Skyrim was released this winter, and players have already invested millions of hours in its single-player Nordic countryside. World of Warcraft boasts millions of years logged on its massively-multiplayer world of Azeroth. The human experience would claim billions of lifetimes spent in its omni-player reality, if it were to make a comparative claim on its marketing material.

How soon until we spend not hours but entire lifetimes elsewhere?

Most human behavior exists on a gradient: you might be funny, others less so, your 5th grade math teacher not at all. ‘Normal’ behavior can be defined as one or more concentrated areas on the spectrum, fringe or deviant behavior lies furthest out. In all cases, people fall where they fall in part due to culture, and in part due to evolution’s random walk & parental genetics.

That’s why when I see people losing days, relationships, health, and sometimes their lives to video games, I think “ah, this is the canary in the coal mine.”

Self-destructive behavior isn’t new. Long before computers (though more so with them),  jealousy, gambling, and gluttony have ruined lives. They share something in common: it’s normal behavior turned sour when taken to the extreme. We’re evolved to be at least somewhat jealous, we’re evolved to repeat activities that bear fruit, and we’re evolved to crave sweets. 

Unique to the modern world, technology allows years of well-tuned normal behavior to manifest as the worst deviant behavior. Maybe if you lived as a caveman, your craving for sweets would make you scarf a few too many berries, and yet you’d live a normal, healthy lifestyle. Transplant that same caveman into an apartment with pizza, coke, and chocolate cake on demand, and watch a glutton emerge. Our crave/control system is of little match to our food-technology.

It’s not just modern diets that technology ruins by bringing deviant-results to normal-behavior. Jealousy runs super-fueled by social networks, possessiveness enabled by cellular networks, rage permitted from the relative safety of the drivers seat. At least no-one asks explicitly for a “car that lets me get even angrier at other commuters” or “foods that make me fatter” or “tools to become more jealous” or any other products whose primary use abuses normal behavior into unfortunate results.

Computer games are the big exception. We ASK for them to be immersive, we WANT them to be addictive, and we PRAISE them for 'losing’ us in another place. It’s hopefully obvious to the reader that the light-speed progression from pong to Skyrim isn’t slowing, and a world as vivid as the Matrix won’t be a prison for human-batteries but Disneyland for the idle-rich.

That other-world won’t be reserved for the rich forever. As the costs of whatever human-computer interface gets us there shrink, it will be accessible as WoW’s $14.99/month, and by the time that happens, the immersion factor will be so high, most normals will be powerless to resist its well-engineered bliss & allure of total reality replacement. It’s at this point that I expect some folks to balk, “games are for the young, and interest wanes with age!” I would remind the cynics that most Americans pay over $100/month for TV experiences far less immersive than what’s here, and certainly than what’s coming. More & more adults play computer games regularly, and not just as the video-game generation ages. 

The limiting factors are physical constraints and our own social expectations, but most of my readers already earn their keep by moving bits of information around. In fact, Chinese 'gold-farmers’ put real food on real tables by virtual-farming virtual-money in virtual-worlds for the real pleasure of real buyers with real money. Canary in the coal mine. How far off are we from closing this loop? Once we can control the game by thought alone (we’re close), imagine an otherwise comatose man controlling his avatar from a hospital bed, and by way of his virtual endeavors, he sends electronic health-care payments to his hospital, and they in turn keep the wifi on, and the nutrient rich IV bag full. That citizen worries not about solid food and real tables, nor is it of practical concern where the line is between 'virtual’ and 'real’ money. And for him, the 'virtual’ world and his 'virtual’ efforts make all the impact on his 'real’ existence.

If I could take a pill to skip meals or sleep in a healthy way, I would. I’m not alone. We are eager abstracters, and ready to trade not-yet-equivalents for the promise of 'better’ and even sometimes just 'different’. That man’s virtual life from his hospital bed would already be more desirable than some people’s real lives today. When it becomes accessible, we’ll escape by linking ourselves into it, and as it improves, and becomes more feasible, we’ll only be more eager to do so.

I’m of the opinion that macro, this is OK. We’ve moved from caves to houses, villages to cities, and soon reality to virtual reality. Passing moral judgment on technology is pointless, what matters is that we praise accomplishment and punish criminals, or when we need to, grant achievements and grief the griefers.

Life itself is nearly online. Socialization is online, work is online, relationships are online, education is online, play is online. We only need to wire up birth and the existence that follows. 

As we pour hours into the unique conflicts that beset the world of Skyrim, we support the ecosystem that create immersive experiences, we move deviant to normal, and real to virtual, I truly believe, for better or worse, the digital age in the most literal way lies ahead us, and that video games are its herald.

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This post isn’t as far reaching as I would love to go. What about computer games simulating its players based on their behavior? Digital re-incarnation? What happens when we can’t tell what’s real? How do you know you’re not playing an MMO right now? There are a thousand interesting ideas to stew on when our mastery of the world becomes mastery of reality, and whether that reality is 'virtual’ or 'real’ becomes a question on the order of 'is life but a dream?’ and does it even matter?

At a future date, or by request, happy to add links and definitions for some depth/color. Sound off in the comments.