A Virtual Reality Skeptic's Reading List

If you’re anything like me—known by your friends to be “into videogames,” whatever that means—you’ve probably found yourself standing around at parties and fielding a surprising number of questions about VR. Now that the champagne has been poured and quaffed for 2019, these questions feel even more peculiar because, honestly, those of us who do the whole #videogames thing have been over VR-hype since about 2017. Microtransactions, diversity, distribution consolidation quashing artistic indies, industry unionization, bloated AAA, and the vagrancies of live-ops/streaming culture, these subjects weigh far more on our minds than our unused (but still sweaty) Oculus Rift. But the queries from those outside of videogame fandom continues unabated.

I started building this reading list to help me figure out what people were really asking me. The more questions about VR I fielded, the more it seemed as though there was a deeper concern they were voicing: “What is my place in this epic myth of VR?” After all, those aforementioned partygoers pressing some guy who drives a 2003 Honda Civic to provide definitive answers about a multibillion-dollar industry never seem to ask about any tangible aspects of VR. The questioners ask for divination, they ask to provide parallax astrology of the mythical constellations that were long ago drawn in the P1 phosphor-green sky by the tomes and illusions of Bantam Books, Warner Bros., and Wired magazine. They demand a prognostication on the level of trying to guess the future market share of Orion’s belt.

Without addressing the myths piled onto VR (pointing out that said “belt” is really three stars overlaid with a story), which was what people were typically asking about, I would never be able to leave the sacred circumambulation around the temple of VR’s myth. So I started researching. What you’ll find below are the streamlined results of my search to find out what the myths were, how those myths got made, who they serve, and what they mean for the grand, but also highly specific, mythology invoked by those two little letters: V and R.

To be empathetic, I suppose that a significant part of this persistent querying is because even many VR boosters can’t seem to specify what VR might do (aside from raising stock prices and letting you fight your favorite videogame franchise’s monsters in a new format) any more than I, with my art degree, could hope to describe the vagrancies of blockchain. Yet both terms in the storied abbreviation, V.R., are latent with meaning enough to withstand a lifetime of philosophical scrutiny. Even before Gamergate, YouTube neo-fascism, and Trump’s win in 2016, the definitions and repercussions of the “virtual” and “reality” were hotly contested. Now, slam them together, sprinkle on a little business-world pixie dust (spoiler alert, its a combination of Aderall and coke) give it a curt acronym for the scroller at the bottom of a news feed, and BAM, you’ve got a prime candidate for a seriously birthed-from-the-head-of-digital-Zeus mystical aura.

For the longest time, VR was always right around the chronological corner and going to radically change everything.

But aside from the understandable desire to find someone that will help them make sense of this philosophically poignant acronym, my real lightbulb moment was realizing who the confused reached out to for the answer itself contained answers. Fundamental elements of this myth of VR are revealed when a questioner’s first impulse is to seek out someone whose credentials are having spent thousands of hours getting sliced in half by the cyborg ninja Genji alongside reading sci-fi books that like to use “gritty” and “prescient” in their marketing blurbs. From cyberpunk’s electric-samurai-warrior dreams to the Matrix’s electronic-warrior-monk dreams to Ready Player One’s electric-D&D-warrior dream ...Oh, and I guess we should count the Nintendo Virtual Boy (#vaporwave)... certain sectors of media fandom, including videogames, have been one of the most fervent crusaders upholding VR as a mythical holy grail.

For us [mostly white, male] Gen Xers and older Millennials, a major pillar of our media fandom theology has been that VR is right around the chronological corner and going to radically change everything from how we experience our favorite shows to our perception of humanity. Snow Crash, the Red Pill, whatever its form, the myth of VR is tied is some power to reshape the world; and it always looked and felt like crap—what is the Virtual Boy but a red solo cup with the word “Grail” written on it in sharpie?—until now. As of 2017, we have some assorted technologies that feel a bit like the stories we’ve been told about the world-changing VR, and so the apostles’ chants about the digital Ragnarok rise in fervor, and of course the unconverted quizzically mumble.

All that metaphysical musing leaves us back at the beginning: what are the basics, you-the-videogame-fan being pressed at a dinner party to explain VR, need to know to have an interesting, rich discussion? To start, let’s look at two of the sharpest reframings of the linkage of VR to videogames and epistemology:

Stepping Out of the Virtual Worlds Paradigm by Christopher Goetz

Our Virtual Future by Jacob Brogan

Next up, someone who you envy for their sharp intellect will inevitably drop the highly loaded phrase, “empathy machines”, talking about VR. But as the title for the first article states: “If you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, then you’ve stolen their shoes.”

Empathy Machines as Appropriation Machines

No, Virtual Reality Isn’t Going to Solve America’s Policing Problem

The holodeck might be one of the most wildly popular ways of thinking about VR in the olden times before the Matrix, but this plot-device bounds our understanding VR in very frustrating ways:

A Dream of Embodied Experience: On Ian Bogost, Epistemological Gatekeeping, and the Holodeck In The Shadow of the Holodeck

Someone will eventually, rightly, bring up harassment in videogame fandom. Usually, though, they see VR as somehow free of those problems. Given we are barely able to talk about our gender, sex, race, ableness, and orientation problems in fandom and the tech industry, the assumption that VR is somehow different is particularly insidious:

The Gender Gap in VR

My First Virtual Reality Groping](https://mic.com/articles/157415/my-first-virtual-reality-groping-sexual-assault-in-vr-harassment-in-tech-jordan-belamire#.zVoLsA1Yx)**

Maybe one of your questioners has laughed at the infamous images of crowds filled only with men, all wearing VR gear at a demo. Hardware and software, no matter its perceived neutrality as a “science”, has always been highly gendered and blindly hegemonic:

Queering the Controller

Blame the Computer

In certain crowds, it usually only takes a few minutes for someone to bring up the spurious relationship between violent behavior and games; but a more complicated relationship happens between entertainment media’s complicity in perpetuating America’s culture complex of perpetual war and consumption:

War Games

Society of the Spectacle

What’s better than a single manifesto? Twice as many manifestos! (aka, this material is great to use for the inevitable nebulous question-comments.)

Keep Virtual Reality Weird

Video Games Are Boring

One way I’ve found to get a handle on regurgitations of the glossy myth of VR is to relocate its origins away from Silicon Valley and into other, earlier, historical precedents:

VR Has Its Roots In Ancient Rome

Philosophies of the real:Presence, Preservation, and Virtual Reality

Pygmalion’s Spectacles: Using Berkeley’s Immaterialism to Understand the Potential for Telepresence in Virtual Reality

Because our conversations about VR are about fictional stories, an interesting tack to take in a conversation is to place the aesthetic conventions of VR’s mythical story in a broader artistic context:

Vaporwave and the pop-art of the virtual plaza

Virtual Reality From Giotto to VR Porn

A savvy friend might ask, “If we’re mostly talking about a myth, what then is VR is actually doing out in the world?” Spoiler alert: it is getting busy by itself:

How VR Porn is Secretly Shaping the Industry

The Future of VR Will Be Shaped By The Pornography of Today

Finally, lest you think I’m some dull contrarian (or you come across as even more of a downer to your party guests than usual because of this list) I do think VR contains interesting possibilities. I’m just highly skeptical that those possibilities will come alive via trans-national global companies. Artists and other underground digital creators are going to do amazing things with VR, but the most radical will seem deeply strange and inevitably challenging to our comfortable Tron-blue myths:

Realtime Art Manifesto

Tripping Through Digital Landscapes in Virtual Reality and Canvas

Why Virtual Virtual Reality Remains a VR Experience You Must Play


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