The Promise and the Perils of Virtual Reality

February 2, 2011

“Did you ever wonder if the person in the puddle is real, and you’re just a reflection of him?” – Calvin and Hobbes

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. It’s a fascinating book on game psychology and why people become so attached to games like World of Warcraft (WoW), Call of Duty (CoD), and Halo. The book goes on to explain how we can use the same attraction that gamers get with video games to solving real world problems. But what I think is the most crucial thing about the book is how it explains the gaming culture and how it affects everyone.

One of the games that she refers to often is WoW. WoW has 11.5 million subscribing players and is the most widely played MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) that has ever existed. As an ex-player, I can tell you firsthand that it is an amazing game (perhaps a little too much). With never ending amount of questing and ways to get better gear, patches and expansion packs that come out constantly to keep the game new and interesting, and probably best of all; a fantasy universe that is both extremely detailed and immensely huge. To put it in gamer lingo, The WoW world is epic. Everything is designed with extreme clarity and although the game has somewhat childish animation, the quality of programming is second to none.

In more recent games like CoD: Black Ops, the graphics are extremely life like. Everything from the wind blowing dust across your path, to bullet holes left in a wall after an intense firefight, to the sweat dripping off your brow, the programing of the world around you done with the utmost precision.

The point of these descriptions is that 20 years ago, one of the first video games to come out, Donkey Kong, had graphics that were extremely rudimentary. Compared to the graphics and other game developments from 20 years ago to those of today, it’s not hard to see why there are so many more gamers today and why they spend so much more time playing in a virtual world.

If we are to guess what technological innovations in the video game market await us 20 years from now, virtual reality can be considered a real possibility. Imagine sitting in a chair and “signing in” and immersing yourself in a truly immersive alternate reality where all of your senses signal to your brain that this reality is just as real as the one you just left. Now let’s say you want to play one of your favorite games, Star Wars.

You decide to go head to head with Darth Vader and practice your lightsaber skills or instead you blow up the Death Star with your X-Wing. In both cases your 1st person avatar is swinging his/her arms, jumping around, and doing every action exactly how you want to do it. There are no controllers and whatever happens in your head, happens in the game, while your body remains motionless in the chair in the ‘real world’.

The possibilities of virtual reality are endless. From skiing down mountains of strawberry ice cream, to acting as a Pharaoh in Ancient Egypt, to roaming the Caribbean as a captain of a pirate ship, the only limits are those of our imagination. It will be truly a place where everyone’s dreams can come true and every fantasy to be lived out.

But what are the dangers of virtual reality? With the average player playing 13 hours of video games a week, will people just escape the real world and their earthly problems to relax in their virtual fantasies? Is that necessary a bad thing? We constantly change our reality today (new clothes, new houses, etc.) shaped by our desires, so is so unnatural to change reality as a whole? None withstanding the philosophical debate about what is reality, what do you think of implications of virtual reality?  Post your ideas.

“Let us live in the beauty for our own reality”- Charles Lamb

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