NY Times & VR Reefer Madness

I am not a Virtual Reality advocate or evangelist.

I am a Virtual Reality critic.

I am highly critical of the characterization and direction of Virtual Reality as a Game. Games fit established publishing models. Mega-corporations dominating the tech cultural narrative present VR primarily as a Sales Opportunity for new digital consumer products because that is their lens.

I present VR as a Social Opportunity for new forms of working, playing, healing, and loving because new ways for people to be together is my lens. I think we need new ways of being together right now more than we need new digital consumer products, but of course I would say that.

Lenses are one thing and megaphones are another. The New York Times megaphone is louder than mine and its characterization of VR as something people get hooked on because of a dopamine rush is precisely the kind of emotional hot button journalism that has helped make us a deeply divided society.

It is just plain inflammatory to use a simplified version of one person’s story to make Virtual Reality seem like Heroin and the Gateway to Infidelity all rolled into one. Of course the editorial response would be that it is just one story and they weren’t making any grand statements — but that’s bullshit. That story went deeply into hearts and minds of readers.

Why that story and why tell it that way? Are writers and editors in legacy media not aware that they still actually influence some people?

OK, I will try to be patient. Yes, of course there is an addiction potential to VR, especially if you still buy into mostly discredited models behind the word ‘addiction’ in the first place. I would prefer to say that VR, like carrot juice, can be used in healthy and unhealthy ways. People have died from overdoing carrot juice, according to the New York Times.

I’m pretty sure we will all be reminded of the potential for misuse in VR quite frequently. I am. What we are not reminded of frequently and what would be helpful is that VR, like carrot juice, when used well, can promote health!

VR’s healthy contribution is not vitamins and minerals. It’s social connection. Many studies have shown that interaction with other people is as important for physical and mental health as diet and exercise, according to the New York Times.

Part of the reason VR has grown during the pandemic isn’t because people are sitting around in their headsets playing games — it’s because they are doing things with other people. This is what I wish mega-corporations and media narrative spinners would acknowledge as at least a component of VR.

If you read the hatchet job, you will see that the poor hero, driven by a need for new highs, does discover Social VR, where people interact!

He even discovers Burning Man! Sounds good, right? Wrong.

Remember former Vice President who-saved-America-by-certifying-the-election-results Pence saying he wouldn’t even have lunch with a person of a different gender expression, or words to that effect, that wasn’t his wife? Well, our poor hero should have listened and added VR to the list of things not to do with other gender avatars you’re not married/committed to.

He felt guilty, according to the article, that he was spending time with a non-wife person represented in VR by a pretty avatar (I’m not making this up). He tells his wife. and to restore the domestic tranquility, gets her a headset and they take off together into today’s metaverse.

I am not characterizing the hero’s wife — I am characterizing the story in the New York Times, as I go on to describe the wife’s hurt and angry reaction when the happy couple inadvertently comes across the pretty avatar person. In the article, the hero’s wife gets triggered.

The discussion of Social VR ends there.

Remember when I cited the New York Times article on the non-Woo Woo value of social interaction a few paragraphs back? Why didn’t they remember it?

Why didn’t the Newspaper of Record point out one tiny scintilla of anything possibly helpful about an immersive communications medium that, you know, might be at least worth exploring since nothing else we’re doing is working all that well any more?

Also because people are flocking to VR now and other people who are paid to think about this stuff say, “VR is Important” like those same people said, “The Internet is Important” back in the mid-nineties.

Why not be helpful? Why pick two of the most emotionally charged areas of contemporary culture — sex and drugs — and link it all to VR?

Here’s an Olive Branch from me: The New York Times gets it. It has adapted to the digital, networked world arguably better than any other media franchise. And the New York Times gets VR. It was way ahead of the curve back in 2016.

In particular, I would nominate the Great Performances (noir) series as one the very best VR storytelling productions still, from five years ago, which is extraordinary.

Many people see hope for new artistic expression on virtual platforms that are equal and inclusive. The New York Times could be helpful simply by representing both the hope and the great work going on right now to build places where new ways of being together are happening.

I host events where people talk about things on their mind that are hard to even bring up in real life quarantine space. They are amazed at how easy it is to say things they’ve wanted to say for a long time, in VR. Out of every ten newcomers who get something out of social events in VR, all ten of them say, “I had no idea this was here!!!”

That’s because stories from the dark side dominate the narrative. Of course there’s a dark side and the best way to give it energy is to get people scared.

There is also a major Light Side, a level of openness among people that is more real than what I experience a lot of the time in so-called real life. Relationships form, groups form, communities form. All this is happening now.

I write, here on Medium, about connecting deeply with people in VR, or just getting together and having fun. I write about the reality I am experiencing, along with many other people. It’s not a story about games and consumer products.

But I also know this in the same way we all know what’s true:

feeling accepted and appreciated and welcomed as part of something bigger is The Best Use Case Ever.

Welcome.

Tom Nickel is a Top Writer on VR for Medium

and publishes occasionally on Sub-Stack, free, opt-in

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Tom Nickel

Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos