Virtual Vice & Virtue

Book Keeper's Library

Virtual Reality is a topic that I have touched on a couple of times during my tenure on this ship. We’ve had short discussions on books like Ready Player One and anime like Sword Art Online and Log Horizon. Those discussions were more in a “philosophical” realm of what we consider to be “real.” If you don’t remember that discussion, to make a long story short, I tried to use the “oh-crap-I’m-stuck-in-a-game” genre of manga and anime, and books like Ready Player One make the point that “real to them” is as good, if not the same thing as “reality.” To avoid being redundant, this is not going to be a discussion on that. Rather, I want to get back to my roots and do with Virtual Reality what I love to do with anything — dive head first down the rabbit hole and find its earliest iterations, and then follow the trail back up. So let’s get started, shall we?

From what I was able to find, the first mention of a type of virtual reality was in an 1933 issue of Wonder Stories magazine in the serial story The Man Who Awoke by Laurence Manning. These stories, which appeared monthly from March to August 1933, were eventually published into a book of the same name in 1975. The story follows a man who puts himself into a comma, to awake every 5,000 years hoping to find humanity living in a Utopia. In 15,000AD he wakes to find that humans have found a way to program their own dreams and sleep their lives away in a type of “virtual reality.”

Another early mention of something resembling virtual reality is in a short story written for Wonder (a later version of Wonder Stories) in 1935. In “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” Stanley G. Weinbaum describes a virtual reality device that allows its wearers to see, hear, taste, smell, and touch the scene created for the spectacles. The scene was pre-recorded and compared to a movie, but the wearer of the spectacles was plopped into it as if they were the actor instead of the audience. They fully experienced the story.  

While written decades before the creation of actual virtual reality, the two authors had distinct opinions on the implications of this technology. In The Man Who Awoke the perpetual sleep that people put themselves into in order to dream out their lives was depicted as being a downfall of society. There were more dreamers than those who were awake, and society simply could not support itself. It was a vice. In “Pygmalion’s Spectacles,” the inherent benevolence or malevolence of a virtual reality experience wasn’t the point. It was much more a commentary on “reality” than it was the moral or social implications of VR. The story even begins with dialogue about Bishop (George) Berkeley’s philosophies on reality. However, the detail as to which the technology and its capabilities was described was very forward-thinking. So much so that it would be easy to find a virtual reality experience today that resembles the one described in the story.

The outlook on virtual reality in The Man Who Awoke is a grim one. The downfall of society (one of many in this book) is the fact that so many people are plugging in and dropping out of this reality in favor for one of their choosing. We’ve discussed the topic of games as escapism and video game addiction aboard the ship before, so the idea of a whole society that removes itself from itself isn’t implausible, we obviously see some people doing these things today, just in a slightly different way.

The balance between virtual reality as liberation from the woes of reality and slavery to a virtual world is a popular topic in many of books, movies, and shows. I’ve previously mentioned Sword Art Online and Log Horizon as two important dialogues on the implications of virtual reality. In each, the players become trapped within the game, or their alternate/virtual reality. In both cases, while this was not self induced by society, it does explore some important avenues within the topic of virtual reality.

In SAO, the maker of the game traps the players within it, resulting in a mass panic within the game world. As much as they liked it, most players didn’t want to be trapped inside of it. Death was death, in game and out. The game world became the real world. Even the NerveGear headsets that allowed its users to experience all five senses within the game world were rigged to kill the player if an attempt to remove it was made.Ultimately, the players had to liberate themselves, and everyone else, from the game by beating it.  In Log Horizon, the players just make do with the hand that their dealt and begin to live their lives within their new reality, finding their “liberation” through embracing their situation and making the best of it.

In our first discussion of this genre we only mentioned .hack by name, and now that I am more familiar with it, I feel it deserves a little more attention within this particular context. Dating back to 2002, this is arguably one of the first well known franchises of this genre. .hack explores the the stories that take place within a virtual MMORPG known as “The World.” While some of the stories do feature someone being trapped within the virtual reality game, most of the commentary on virtual reality occurs through depictions of the interactions between players in the game world versus how they are in the real world. It tries to tackle the subjects of games as escapism through glimpses into the lives of the players within the game to suggest why they might have chosen to play this game as heavily as they do. Avatars as an extension of the player, or as a projection of who the player wants to be is also explored. One example of this is an in-game wildcard character that is played by a fourth grader. Anyone who has had the unfortunate experience of playing a multiplayer game with unmonitored children hiding behind the anonymity of an avatar or gamertag knows how much of a wildcard their characters can be. Even with the “be anything you want to be” nature of a virtual MMORPG, you are still affected by the limitations of your personality and maturity. While the franchise doesn’t tow the line of liberating oneself from the dangers of a fictional world, it does offer some commentary on how some of the issues that might come at the onset of games and technology like this might be navigated.

Given the popularity of the book, and now upcoming movie, I would be doing myself and the ship a disservice if I didn’t at least sprinkle Ready Player One into the mix. Ready Player One, while being a good story in general (in my opinion), also does a great job at exploring the balance between the real world, and … the other real world — The Oasis. At multiple times throughout the story, the main character walks within the blurry, gray area of the game as a tool to escape a bad home life and the general “suckiness” of the real world, and being entrapped by it. The book also outlines what I feel is a very feasible path that virtual reality might go down in the near future. The “Rig” that Wade Watts and others use to experience their lives within the Oasis range anywhere from a headset and gloves, to full haptic suits that stimulate sensations of any kind all over the body. Haptic feedback technology already exists. Haptic suits are being designed and tested as well. Given the ever expanding world of virtual reality games, something resembling a game one might play within the Oasis might not be that far off. Let’s just hope that society doesn’t miss out on the actual lesson of the book.    

It might feel like we’ve been all over the place with this discussion. Hopefully I’ve been able to navigate it in a somewhat coherent way. But before you depart onto your next stop aboard the airship, I want to leave you with an avenue, a branch of this rabbit hole that we haven’t yet discussed.

The Man Who Awoke lays out a sad, self-destructive tale of what the author felt a virtual reality could do to damage humanity, and I’ve loosely thrown around the word slavery a few times in this discussion. Looking at the stories that explore being trapped inside virtual reality could even be described as a type of hell, if one were to adopt a very pessimistic view on the subject. It is easy to see the bad in something, speculate the woes and the downfall of civilization to technology that we don’t fully understand or realize the capabilities of.

But what about the good it can do? Is there a benefit of virtual reality for us, beyond the enhanced escapism it can create?

You might be familiar with the Netflix series Black Mirror. (Spoilers ahead, by the way, so tread carefully). Typically noted for its harsh depictions of the relationship between society and technology, there is one episode that I feel shows us a way that virtual reality might be used “for good.” I mentioned virtual reality as being a possible hell if one were trapped in it. A final destination that tortures you with something that you at one time loved — playing a game. But the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” explores a different side. Virtual, or in this case “simulated” reality can be a type of heaven, almost literally. With age can come many health and mental problems. “San Junipero” tells a story of what it might be like if people were able to live out the last years of their life as their favorite version of themselves in a simulated, virtual reality, and then continue that life even after death through having their consciousness uploaded to the simulation. Uploaded consciousness is not something that is typically portrayed in a good light (Transcendence, Episode 210 of The X-Files), but this story at least entertains a benevolent use of it. I don’t want to spoil too much of this story, so I’ll just encourage you to check out this award winning episode to experience it yourself.

Next week, we will continue down this path of the “good side” of virtual reality and explore ways of how it can, and is, helping people in today’s world.

Until next time, my friend.  


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