The Dose Makes The Poison: Uncanny Valley And Virtual Reality

Based in Buenos Aires, the creative studio 3DAR has recently released a short movie called Uncanny Valley about virtual reality addiction. Foreseeing a future where VR junkies live in slums, the film has an approach that is close to a documentary, although it has some artistic intakes on its photography.

Even though it has a pessimistic view over the technology (or at least its usage), I find a hard time to conciliate both the mood seen in scientific research and science fiction. As already discussed here previously, pessimism in science fiction (and especially cyberpunk) has been a common place now, and it can even be misleading in some cases. Either because it is a pseudo neo-luddite narrative or because the piece was considered scifi only for the sake of having aliens and battles in space. At least to me, what makes me consider whether a story is science fiction or not is how technology was discussed by the author and how it impacts the society (either human or not). But, at the end of the day, I don’t bother tagging stuff anyway.

Funny thing is, after browsing the comments for a while, I found out that people were more amazed about the visuals and possibilities rather than feeling scared about the dangers portrayed in Uncanny Valley. I don’t want to spoil the development of the plot (for now), but even though VR is presented to us as something as addictive as drugs, the biggest danger is not that. Coincidently, I have just watched a vlog (Portuguese) about researches on video games and violence and it leaded me to an easy association: is it possible to compare that with a supposed VR addiction?

Maybe to some extent. Flávia Gasi, presenter of Gamepedia, states that researches from the 80’s confirmed video games could be related to violent behavior, but the problem is that the method used was questionnaires and they don’t really cover much of the real estate. Later on, by the end of the 90’s, new researches understood that the causality of violence in gamers was something like 4% and that it would probably happen because the individual had already an aggressive behavior. That means, even though it is possible to observe a faster heart rate while someone plays violent games, that is because the game causes an adrenaline discharge that is necessary for completing a level. However, it is more likely that such reaction was observed because these individuals didn’t have a violent background, therefore being stimulated by the game. In other words, a violent person would probably keep his heart rate while playing violent games instead of feeling accelerated by something that is already usual for him.

Of course, we cannot affirm that the same should follow for virtual reality, as in spite of being an interactive medium too, it is still different from video games when considering its possibilities for immersion. As a matter of fact, you don’t need a bunch of gadgets connected to your body to talk about immersion strictu sensu. Even radio can do that, as seen after Wells’ transmission of War of the Worlds, or any other media. But as time goes and technology enhances, we need more and more tools to provide a successful and more complete immersive experience. I never used an Oculus Rift, so I am not able to say how effective it is, but from what I’ve heard from other people, it is already pretty impressive. And I tend to believe it is true – both because I want to and because I have a theory.

After studying imagery for some years, I tend to believe the eyes are one of our strongest inputs. While some animals have specific senses more advanced than the others, I think humans too often give the eyes a higher priority in their senses. We live in a very visual age and our cultures are getting more and more visual too. According to the German philosopher Dietmar Kamper, man could be suppressing his senses while vision takes a higher importance. He believed that the eyes are triumphing above all other senses: “Imagetic machines are working full time in the whole world. Old and new visual media are getting better and better everyday. Even more things have been happening just before the eyes.”

VR as therapy

In Uncanny Valley, the characters give testimonials about their relationship with VR. The first thing we hear is that “virtual reality is the only reality” and that people would expect never to be bored again. This same man says later that he never felt comfortable about people and that gameplay is just simpler (than life). On the other hand, there is one guy who uses VR as a means to express himself, or better his anger, in a way that is not dangerous and that won’t take him to jail. Now, when considering both stories, it makes me think that, indeed, video games and/or VR could work pretty much as therapy instead – and then following the claim that the dose is what makes the poison.

Ben X (2007) tells the story of an autistic teenager who uses online games as an escape from bullying at school

Ben X (2007) tells the story of an autistic teenager who uses online games as an escape from bullying at school

In fact, video games have already been prescribed as therapy. Researchers at the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas learned that a particular game in virtual reality, designed for patients who struggle with social cognition (autism, traumatic brain disorders and anxiety-related disorders), could be useful as a treatment. It was already reported that children have improved their abilities for controlling emotions and handling them in a more “positive manner”.

Besides them, according to Tech Times, many mental health professionals have been prescribing regular titles such as Super Mario Brothers, Minecraft, Portal 2 and Halo to their patients. “Researchers recently found that playing Portal 2 improves cognitive skills, even better than brain-training exercises and games. Other games that require extensive puzzle-solving, more than likely, have the same effect.”

While video games and simulators have been used to train soldiers and pilots, virtual reality has been also considered as a treatment for PTSD now:

According to the Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitation, over 15 studies entailing diverse populations have shown that virtual-reality exposure therapy (VRET) enhances traditional cognitive-behavioral-treatment regimens for PTSD. The journal reports that most studies reveal a treatment success rate of 66 to 90 percent. An issue of Studies in Health Technology and Informatics, meanwhile, summarized case studies from a Navy-funded project comparing the effects of VRET with the effects of traditional treatment on active-duty personnel. The results showed that VRET led to measurable reductions in reported symptoms of depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

On a side note, I even asked myself once what if video games were used in the process of rehabilitation in prisons. There are few sources that take this theme in consideration, but mostly just discussing if prisoners should be allowed to play or what kind of games should be available for them. While some places offer the opportunity to the prisoners to buy their consoles, with their own money, there are other episodes in which they are forced to play online games to make money for the guards.

Therefore, I believe we can follow the same argument proposed by Flávia Gasi when she says that, even though crime reduced when violent games such as Doom were released, it doesn’t mean that playing video games prevent crimes. Previous behaviors such as aggression or addiction could be just enhanced by video games (and virtual reality) and that means violent reactions are rather an extension than a consequence.

Still, I guess Uncanny Valley has another message rather than just the possibilities to an addiction to VR. In spite of portraying a scenario very appreciated by cyberpunk, in which we have decay and the despise for the physical body as a mere disposable and useless thing, the film points out to the exploitation of people in this context and how that turns against themselves. And from now on, it’s all spoilers.

While one of the characters uses VR as an argument to avoid people and awkward situations, allowing him to kill just fictional targets, they are actually murdering citizens and taking part of a war that revolves against them. He realizes that only after some kind of virus is installed in his avatar, which follows more or less the same logic seen in Surrogates (2009).


This could both make an approach to the military training that uses video games to the discussion about using robots and drones in war, even though they might be controlled by soldiers (or regular citizens). When combining someone completely alienated from reality (that is, unaware of his surroundings) and a ludic system that is video game, the individual follows the orders and don’t necessarily ponders if something is moral or not while the objective is getting an achievement or finishing a level, for instance.

Many games deal with this question, both by weighting our decisions and how they will affect the narrative, or some even try to show how these mechanics can be mischievous (as seen in Bioshock, for instance). Sometimes, depending on the engine, video games don’t give you many choices and sometimes you need to do things you wouldn’t agree as an individual, but that are necessary in that fictional context. That is why This War of Mine can be so harsh for some people, even though it is a very simple game.

The term that entitles the Argentinian short movie comes after an expression used whenever a person feels unease or revulsion for a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot with near-identical resemblance of a human being. That is basically what happens to the main character, when contaminated by some kind of virus, he discovers to be actually connected to a robotic body used to kill innocents. But until then, he was the perfect metaphor after Eichmann: only following orders and killing what was told not to be human.

Finally, we could say that Uncanny Valley might not do a highlight against technology, in spite of its approach to VR users, but rather how such tools could turn against us because of ourselves. In the end, it is not surprising or absurd to say that humans will (or do) use technology as weapons to kill other humans. It is pretty obvious, even though it could happen in the backstage, while using people’s fragilities and addictions. And perhaps it’s the likelihood of this concept what makes blaming machines for our doom sound too stupid.

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Written by Lidia Zuin
Brazilian journalist and cyberpunk enthusiast with a masters in semiotics, now living in UK. Interested in art, music, culture, philosophy, games, psychology and futurism.
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