Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Feeling the Spark

In a sense, all fantasy games are virtual reality games, including traditional board games such as Monopoly, Clue, and Life. Yet, modern computing power makes a world of difference. VR worlds appear so satisfyingly real that many people choose to live much of their recreational lives in them, whether on websites such as Second Life or in video games. Life in cyberspace, after all, is so much more glamorous and exciting than it is in “meatspace.” We can make all our fantasies come true with a few clicks – well, virtually true anyway.

The technical possibilities for and the attraction of VR were foreseen in science fiction. Well before Caprica, Virtuosity, The Thirteenth Floor, and The Matrix, there were movies such as Blood City (1977) in which unwitting characters are tested for survival skills in a VR environment. As far back as 1935 characters in the short story Pygmalion’s Spectacles by Stanley Weinbaum don VR goggles and interact with virtual people in virtual worlds. Perhaps the silent film Sherlock, Jr. in which Buster Keaton leaves a theater audience and jumps into the action on a movie screen contains something of the idea, too.

Just how much of real life are some folks willing (or eager) to trade for virtual life? Japan is usually ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating technology into daily life, and the trend there is toward ever-more. In particular, romance is increasingly of the virtual kind, a trend that has prompted numerous news stories and editorials. “I don’t like real women,” commented one fellow on the Japanese 2channel. "They're too picky nowadays. I'd much rather have a virtual girlfriend." He’s not alone. A government study released a month ago reported a spike in the number of unmarried men; it also noted that 61% of the singles didn’t have a real girlfriend and 45% had no interest at all in finding one. Nor is it just a male phenomenon. "Maybe we're just advanced human beings," said one female Tokyo fashion editor,” according to an article in The Guardian. “Maybe we’ve learned how to service ourselves.” The majority of young Japanese still prefer live partners, of course, but who knows for how long? And will the rest of the world be far behind? Last summer the game maker Konami released the updated game Love Plus+, and, as a promotion, hosted a romantic holiday weekend at the resort town Atami for players and their virtual girlfriends. It was a smashing success.

Call me old-fashioned or stuck in the 80s, but virtual partners don’t do it for me. For my simulated romance, I want a real silicon-and-wire robot.

Wired for Love

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