Source: Ben Bernstein
When I scheduled a play date with my 15-year-old cousin, I was specific, “Bring your VR headset. I want to see how it all works. At 74, I’ve had very limited exposure to the virtual reality, and I know this kid is totally hooked.
He immediately takes us into a game: a player wears the headset and holds the controllers in his hands. Once in the virtual reality world, he finds himself in front of a large bomb that will explode in five minutes unless he defuses it. The other player (not wearing a helmet) reads the instructions to defuse the bomb. The instructions are very complicated – there are many different parts in the bomb: colored wires that need to be cut, switches that need to be turned off and buttons that need to be pressed. The clock is counting down. If you don’t defuse the bomb in time, it explodes and you explode with it.
I put on the headset while listening to my cousin (I’ll call him “the kid”) give me basic instructions on how to use the controllers. The clock starts ticking. Oh wow. I see the bomb! It’s the big blocky thing with all kinds of stuff on it. The kid throws out instructions, “Cut the blue thread!” »
At first, I don’t see a blue wire, but when I see it, I immediately run into a problem with the controllers. I can’t get verbal instructions to my fingers fast enough. I get a few good directions, but realize that I’m so scared of blowing myself up that I rip off the helmet and quit the game after four minutes. We try again and twice more I am so charged with anxiety that I stop before the big explosion. On the fourth attempt, I realize, I’m not really going to explode. This is virtual reality. Face the fear! I am the stress doctor! I take a deep breath and try to follow his instructions, but my clumsy maneuvers cause the stupid bomb to slip off the table and fall to the floor. Shit ! BOOM!
While my physical body isn’t shattering into a million shards and my VR body isn’t pixelating into a billion dots, I find myself laughing hysterically as the old child rolls his eyes and makes a sarcastic remark, “Baby boomers!
I can’t help but notice how amplified I feel. I am so high! It’s the same feeling I had fifty years ago when I used drugs.
Now I just want to play again.
The kid and I are going out for burgers. I ask him how he is doing at school. He rolls his eyes. I asked him what that meant. “I’m not well,” he said, looking away. “I don’t do my homework.”
“Let me guess,” I said, “homework is very boring.” He shot back, “School is very boring.
So. What can compete with mainlining your neurons with game-induced floods of dopamine in the world of virtual reality and video gaming? Dopamine makes you feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. A rush of dopamine makes your brain feel good, like you’ve accomplished something. Geometry, nouns, adjectives, and the War of 1812 don’t stand a chance.
The child’s parents think he has ADHD. He is not. The virtual world completely captures his attention. This adds another layer to why ADHD is too often misdiagnosed, or even misdiagnosed, for teens. (See my previous article, What’s the real “deficit” in ADHD?).
My encounter with the child revealed another layer of attention problems: difficulty paying attention to someone else. As we chewed our burgers and brushed our fries with ketchup, the kid talked about himself, continuously, with remarkable ease. He showed little or no interest in me.
In the competitive virtual world, either you are in opposition to everyone else, or you are part of a team that outperforms or obliterates other teams. Sure, there are virtual experiences that aim to build cooperation and community, but those aren’t the ones that hook teens.
The game we played was called, Keep talking and nobody blows up. Unfortunately, I can imagine a second or third generation iteration called Keep playing and everyone implodes.
Then, as we cycle home, a curious thing happens. Out of the blue, the child asks, “Well, are you religious?”
Wow, there’s more to his world than headsets, controllers and exploding bombs. A glimmer of hope !
Although we planned to work on this article together, I quickly got lost in the kid’s rearview mirror once he returned to the world of virtual reality. Guess I’ll have to wait until the next time the headphones are off to have this conversation about religion.
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