The future of virtual reality is far more than just video games. Silicon Valley sees the creation of virtual worlds as the ultimate free-market solution to a political problem. In a world of increasing wealth inequality, environmental disaster, and political instability, why not sell everyone a device that whisks them away to a virtual world free of pain and suffering?
Tech billionaires aren’t shy about sharing this. “Some people read this the wrong way and react incorrectly to it. The promise of VR is to make the world you wanted. It is not possible, on Earth, to give everyone all that they would want. Not everyone can have Richard Branson’s private island,” Doom co-creator and former CTO of Oculus John Carmack told Joe Rogan during a 2020 interview. “People react negatively to any talk of economics, but it is resource allocation. You have to make decisions about where things go. Economically, you can deliver a lot more value to a lot of people in the virtual sense.”
Virtual reality is an attractive escape, but it’s not a solution to the world’s ills. The problems of the real world will persist beyond the borders of the metaverse created by companies such as Epic, Valve, and Facebook. Without decisive and radical action, our planet will continue to burn, the gap between the rich and poor will grow, and totalitarian political movements will flourish. All while some of us are plugged into a virtual world.
Worse, the virtual world will be one owned and controlled by the companies that create them. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook-branded set of VR goggles strapped to an emaciated human face—forever.
By the principle of the free market Silicon Valley lives and dies by, virtual reality is a loser. Only 1.7 percent of Steam users have a VR headset, according to a December 2020 hardware survey. And while it’s true that sales of headsets are up during the pandemic, roughly 30 percent in 2020 over 2019, video game sales in general are up overall.
Valve released Half-Life: Alyx in March 2020, just as the lockdowns were beginning. This was the first new Half-Life game in 13 years, the continuation of a franchise fans had been desperate to play for more than a decade. It sold well for a VR title, somewhere north of 2 million copies, but didn’t match the incredible numbers of 2020’s top-selling titles and was quickly forgotten by the mainstream press. Unless you’re really into VR, you probably weren’t talking about Half-Life in 2020.
The reasons why are obvious. First, virtual reality is expensive. At the high end, Valve’s premiere headset—the Valve Index—costs $1,000. On the cheaper end, Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 is $299. To play Alyx, those headsets need to be wired to a high-end gaming PC. The price of these machines vary, but something that can handle VR will cost around $1,000. Once the machine is built and the headset hooked up, the player will need to carve out a dedicated physical space to play the game. Most games require a minimum of about 6.5 feet by 5 feet, but the more space you have the better.
VR requires an incredible amount of cash and free space to set up properly, and the headaches don’t stop there. Right now, it reminds me of the early days of computer gaming. It works most of the time, but I’ve spent hours tweaking settings, adjusting controls, and reconfiguring hardware in a desperate bid to achieve the optimal experience.
Cash, space, and time is no guarantee that you’ll enjoy VR games. Some people experience nausea and vertigo in virtual reality. Sometimes, you can overcome this by properly adjusting the hardware or slowly exposing yourself to the technology. Some people get their “VR legs” and adjust. Others never do. Setting aside VR sickness, the technology is incredibly inaccessible for differently-abled people. The industry made huge strides toward making video games accessible to a wide range of people in 2020, but virtual reality—with its bulky headsets and strange controllers—is simply impossible for some people to use.