What impact could the virtual world can have on society?
By Eleanor Roshier
The idea of travelling to other worlds provided to us via virtual reality software and other gaming technology often invites a barrage 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 utilised 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 teeming on the verge of a dystopian future where the virtual world, is our only world?
Such a dystopian future is presented 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 is a term that was considered for years until February 2018 when it became a recognised medical condition. Arguably, it’s only been downhill since then considering that recently the WHO has suggested that playing Fortnight is a potential driving force for this disorder (due to the young age of the players) and there are over 8.3 million people playing it. Some evidence for this ailment can be seen in MRI scans. These reveal 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, it has been suggested gaming has some positive impacts on cognitive function. For example, it has been seen to increase 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 list of extensive mental health problems, such as
depression, 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 explain how great VR is in the wake of a natural disaster-stricken country. How can someone already be so out of touch with reality to consider this appropriate? One of the richest men in the world no less? If such behaviour is left unchecked, perhaps that dark dystopian future in which virtual reality takes president is not so distant after all.
From Issue 17
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