All signs point to a future filled with virtual reality, and according to Zuckerberg et al, the potential applications are beyond count: One could have breakfast at the Louvre beside the Winged Victory of Samothrace, followed by a lunchtime spelunk through Thailand’s water caves. Of course there are deeply immersive video games–the linchpin of the modern VR movement—and various movies in production for these devices, while Barcelona's BeAnotherLab has created an empathy application for the Oculus Rift that allows users to swap genders. (Inevitably, a sex toy company is also developing a way to have virtual robot sex, according to Motherboard.)
If virtual reality becomes a part of people’s day-to-day lives, more and more people may prefer to spend a majority of their time in virtual spaces. As the futurist Ray Kurzweil predicted, somewhat hyperbolically, in 2003, “By the 2030s, virtual reality will be totally realistic and compelling and we will spend most of our time in virtual environments ... We will all become virtual humans.” In theory, such escapism is nothing new—as critics of increased TV, Internet, and smartphone usage will tell you—but as VR technology continues to blossom, the worlds that they generate will become increasingly realistic, as Kurzweil explained, creating a greater potential for overuse. This technological paradigm shift brings a level of immersion unlike any that has come before it, and the handwringing has already begun. Early doomsday predictions aside, can virtual escapism can ever be used for good?
The oldest documented research on escapism reportedly dates back to the 40s and 50s, when researchers first began examining the connection between media consumption and life satisfaction. In 1996, Peter Vorderer, a professor at the University of Mannheim, attempted to define the term. “In its core,” he wrote, “escapism means that most people have, due to unsatisfying life circumstances, again and again cause to ‘leave’ the reality in which they live in a cognitive and emotional way.”
While discussing this concept in her book Choice and Preference in Media Use, Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick noted that “as people cannot truly ‘leave’ reality, the concept of escapism appears to lack precision.” By that definition, virtual reality is a game changer. With VR, it is possible that instead of simply escaping reality by focusing on a TV show, for example, people may choose to replace an unhappy reality with a better, virtual one.
The idea of a life lived online, or outside of regular society, is largely seen as dangerous and unhealthy. There have been some reports of self-imposed social isolation that illustrate the negative side of withdrawal. Since the 1990s, the term hikikomori has been used to describe the estimated 500,000 to one million Japanese citizens who refuse to leave their homes. According to Dr. Takahiro Kato, a psychiatrist working at a hikikomori support center in Fukuoka, Japan, many hikikomori display depressive and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, while a minority “appear addicted to the Internet.” Then there are the infamous World of Warcraft players who lose themselves in their massive online universe. In 2004, Zhang Xiaoyi, a 13-year-old from China, reportedly committed suicide after playing WoW for 36 consecutive hours, in order to “join the heroes of the game he worshipped.” In 2009, a three-year-old girl from New Mexico tragically passed away from malnutrition and dehydration; on the day of her death, her mother was said to have spent 15 hours playing the game. Former Warcraft player Ryan van Cleave explained to The Guardian in 2011 that “living inside World of Warcraft seemed preferable to the drudgery of everyday life” when he had played 60 hours a week. Groups like WOWaholics Anonymous have been created to help former players like van Cleave who became too invested in the game.