Virtual reality loses its ‘WOW’ factor to reality
As I write this, my 14-year-old son, Tait, is hiking up the Seven Castles above our house. He is working his way up to a rock-climbing route to test his skills. Tait has latched onto rock climbing as his newest passion, not for social climbing, but as a solo pursuit.For most parents, rock climbing would be a red flag. It’s not, perhaps, the safest occupation for a young lad whose lanky body affords excellent climbing abilities and whose mind is determined to test those abilities.To ease my mind, I occasionally train binoculars on the red rocks where I can see his bright yellow T-shirt moving up through broken cliffs. I trust Tait’s abilities and cheer his newfound pursuit because it means an escape from an all-consuming virtual world where he was trapped for a time.That world was defined by a computer game that has swept the planet, luring in millions of players who meet and do battle in an array of virtual kingdoms. The game is called “World of Warcraft,” a virtual universe populated by people of all genders, ages and backgrounds.When Tait first became excited about “WOW,” his mother and I agreed to allow a trial period. We felt he deserved some entertainment as a break from schoolwork. Tait saved his money, bought a laptop and signed up for the game at $15 per month.Our home land line was far too slow for the intricate graphics of “WOW,” but Tait discovered that he could connect through a high-speed wireless signal broadcast somewhere nearby. We eventually checked with one of our neighbors who was receiving the signal, and he said it was fine if Tait piggybacked for a while.In “WOW,” a player creates a character who gradually gains power through a points rating system, earned mostly by killing things. The more things you kill, the higher you climb in the rating system. Players gain power and interact with other players, all through the focused tapping of the keyboard.As Tait moved deeply into WOW, his mother and I faced the challenge of assigning limits to his playing time, which took place in his darkened, cavelike room with the blinds drawn. The clicking of the keyboard was the only sound we heard as Tait immersed himself in the flickering screen.Tait always maintained that he was in control, but we noticed a growing fixation. We wondered how long this would go on and how we could ever stop it. The virtual world of “WOW” was overshadowing the real world, crowding in on Tait’s life and our family time.Two weeks ago, the connection linking Tait with “WOW” suddenly stopped, closing a door to his fantasy existence. Tait was frustrated and angry, but there was nothing he could do since our neighbor had terminated his wireless connection. The world of “WOW” was silenced. Now came a period of adjustment with unknown consequences.One day after school a few days later, I smelled something burning. I ran upstairs and found Tait launching a flaming paper airplane from our upstairs porch. The flaming missile startled me momentarily, but it also provided a sense of relief. Tait was entertaining himself with burning paper airplanes, which was better than delving into the black hole of “WOW.” Tait also began playing his drum set more, fabricating his old Legos and playing with his old toys. His world began to open beyond the darkened room and the flickering computer screen.Now that the rock climbing phase is in full swing, Tait hikes 20 minutes up to the base of the Castles to a bouldering area that we have explored together. He’s breathing fresh air, hiking, climbing and living in the real world. He is free from the hypnotic trance that had held sway over him for the last six months.The designers of “WOW” are highly successful in their manipulating of a virtual world in which millions seek membership, a world that becomes addictive and all-consuming. But they can’t touch us anymore. We have our son back. He has even opened the blinds in his room to let in the sunlight.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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