I was at the movies last weekend and saw a trailer for Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” which opened Thursday, March 29th, and ranked number one at the box office.[i] The movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in 2045. Apparently, 27 years from now, Ohio, as well as the rest of the world, has become “a harsh place” and the main character, Wade Watts, finds that the only place he “truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days.”[ii] As the voice over from Wade Watts says on the trailer, he’s from a “tiny corner of nowhere . . . there’s nowhere left to go except the OASIS . . . it’s the only place I feel like I mean anything.”[iii]
I plan on seeing the movie, which, currently, has a 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, whose Critics Consensus describes the movie as “a sweetly nostalgic thrill ride . . .”[iv] I don’t think they mean Columbus, Ohio, in 2045, is sweetly nostalgic as the main character lives in a dystopian hodge-podge of mobile trailers stacked haphazardly on top of each other. I think what’s considered sweetly nostalgic are the classic video game references embedded within the wild-ride action of the OASIS.
Watching this trailer and thinking about the premise of the movie, I remembered an article from last October about Mark Zuckerberg at the Oculus Connect 4 conference.[v] [vi] Oculus is a company that manufactures VR, virtual reality, apparatus[vii] and is expected to team up with Facebook “to launch its Oculus Go virtual reality headset at the company’s F8 developer conference this year . . . alongside Facebook’s promise of ‘the biggest AR / VR news from Facebook to date.”[viii]
The article reported that “the Facebook founder wants to get one billion people using VR technology, which he claims to be capable of offering an improvement over the real world.”[ix] Zuckerberg, it appears, believes that reality needs a virtual upgrade; he is “building virtual reality because he isn’t satisfied with reality, which he considers to be ‘limited.’”[x] Zuckerberg is reported to have said, “Whenever people say that we’re building virtual reality because we’re not satisfied with the one we live in, my answer is ‘Of course we are.’”[xi]
It used to be that reality was limited only by the force of your imagination. But what happens when the force of your imagination is only applied to the virtual world and MIA in the real one? If the only place you feel like you mean anything isn’t real, do you have any real meaning?
I understand the draw of immersive, interactive platforms, for recreation, for entertainment, for relaxation. I understand using these manufactured worlds as a way of escape, but, for how long? As a professional therapist, I’m concerned about the long-term psychological effects of such an engaging method of escape because, in my experience, the real world has a nasty way of catching up to you, no matter your escape pod.
To me, the way to upgrade your reality isn’t to lose yourself in a virtual world but to spend energy, effort, time and resources to make a difference in the real one. Of course, the real world is a messy place, with few do-overs, resets, or reboots. The real world forces you to make-do and doesn’t have much room or time for make-believe.
We have some significant challenges in the real world that could use energy, effort, time, and resources to fix. I’m a little concerned about a billion-people diverting themselves from the real world to a virtual one. I can only hope they don’t stay in that other place for too long. If they do, and more and more people join them, 2045 could be here a lot quicker than we think.