Posted in virtual reality

A Real Story about Virtual Reality

Last blog post, I talked about the emergence of the Internet as a social and relationship-building tool for people with autism in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, highlighting that all my extended romantic relationships started online.

By the end of the post, I concluded that online spaces actually felt socially (and emotionally) safer than real life spaces, at least in terms of being an autistic woman in a patriarchal, objectifying world.

Now I’d like to extend that conversation into two specific spheres of the Internet:

  1. virtual reality; &
  2. World of Warcraft, specifically.

Today, I’ll explore the different forms of virtual reality that I’ve engaged with over my life; then I’ll finish this 3-part series tomorrow by zooming into World of Warcraft more.

What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

Wikipedia describes virtual reality as believable simulations. Meanwhile, Google defines virtual reality as “three-dimensional images or environments that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way,” specifying even further by suggesting hand and visual sensors. (We get it, Google. You’re building impressive, equipment-based VR.)

I want to approach VR openly, something closer to The Virtual Reality Society definition:

The definition of virtual reality comes, naturally, from the definitions for both ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’. The definition of ‘virtual’ is near and reality is what we experience as human beings. So the term ‘virtual reality’ basically means ‘near-reality’. This could, of course, mean anything but it usually refers to a specific type of reality emulation.

We know the world through our senses and perception systems. In school we all learned that we have five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and hearing. These are however only our most obvious sense organs. The truth is that humans have many more senses than this, such as a sense of balance for example. These other sensory inputs, plus some special processing of sensory information by our brains ensures that we have a rich flow of information from the environment to our minds.

Everything that we know about our reality comes by way of our senses. In other words, our entire experience of reality is simply a combination of sensory information and our brains sense-making mechanisms for that information. It stands to reason then, that if you can present your senses with made-up information, your perception of reality would also change in response to it. You would be presented with a version of reality that isn’t really there, but from your perspective it would be perceived as real. Something we would refer to as a virtual reality.

So, in summary, virtual reality entails presenting our senses with a computer generated virtual environment that we can explore in some fashion.

For the purpose of this blog, I’ll define virtual reality, or VR, as an artificial space biological beings perceive as real, with the obvious notion that exploration would follow such a bizarre and curious place.

This definition decidedly excludes the three-dimensional qualifier from Google’s perspective on VR, and this’ll be important later when I talk about Nintendo.

VR of the 2010s: Social Media

Today, my virtual realities are limited to social media. (I’d like to play Final Fantasy on my PS4 with my sister, but that’s postponed until May because I need to budget.) While it’s not a universal belief, I feel social medias qualify as virtual realities not because we perceive them as similar to the real world, but because they have the hallucinating effect of integrating with our senses.

For instance, on Facebook, we are visually captivated by images, snippets of text, and ads we’ve accepted as targeted to us. The amount of eye movement you can observe on a person’s face when they’re flickering through their laptop-sized screen of Facebook—

Well, at least for an autistic person who’s sensitive to facial expressions, I find the rapid eye movement captivating, at times exhilarating; and YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, and online articles can mesmerize the faces of others just the same.

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I used to sit at the coffee tables in front of Starbucks, in the Henry Madden Library at Fresno State, where fellow students gathered en masse with their laptops, and as I sipped my coffee, and waded through joyous homework, (no joke, homework felt enjoyable in graduate school,) I surveyed the many eyes darting back and forth, to and fro, humans drawn into artificial spaces, like a chorus of hummingbirds lived behind our eyes.

Sometimes, I find it comforting to watch Chase’s eyes dance across his tablet, his mind soothed by the subtle integration of his biological senses in the artificial world.

When we’re visually someplace else, we start to listen closely with our other senses; we listen to the aural contributions of the experience; we pay less attention to the aches of sitting still, and give hyper-attentive love to the tips of our fingers, hands trained to manipulate keyboard, touchscreens, and switchboards like extensions of ourselves, like organs outside our bodies.

We drink Mountain Dew.

There is an undeniable artificial reality within all of this.

VR of the 2000s: World of Warcraft

Before social media, though, World of Warcraft supported the backbone of my virtual realities. And I’m not alone in this; 100mil “players” have had the Azeroth experience.

You could say my ex and I had more of a VR relationship than a real life one, mostly because of World of Warcraft and its predecessor, Warcraft 3. Even though we lived together, we spent time in separate bedrooms, logged into the fantasy world of Azeroth on cross-hatched schedules, two-to-six hours a day in an avatar of ourselves, filling the spaces between work, school, and when it was time to go to bed.

Screenshot 2017-05-24 11.26.08

Then when we separated, I had to learn how to reintegrate into the world independently again, a task that felt equally complicated in Azeroth and on Earth. We had shared friends online, guilds that grew tight as dorm-room families, and where once we exchanged supplies to maintain our auction-based businesses (because these virtual realities require reliable virtual income), now we had to keep open shop on our own.

Eventually, I learned to not only play World of Warcraft alone, but enjoy the breath of fresh air that accompanied my much-awaited solitude in my charming, polygonal world, where to-do lists were a joy, goals were plenty, and banks-and-businesses were booming.

In Azeroth, you could even expand your product line to international trade; you just took a boat to the auctioneers at Booty Bay. You could speak in different languages through a simple, type-and-enter command. You could play a more addictive version of Pokemon (and if you don’t know what that is, think cat hoarding).

World of Warcraft grabs you immediately on log-in with hypnotic music, colorful scenery, and a palette of different commands your avatar can take, all which inevitably will be needed to complete the challenging, yet accessible, and therefore rewarding tasks always before you, in a never-ending font of alternate reality experiences.

I can’t wait to explore the effects of World of Warcraft on my life more in my post tomorrow. But there is still an important memory to dive into today.

VR of the 1990s: Nintendo

I remember crying, shaking my fists, and jumping fast-and-hard, so I could channel my fury into the ground with every intentional stomp. But I was four, maybe five years old? The amount of energy I could invest into the inert carpet was only so much.

Since I was born in 1985, and Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in 1990, I must have been five at the time I first felt panic that someone I cared about could die. As I said, “Stop, stop,” Mario continued jumping across the chasm in Super Mario Bros. 3, back and forth, back and forth, and adults laughed at how it upset me, how I thought anything inside the video game mattered, how I legitimately wanted Mario to be okay.

The Future of Virtual Reality

Our society is rapidly approaching virtual reality as a lifestyle. It’s already irreparably integrated within us; it’s easy to argue our cellphones have effectively turned us cyborg; and it’s only a matter of time until VR bubbles up—same as the Internet and World Wide Web ushered a new age upon us—but after the struggle change will present us, once the murk of our social bog clears, I think our society will be one step closer to providing neurodiverse, inclusive, and friendly environments for all avatars to enjoy. I look forward to the shift in how our evolutionary senses experience being alive.


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Author:

Kourtnie McKenzie holds an MFA (Fiction) from Fresno State and a BA in English (Literature Studies) from Cal State Fullerton. When she isn't writing novellas, she's moonlighting as a professor at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias. To read more of her writing, visit Kourtnie.net.

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