A Virtual Reality Check

Just a few weeks ago, the Oculus Rift started shipping out its Kickstarter units. These virtual reality (VR) headsets have been anticipated for years, especially since Facebook bought the parent company in 2014. At the risk of using a tired word, this new technology will likely become disruptive. So it behooves Christians to ready their minds for this revolution. How should we think about virtual reality?

Like any technology, virtual (or augmented) reality devices offer incredible benefits, yet pose dangerous risks if used wrongly - that is, without concern for real reality, other people, or holiness to the glory of God. In a fallen world, there are always tradeoffs, and since fallen image bearers will be the agents utilizing these headsets, as well as creating the digital content, platforms and experiences, there will be opportunities for both good and evil.

The good that VR devices offer is most apparent in the area of connection and communication. Mark Zuckerberg, announcing Facebook's purchase of Oculus VR, pointed in this direction: "This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures...Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home." Facetime is great - but what if I could feel like I was actually in the room with you? What if I could immerse myself in the world of those who had suffered, as the New York Times did with its video "Displaced," about three young girls forced from their homes by war? New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein suggests, "What is clear...is that connecting to characters, to individuals, is one of the real unique qualities of virtual reality." This technology can be used to increase our empathy, our knowledge of the past and the present, and our relationships with loved ones far away.

As Zuckerberg mentions, it seems virtual reality will also become a staple of education, entertainment, gaming, and medicine, not to mention news media information delivery, home buying, travel experiences, research, military training and battle, and whatever else the creativity of man can come up with. Virtual reality devices, then, are one more expression of our obedience to the cultural mandates to subdue and exercise dominion over the earth God created (Genesis 1:28).

Yet these devices must be used with care - not only because of the motion sickness they sometimes cause, but even more because of the spiritual threats they can pose to the unprepared. We will soon be able to communicate in new ways, to be sure. But at what cost? Ironically, the same technologies that connect can also isolate us from relationships. If you are concerned that the members of your family are all staring at their screens instead of engaging one another in conversation, how much more when they are all wearing their VR goggles immersing themselves in their own reality? A television can keep us from true communication, to be sure, but at least everyone often watches the same thing together. Perhaps the technology will advance to enable multiple goggles to share an experience, but it seems more likely at the current time to detract from family cohesiveness rather than contribute toward it.

Along these lines, the use of VR devices for video gaming will only amplify the struggle for those who are already inclined to idolize this hobby to the expense of their family and real reality. A husband who is addicted to an online universe on a screen for hours on end today will tomorrow be able to put on his goggles and be even more disengaged from his wife and children. Not all will succumb to this temptation, but it will be present.

One of the clear possibilities for temptation is in the area of sexuality. The New York Post has termed our day "the Golden Age of masturbation." VR devices will present all manner of opportunities to experience virtual sex, enjoying by yourself (or with an illicit partner) what God has created to be enjoyed with your spouse, and only with your spouse. Are our youth prepared for Satan's attacks through this new tool?

More foundational than even relationships and sexuality are the effects of virtual reality on core aspects of our humanity. As these devices become more accessible, real reality may become less appealing, and the temptation to avoid or escape the difficulties of this life will beset us. The 2009 movie "Surrogates," starring Bruce Willis, is a dystopian vision of how virtual reality can enable us to shut out the real reality of embodied life, living in the here and now in a particular place around particular people. Gnosticism is alive and well in 2016, and the desire to escape our finitude and our bodies is palpable. This is not to say that every desire to do the impossible is wrong. For someone to travel virtually to a place that they will never be able to see actually, or for someone who is wheelchair bound to be able to experience riding a roller coaster, is a rich blessing of human ingenuity and labor. Yet are we aware of the ways in which our technologies can lead us to forget that we are "frail children of dust, and feeble as frail"? That our Savior in the body could only be at one place at one time? That an embodied state is of the essence of our humanity, now and in the age to come?

As with all technologies, we must exercise self-control and sobriety. Paul's words in I Corinthians 6:12 apply well: "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything." May the Lord grant us wisdom to use virtual reality for His glory.