Virtual reality is frequently seen in science fiction, and that can hardly come as a surprise. Today people spend considerable amounts of time and money on video games, as well as movies and books. People love to immerse themselves in worlds outside their own reality. There’s no reason to believe the desire to do this will disappear anytime soon. And as technology progresses, we can likely expected even greater levels of realism when it comes to such recreational activities.
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The benefit of video games for many is that they’re interactive. However, something like the holodeck from Star Trek is completely immersive. Red Dwarf also deals with this concept with total immersion games. These games could allow you the opportunity to visit any place and to live any life that you want. (I’ve also read the Red Dwarf novels, which delve into greater detail about these. Apparently some people become so addicted to the games that they actually starve to death in the real world. For some, real life might genuinely be the unappealing a prospect, I suppose.)
Holodeck addiction also became an issue in Star Trek TNG. Reginald Barclay struggled to deal with people. He was nervous, and generally didn’t know how to interact with living, breathing people. Within the simulated world of the holodeck, he could act without fear of judgment. It gave him the freedom to be who he wanted to be. Of course, he also allowed his holodeck time interfere with his duties from time to time. In the Star Trek Voyager episode “Human Error”, Seven of Nine also had a problem with this when she used to holodeck to perfect her social skills and try her hand at having an intimate relationship. Janeway also had a holo-romance in “Fair Haven,” though she questioned the wisdom of such a relationship, primarily because he wasn’t real. Why are real world experiences considered more valuable or meaningful than the ones you can have on the holodeck? Is it because of our responsibility to real people? Or do we, subconsciously or otherwise, consider simulated experiences fundamentally inferior?
Is virtual reality pure escapism? After all, one of the benefits of the holodeck and other such inventions is that it can make the experience feel intensely real. If we wanted only to escape reality, why would the realism inherent in virtual reality technology be so important? Or would we use virtual reality to live the kind of life that real-world circumstances might deny us? If it adds something meaningful to our lives, should we consider those experiences as inferior, or should we celebrate them with the understanding that we need to balance them with real life experiences?