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Virtual Reality and the Desire for Control

Since my birthday a few months ago, I’ve done a few rather risky activities during a pandemic. I have:

But I’ve rarely left my home.

I “accomplished” those feats through the Oculus Quest, the Facebook-owned virtual reality headset I received for my birthday. And I can attest to enjoying the diversions the device affords me. I’m not the only one. When lockdown orders first went into effect in the US in March, the Quest, along with gaming systems like the Nintendo Switch, were extremely hard to find. Even now, CNET describes the Quest as “chronically out of stock.”

The Wall Street Journal, in considering how COVID has reshaped our time online, names gaming as the top “media winner,” noting that “during the shelter-in-place months, time spent on gaming increased by 39% over 2019, with 18-to-24 year olds leading the growth. Post-virus, a sustained 14% increase over last year (or 21% for younger demographics) is forecast, which will far outstrip the gains of any other form of media.”

Pre-COVID, the global video game market size was already estimated to be $151 billion.

And with our inability to host large-scale, in-person sporting events, esports have taken off.

Simply put, gaming is enormously popular, and stay-at-home orders have likely only augmented its appeal and continued growth.

Why is gaming so popular?

Reasons for the growth of gaming are legion. From my perspective, I imagine these have played a large part:

  • Because a certain generation grew up on games. (Mario was one of my earliest babysitters.)
  • Because parenting, especially during this pandemic, is hard and handing over an iPad is easy. (Guilty as charged.)
  • Because we’re trapped indoors and still want to escape. (That Norwegian town was a welcome respite from summer in Dallas, Texas.)
  • Because the dopamine kick you receive from completing a mission in a game necessarily makes you want to keep playing that game. (The same principle holds true in social media app design.)

Those are all legitimate reasons, and I’m sure there are more.

As a Christian, I try to do my best to see my actions through a biblical prism. In other words, why do I do what I do? And is what I’m doing pleasing to God and thus beneficial to my life?

Even as old as the Bible is, I believe God still uses it to speak truth today—even on something as contemporary as virtual reality video games.

So the question becomes: Why do I gravitate to these VR games, or to games in general?

Because I’m still searching for the same power humans sought in the garden of Eden: control.

 

One surprising reason games are popular

Consider what games often allow us to do:

  • Act as a god of a virtual universe (and this isn’t limited to the genre of “god games”).
  • Command your avatar to do your bidding.
  • Order your world such that you succeed.

When the world is out of control, I reach for my controllers because I want what I’ll never truly have.

Now, this isn’t a call to stop playing games.

I will still work out in VR. I will still face down Darth Vader (who’s very imposing in VR). I will still enjoy a virtual round of golf.

But every time I place that headset on, I will remember that I can’t control my life the same way I control these virtual spaces.

In a season where I long for control more than ever before, this recognition of my inability to control much of anything leads me, surprisingly, to a place of trust—because I believe that the Designer of the game of life is good and loving.

And that may be the most daring activity anyone can do during this pandemic: trusting that God, who controls everything, is, in fact, both good and loving.





Blake Atwood is the Brand Manager at Denison Forum and the author of multiple books, including The Gospel According to Breaking Bad.

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