have 24 hours a day, but so much entertainment. What are we then to do? Escaping entertainment is obviously difficult, as you see.
Enter the VR-movement: while not fully coupled with the headsets I listed (not yet, at least), there are available omni-directional treadmills that, when coupled with VR headsets, allow users to not only look in all directions, but also walk in all directions. As of now, games, even with the headsets, require users to use controller inputs to move, with little to no difference than how one plays on a regular monitor. Still, as tech increases, rest assured that availability of these treadmills will increase over time.
THE EMERGING PROBLEM
For most gamers, this all seems like actualization of many hopes and wishes: I can now be a “part of the game”. If you are anything like me (which I take it you’re human reading this), you have real world problems and demands. You have responsibilities. Whether you own your own home or live with others who do, you probably have things that must be done. As with most duties, if we aren’t careful, over time, they can develop into burdens in our minds and hearts. No one likes to take out the trash, but it has to be done. As we injest into our bodies, the trash left over must be dealt with. It’s a real-world consequence of a real-world action.
If we take that observance of cause and effect and apply it through out, we quickly find out the meanings behind such adages of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, “money doesn’t grow on trees”, and the list goes on and on. So, follow me: life in this life requires work, and predictable work and obligations make responsibilities. We depend on things being accomplished for ourselves and others, and as members of this corporeal world, things must be done.
If I don’t like my level of responsibility (usually a common experience in life, at least from time to time), I will be disgruntled by life, causing me to question things from the top-down. Life’s frustrations can lead to depression if left unchecked, so often, we do something diversionary to “escape” circumstances. Again, enter VR: if I can go home and put on a headset that lets me fully immerse myself visually, audibly, and experientially into another “virtual world” with little pulling me back to the real one, filled with problems and annoyances, where do you think I’m going to divert my time? A person can work through the mundane tasks of cleaning their house or caring for their children or pets, OR they can be transported to a realm where they are an axe-wielding warrior slaying dragons, a gun-toting space marine, or a host of any other characters. You say, “How is that any different than games now?” True, many become so invested in virtual worlds that they cannot see the squalor building up around them as they play. I get that you may think there is very little difference, but whatever the size of difference you judge it to be, there is an important distinction: VR seals off sight to what is going on around you.
As these products launch, reviewers have been quite harsh on the Oculus Rift in particular, in that it doesn’t allow a user to get indications on the HUD display if someone is, for instance, trying to call the player. I’ve read one reviewer state that if you want the attention of someone using the Oculus Rift, you may even be forced to lift the headset off or at least be next to them speaking. Now, gamers everywhere have been called to dinner or asked to do chores, to which they reply, “In a minute! I’m almost finished.” That’s playing in the traditional way of playing on a television. What will our relationships and responsibilities be like if we can really be “in the game”.
There is no denying that Christian faith is to be lived out through action and relationships. While I don’t want to treat VR as the boogeymen, a conclusion many might take from all of this discussion, no matter what else I say, I do believe there is reason to caution against full on adoption of its usage. Think about this: in our tech-connected culture, we now expect application support across all platforms we use. Some people have never logged into Facebook on anything other than their phone, and now, we can order pizza from Xbox applications or even Pebble Smartwatches. This instinct to offer support for all things as many ways as we can won’t be escaped with the VR movement. We will be able to experience notifications, phone calls, and any other means on the display. While eyestrain would prevent continual use, over time, most any heavy user would get used to seeing through the display as almost more normal than without. Just as we can’t seem to put our phones down, we won’t be able to keep the visor off. In VR usage, the only relationship happening is between user and device; as soon as the unit is put on, the thing being seen is what matters, while other people around the user can’t be engaged. It’s not so much a robbing of a person’s focus, but a complete monopolization.
Healthy Christianity, in practice, requires focus, time, and effort from the believer, something that can’t be given when they are using VR. Someone might say, “But surely, someone will develop an application where someone can better experience God’s Word, taking out the distractions of the world and giving them more focus than before.” I can’t say never to that, but everything up developed up to this point isn’t to help someone better read; it’s been focused on user immersion in a virtual sense, whether that be through 360° videos or interactive gaming. If anything, most of us have to get further away from phones buzzing and videos playing to do serious Bible study. If anything needs to be plugged in, it’s us to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives by removing ourselves from distraction.
But that’s just one way of looking at this new development. The far more frightening possibility we face is that in a culture with so many who struggle with identity and an embrace of who they are as a person, VR presents us with an outlet to no longer care about ourselves in a real-world sense. By creating a more immersive “virtual reality”, we can put more emphasis on ourselves in that context. While VR lets us see through the eyes of our avatar in-game, that doesn’t mean we care any more of how our character appears in-game, but I do believe it begins to “re-wire” us as people to show more concern for actions and consequences in-game than in the real world.
Why care what anyone thinks of me, when I derive more importance and satisfaction (or my only sense of both) from a “virtual character”? This isn’t some idea to quickly shrug off in the efforts to jump on the next big thing. We should really consider the consequence of looking to experience things beyond what God is leading you to in the real world.
In the “virtual world”, I can die in-game and be reborn; I can quit a game wherever I am, and start all over with a new character. In the real world, we don’t get do-overs; we have this life on Earth, and that’s it. We make mistakes and learn from them, and we overcome adversity, even at personal cost. Life is messier in the real world, undoubtedly, but success is sweeter against real odds. Ultimately, gaming pursuits can feel empty, I’ve found, and when a person makes gaming their sole reason to exist, it doesn’t often lead anywhere beyond the world they are playing in. Victories become hollow, because there’s always another game demanding our attention.
Jesus instructed His followers in Matthew 28:29-20 to “Go and make disciples…” That’s a real world directive with eternal consequence. There is no game or virtual experience that can compare to the sweet victory of leading another person to Christ. To know that someone who was lost in their sins is now alive eternally through making relationship with Jesus Christ is beyond words!
Sharing in these victories of soul-winning and encouraging others is wonderful, but something too few do should be stated here as well: Jesus loves you as an individual. Seeing yourself as He sees you will get you closer to enjoying life, as you can see all of the possibilities you have personally to advance Christ’s Kingdom. Seeing yourself as He sees you allows you the ability to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, as well as finding your unique position in the mission field He’s placed you in. The relationships already at work in your life are where God can greatly use you, but you just can’t thrive in that, when your passion is to put the headset on as much and as often as possible.
You may think, “What a buzzkill! No one is abusing this.” Yes, no one is, but people will. When gamers die of exhaustion and starvation from playing MMOs too long in internet cafes all over the world, we can see the addictive nature at play. VR immersion takes that pull to play, play, play, and it only amplifies it. We should proceed with caution, as I know this piece won’t stop what’s coming. Still, I think we should “examine ourselves as to whether we are living in the faith” as 2 Corinthians 13:5 instructs us. Sometimes, the decisions we make and the things we choose to experience don’t do us any help in the ways of growing spiritually. We should be careful, and not allow anything to dampen or distract in our pursuit of God.