Disclaimer: This article is not intended to demonise VR or promote fear mongering. The only intention of this article is to discuss both the good and bad aspects of this new technology.
The future is now: virtual reality gaming is no longer a techie’s dream. Several major tech companies are releasing VR headsets this year, and Samsung is already ahead of the game with its 2015 US release of its headset, Gear VR.
People in every corner of the Internet are excited to see how VR will revolutionise gaming. Total immersion has always been the end goal, and we’re getting so close to achieving it. Unfortunately, we’ve dived headfirst into this industry without properly considering the effects it can have on humanity as a whole.
Our brains treat anything that happens in VR as a real event. If a person is playing a VR game in which they are falling off a cliff, their brains will react to their virtual presence rather than the physical space their bodies occupy, where they are actually wearing a headset and standing on a solid floor. The brain’s trickery extends beyond physical reaction – VR situations can elicit powerful real-life emotional responses. We need to consider how those responses will transfer into the real world, especially when it comes to ethical concerns.
People will want to try anything and everything in VR just because they can – and, since it’s not ‘real’, actions deemed immoral or inhumane will go without consequence, though the body’s reactions to and perceptions of those actions will be very real. While this belief has been an argument against ‘violent’ console games for years, it is important to place VR and traditional console gaming on two totally different spectrums.
With the unlimited immersive possibilities of VR, nothing is off-limits. Even the founder of Oculus Rift has said so; he’s also ‘not willing to define what “bad” is’. While he’s said that his company won’t approve everything, he also noted that they won’t be analysing every single game that is made for the Rift.
There are clear lines as to what is acceptable in the real world for the most part. Those lines become blurred in the virtual space, where anyone can make anything. How can we establish a code of ethics for VR if it’s such an open platform? The short answer: we can’t, especially when games won’t be as closely monitored for release as they are on the App Store or consoles.
But it’s not all bad: VR is doing some good things aside from the sinister purposes it can often be associated with. It’s helping Alzheimer’s patients better connect with life. It helps us experience empathy in one of its truest forms because we can virtually step into someone else’s shoes. It helps us be more conscious of decisions we make in the physical world. It offers a near literal escape from the hardships of real life. We can visit countries that are dangerous and war-torn in the real world without ever stepping outside our homes. We will literally have the world at our fingertips.
Still, we must proceed with caution while continuing to research the effects this technology will have on our brains as it moves closer to the mainstream. In the words of Dr. Jeremy Bailenson, founder of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, ‘Virtual reality is like uranium…It can heat homes and it can destroy nations. And it’s all about how we use it.’