Understanding Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality technology is positioning itself as the next frontier in technology, across a range of industries. How do we understand this technology as a cultural product, with its attendant risks and advantages?

Virtual Reality (VR) began as a new phase for the video game industry, a move which is predicted to make billions of dollars in profit, but is also being developed for applications across multiple disciplines. This twenty-first century development immerses the user in a virtual world, whether that be for gaming, entertainment or for training purposes. However, there have been a wide array of concerns relating to VR, such as the potential implications on the human psyche of de-realization (the feeling that the world isn’t real) and de-personalization (the feeling that one’s self isn’t real). Indeed, some critics have suggested banning VR altogether.

Such concerns are legitimate, but, as with any cultural development, our response should not be to shun this new technology and act as though it did not exist. Rather, we ought to develop a proper biblical understanding of VR technology as the cultural product it is.

How we should understand VR

We need to begin by bearing in mind the ‘cultural mandate’ given to mankind in the garden (Gen. 1:28; 2:15). Adam and Eve were tasked with cultivating God’s creation into a godly civilization, a mandate which has been renewed and restated in our Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). Whatever man makes of God’s creation is a cultural product, as Andrew Sandlin writes: “A tomato is not an aspect of culture; a pizza is. Oxygen is not an example of culture; an oxygen mask is… Creation plus man’s beneficial interaction with it equals culture.”[1]

Undergirding and directing any cultural activity is the orientation of the human heart. As Joe Boot writes, “culture is perhaps best understood as the public manifestation of the religious ground-motive (i.e. worship) of a people.”[2] In other words, cultural products have a religious root; they are either grounded in worship of the Creator (in obedience to his will and law) or in sinful rebellion against him. As a cultural product, then, VR technology can and does bring glory to God. But in what way? Scripture teaches us that God created the universe, he created all things, and it is for this reason reality is intelligible to us. He also created us in his image, and so it is of no surprise that man can create his own intelligible virtual world, writing code to program laws and parameters into this virtual reality, which mirror God’s creation.

Of course, there is a clear distinction between God’s creation of the universe ex nihilo, and man creating his virtual reality. In the latter, man is merely creating a virtual copy of our reality, not creating an entirely new reality foreign to our human experience, which would render it unintelligible. For example, there are several games or professional simulators which carefully implement the various laws of nature into the program. You don’t just float into empty space and into a virtual void of meaningless data; the program closely follows the same patterns of our ordered universe.

It’s a reflection of God’s creation, and this at its most foundational level brings glory to God, the Creator of heaven and earth. As Nancy Pearcey writes, “Because all people were created by a personal God… even when they reject the biblical worldview in their thinking, inevitably it comes out in some way in their lives. They cannot help expressing their own nature as individuals created in the image of God.”[3] This is what we see at the programming level. But what about its use?

There are several applications for VR, and I mention just some of the most obvious below to illustrate:

Gaming

I grew up loving several strategic video games – some readers may be familiar with Zoo Tycoon, Age of Empires, or the Civilization series. They all had something in common: responsible stewardship coupled with artistic creativity. Stewardship is defined as “the management of another person’s property, finances, or household affairs,”[4] and so a biblical understanding of stewardship is the management of God’s creation. This is what all people are called to; an integral component of our cultural mandate is to be wise stewards of God’s creation. Though man is not actually stewarding in the virtual world, virtual reality can serve as a place to practice wise stewardship. For example, in Zoo Tycoon, you’re entrusted with a large sum of money, and your task is to begin construction on a zoo and manage it. This involves calculating expenses, measuring revenues, investing in new attractions, surveying your property landscape, taking care of the animals, etc. It’s a simulation game, but it does teach the player about managing money, and superintending an operation with many moving parts.

VR also serves an educational (and at times recreational) purpose, such as the Flight Simulator which is used by training pilots, or the Farming Simulator for those who aspire to be farmers. These simulators depend on rendering their virtual reality as close to real-world conditions as possible, and there is an expectation that the user will be able to apply what they’ve learned in virtual reality to the real world. There’s a vast diversity in game development, and I’ve only managed to present a snapshot of it, but it’s enough to demonstrate that there are particular uses of virtual reality which can bring glory to God.

Health Care & Training

But as mentioned, VR technology is not exclusive to the gaming industry. For example, researchers at the Hospital of Basel’s Department of Biomedical Engineering have recently succeeded in using virtual reality for planning surgical procedures. This means that “doctors can use the latest generation of virtual reality glasses to interact in a three-dimensional space with a hip bone that requires surgery, zooming in on the bone, viewing it from any desired angle, adjusting the lighting angle, and switching between the 3D view and regular CT images.”[5] VR technology is not only having an impact on the gaming industry, it’s revolutionizing health care, where surgeons can now obtain a “visual overview and understand what is possible.”[6]

Professional sports are also benefiting from this technology, where “some sports teams are turning to VR for training their players” in a variety of sports.[7] As a cultural product, VR can be used to glorify God, whether that be practicing your stewardship, sharpening your skills, or learning how to execute a surgical procedure.

The Abuse of VR

Like any technology, however, VR can also be abused. When my wife and I were trying out a VR headset at a mall, another customer asked a staff member what was the most-asked question they received. His response was: “A lot of people have been asking if this could work with pornography.” That answer certainly speaks volumes about our morally rebellious and over-sexualized culture, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that such software is indeed in development.[8] If watching the degradation of women on a screen wasn’t bad enough, now natural man is seeking to live out his sinful fantasies in a virtual world. And this in turn produces an unnatural longing to get ‘lost’ in the illusory, a legitimate danger that accompanies the misuse of VR technology, even in the gaming industry.

For those who are not grounded in a biblical understanding of reality, VR can in fact “cause the things of earth to grow strangely colourless… as VR makes life in the real world seem less real, more illusory.”[9] Man might prefer his virtual experience to reality because his sinful urges cannot be fully satisfied in the real world; he might also prefer his virtual escapades because he is seeking to escape God. VR can and often will be abused, not perceived as a beneficial tool for the development of human civilization, but as an escape from reality into an illusory world. This is a legitimate danger, and as a result de-realization and de-personalization follows, but this isn’t the fault of VR technology.

A ban on virtual reality technology would of course not remove the problem of pornography, or prevent men and women from seeking an escape from reality. That’s because the core problem is not the technology, but the sinful nature of man and the orientation of his heart away from God. If man’s heart is not made right, he will by nature abuse and misuse God’s creation, and this will be reflected in all cultural products that emerge from his interaction with it.

It is only in the liberty and transformation of the gospel that man can realize his role in interpreting this world after God, dedicating this world to God, and ruling over it for God.[10]

 

[1] P. Andrew Sandlin, Christian Culture: An Introduction (Mount Hermon, CA.: Center for Cultural Leadership, 2013), 21.

[2] Joseph Boot, Gospel Culture: Living in God’s Kingdom (Toronto: Ezra Press, 2016), 3.

[3] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning (Nashville: B&H, 2010), 167 [Kindle Edition].

[4] Ronald F. Youngblood, F. F. Bruce, and R. K. Harrison, eds., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, New and Enhanced ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014), 1088.

[5] News Medical Life Sciences, "New Virtual Reality Technology May Find Potential Use in Diagnostics and Surgical Planning," Medical News, last modified December 7, 2016, http://www.news-medical.net/news/20161207/New-virtual-reality-technology-may-find-potential-use-in-diagnostics-and-surgical-planning.aspx.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Sean Gregory, "Watching the NBA in virtual reality is surprisingly good," TIME, last modified December 6, 2016, http://time.com/4591051/nba-basketball-virtual-reality-samsung-gear-vr/.

[8] “Virtual reality sex suit looks as disturbing as it sounds,” RT, last modified April 16, 2016, https://www.rt.com/viral/338662-virtual-reality-sex-suit/

[9] Tony Reinke, "The Lie We Keep Buying", Desiring God, last modified 2017, accessed March 8, 2017, http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-lie-we-keep-buying.
 

[10] Cornelius Van Til, Christian Apologetics, Second ed., ed. William Edgar (Phillipsburg, NJ.: P&R Publishing, 2003), 41.