Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
You've not heard from one of your friends for days. It's Friday, and you usually head for a beer (ha, a beer, indeed) when you both kick out of work for the weekend. But he hasn't been to the office for a while. Not since he picked up that new VR game, now that you think about it. He hasn't posted on Twitter since he took it home, ALL CAPS messages conveying his excitement. You send a text, only to receive no reply. You send another, later, after a few brews. You think little of it until the next morning, when through the fog of a lifting hangover and the fuzziness of Saturday morning TV, where everyone's in a kitchen but nobody's saying anything, you realize your second text went unanswered, too. Fumbling in your pocket for your door keys, nestled within the night before's bar receipts, you head out to get milk. His place isn't so far out of your way, might as well drop by.
That's where you speak to the paramedic, whose services haven't been necessary. The policeman, who asks you questions about the body that was found this morning, by the apartment's landlord. That's when you hear about how it happened, how he went: headset on, plugged in, wired directly into a virtual reality world too immersive, too intoxicating, to pull out of. Batteries died. Emails went ignored. The demands of his own body were rejected. And finally he just shut himself down.
Sounds unbelievable, doesn't it? Like the beginning of an episode of Black Mirror, or one of the darker Doctor Whos that the BBC likes to wheel out every so often to make its more mature fans feel that it's not just a show for kids. But people have died playing video games, explicitly because of their addiction to the medium. And as VR becomes more widespread, with all manner of headsets already on the market and ever-more-immersive experiences coming into focus, is it so hard to imagine opening your morning newspaper, page 12, and seeing a 400-word report on some poor guy who died with his puffed-up face half-obscured by expensive goggles? I'm not sure that it is.
This isn't a horror movie—this is the reality that we live in. In 2015, a 17-year-old boy died in his Russian home after playing DOTA for 22 days straight. He took all the recommended breaks to eat and sleep, but died of blood clots formed because of his lack of movement for long periods.
A year earlier, a South Korean couple were so wrapped up in an online video game, Anima: Beyond Fantasy, in which they raised a virtual child together, that they failed to feed their own infant child, who starved to death. In 2012, an 18-year-old in Taiwan booked a private room at an internet cafe and died after playing Diablo III for 40 hours without eating.
This is not a new thing—video gaming has been claiming victims for decades.
There are more stories like this. Writer Simon Parkin collected some of them, alongside other accounts of video gaming obsession, in his 2015 book Death By Video Game (you can read an excerpt from it on VICE). It details how these tragedies date back to the 1980s, and video gaming's birth into the commercial mainstream and popular culture. This is not a new thing—video gaming has been claiming victims for decades.
Addiction comes in many forms, and games can be every bit as compelling as the next hit of whatever it is your veins "need" so much might be. But until now, gaming has been an activity primarily carried out with external distractions very much in evidence. You look at a screen, but that screen is in a room, a room full of other things, perhaps other people, friends or family who can pull you out of the unreality. Solitary sorts who plough tens of hours into games in complete privacy might not have the luxury of someone to tell them when enough is enough, but even they will typically appreciate when it's dawn, when the cat comes into the room hungry, or when there's a knock at the door because the postman can't fit your new statuette based on some niche gaming franchise through the letterbox.
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Virtual reality, by its very nature, removes these immersion-breakers in your peripheral vision. VR, so far, is an isolating experience where the user, the player, trades the traditional focus of their eyes and ears for a simulated world removed from our own. A world that might be better, prettier, and full of risk-free fun. Video games have long provided such escapism, and their popularity proves how millions around the world actively prefer spending their time in pretend places over the ones that they call home. VR allows players to explore these places through a character's eyes in a way they couldn't before, by putting them in the environments. Perhaps relationships will blossom with others sharing these worlds with you. These people could become the friends your real life has failed to deliver, giving you the emotional support that you've always wanted without any of the IRL ups and downs of maintaining a connection. Hell, going further wouldn't be without precedence: In 2009, a Tokyo man married a character from a Nintendo DS game, not that the vows were actually legally binding.
VR could provide lonely souls with fresh ways to satisfy their emotional needs. No rejection, no pain. The wildest of fantasies, fulfilled. Naturally, the porn industry has been quick to see the potential of VR, with fully immersive videos already available for the most budget of headsets. Porn addiction is no laughing matter, with affected known to suffer from depression, decreased productivity, and experience significant financial problems. Brooklyn Nine-Nine actor Terry Crews opened up about his addiction in early 2016, and his words made for uncomfortable reading: "If day turns into night and you're still watching, you probably got a problem." Crews's addiction almost wrecked his marriage. And VR porn, in an immersive, first-person experiential sense, has the potential to be even more addictive, and perhaps even preferential, over real life, precisely because it has no limits. Many more real-life relationships could be abandoned in favor of plugging in each time sexual gratification was required.
Sexual addiction, both physical and via porn, causes the same changes in the brain as drug addiction.
You may think that masturbating more than usual is not a massive problem, but, according to neuropsychiatrist Dr. Valerie Voon of the University of Cambridge, sexual addiction, both physical and via porn, causes the same changes in the brain as drug addiction. You need it. You crave it. And you will do anything to get that next orgasmic high. You'll abandon obligations, and you'll push human closeness aside. It's overwhelming to even think about the possibilities of what can be experienced in VR, and the private nature of masturbation combined with the isolation that VR provides will encourage people to experiment. We've already had reports of a guy plugging into VR porn for 12 hours straight and passing out as he mixed a headset with self-administered erotic asphyxiation. That's an illustration of the power of VR: It can manifest a perfect fantasy for you to experience in the same way you experience reality, just without any of the bullshit. So why leave it?
VR is the definition of escapism. The positive potential for the medium is manifold—those struck down by paralysis might "move" again, and the opportunities for training in safe, VR environments stretches from car repair to heart surgery via basic home DIY and plumbing. It could do wonders for people suffering from PTSD, bipolar disorder, and eating problems. VR is not to be demonized before it's really started to impact upon the everyman. But at the same time, the warnings of addiction, of becoming completely lost in a virtual world, need to be heeded. Because through VR, we can all choose a different life for ourselves, and those choices could, not just theoretically, lead to deaths. And the development community is aware of this. In 2014, the creative director of Cloudhead Games, Denny Unger, commented on the risk of playing a horror game in VR: "We're very close to having the first death in VR. I firmly believe that. Somebody is going to scare somebody to death—somebody with a heart condition or something like that. It is going to happen. Absolutely."
Buy up your VR headsets and explore all these new worlds. This technology should be embraced. It's an exciting new frontier for gaming and so very far beyond. But take care of yourselves, too. History tells us terrible stories about video gaming addiction and how any kind of compulsive habit can mess us up, even kill us where we sit. Nobody wants to be reading about the first guy to die from spending too long in VR anytime soon. But as the reports from Korea, Taiwan, and Russia prove, technology that benefits our everyday life, entertainment at that, can in exceptional circumstances become a mortal enemy.
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