On April 1, I took my two teenaged boys and my wife to see the new Steven Spielberg movie, “Ready Player One” (RPO). This is not a review of the movie (incidentally, I found it entertaining), but a discussion of the world the movie portrays. A world I believe we are, to some extent, already living in, but definitely a world that is not too far off. My boys and I read the book by Ernest Cline before we went and saw the movie. My sixteen-year-old even made a playlist on Spotify of the 80’s songs referenced in the book. We were fully invested in seeing the movie, to say the least. After reading the book, I started pondering what a world depicted in the book would mean for our children and their lives. I concluded there were some very impactful consequences of an RPO world that were never addressed in the book, and frankly, not fully in the movie either. Although, a very hamfisted attempt was made in the last 5 minutes. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, here is a short spoiler-free summary of the movie provided by the movie’s studio:
“The film is set in 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse. But the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday. When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery, and danger.” In a nutshell, it’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory storyline crammed into a multi-player game virtual world.
In the movie, living your life in the virtual world, known as the OASIS, is preferable to living in the real world. This premise is laid out in the first scenes of the movie, and this makes perfect sense. Ask any adult why they play video games. The answer you usually get is, “It’s an escape.” When children play video games, they are “escaping” too. Intentionally or unintentionally, they are escaping from relationships, social skill-building situations, and pro-social experiences that should be learned before adulthood. In many ways, our children are already living in the OASIS, but not fully yet. If you don’t like what social media and games are doing to our children now, you haven’t seen anything yet. Here comes VR (Virtual Reality). The RPO world is not far away. We have all the technology we need right now to live in the OASIS, but it is expensive and unrefined. But, like all new technology, it will become cheaper, better, and eventually ubiquitous.
A couple of months ago, my brother, a computer programmer and former game developer invited my two boys and me over to his home to enjoy some pizza and try out his new VR system. After my boys had their turn, I pulled on the headgear, which consisted of video goggles and headphones. I held the two controllers in my hands and stood in the middle of my brother’s living room, ready for anything. I found myself standing on the edge of a cliff. A wizard floated in front of me and gave me a quest to do something. I think I was supposed to stop an evil sorcerer or rescue a princess. Accepting my search, I stepped forward and found myself standing on a rope bridge suspended over a cavern filled with molten lava (of course). I looked down, and I felt dizzy from the height. My pulse quickened when the evil goblins attacked me. It felt real. I felt like I was there. I completely forgot I was standing in my brother’s living room. I finally had enough. I pulled the visor off my sweaty head and looked around. All I could say was, “Wow!” It was compelling and more addictive than any game I have ever played. It was then that I knew we were in trouble.
If spending time playing games or posting on social media was consequence neutral, we would end this discussion now. Unfortunately, it’s not. In 2017, two large Apple shareholders with a $2 billion stake wrote an open letter to Apple. They questioned the smartphone maker, saying Apple needs to respond to what is finally being recognized as a “growing public health crisis” of smartphone addiction in young people. The letter cites studies that show American teenagers receive their first smartphones at the age of 10 and spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on them (excluding texting and talking times). It further states that 78 percent of teens check their phones at least hourly, half reporting they feel “addicted” to their phones. (Chokshi, 2018)
If you have attended my parent seminar or read my book, Parenting in a Digital World, you learned the average teen is consuming six to nine hours of digital media a day. This is more time than many children are sleeping each night. In a peer-reviewed study that appeared in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, after 2010, teens who spent more time on new media (screens) were more likely to report mental health issues than those who spent time on non-screen activities. The study found that kids who spent three hours or more on smartphones or other electronic devices were 34% more likely to suffer at least one suicide-related outcome—including feeling hopeless or seriously considering suicide—than kids who used devices two hours a day or less. Among kids who used electronic devices five or more hours a day, 48% had at least one suicide-related outcome. (Twenge et al., 2018). In a recent survey of 350 eighth-grade middle school students in Orange County, California, almost 19% said they had had suicidal thoughts in the last year. If our children struggle with depression and anxiety the more they use their mobile phones, what will happen when their lives are consumed by virtual reality?
What about pornography? It is impossible to talk about the Internet or recent entertainment technology without talking about porn. Twenty-five percent of Internet searches are pornography-related; 12 percent of websites are pornographic; adult websites have more visitors than Netflix, Twitter, and Amazon combined. Porn has also been instrumental in adopting new media technology, technologies that have become everyday appliances in our homes. In the war between VHS vs. Betamax, and BluRay over HD DVD, porn picked the winners. Porn has also contributed to the rise of e-commerce, the development of webcams, and the improvement of bandwidth services. (Markert, 2016) According to some industry insiders, as VR technology enters the market, porn companies are experimenting with immersive products that could speed VR adoption. To use the technology, porn producers must use different methods to shoot scenes to create an immersive field of vision. VR porn is expected to become a billion-dollar business by 2025. (Markert, 2016) I have discussed the negative impact of online pornography in other articles and my book, Parenting in the Digital World. Pornography is changing our children’s brains and warping their views on relationships, gender roles, and what a healthy bond between two people looks like.
VR porn will add to the growing numbers of men under 40 who have erectile dysfunction. Young men who prefer pornography to real-world sexual encounters might find themselves caught in a trap, unable to perform sexually with their partner. In a recent study, researchers found that porn-addicted men are more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction and are less likely to be satisfied with sexual intercourse. Watching too much internet porn can increase a person’s “tolerance,” the same as with narcotics, Dr. Matthew Christman, a staff urologist with the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, explained. Regular porn watchers are less likely to respond to regular, real-world sexual activity and increasingly rely on pornography for release. (Thompson, 2017) With VR porn, users of this new technology may completely retreat into a world unto themselves. Never experiencing true love or real connectedness with their partner.
My central concern with this technology and the RPO world we are rapidly moving toward is this: VR is a technology that will suck us and our children even deeper into a world of counterfeit love and happiness. The world our children are experiencing online (social media and games) is a counterfeit experience of real life. It is safe and predictable. It offers our children friendships without the awkward and sometimes tricky back-and-forth/give-and-take of genuine relationships. If your online relationship doesn’t work out, block or delete them. The online world offers love without commitment. You can jump from girl to girl, video to video on your favorite porn-tube site without ever being vulnerable or genuinely caring about anyone but yourself. These online or “virtual” experiences will never make someone truly happy or loved. It will always be a shadow of the authentic experience, even if it is in high-def with surround sound. The problem with this new and developing technology is that the better it gets, the fewer reasons a person will have to attempt a real person-to-person experience. Why bother when it “feels” so close to real life?
In the end, even the movie realizes this is true. Spielberg added a scene to the end of the movie that was not in the book. Halliday tells the hero, Wade Watts, that reality is the only place you can find true happiness because “reality is real.” And so, as Wade and his girlfriend make out in his luxurious apartment, his voiceover explains that, under his ownership, the Oasis will be shut down on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I could hear people around me in the theater audibly guffaw at this line. No one believes the notion that people would or could unplug from this new reality.
Our culture has a habit of inventing and introducing new technology without first asking important questions: Is this technology a good idea in our lives? What are the adverse outcomes of this technology? How will it affect our children’s developing brains? No, we don’t do that. We put it under the Christmas tree and wait to see what happens. Next year, our children will be asking for a VR rig for their gaming console or computer. Maybe we should think carefully about what our answer will be.
Chokshi, N. (2018, January 08). Apple Investors Warn iPhones and Other Technology May Be Hurting Children. Retrieved April 02, 2018, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/08/business/apple-investors-children.html
Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increased depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among U.S. adolescents after 2010 are linked to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science. Vol. 6(1) 3–17
Markert, J. (2016, April 06). Porn Drives Innovation: How Adult Entertainment Boosts Tech. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from https://curiousmatic.com/porn-drives-innovation/
Thompson, D. (2017, May 16). The study sees link between porn, sexual dysfunction in men. Retrieved April 03, 2018, from http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/health/sc-porn-linked-to-sexual-dysfunction-health-0531-20170516-story.html