VR and Experience-addiction

Hello all! Apologies for the tardiness. I’ve been out of town, so just not getting settled back in and trying (read: struggling) to get caught up. So, here we go.

The other week in class we tried VR. I punched a wall playing VR ping-pong against a fox.

VR can be dangerous, obviously. There’s little we can do to change that; people are awkward, clumsy creatures. And, before I go further, I should probably provide a brief disclaimer. Ahem.

It is neither necessary nor productive to discuss new technology like VR in terms of the havoc it could potentially reap on our society. I’m not here to wax dystopia on how virtual reality will inevitably lead to the end of society as we know it (cough, Ernest Cline, cough). Virtual reality will end our society as we know it and it will turn us all into a race of zombies whose only sustenance lies in a visor and gloves (and omni-directional treadmills, anyone?). This is a fact. Stop worrying about it; it’s inevitable.

The thing that did, however, strike me as significant in my experience with VR was just that. It was an experience, a bona fide, psychological experience. Film, literature, and gaming, as media, do not provide an experience. They provide facsimiles of experience. Virtual reality has the very tangible potential to be a true experience generator. It has already been used in the treatment of various psychological disorders, the training of military snipers, and the education of surgeons and scientists in all fields. Film and video gaming can only bring you so close to a fine, specialized skill like operating a sniper rifle or performing surgery. Virtual reality can give you that experience. This is a huge difference.

Addiction is orchestrated in the brain by dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates reward-seeking behavior. One of the primary ways the brain releases dopamine is through risk-taking behavior and the experience of novelty. Video games themselves are already addictive, as even a fake experience of seems to have the neurological capacity to trigger a dopamine response. You can do the math. Virtual reality has the very real capacity to form very real, chemical addictions on a scale likely not seen in any other creative media. I recommend this article for more on this process and VR’s potential to induce it.

Of course, addiction has societal factors as well. I have enough faith in us as a society to not worry that we’ll all become addicted to VR and that we’ll start to ignore the ‘outside-world’ problems. We’re smarter than that. And, of course, the experience of a dopamine-releasing behavior alone doesn’t cause addiction; there are a myriad of personal and cultural traits that influence it. But we are animals, and we are, at least on a basic level, subject to our own neurochemistry. Virtual reality has the very real, and very cool ability to induce experiences of “flow” (see article) that we often lack in the real world (and that we thus seek through various chemicals, behaviors, and ultimately, sometimes, addictions). It’s worth, however, considering the future of virtual reality in terms of this idea and discussing out we can use VR and our understanding of dopamine, addiction, and flow both to have fun and learn about how we can better ourselves outside of VR.


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