Virtual Reality Vs. Real Reality

This image haunts me. It hits a little too close to home for me. I first posted it to my Google+ feed, back in 2012. I still don’t know who the original artist is or what the title of the work is (and Google image search was no help at all).

Virtual Reality 2 Jan 2017

(This particular copy of this image comes from customize.org, where someone, not the creator, uploaded it. UPDATE: A sharp-eyed Facebook reader has provided me with a link to the original creator of this image on Deviant Art. It is called “Reality”, and it is by the artist Eran Fowler. Thank you, Jon Potts!)

As I have said before, there have been times in my life—past and present—when I have spent more time in virtual worlds than in the real world. Ever since I discovered Second Life over a decade ago, virtual worlds have been an escape and a refuge for me at times when I have felt lonely, depressed, and anxious.

This is not a problem as long as you never forget that you are dealing with a simulacrum of reality. But it becomes a problem when that virtual world begins to serve as a replacement, a fill-in, for real life. And it becomes a very serious problem when you prefer this artificial, flow-charted route to getting your social needs met in virtual reality, as opposed to the infinitely messier road to fulfilment in the chaos of real life.

I know what I’m talking about because it happened to me with Second Life, and to a certain extent, I’m still recovering from it. In some ways, I’ve fallen back into my bad habits. My apartment is a mess. Dirty dishes are currently piling up on my kitchen counters as I spend hours learning how to create avatar fashions using Marvelous Designer for Sansar. My real-life social life basically consists of weekly dinners with my best friend and with my Mom, with the occasional coffee with other friends who ping me on Facebook.

I’ve already shared the story of how I first encountered Second Life, and the impact it had on me. I won’t repeat that part here. I spent—and some days, still do spend—too many hours in various virtual worlds: old failed ones like Cloud Party, Twinity, and Blue Mars; shiny new ones like Sansar, High Fidelity and Sinespace; perennials like Second Life and Opensim. All the time, I knew what I was doing: I was running away from facing my own real-life problems; I was depressed and dosing myself with a drug that made me forget how miserable my real life had become. It was easier to face the screen than to face reality.

In the end, it took one intense experience to overcome another: I joined Google+ when it launched in the summer of 2011, and I immediately began having real conversations with people instead of avatars, participating in face-to-face in hangouts, and posting items that people enjoyed and thanked me for writing. That first year was a heady and exhilarating time, hard to describe to someone who wasn’t there. And my visits to Second Life shrank, eventually becoming as little as once a week for perhaps an hour, then once every two weeks for 30 minutes, to … not really caring much about it at all. I didn’t have the urge to play anymore, for many years, until I was accepted into the Sansar closed beta in December 2016. That re-triggered my interest in Second Life, and I landed up spending more time there too.

I know I still need to work on my self-discipline and set some firmer boundaries, to push away from the computer more often and hit the salad bar, hit the treadmill, or hit the iPhone and organize a dinner or a movie night with my friends. But at least now I truly “get it”. I’ve started researching MMORPG addiction, and I realize what happened to me was hardly unique. Today, BBC reported that the World Health Organization will officially list “gaming addiction” as a mental health condition for the first time. If anything, it’s a growing problem worldwide; North America is probably behind East Asia in acknowledging and dealing with it.

And that’s the one thing I worry about in all this VR-triggered feverish hype and headlong rush toward services like Sansar and High Fidelity: for some vulnerable people, it’s just too easy a way for them to think they’re actually connecting when they’re not, and it’s just too easy a way for them to avoid their real-life issues. I don’t know if there’s an easy solution for that, but awareness is a good start.

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