In real life it’s hard enough to resist the urge to push on to the next milestone in a video game or put down a good book. But if you were immersed in a perfect virtual world — one with no external points of reference to remind you of "reality" – could you tear yourself away?</description?>


Make no mistake - VR is freakin' amazing. Even simple tools like Google Tilt Brush, are slaw-jawed-gawp-inducing astonishing, unlocking new concepts in your mind and causing users to utterly re-think something as fundamental as drawing.

So if by slipping on a VR headset we can zoom right back into a child-like mind state, discovering a world for the first time and getting juicy bursts of dopamine along the way, you can be sure we’ll find ways to stay inside our virtual spaces. But when does child-like enthusiasm become addiction?

It’s long been the subject of discussion among MDMA users: what happens when the real world, where you spend most of your time, can’t deliver the thrilling highs of Ecstasy World?

Video game addiction is no longer the punchline to a neckbeard joke - it’s real, and has been for a long time. Some estimates put the figure of video game addicts in the USA alone as high as 3 million. Remote, tech-free rehab centres in the wilderness help the most desperate recover.

Video games may or may not cause the kind of depression and addiction that would drive someone to stay in their room and spend hours grinding through menial virtual tasks, but games certainly do attract people who are susceptible to these things.

In video games, we’re safe to take risks, we can behave in ways we’d never dare on the high street, and we’re happy enough to die and start again.

Some never reach the point of being helped: after playing a game for 20 hours a day for nearly a month, one Russian gamer died from a thrombosis that formed as he played. Our bodies aren’t designed to cope with real-world inactivity while we pour endless time into virtual adventure.


Games are literally addictive partly because they’re designed to be amazing.

The games we love are the ones that allow us to live out our fantasies: scoring goals for Barcelona, being objectively better than our peers at shooting things, stealing cars and causing chaos. In video games, we’re safe to take risks, we can behave in ways we’d never dare on the high street, and we’re happy enough to die and start again.

The other factor in video games being literally addictive is, erm, due to them being specifically designed to be addictive. Our brains are hard-wired to self-reward when taking risks in small, progressive, successful steps - or, as we know them, levels, achievements, and high scores.

The squirt of dopamine that follows a successful mission in GTA 5 is what makes us justify the, “well, just one more go” feeling at 2 AM, when a cosy bed and sleep is calling. And software designers know exactly how to keep us in the feedback loop.

VR enthusiasts often use the word “immersive” to describe the experiences that their hardware and software provide.

For one, it sounds cooler and all-encompassing, but also hints at the true nature of the experience: you either can’t see the real world, or - in an augmented reality - you can’t see the joins.

So why would you want to unplug? Because if these immersive VR technologies are believable enough to train surgeons, you can be sure they’ll be good enough to convince you your preferred fantasy is real.

This is where, briefly, we plunge into perception itself: how we think and how we look at the world. Don’t worry - if you’ve ever sat in a university dorm, watched a friend take a hit from a bong and ask if the red you see is the same as the one they see - you’re in familiar territory.

If your assumption of visual perception is that light bounces off objects, enters your eyes, which then send signals to your brain, which then “looks” at the scene and makes sense of it, then, well, you are quite wrong.

Tallying desired input with actual input is a recipe for pleasure.

Research suggests that sensations - i.e. what you perceive when you look at an object - are barely based on visual input at all, but actually lean heavily on memory and mental predictions of what that object is. Think of it this way - when you read a book, are you studying every letter and word? Or do you run your eyes over the text and let your brain figure out what’s most likely being said?

So VR is tricking us in a subtle, wholly unexpected way. If our vision is actually the result of our brain projecting memories and fantasy onto images that enter the eyes, it’s easy to see how unadulterated joy will follow when you match believable virtual images with the desires of the brain itself.


Tallying desired input with actual input is a recipe for pleasure.

It’s possible to become neurologically addicted to online pornography, a medium which mentally and physically rewards the viewer in short, incremental spurts. Sites are designed to allow users to navigate to content that titillates them to their specific preference, and teases them to watch more.

The endless array of kinks, fetishes, and obscure twists on genres-within-genres that exist in online pornography - otherwise known as Rule 34 - are evidence of users’ desire for more of a very specific version of the same. And there are enough actors and producers to keep feeding that desire.

It seems unfathomable that designers of VR and AR experiences would approach the creation of their fantasy products any differently to how pornographers do: keep producing what people really, secretly want.

For now, virtual addiction doesn’t effect the vast majority of us. At some point during a gaming binge or a box-set marathon, the real world - an annoyed partner at the door, a crying baby, a work deadline - sidles into view, and the controller is put down.

But when your reality matches your fantasy, could you really switch off?

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