Virtual Doubt

Don walked into the living room with a basketball in his hands and saw his son Greg playing Assassin’s Creed. He said, “Let’s go shoot some hoops in the driveway.”

Without turning his head from the game, Greg said, “Wish I could, Dad, but I can’t right now. I’m in the middle of this game.”

“Son, there’s no remote control button to life,” Don said. “It’s a beautiful day outside. C’mon, let’s go. Daylight’s burning, and you need some exercise.”

“I’m fine right here for now, Dad. Come join me,” Greg said.

Don slammed the ball to the ground and caught it back up instantly without taking his eyes from Greg, who was now gazing at Don with a surprised look. Don walked over to Greg, sat down next to him on the sofa, pulled the video from his hands, and turned it off. Then he said, “Whatever happened to the natural ebb and flow of existence in this house?”

“Dad, what are you talking about?” Greg said.

Spinning the ball in his hands at slow intervals, Don said, “Greg, your mom and I have done our best to make sure you’re well-adjusted, but just look at your obsession with gaming, Facebook, and all the other social networking mediums you use. It’s unhealthy. The whole damn industrialized world has a technological addiction now, and so do you, but remember, you’re even more susceptible to it than older people, mostly because your brain’s not even done growing yet. Things affect you psychologically more than they do people my age. Your brain is vulnerable. Playing Assassin’s Creed all day isn’t helping.”

“You’re overstating the case, Dad,” Greg said. “What about games like Portal? You had fun playing it with me. You thought it was educational. It makes you rethink space and time. Stepping through a hole into another reality can help you understand physics and math in ways the real world can’t. It takes a lot of brain power to play Portal.”

“Honestly, I think it’s a tedious game. I just didn’t want to say anything at the time,” Don said.

“What? That’s nonsense. That game is great,” Greg said.

“I don’t think so,” Don said. “Games like that are decent tools, but that’s it. Really, they do far more damage than good, and I think you know it’s about to get much, much weirder, and sooner than most people realize. We’re about to move into a world where most of a person’s reality can be virtual, where face-to-face, skin-to-skin human contact won’t even be necessary. Virtual love relationships will be the next big thing for your generation, probably for everyone’s generation. True, people are finding each other online in droves, which is actually great for plenty of folks. Online dating worked for your uncle Mike, for instance, but this isn’t what I’m talking about. It’s about what’s coming next. When the online experience becomes a hyper-realistic, 3-dimensional immersive experience, where your fantasy reality seems far more appealing than the comparative actual reality the girl two houses down can share with you, are you just going to opt out of the hard reality and live in some fantasy? It seems like kids today are being acculturated to this.”

“I know all that, Dad,” Greg said. “I’m not an idiot. But you do realize that technology is speeding up, not slowing down, right? Your worries are just the tip of the iceberg. Kids my age need to use technology to keep pace, not avoid it. Honestly, you’re sounding like a dinosaur. My generation will be competing with conscious, high-IQ computers. Maybe I’ll even get a nanochip in my brain to make me smarter. Having an IQ of 200 will be necessary, Dad. I’ll be able to create new body parts from my cells on a 3D printer, too. I bet my future wife and I will have genetically modified kids. These kids will live to be 140 or so. This isn’t just science fiction stories anymore. It’s real, and gaming is connected to all of it whether you want to admit it or not. My generation sees things differently than yours does. We don’t like people who can’t manage technology, especially our teachers.”

“I understand that,” Don said, “but we’re at cross purposes, here. I’m talking about a toxic form of obsession we haven’t encountered before, and it’s what our entertainment culture expects from you. They want you to be a passive recipient who accepts the parameters a consumer-driven industry has defined for you. They want you to be distracted and titillated to the point where thinking for yourself proves to be too much effort. You see it in your gaming community. Just look at how this conversation got started. Some of your friends spend hours every day online gaming. You spend too much time with it, too, of course, but at least you’re striking a balance between that and the rest of your life.

Still, it’s addictive. You’re into it, and it’s a fun world for you to be in. But in the most important sense, it’s a complete waste of your time, and I think you know that. It’s not an actual life. If you spend much of the rest of your life in virtual reality land, and then when it’s all just about over for you and you find yourself lying on your deathbed, you’re gonna look back and ask yourself, ‘Holy shit. Did I just waste the best part of my life?’ And the answer will be, ‘Yes, I have just wasted the best part of my life.’

You need to take this incredible jewel called the Earth and do something interesting with it, especially since you’re a genuinely interesting person. One of the most important things people can do is spend time with their own thoughts and reflect on their lives and the world around them. But then they need to actually do something in a physical, concrete way. There’s no substitute for this experience. I just want you to stay active so you don’t miss out on this.”

Greg stood up stiffly, stretched a little, and said, “Well, Dad, I guess the only way to shut you up is to shut you down on the court. Let’s go shoot some hoops.” Don smiled, stood up, and said, “Just make sure your kids say the same thing to you someday,” and they strolled outside to play basketball.