Real Life Is Not Enough: On Choosing Virtual Reality over the Physical World
With the advent of virtual reality modules, immersion in the already addictive worlds of games is increasing at what many feel is an alarming rate. But millions of people around the world would happily trade their lives for their avatars'.
Illustrations by Julia Kuo
The word necromancer is cut into silver on a chain around my neck. Literally, it refers to people who use magic to interact with or control the dead. Personally, necromancer is a reference to my teenage self—a terrific aspect of my bifurcated adolescence, when I was both an outcast and, in an alternate reality, the commander of a skeleton army.
I was 13 when I purchased the gothic computer role-playing game Diablo II from the mall near my New England hometown. The packaging featured a skeleton in a black hooded cloak engulfed in flames. An hour later, I fed the disc into my computer and was transported out of my bedroom into a medieval, magical world with its own thrilling history, diverse inhabitants, and an unfolding drama in which I immediately became a central figure. Over the next several years, I lived a second life in the Diablo universe.
I'm certainly not the only one to enjoy spending time in virtual reality. Massively multiplayer online games (MMO or MMOG), of which Diablo II is just one of many, are projected to become a nearly $20 billion industry this year. (The Diablo franchise is a property of Blizzard Entertainment, which also developed the prolific World of Warcraft series.) Together, they are populated by hundreds of millions of players, many of whom live second lives online; some are so immersed in and dependent upon the games that they've become addicted. In the extreme, young people have collapsed in severe dehydration and even dropped dead after marathon gaming sessions; the industry has frequently been confronted by time limits and age restrictions designed to curb excessive gaming by both parents and regulatory bodies. In 2014, VICE reported that there were more people playing the Riot Games battle arena MMO League of Legends than there were living in France.
"One of the reasons why gaming becomes compulsive is because of its immersive experience," said Cam Adair, a gaming addict turned advocate and the founder of Game Quitters, the web's largest support community for people addicted to video games. With the recent advent of at-home virtual reality (VR) gaming devices like the Oculus Rift and Vive, immersive game play is only becoming more advanced; both devices simulate reality far beyond what a computer screen is capable of. Worn as headsets that cover your eyes and ears, they allow you to see and hear life in one world while keeping your feet planted in another—a fuller version of the years I spent living in front of my computer screen. Adair thinks there's an argument that these systems may be more immersive than life itself. "Quote-unquote real life is not a totally immersive experience," Adair told me. The physical world is distracting; there are endless experiences intersecting one another. It is a much more open environment than VR.
"If you look out wherever you are right now, you see many different things," Adair said. "With VR, the video game is fully immersive."
In the remote forests below the Ironspike Mountains, there is a stretch of land known by Valoran champions as the Summoner's Rift. According to League of Legends lore, this place is energetically plentiful—the perfect arena for warriors to unleash their powers on each other. There, Evelynn, a blue non-human woman, is hidden in the shadows of the trees. As her enemies pass, she appears from the darkness and summons subterranean forces. Large red spikes erupt from the earth and impale them.
But Evelyn is guided by someone else. Above her, outside of Valoran, there is a man named Patrick. "I can play a game for an entire day, completely engrossed in the world that is appearing on my 15-inch notebook [computer] screen," Patrick told me. He is in his early 30s, 6'5", 300 pounds, and currently unemployed in Silicon Valley. Virtual worlds have played an important role in Patrick's life since childhood.
Though he denied it for years, today Patrick believes he's addicted to video games. "Room is a mess, debt collectors and friends are calling," he said, explaining what happens to his life when he falls back into gaming. "I smell like shit, and my future livelihood is uncertain—but none of it really matters when I'm concentrating on those 15 inches." Patrick was sober from gaming for a while, but he is currently in a self-defined relapse, which means he spends all day, every day, in a virtual world.
He believes VR could become the harder drugs to classic computer gaming's marijuana. "I think once VR hits, and that screen expands to a 360-degree sensory pleasure dome, it's going to create a new level of gaming addiction," Patrick said. "My current addiction, while bad, still leaves room for the peripheral view of real life to occasionally sober me back to reality. It could be a text message I see on my phone from the corner of my eye or a weird shadow on the wall that I mistake for a spider—but those small things exist as reminders that there is a world happening around me outside of my game. With VR, you go a step further in removing those minor reminders or distractions, and a step further in fully saturating your mind in another reality."
When VR really began to develop in the 1990s, there was concern that the technology would eventually become addictive, but it simply wasn't good enough back then. "It's good enough now," said Albert Rizzo, a clinical psychologist who has been running a virtual reality lab at the University of Southern California for the last 20 years. "There is a potential for addiction with VR."
I smell like shit, and my future livelihood is uncertain—but none of it really matters.
A friend of mine recently built a VR setup in his Brooklyn apartment, and I met him at his home one weekend this summer to experience it myself. He placed sensors around his living room that define the boundaries of the virtual environment; there was a large, futuristic headset and two handheld controllers. I doubted VR would feel real, but when he put the device on my head my knees went weak: I was suddenly floating above Earth's atmosphere, looking down from space. Though I could feel the floor beneath my feet and hear my friend speaking, my body also reacted to the world simulated in the headset. It felt like he was very far away.
As we played a variety of games over the next few hours, it became obvious that most of what's presently available on Steam—a central platform where users can download games—for VR are just simple modules, not massive online worlds like Diablo. In one you can launch arrows at cartoon figures raiding a castle; in another you can shoot up alien spacecrafts with laser guns. It is only a matter of time before the narratives and gameplay become more complex.
While researching this story, I asked many avid gamers if they think VR will be more addictive than traditional games because of the increased immersion it allows. Reddit user MaybiusStrip said VR might be addictive "when somebody releases a decent game." Play_time_is_over told me that he doesn't believe VR could become addictive as it exists today because the games aren't very social and because it's difficult to use the devices for longer than two hours. "The human body isn't designed to keep up with it," he said, explaining that if you try to play for longer than two hours, you'll get a headache and feel "extremely fatigued." But that may not really matter; another gamer told me that he's heard a lot of VR users talk about "pushing through troubling pains or side effects of VR rather than taking a break."
In a zombie VR module I played at my friend's house, the user stands alone in a dark field while gruesome zombies emerge from the shadows. As they surrounded me, my heart began to pound; at one point, I screamed, because I kept firing my gun but missing, and it felt as if the flesh-eating monsters really were slouching towards me. I can see the potential for VR to become an all-consuming experience. Even though none of the games were as involved or advanced as top-of-the-line MMOs, I didn't want to take the headset off.
This sounds alarming to many. In the New York Times this week, Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and the author of books like Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, writes on the "dangers" of merging the real and virtual worlds. A response to the insane, immediate popularity of the augmented reality game Pokémon Go, Turkle's piece warns against the ease with which technology allows us to "flee" to our screens. "If we are not vigilant," she says, "seeing the world through a lens—albeit not darkly—can be a first step toward accepting a dreamscape as sufficient unto the day."
Cameron Adair says that his addictive gaming behavior was a product of his depression; games were an effective escape from the physical world. But as distracting as alternate realities could be, they didn't fix his mental health issues, which rapidly declined. "One night I actually wrote a suicide note," he said. That was a turning point. It forced Adair to confront his issues. But, he is confident, just because some people neglect their health and safety in order to play video games, "that doesn't mean they're bad for everyone."
Though Rizzo is aware of gaming and internet addiction, and recognizes the potential for addiction to VR, he doesn't believe that spending lots of time in virtual reality will become a public health problem, either. Rather, he says, it will become a cultural shift. "I see it being another set of behaviors or passions," Rizzo said. "We certainly wouldn't say people that are movie addicts are addicted to television. People love stories, you know?"
According to Rizzo, games can be a refuge for people who are limited by disabilities or cannot communicate with others in their real life. His research at USC centers on using virtual reality to treat mental illness, and he treats people like recovering addicts and veterans suffering from PTSD at his lab. By using VR to simulate psychologically triggering environments and scenarios, Rizzo is able to lessen the impact of those triggers on his patients' psyches.
But Rizzo also believes that VR can be helpful in ways beyond clinical application. "There are many people who probably go a week without talking to a human being or anything other than a perfunctory 'please' and 'thank you' carried out at a 7/11," Rizzo said. "There are a lot of lonely people." Maybe they live online for good reason.
Mark Silcox is the chair of the department of humanities and philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma, a co-author of Philosophy Through Video Games, and currently at work on an anthology on the ethics of choosing to live in virtual realities called Experience Machines: The Philosophy of Virtual Worlds. "I want to know whether my fellow philosophers think that it's ever rational (or morally permissible) to prefer spending one's time in virtual realms over the experience of 'real life,'" Silcox writes on his publisher's website, Rowman & Littlefield International.
"Being on World of Warcraft for 12 hours a day is an absolute salvation for many people," Silcox told me. Like Rizzo, Silcox said that virtual realities can be deeply meaningful for people whose physical conditions are isolating or hurtful. For those who are disabled, have Asperger's, are geographically isolated, or just cannot have a fulfilling social life in the physical world, finding a life of purpose online is "wonderful," Silcox told me.
Indeed, virtual realities are often social, allowing users to interact with people all over the world, and they don't necessarily have to isolate the player from the physical world, either. Pokémon Go, released on July 6, has interlaid a virtual space over our own; players physically travel to GPS-mapped areas to find wild Pokémon that exist both in the game and in our physical space. People have already said the game is helping with mental health issues—like depression and anxiety—because it motivates them to get out of the house, where ordinarily they might not at all.
Some days I was sure I would be happier on the other end of that portal, but other days I thought that, if I left, I'd miss my life on Earth.
"I know some people would talk negatively about [compulsive gamers]," Patrick told me. "'They're not benefiting society.'" But though his personal goal is to curb his addiction and enjoy the experience of the physical world, Patrick believes that people who are happily living in virtual reality serve a purpose, too. "They are benefiting society," Patrick assured me. "They're benefiting other people who are existing in their world."
And, of course, they contribute to the economy. The gaming industry is massive, and the advent of professional gaming, or eSports, has lent it some legitimacy. Excellent professional gamers can earn six-figure salaries by competing in tournaments. The winning team of the annual League of Legends world championship is awarded $1,000,000, and the event itself draws thousands to arenas around the world that were designed for use by traditional sports games. In 2015, 334 million people watched over live streams.
Although he is hesitant to discuss this subject, Silcox too believes there are social and political benefits to virtual worlds. "If you think about them seriously as a society, they lack certain harms that contemporary, real-life society has, like widespread poverty," he said. "Everybody starts off with an allowance in World of Warcraft, and you can be poor or rich, but you don't die of starvation. I think that's pretty good training for citizenship, actually."
As Silcox sees it, when you're stepping into League of Legends, WoW, EverQuest, or Diablo II, no matter how seriously you've taken your role, there is an "explicit acknowledgement that people are engaged in play." He believes that we would benefit by accepting the playfulness inherent in our capitalist system—it is also a game. "Speculating about the stock market is a board game," Silcox said. "It's just that it happens in real life, and if it goes wrong, people lose their jobs or starve to death."
My progression into a virtual world was similar to Patrick's. The story of Diablo II unfolded in a mortal realm called Sanctuary, where tyrannical lords of terror, hatred, and destruction had come to kill and consume mankind. Three Prime Evil beings—Diablo, Lord of Terror; Mephisto, Lord of Hatred; and Baal, Lord of Destruction—were imprisoned within "soulstones," exiled to Sanctuary by lesser demons, and the player's mission was to rid the world of them.
When I first got Diablo II, I'd already been playing video games for years. Like Patrick and his friends, my brother and I would meet at home after school to gun each other down in GoldenEye 007, or seek the Triforce in the Legend of Zelda, or battle in the floating island arenas of Super Smash Bros., where we embodied familiar icons pulled from the pantheon of 90s gaming culture. When we didn't win, we'd yell and throw our controllers to the floor, burying our faces dramatically in the sofa cushions.
Diablo II wasn't like that. It wasn't something I could pick up and let go after a few hours—it was a world that I chose to live in and believed was better than this one. Everything that I failed at on Earth could be conquered in Sanctuary. I strode from level one toward the ultimate, nearly unachievable, level 99. While I was weak and bullied in my real life, in Diablo II I could slaughter those who rose against me, terrorizing my enemies with the dark arts by summoning undead spawn in player-vs.-player (PvP) duels.
"[MMOs] provide me with a feeling of accomplishment that I just don't get from doing more successful things in real life," another gamer told me. He is one of many users who prefer virtual realities to the physical world, but may not have an addiction, per se. "Graduating from college? Felt like I was just buying the degree. Getting rare loot, hitting level caps, and winning a PvP match feel way more rewarding."
Most of the extra value someone is supposed to get out of the real world is something that can be captured with virtual reality, given the right tools.
Evelynn, the blue woman in League of Legends, is an unusual avatar for Patrick. He is a towering, bearded man in the physical world and usually prefers to have his true form be represented in virtual reality. (He uses Evelynn in League of Legends because she is one of the easiest characters to play.) In another game, Skyrim, Patrick is large, male, and carries a broad axe. "I try to play me, but maybe a little bit better version of me," he said.
There were several types of characters to choose from in Diablo II—barbarians, paladins, amazons. Sometimes I played as the sorceress, but my first choice—and the character who has stayed with me all these years—was the necromancer. The necromancers of Diablo II were priests in the cult of Rathma whose peculiar aesthetic and dark work with the dead was condemned and distorted by the ignorant majority of Sanctuary. I felt that paralleled my life pretty well.
The necromancer was gaunt and pale with thin, long white hair knotted at the nape of his neck. He was a dark mage who wore wormskull helms and ribcage breastplates and carried bone wands with names like the Arm of King Leoric, Gravenspine, and the Suicide Branch, but he was also customizable. I named him, dressed him, devised his ungodly skill set, engaged with other people online as him, and devoted my life to finding the rarest weapons and armor so that he would be powerful.
By the time he entered high school, Patrick realized that he was "living through" his avatar. The distinction between his real life and the fantasy blurred as one began to affect the other. That happened to me, too, and perhaps it's not uncommon. Silcox told me that his students have begun to dress as their avatars. "They started to dye their hair the same colors as the characters they play in Final Fantasy," he said.
A former gamer himself, he isn't surprised that real and virtual worlds can merge. "Playing Myst when it first came out influenced everything about me," Silcox said, referring to the enigmatic 1993 computer adventure game. "My house is essentially decorated in a Myst style; it changed my taste about how I wanted space to look."
I was a disaffected teen in the early 2000s, and my interest in Diablo II was part of my flair for all things macabre. Like Silcox's students, my hair in the physical world picked up the ghoulish hues of the virtual crypts my necromancer haunted; at 16 I dyed it black and green. My look continued to darken; when a boy broke my heart, I pierced my bottom lip with two steel rings to mimic the pierced nipples of Andariel, the Maiden of Anguish.
Two years later, in New York City, I had a red jewel tattooed on the underside of my forearm. It looks just like the rubies you can use to enhance armor in Diablo II. It also resembles Diablo's red soulstone, which some heroes in Sanctuary have madly plunged into their own flesh.
I'd been playing Diablo II for a few years when I began to imagine blue portals appearing around me in the physical world. In Diablo II, players rely on scrolls that open these portals to travel quickly between places. You might be deep in the Chaos Sanctuary, unlocking the final seal to summon and kill Diablo—but without a portal scroll, you're trapped there, unable to travel back safely to the encampment where you can heal and restock on potions.
Those shimmering, oval pools of light existed only in Sanctuary, but I imagined they opened like doorways on empty street corners. I couldn't decide if I'd go through one if it ever really did appear. Some days I was sure I would be happier on the other end of that portal, but other days I thought that, if I left, I'd miss my life on Earth.
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Anyone with parents who yelled at them for spending a summer day playing a video game indoors knows that virtual reality is regarded as resoundingly inferior to real life. "That's always mystified me, the idea that just by virtue of being real an experience has a kind of value all by itself," Silcox said. "It's one of those things I've never felt."
It seems rational to value life more than a game, but Silcox argues that it's actually an irrational value judgment. According to Silcox, the preference that many people have for the physical world is likely a product of status quo bias, a psychological phenomenon in which people prefer the familiar to the unfamiliar.
"Most of the extra value someone is supposed to get out of contact with the real world is a little bit elusive, or something that can be captured with make-believe or virtual reality, given the right tools," Silcox told me. He recognizes that something is lost in virtual reality because the technology still prevents certain experiences, like touch and smell. But what about the benefits? "It'll take another generation or two for people to become articulate about that."
The idea that something is lost by spending time in an imaginary world while being present in the physical one isn't exactly new: Most people have probably heard of someone being criticized for reading too much, spending their days with their "nose in a book."
"I think pure escapism and pure fantasy in literature usually lead to less interesting writing," Silcox said. "But computer games work the same way, and so does virtual reality. Most video games in the history of the medium have been pretty purely escapist. Even at their most artistic they're at the same level as a Terry Brooks novel."
I view what we did in those imaginary worlds as part of my history.
He thinks this is starting to change. "In the past decade or so, there's been a really interesting explosion of independent video game production that's had very high artistic ambitions and that's joined the perfectly reasonable goal of trying to give people an escape with something a bit closer to more traditional literature," Silcox said. He believes that the present generation's interest in virtual reality could be the result of feeling like we have no control over our environment; where baby boomers felt the world belonged to them and that they could change it, millennials don't. "We didn't fight a war and come out of the war thinking we were going to make the world a better place," Silcox said.
Ultimately, he believes the decision to choose a virtual life over reality can be ethical, but he doesn't see that happening now because the interface between the virtual world and the physical world isn't seamless. If it were—if the body and brain could flawlessly merge with the game—Silcox would opt in. "I mean, my view of the Matrix is: If it were really that easy to go into it—and it wasn't of course run by an evil empire robot—I'd be all for it. I'd plug it in in a second," he told me.
In 2003 the Swedish philosopher Nick Bolstrom theorized that it was extremely possible that life on Earth is a virtual reality simulation. Silcox told me that he finds Bolstrom's argument very convincing. "If there's a 33 percent chance that what I call reality is virtual, then what's the stuff that I call virtual?" Silcox said.
Patrick has memories of the town where he grew up, and then he has memories of the virtual town where he spent years of his youth. It may have been a game, and he may have become addicted, but virtual reality was also a second home to him. It was where he came of age. Sometimes he logs onto games he used to play, and it feels like he's traveling home years after leaving.
Silcox feels similarly. "I view what we did in those imaginary worlds as part of my history," he said. If these experiences can play an important developmental role in a young person's life—if they can create real memories and influence your identity in the physical world—then it is worrisome to think that young people are encouraged to consider so much of their experience a waste of time, something "that [is] peripheral to their real values and real concerns," Silcox said.
"What is a real world?" Patrick asked me during our conversation. In his mind, there is no difference between virtual reality and the physical realm. They're "both equally real."
Last summer I drove back to the town where I grew up. I hadn't been there in 15 years, and unsurprisingly, my childhood home had changed. The chipped paint was replaced with gray plastic siding; the birch tree that my father had planted in the front yard was gone. But up the road I could see that my old friend's house was still there.
Zack was one of the few kids who stayed friends with me once puberty hit and it became clear that I didn't fit in with normal boys. We used to play Diablo II together. I remember one day after school when he pounded on my front door: He'd run all the way over to tell me that he'd finally found a rare and powerful ring that we both coveted in the tomb of Tal Rasha. Which part of that memory is real?
As I looked over towards Zack's house, an old man lifted his head from the truck he was washing across the street. His hair had gone gray, and he was slightly heavier than I remembered, but otherwise he looked the same as when I was a child. I looked back at my old neighbor, knowing that I had changed much more than he had. He called me "miss," and asked if he could help me find where I was going.
I looked away from the man and up at my old bedroom window. Diablo II could never uproot the deep feelings of worthlessness I felt back then, but it did give my life purpose and passion during a time when I couldn't see a future for myself in the physical world.
Unlike in my hometown, little has changed in Sanctuary. The necromancer is as lithe as he was back then; the cathedrals are still haunted. Diablo and his brothers are still full of hate, and thousands of people like me still journey there, though most have moved on to other worlds.
Now I log on rarely, but when I was a teenager I wished that I could play Diablo II night and day. I'd do anything I could to have more time in Sanctuary—avoid going down for dinner, skip family vacations, cancel plans with friends. When I didn't fake sick to stay home and play, I'd wake up early in the morning before school and log on. My computer was right behind that bedroom window. I remember watching the sunrise as I traveled through hell.