Is virtual reality our next hard drug?
So video games are addictive—this we know.
It comes down to dopamine, one of the brain’s basic signaling molecules. Emotionally, we feel dopamine as pleasure, engagement, excitement, creativity, and a desire to investigate and make meaning out of the world. It’s released whenever we take risks, or encounter novelty. From an evolutionary standpoint, it reinforces exploratory behavior.
More importantly, dopamine is a motivator. It’s released when we have the expectation of reward. And once this neurotransmitter becomes hardwired into a psychological reward loop, the desire to get more of that reward becomes the brain’s overarching preoccupation. Cocaine, widely considered the most addictive drug on the planet, does little more than flood the brain with dopamine and block its reuptake (sort of like SSRI’s block the reuptake of serotonin).
Video games are full of novelty, risk-taking, reward-anticipation, and exploratory behavior. They’re dopamine-production machines dressed up with joysticks and better graphics. And this is why video games are so addictive.
But this is only where things are today. There are a host of additional pleasure chemicals floating around our brains. Consider endorphins, the brain’s own version of opium. Or anandamide, which is essentially the brain’s natural version of marijuana. Or serotonin, which is calming and peaceful in low doses (Prozac) and, in higher does, the fuel behind both ecstasy and LSD.
Right now, we don’t know enough about manipulating this neurochemistry to routinely trick the brain into releasing this cascade of chemicals via video game—but that will change.
In my last blog, I wrote about the peak state of consciousness known as “flow,” where we feel our best and perform our best. To understand what’s coming with video games, it’s actually helpful to know a bit more about flow.
While there’s more work to be done, we now believe that during flow, the brain gets high on an extremely potent neurochemical cocktail, blending norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide and serotonin. To put this in street drug terms, flow produces a rapid hit of speed, heroin, ecstasy, marijuana, and cocaine. This is also why researchers consider “flow” the source code of intrinsic motivation or, in plainer language, seriously addictive.
We also know that video games can put players into low-grade flow states—but they’re really not much more than dopamine loops. Now, certainly, these loops are fun and addictive, but they’re nothing compared to what happens when we can marshal flow’s full complement of neurochemicals.
Pretty soon, we’ll have video games that trigger endorphins and anandamide and serotonin and dopamine and all the rest. This will happen because our neuro-imaging and sensing technologies are experiencing their own version of Moore’s Law and this will continue to enhance our understanding of how to control the brain’s internal chemistry. It will happen because we are starting to understand a great deal more about flow itself, and what triggers the state. And it will happen because our games are becoming more immersive, more virtual, more like reality.
Today, “serious gaming” using VR is how we train astronauts, military pilots, and, more and more, surgeons. Why? Because, the science shows, our brains respond to second hand stimulus (a virtual world) in ways that mirror first person experiences and—more importantly—the brain can be tricked/trained into deepening those responses (treating phantom limb pain with a simple mirror technique is a great example).
Research has also shown that one of flow’s most powerful triggers is what’s called “deep embodiment”—which is a fancy way of saying all of your sensory systems are in a kind of synchrony and all of your attention is occupied by this inrush of information. Immersive video games are deeply embodied video games.
Here’s Scientific American writer Seth Fletcher’s progress report from a brand new, January 2014, field trial with the Oculus Rift VR headset: “I’ve grown to hate the term ‘immersive’ when used to describe any experience other than, say, scuba diving, but here it is justified. The great virtue of Oculus is that it allows you to fully step into an artificial world.”
Then there’s the Omni treadmill, a 360 degree treadmill designed to work with headsets like the Oculus, so no longer is the gamer stuck in a chair.
These flowy-developments have significant society-wide implications in a number of key areas.
The first is learning. A quick shorthand for learning and memory is the more neurochemicals that show up during an experience, the better chance that experience has of moving from short-term holding to long-term storage.
Since flow includes a huge neurochemical cocktail, learning in flow is significantly amplified, sometimes ridiculously so. In a study run by DARPA, military snipers in flow increased the speed at which they learned new target acquisition skills by 230 percent. In a similar, but non-military study, the time it took to train novice snipers up to the expert level was cut in half.
This also explains why companies that make learning based video games are so keen to crack the flow nut. And once you add immersive VR capabilities to those efforts, we should see real progress within the next few years. This isn’t going to bring us to a world of Matrix-style downloadable learning (yet), but it will certainly and radically accelerate the path to mastery.
The second is more peculiar. Flow states are deeply meaningful experiences. Research going back to the late 1800s, shows them to be fundamentally life-altering. Psychologists have found that the people with the most flow in their lives rate the highest on overall life satisfaction.
Thus, when video games start producing full-scale flow states is arguably the point that VR becomes more fun and perhaps more meaningful than actual reality. This could produce a serious real world emigration, where large swatches of society begin to live more in the virtual than the actual.
This could also mean that all those jobs that robots and AI are destined to take from us in the next few decades could be replaced, not with physical jobs, rather with virtual jobs. Sound ridiculous? Consider that several thousand people currently make a living inside of Second Life, and the platform has already produced its first millionaire.
It could also mean that those with addictive tendencies could find a new drug to sate their needs. But if those needs are being sated in a deeply meaningful, radically fun way is that such a bad thing?