On Virtual Reality, Digital Life and the Need for Ethical Codes of Conduct

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In February of this year philosophers Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger published the paper Real Virtuality: A Code of Ethical Conduct. Recommendations for Good Scientific Practice and the Consumers of VR-Technology. Beyond its bafflingly long title and ever-present academic use of colons, the paper sets out arguments for the need to curb emerging digital cultures, in this case, Virtual Reality. But Drs Madary and Metzinger are no olde tyme fist shaking curmudgeons. Their argument is not against the rise of digital cultures, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

oculus rift

In academic circles, Metzinger is a big-hitter. He’s been attached to numerous research groups in a presidential or directorial capacity, including the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, and the German Cognitive Science Society. He has produced numerous books and papers in the fields of philosophy of mind and ethics. In other words, he has a fair idea what he is on about. This year sees the commercial release of a number of Virtual Reality headsets on the consumer market, including the much hyped Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. It comes as no surprise that Madaray and Metzinger’s paper has been released just prior to the release of the OR and its competitors.

So what’s the fuss? What are these ethical codes of conduct they’re talking about?

In the intro they note,

“VR technology will eventually change not only our general image of humanity but also our understanding of deeply entrenched notions, such as “conscious experience,” “selfhood,” “authenticity,” or “realness.”

Metzinger and Madary point to the plasticity of the human mind – the central result of modern experimental psychology showing that external factors can strongly influence the individual, with the individual unaware. This isn’t to say we don’t have fairly stable character traits (in part because we develop in relatively stable environments), but that we are adaptable.

It is no big secret that changes in technology have impacted in the ways in which we operate as individuals. The philosopher of science, Michel Serres, amusingly referred to the millennial generation as ‘Thumbelinas’ and ‘Tom Thumbs’, a nod to their attachment to mobile phones and tablets and the constant use of the thumb to navigate screens. Amusing as it is, it’s a sight we have probably all witnessed first hand. In fact, many of us (myself included) exhibit signs of addiction to digital connectivity, instinctively checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, and so forth at regular intervals. There is an anxiety attached to digital living. We are constantly multitasking, several windows open, apps running, a variety of projects on the go at once.

Respected neuroscientist, Susan Greenfield, has written extensively on the dangers of technology and the developing brains of children. Her recent book, Mind Change: How digital technologies are leaving their marks on our brains, argued that these all-pervading technologies were literally rewiring the working of our minds. That we are essentially evolving at a rate so exponential that is having a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. Because these digital phenomena are recent developments we are yet to see the long-term impact. She even goes so far as to claim potential links between autism and “autistic-like traits” as a result of online interaction. Greenfield may well have a point regarding damage, but at this stage, her argument is not one we can pursue with any real clarity. Despite her expertise, an editorial published in The BMJ, by academics at University College, London and the University of Oxford, called for Greenfield to produce evidence of her claims, as she has supplied little peer-reviewed scientific literature in her argument. This effectively means her work is little more than speculation.

Worth noting, the same editorial recalls an earlier study carried out on Facebook that concluded,

“In terms of affecting personal identity, Facebook is the most widely used social network and the best studied, and evidence suggests that people generally portray their identity accurately.”

[italics my emphasis] (Wilson RE, Gosling SD, Graham LT: A review of Facebook research in the social sciences. Perspect Psychol Sci2012;7:203). This is particularly interesting when you look within the context of video games and online presence. In 2010, members of the Department of Clinical, Biological and Differentiated Psychology at the University of Vienna undertook a study probing addictive behavior and depression in the world of online gaming. Publishing their results in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, (27, 2011, 473-479) they found that compared to those who preferred online-ego-shooters or real-time-strategy games, players of Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplay Games were more like to present with problematic gaming behavior, depressive tendencies, and lower self-esteem. Many of these players pointed to escape from real-life problems as a motivator. It is perhaps of no surprise that the MMORPG appeared to have the greatest impact. With many MMO servers dedicated to character roleplaying over mere gaming, the ability for the player to invest in what may be perceived as an ultimate other, a fantastical version of themselves, allows for a heightened presentation free from the anxieties and awkwardness of social, physical and mental setbacks.

Part of the link between MMO’s and the outlined effects will undoubtedly be the ability for connectivity in niche markets. Whereas once those with particular outsider or obscure interests may have felt isolated, digital cultures have allowed for us to connect globally. We have gained the ability to interact with others like ourselves, and this seemingly leads to a sense of fulfillment. What’s more, the studies Madary and Metzinger reference point to effects beyond connecting with others we deem similar. What we are also seeing is an increase in social interactivity because persons are recognised as existent beings. Unlike the physical world where we flail in relative anonymity outside of our direct connections, online we’re in a space created for those physical interactions.

But it’s not entirely beneficial. Issues arise from the disconnect from reality and our physical surroundings. In spending more time in digital and virtual environments we begin to lack many of the things required physically to maintain our health: Sunlight, exercise, forms of actual sensory stimulation vs. simulations of such – all of which impact on the mind. Interestingly, despite knowing this, many of us clearly shun the warnings in favour of the immaterial connections that appear more authentic to us. It would appear that increasingly stimulating our minds does, for some, become more important than the mechanics that drive them.

mmo 2

Beyond this, MMO’s are contextual. There are ever-present themes that act as drivers (warring fantasy factions, world building and exploration, good vs. evil), each of which impacts on facets of the character we embody. Madary and Metzinger point to a study by Rosenberg et al. (2013), that granted subjects the ability to fly like Superman when achieving tasks in a particular setting, vs. the use of a helicopter. The participants that opted for superpowered flight were more likely to show altruistic behavior afterwards. Further to this, subjects playing a video game as either a superhero or supervillain were tasked with choosing either chili sauce or chocolate to give to the next test subject. They were told this was unrelated to the gaming experiment. What the researchers discovered was that those who played as heroes opted for more chocolate, whilst those who played villains went with chili. How dastardly.

So, from what we’ve learned, it appears that digital life and MMO’s allow for a higher degree of social interactivity (should we opt for that), whilst also limiting our capacity for action. Indeed, in many VR simulators we will be tasked with specifics – kill, collect, complete the quest. Even with the removal of game constraints, our options will still be limited, and perhaps for the best. There is not yet, to my knowledge, a simulation of life that facilitates our every last move, no matter how trivial. But why should they? It would be a long and convoluted path that allowed me to chew bubblegum whilst attaching a radiator to the wall in real-time. And it’d be boring. Really, really boring.

When the VR headsets officially launch later this year, how will this impact on digital embodiment and our own views of authenticity and selfhood? Imagine exploring your favourite digital world as it stands, then increase the experience tenfold. You can now look around yourself without the limitations of a flat screen. You’ll be immersed in that world because it hangs around you from every perceivable angle. Action will be all the more thrilling, frights a literal pant-shitting experience. If we are to experience digital living with VR headsets, particularly in the context of the MMO, then we have good reason to be dubious about the results. It is these potential changes to our experiences of ‘selfhood’ that the Madary and Metzinger deem as their biggest concern. When does one stop feeling like oneself? When one exceeds oneself and loses grounding or context.

mmo image

As scary as this may sound, it’s not an entirely uncommon phenomenon. Many of us experience a state of disassociation from time to time. Clinical depression can strip us of our personality. A change of circumstance or setting can make us feel out of sync. How many people ‘find themselves’ on gap year travels or at festivals, tripping balls on LSD staring into a fire on a spiritual quest? Each places the individual into a context of unfamiliarity, but the essence is one we would assume is a choice, and for a finite period of time. It comes to an end. It is only through further choice, addiction or force that we continue down these paths.

My own experiences with a prototype of the Oculus Rift proved to be both mind-blowing and nauseating. The first thing I noticed (beyond the crazy expanse of the universe – I was in the cockpit of a spaceship), was confusion at not seeing my hands when I looked down. It was disorienting. During the second game, I teetered on the edge of a high tower, anxious at the sheer depth of the drop before me. Genuine, leg shaking vertigo. Fear swept over me, despite knowing that there was no danger. And then I accidentally nudged the controller, causing my avatar to fall forwards. On cue, real physical-world-me did the same and I head butted the table in front of me. I both felt and looked an idiot. The virtual had duped me and it had done so very, very convincingly. Shortly after, I started spinning out, like trying to sleep when too drunk. A few short minutes after that I had to remove the headset entirely. I was done. Either a good vomit was in order, or a lie-down and a glass of water. I opted for the latter and prayed the former didn’t happen. It was a close call.

The studies referenced by Madary and Metzinger highlight the increased signs of stress experienced by users of VR. Subjects walk across a beam, a mere two inches from the ground, yet the headset shows a vast cavern below them. Their palms sweat, their hearts beat frantically. Just like my experiences with the Oculus Rift, they were entirely absorbed in the illusion. It’s a scary thought. For many of us, the sickening feelings associated with disembodiment will only be temporary – our brain plasticity will see to that. We will adjust. There are already further models in development that take things like our hands into account, enabling us to still feel connected to our bodies and the tools we operate. There are already multiple augmented reality projects underway, and within a few short years, we will move far beyond VR as we know it now.

By bringing the question of ethical codes of conduct for Virtual Reality to our attention, Madary and Metzinger have opened the court for serious debate. It surpasses the realms esoteric academic waffle so prevalent in philosophy and opens our eyes to what can and will be a serious issue. If we’re further able to escape the clutches of modern consumer capitalism by developing our own fantasies in new and extensive ways, then our disconnect will become even greater. Will depression reign? Will we lose sight of what makes us human? Will further developments in technologies lead to a singularity that redefines what it is to be human, or will they completely obliterate it? Only time will tell.

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