How I have railed against virtual reality, that trench-coated assassin of the imagination. I was so sure VR would change us, make us more passive and less creative, leaving the door wide open for tyranny and idiocy and even worse, bland sameness. You know, the way Plato thought writing would implant forgetfulness in our souls (wait, maybe it did) and Cairo banned coffeehouses in the 1500s to avoid political foment, and clerics burned (burn) books…. Was I too sure? The more vehement my opinions, the likelier they are wrong.
So when Sandbox VR came looking for writers to experience its new VR games—and one of them had a Star Trek theme—I gulped and said yes, then roped in my husband, who knows Star Trek the way other people know scripture. Acid test, I figured. If he could enjoy this, and if I could at least tolerate it for an hour, maybe my mind would crack open. I did like the idea of being one of those women sitting in front of screens on the bridge, calling out urgent data for Jean-Luc while he saved the ship….
While we waited our turn, Andrew confided his favorite in the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition: “Number 44. Never confuse wisdom with luck.” Fair enough. But he kept going, and eventually I wandered away, peered into one of the rooms, and scurried back to our bench, appalled by all the bloodthirsty screaming and waving of plastic guns. “That’s gotta be a different theme,” I said, and sure enough, that team’s “selfie video” popped up on the waiting area screen, showing us the slithering zombies that had attacked them in Deadwood Valley.
Violence on screen is another automatic blind spot for me. “It’s not real,” Andrew reminds me regularly, his tone weary by now. “It’s entertainment.”
“And how sick is that, to be entertained by the thought of killing people?”
Just as I asked, they called our turn. An assistant materialized and suited us up with gear so heavy and clunky I sympathized with Arthur’s knights. The VR headset was huge, and the gizmos velcroed to our ankles and wrists had little white bobbles at the ends, which made them look like either a midcentury Space Age costume or a fifth-grade science project about molecules. The vest was okay—it felt safe, somehow, until she told us it would vibrate when we were “hit.”
Wait one minute. This was Star Trek. I figured the worst that could happen would be Scotty yelling “She canna hold, Captain!” and our chairs rocking wildly as the ship took damage. But a very different scene now filled my field of vision, and a phaser floated into my right hand. Or rather, my avatar’s right hand. And then a tricorder floated up into, er, our left hand.
I now know that someone was standing in front of me handing my avatar these things, but I swear to God, it felt like they floated through the air toward me. I was not even sure they were real until they grew heavy. By then I was caught up in heated battle with the Klingons, especially the big one that kept sneaking up behind me with some sort of axe. “Bat’leth,” Andrew hissed as he shot down some big enemy ship.
I went into a tv police stance, bending one knee to stabilize as I fired, then whirling to catch the Klingon behind me. Taking cover, I zapped the Klingons that kept popping out from behind the lumpish metal cargo. Andrew scored about a thousand points higher than I did, but I had more kills.
I emerged from the room flushed, heart rate staccato, a grin stuck to my face. “I love it when they explode and dissolve instead of just dying,” I exulted as we headed to the car. “I needed a faster phaser though. It took too long to fire again. Don’t they have automatic ones that just keep going?”
Andrew was looking at me strangely. “You do realize, O pacifist wife, that for as long as I’ve known you, you have—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. But it really was fun.” I hesitated. After all these years of ranting, I owed him full disclosure. “It was obviously just pretend—the tech is still pretty clunky—but there were moments I really felt like I was there. And it felt more cathartic than mere entertainment. I honestly think that if those Klingons had been coming for us in real life, I would have gladly blown their heads apart.”
He nodded. “We’re still a hunter-warrior species. The veneer of civilization is pretty thin.”
“So you think what I felt was primal, some kind of bloodlust?”
“I did like the way we could touch each other’s shoulder when we were hit,” I offered, reaching for my old self. “Thanks for all the times you brought me back to life.”
He shrugged and grinned. “That’s marriage.”
“Oh, and stepping into the little circle for the transponder—”
“—was beyond cool. All that getting beamed up and down and rematerializing, the way the world went white and then we were on another planet….” I trailed off, wondering if this would be, a few generations from now, reality.
Meanwhile, having lost the high moral ground of my disdain for violent entertainment, I shifted back to my worries about imagination. Not once did Andrew really believe what we were experiencing was real; he knows too much about that particular universe. But I had those fleeting moments when I was there. Was that imagination?
No. I was not dreaming up that world. I was suspending belief and entering a world someone else had created. Also a useful skill, but not the same thing. Imagination would have been reading about Klingons and then letting my brain draw a mental picture of how they looked, how they behaved, what they would say and do, how I would respond…. VR leaves you room to act but not much time to think or dream.
“I wish we could have paused the action long enough to strategize, make a plan,” I say. That kind of teamwork would have made it even more exciting. We were just scrambling to react.”
We do a lot of that, these days. We let other people create various worlds for us, and we react.
On the other hand, the tech is at least temporarily empowering. Still jazzed on adrenaline after an hour of combat, I drove us home, and I was less hesitant than usual when I merged onto the highway or passed slower vehicles. How could one drive timidly after surviving a Klingon attack?
Except—Klingons do not exist. They are one more manufactured enemy, a proxy for our fears and frustrations. Is that healthy? Maybe. Maybe not. I felt exhilarated by those “kills.” Was it better that they were so obviously pretend? More and more, we look for solutions to our mood, our flaws, our anxieties, and our problems on screens rather than in real life. Which is now a place that has to be labeled—IRL—because so much of our attention is electronic. Whenever I can text or email customer service rather than God forbid pick up the phone, I do. “Give a Western man a choice between engaging with his internal world through a machine or engaging with the external world via his body and its immediate environment,” wrote Paul Kingsnorth, “and he’ll increasingly choose the former.”
The ability to enter other worlds appeals mainly when we are amusing ourselves, and those worlds are tightly constrained for our pleasure. Otherwise, we stay in our comfort zones. Earnest VR designers are trying to pry us out, though. Working with Fortnite, the International Red Cross launched Liferun to let us see workers helping civilians in conflict zones. The reward of Liferun is not liquifying an enemy but saving lives, rebuilding infrastructure, and speeding aid to those in desperate need. Meanwhile, the French Justice Ministry is using VR to let those convicted of domestic violence experience at least a hint of the helplessness and suffering they caused.
So much depends on how a powerful new technology is shaped and used. That is a prissy little sentence that glides me right back to my original preachy stance—until I remember that even more depends on who we are. A contingency far less comfortable.
That phaser made me feel like I could neutralize any threat. Would I have enjoyed firing on Klingons who were sitting in an armchair knitting? I hope not.
But being too sure of what you think and how you will react is a real danger.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.