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Imagine that, years from now, Virtual Reality hardware and simulations have advanced to a point where giant, richly-detailed virtual worlds — each with seemingly limitless potential for experience and interaction — are possible. Imagine, for example, deciding to spend a few hours of your first day of vacation in such a simulated world. Then, finding it a genuinely thrilling experience, you return there on every subsequent day of that vacation.
In this virtual world, you are free of countless limitations of reality. Your senses are sharper and you even enjoy new senses. The environments you experience are beautiful and idealized, free of decay and grime. If you want to have relaxed conversations with distant ancestors or great figures of history, you can do it. If you want a daring adventure with dragons or pirates, spaceships or submarines, cannons or spells, you can do it. They’re all — equally — just a few clicks away.
In virtual reality, risks are laughed away. When you fall, you fly. If you are attacked, bullets fall like dust from your body. Nothing hurts and nothing can stop you. A heads-up display appears at command, ensuring you are never lost or limited to your present experience. You can do anything, anytime, anywhere.
And then … someone pulls the plug. You’re stuck in reality again. With reality, you are returned to the limitations of physics, to the flaws of human society, to pain, injury, and death. Adventures are full of risk, and are probably unaffordable. Conversations are full of misunderstanding and distractions.
But reality must have good aspects which could not be simulated even with the most ambitious technological know-how and imaginative crafting, right? The limitations of reality seem comparatively simple to list. What are the opportunities of reality that no simulation could offer? Not just today, but not even in an optimistic future?
My philosophy professor once posited that the way we distinguish reality from dreams is that reality always picks up where it left off. But video games do that as well. When virtual reality can offer grand experiences like TV-based games, users might start to wonder what’s so important or great about reality. The old questions of philosophers like Descartes and Hume might gain traction again, and reality will seem like a mere game. What will coax people back to solid ground?
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told / by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing. —Macbeth