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Do we need a virtual reality check?

Updated: Jun 24, 2021

Taking the pulse of the computer-generated generation

By Eleanor Roshier

The idea of travelling to other worlds provided to us via virtual reality software and other gaming technology often conjures up a host of negative connotations. Some of these are justified, such as the dangers of video game addiction and the need to police virtual realities with very real-life laws. However, often overlooked is the benefit to society such systems grant. VR is being used in the fields of medicine and clinical psychology more and more, for example as a form of exposure therapy to treat people with claustrophobia. But we must ask ourselves, is our society perhaps teetering on the verge of a dystopian future where the virtual world is our only world?

Such a dystopian future is presented in Jennifer Haley’s play ‘The Nether’. In this bizarre crossover of new and old media, ideas about the real dangers of virtual reality and gaming worlds are explored. In short, it is about the failure of the law to convict a man who commits paedophilic acts in the virtual world. While this production is of course hyperbolic in nature it raises important concerns about the morality of and demand for laws regulating virtual worlds. These concerns are made terrifyingly relevant in the very real case of Qiu Chegwei who murdered his friend after he stole virtual weapons from Qiu (in the online game Legend of Mir 3) and the police refused to intervene as they didn’t consider it theft. This kind of intense, misplaced emotional investment in a game is characteristic of video game addiction.

Video game addiction has been a problem for decades now, though it only became a recognised medical condition in February 2018. And now, in 2020, the problem is becoming even more widespread. Recently the World Health Organisation suggested that playing Fortnight is a potential driving force for this disorder (due to the young age of the players) which is extremely worrying considering there are over 8.3 million people playing it! Unsurprisingly, many of these players would be quick to dismiss the term ‘video game addiction’ when confronted with it. They may even consider it to be something their parents conjured up to scare them away from spending hours sitting in front of a screen. However, there is actual physical evidence for this ailment which can be seen in MRI scans.

These scans have shown that the region of the brain that controls impulsive and reward-seeking behaviour, the amygdala-striatal system, was found to be smaller in size and more sensitive for those with a diagnosed gaming addiction - as is the case for the amygdala-striatal systems of substance addicts. This suggests the yearnings elicited in individuals with these two addictions might have a similar neurobiological mechanism. Conversely, there are some studies that report positive impacts on cognitive function as a result of video gaming. For example, it has been shown that frequently playing video games increases the size of the prefrontal regions of the brain which are involved in decision making and problem solving. Yet the phrase ‘silver lining’ does not come to mind here in face of the long list of adverse effects on the mind, such as dopamine exhaustion, emotional suppression, auditory hallucinations, and peripheral neuropathy, that are linked to gaming and VR addiction.

Lastly, it is important to consider the dangers virtual reality poses not only to individuals but society as a whole. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s recent advertisement of the new Facebook virtual reality feature. He proceeds to parade around Puerto Rico and extol the virtues of VR while the country is still in the wake of a natural disaster. Surely even one of the richest men in the world should not be so out of touch with reality that they consider this appropriate? If such behaviour is left unchecked, perhaps that dark dystopian future in which virtual reality takes precedent is not so distant after all.

From Issue 17

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