VR Designers, Don’t F*^k This Up

Our human desire for meaning is the future of VR.

Dolores from HBO's  West World

Dolores from HBO's West World

Ever wonder what a historian would say about VR?  Yuval Noah Harari, a historian at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, speculates on VR:

"If you don't have a job anymore and the government provides you with universal basic income, the big problem is how do you find meaning in life. What do you do all day? And here the best answer so far we've got is drugs and computer games. People will regulate their moods with all kinds of bio-chemicals and they will engage with 3-dimensional virtual realities that they’ll be absorbed in [sic], and these things will provide emotional engagement and interest more than anything in the outside world. This idea of humans finding meaning in virtual reality games is actually not a new idea. It's a very old idea. We have been finding meaning in virtual reality games for thousands of years, we've just called it religion until now."

"This idea of humans finding meaning in virtual reality games is actually not a new idea. It's a very old idea."

"You can think about religion simply as a virtual reality game. You invent rules that don't really exist.  It's just in your mind.  But you believe these rules and for your entire life, you try to follow the rules.  If you're Christian then if you do this, you get points.  If you sin, you lose points.  If, by the time you finish the game (when you are dead), you gain enough points you get up to the next level.  You go to heaven.  People have been playing this virtual reality game for thousands of years.  It made them relatively content, happy with their lives.  In the 21st century, we'll just have the technology to create far more persuasive virtual reality games than the ones we've been playing for the last thousands of years.  We'll have the technology to actually create heavens and hells, not in our minds, but using bits and using direct brain-computer interfaces."  

Whatever your religious beliefs, Harari’s perspective that VR will become a primary source of meaning in our lives is dystopian. Considering that VR will offer higher emotional engagement and interest than outside of the headset, it’s clear that people can easily fall into narratives that they don’t have control over or even choice in. That is what Harari is calling the ‘heavens and hells’ of our own creation. 

Digital Addiction

If people have a behavioral pattern to find meaning inside of VR, will they spend more or less time in VR?  Obviously, more time.

Adam Alter, a psychologist at NYU, published a new book about digital addictions called Irresistible.  You can buy it here.

Alter defines addiction as “something you enjoy doing in the short term, that undermines your well-being in the long term — but that you do compulsively anyway.”  He goes on to state that “You never have to remember anything because everything is right in front of you. You don’t have to develop the ability to memorize or to come up with new ideas.”

Now consider the combined implications of Harari and Alter’s research:

  • VR has the potential to replace religion—defining religion as the stories we tell ourselves to find meaning in life.
  • VR experiences will be addictive. 
  • It’s unlikely that people will come up with new ideas and stories for themselves.

Takeaways for VR designers

  • People will become addicted to the heavens and hells that you create for them. 
  • Don't fuck this up. 

Additional reading

H/t to Austin Ramsland for directing me to the Vox interview with Yuval Noah Harari.  Link to the original podcast is here.

Interview with Adam Alter in the NY Times.

Adam Alter.  Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.