When I teach my Science Fiction course to high schoolers, inevitably the question arises whether technology is harmful or beneficial. It’s an overly simplistic question meant to spur debate, but I’ve noticed in the past five or six years that fewer and fewer kids find technology disturbing. And so, I tend to lean that way in discussion, citing things like pollution, global warming, genetically modified foods, sounding the alarms about how we’re all headed toward a metaphorical Matrix. And if none of that works, I start talking about the joys of being in the wilderness and the fact that contact with dirt makes people happier.
Where the discussion really gets interesting, however, is when we delve into virtual reality territory. There are those who claim that living in the Matrix wouldn’t be so bad — like Cypher in the movie — except their argument isn’t that “ignorance is bliss”; their argument is that virtual worlds can be more fun than the real world.
I’ve seen what these kids are talking about. When I was in middle school, I had a Sega console. Not the Sega Genesis. The original Sega. And there were a few games called role-playing games, which usually involved dungeons and towers and grassy meadows that you rode your horse through. One such game was called Ys; another was Golvellius; and there was a third one called Phantasy Star which had really cool dungeons on multiple planets, no horses. Actually, according to wikipedia, Phantasy Star was the first “story-drive” RPG released in the United States, but whatever. The point is that these were all role-playing games and as such, required the player of the game to become the main character of the story unfolding over the course of the gameplay.
Don’t all games do that? Well, yes, to a certain extent many of them do. But from what I can tell, RPGs differ in how much they suck you in. An RPG is a time vacuum. And when you finally force yourself to turn it off at 2:00 in the morning, you don’t necessarily feel a sense of satisfaction. Maybe here’s where I should stop talking in second person. I don’t necessarily feel a sense of satisfaction. In fact, I’d often feel quite the opposite — a sense of having been duped, of having spent a lot of time and having very little to show for it.