The sweet nothing of Virtual Reality

You wouldn’t shoot someone in real life. Don’t do it in virtual reality either

Our behavior in virtual reality can seep into real life. It’s a wonderful invention when studying or simply having harmless fun, but things can get Black Mirror-style dark if we cross ethical boundaries. 

Back in 2013, Robin Wright starred in The Congress as a fictional version of herself. An aging actress reluctantly agreeing to digitize her image into a fully computer-animated, forever young version, giving up on ever acting again in real life. Because in dystopia, real life can’t compete with the virtual one whose boundaries have no end.

The adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s book posed an uncomfortable question that keeps popping up over and over as technology advances: what happens if virtual reality becomes so alluring that the routine of real life just won’t cut it anymore? What if the fictional self matters more than the one living in the imperfect physical world?

We’ve seen this again in Spielberg’s recent adaptation of Ready Player One. Reality is depicted as a grim place full of disconnected people who would rather escape to a virtual reality entertainment universe called the OASIS. There, at least, you can be anyone you’d like in a colorful, adventurous world that fills the emptiness. 

VR for treatment of phobias, experiments in physical rehab and more


Photo by @tima-miroshnichenko

The sweet nothing of virtual reality

The reliably dystopian Black Mirror didn’t miss their take on non-physical reality in the beautifully bittersweet, critically acclaimed episode San Junipero. Essentially a love story, it revolves around a simulated city the elderly or sick can inhabit – even after death. One can live their dreams fully immersed in the hedonistic San Junipero, without the physical limitations of our reality. Is it truly that magical, though? For the quadriplegic main protagonist, it’s a chance to live fully, but her love interest points out that it’s a little more complicated than that. “You wanna spend forever somewhere nothing matters? Like all those lost fucks trying to feel something? Go ahead.” 

Would you want to live in a paradise where nothing matters? Black Mirror won’t give you a clear-cut answer – perhaps because the dilemma is so complex that there is none. This all sounds like dystopian sci-fi films, but we’re already halfway through.

Research published in Frontiers in Virtual Reality reminds us that VR can be a wonderful invention – it’s already used for therapeutic purposes or treatment of phobias, experiments in physical rehabilitation, rehabilitation of violent offenders or medical training, and many others. As the paper suggests, these are valid reasons to create a hyper-realistic VR scenario because it’s all the more effective. Undoubtedly, leveraging everything the technology can bring in this manner can be groundbreaking for humanity.

But what if you prefer the “unreal” for all its freedom – and the feeling that you can do anything somewhere where nothing matters? 

The right and wrong in the unreal world

If you’ve seen Westworld, you probably felt a pinch of shame for humanity, exploring their darkest desires without consequences. The raping, the murders, the crimes – none of it matters when the people you’re hurting aren’t really human. “I would never do that if it were me,” you’ve probably thought – and perhaps most of us genuinely wouldn’t. But the ethical red flags and worries about the dark side of humanity are already here. 

Whether you roam the world of Second Life or spend time shooting someone in Half-Life: Alyx, you or your kids can face some questionable choices. Back in 2016, philosophers Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger realized the enormous question marks about human behavior within virtual reality and published a comprehensive paper Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology. They’ve gathered findings of multiple studies, and they point to some potentially dangerous results of prolonged exposure to a reality that is, well – not real. 

You’ve probably noticed that behavior can change, even ever so slightly, based on your environment. Experiments, including the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, showed that this change can be more disturbing in extreme situations than you’d ever expect of yourself. As the researchers pointed out, virtual reality is an unprecedented, ever-changing environment, psychological but even biological changes can occur on a fundamental level. 

“In VR environments, we can be fooled into thinking that we are our avatars. Consumers must understand that not all of the risks are known in advance. There may be a tiny percentage of the population that has a certain psychiatric vulnerability such that binging on VR may result in a prolonged psychotic episode,” Metzinger explained for New Scientist. Since a virtual environment can be easily manipulated and tailored, the space to influence each user’s behavior is immense. The temptation to subtly sell products and ideas is certainly there. 

These are risks that could be expected, but VR brings a whole new set of unique challenges. The paper explains that immersion into terrifying situations, for example, elicits strong and lasting feelings of stress and fear. Moreover, we subconsciously act the way we think is expected. If your avatar looks tall, many people show more aggression than if it was short. The crazy part: whatever you do as your fictional self can influence your behavior in the physical world. 

Research already proved that subjects who spend some time as aged versions of themselves tend to allocate more money for their retirement as a result. That sounds like a reasonable decision, doesn’t it? But the thing is, not everyone wants us to make rational decisions, and the sheer possibility of behavior manipulation, for any reason at all, opens up a plethora of ethical concerns. 

“If you don’t do something to someone in real life, you don’t do it in virtual reality. You should not be able to shoot people in VR as you can in video games today, for example. And the porn industry is excited about VR. But fantasies involving violence are likely to be more damaging in an immersive setting than they are in a video. There is a danger of people getting used to not only observing but also carrying out such acts, because they are embodied in an avatar,” says Metzinger.

Virtual reality is a marvelous invention that can bring new experiences, opportunities to travel the world from your living room, learn quickly and effectively, and simply have fun. It will likely be a regular part of our everyday life. The problem is evident only when we exploit it or go further than we should, and when we do not consider the consequences. 

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