We already know the stories of people who have become so immersed in videogames that they have paid the ultimate price. These poor individuals have stopped sleeping, eating, visiting the bathroom; they have not attended to any of their bodily needs for so long that they have died. Worse still are the stories where people have failed to attend to their children, like the South Korean couple who became so addicted to caring for a virtual child that their own infant starved to death. So, we know videogames can be deadly addictive. Could virtual reality be even worse?
For most people, even an all-night videogame binge session can be brought to a swift end by the interference of appetite, a phonecall, or the dog fussing for its morning walk. Add whole-immersion virtual reality gaming to the equation and those interferences become much easier to ignore.
Addiction comes in many forms, and for some people, it’s not so easy to break away. Particularly when something offers utopian escapism; a way to forget the troubles of an unsatisfying life and disappear into a more beautiful, easier, trouble-free life. No matter if it’s made of pixels, if it beats the burden of being alive, it’s a better place to be.
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that creates feelings of pleasure, excitement, creativity, and engagement with the world, is released whenever we take risks or encounter novelty. It’s also strongly linked to reward-gratification. The desire to get more of the reward that caused the dopamine release can become highly compelling. This desire is behind the addictive nature of dopamine-releasing cocaine.
Videogames are, simply put, dopamine dispensers.
But what of those other pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters, serotonin, anandamide, endorphins, norepinephrine? Well, standard videogames are mostly just dopamine dispensers, as I said. Nonetheless, as our capacity to create more sophisticated gaming systems (i.e. VR), grows, there’s no reason to doubt that we’ll be able to more strongly tune in to how to control and manipulate the release of these neurotransmitters.
Of course, it’s not just virtual reality gaming that could lead to unhealthy levels of immersion. Facebook is famously making moves to become more virtual. Like screen-based Second Life, where participants could meet friends and build a virtual life, social media could open the doors to a whole new way of socialising.
This will be great news for the elderly or those unable to leave their homes; for socially isolated people in general. But the same issues around addiction apply here. Many of us already check Facebook several times a day, and it tends to be the more isolated amongst us that are susceptible to clogging up our friends’ news feeds. There’s a great deal of therapeutic potential here, but unless we continue to take those relationships into the real world, plugging in will remain a lot more pleasant than logging off.
So what happens when virtual reality becomes the most pleasurable thing in our lives? And how do we curb addiction?
One of the most obvious solutions would be to impose a time limit on device use. After, say, four hours, the system shuts down with a message to go and get some food and exercise. But then again, there’s an equally obvious way around that – have multiple consoles. Expensive, but for addicts, an easy solution.
Another solution might be to stick adverts into games at hour intervals. Frustrating ten minute ad breaks would break gamers’ flow, but may help them to disengage for a while. Especially if those ads included a warning about the dangers of VR addiction.
Physically, however, the pleasure derived from virtual reality may be curbed somewhat by the physiological side effects encountered by users. Motion sickness is still a problem that both hardware and content creators need to overcome with VR. But there’s also fatigue. Videogames can be mentally draining, but as VR games tend to be more physical, with more movement required, getting physically tired is a normal result of a long session.
Other than these possibilities, there are some serious difficulties facing how we will prevent VR addiction as the technology becomes more widespread and sophisticated. Perhaps the answer lies in giving people a greater quality of life in the real world, which is something technology has the power to do. But all the time that another world is better than the real one, society will have to deal with addiction and its consequences. All we can do is try to help as best we can.
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