Sex, Gaming, and the Virtual Horizon

I'm not a gamer. It's just not my thing. Yes, I enjoyed Pong, Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and even Donkey Kong way back in the Commodore 64 Stone Age (the 1980s), and yes, I may line up this month to see the new Pixels movie. But my actual gaming days are very much in the past. Somewhere in the early 1990s, things like graduate school, relationships, career, family, and life in general got in the way, demanding lots and lots of time and focus, so I packed away my joysticks and spent my extra hours studying, partying and building real world relationships.

Given my lack of gaming interest, you may wonder why I'm suddenly writing about last month's Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the video game industry's annual trade show, where R&D superpowers like Sony and Microsoft unveil their latest and greatest ideas, and game developers figure out how to best incorporate these technologies into the ever-expanding digital milieu. Well, to be honest, I follow this stuff because of Internet Rule No. 34, which states, in a nutshell, that any existing technology will eventually -- probably sooner rather than later -- be adapted for sexual purposes. And whenever that happens, my psychotherapeutic work, specializing in sexual addiction and other tech-driven intimacy issues, is profoundly impacted.

Way back in the mid-1990s when I started this work, my clients typically struggled with things like porn theaters, adult bookstores, sex clubs, prostitutes, and phone sex (heavy breathing and dirty talk via phones that actually plugged into a wall). By 1999, however, Rule 34 had kicked in full force, and my patients were increasingly showing up with challenges related to digital rather than IRL sexuality -- usually either subscription-based porn sites or sexualized chat rooms. Since then, my work has evolved in tandem with digital technology. Recently, hookup apps and pornographic "tube sites" have been the primary problem areas, though virtual reality (VR) is very obviously looming on the horizon, waiting for the day when VR tech is sufficiently advanced that we can fully and freely adopt it into our gaming experience (and, in turn, our sexual experience).

Well folks, that day just got a whole lot closer. In particular, three technologies introduced at this year's E3 have pushed the envelope rather significantly. They are:

  • Microsoft HoloLens: Microsoft is describing the HoloLens as "augmented reality." Essentially, unlike previous VR headsets that block the user's real world vision (immersing the user in an entirely digital universe), the HoloLens layers 3D imagery onto reality. In other words, your video game can enter your actual world, making the game seem much more real. (The wildly popular war game Halo was used at E3 as a demonstration, and the audience was more than a little impressed.)
  • Oculus Touch: I've been writing about Oculus products since 2012 when their then-rudimentary Rift headset kicked off the VR trend. Since that time, the Rift has been dramatically refined. Today, it is much more comfortable, with a more immersive experience. Plus, Oculus just introduced its new Touch device, with sensors that surround (but don't impede) the hands, detecting real-world movements and simulating them in VR. In one demo, the Rift headset and Touch controllers were used to pick up fireworks and a lighter, with the lit fireworks blowing up in the user's face. The good news is that dangerous accidents in VR don't result in real world trips to the ER, meaning virtual world adventurers can do all sorts of crazy things without the fear of in-the-flesh consequences.
  • Project Morpheus: Project Morpheus is the latest Sony VR project. It is a headset similar to the Oculus Rift, except it works in conjunction with a standard PlayStation console. The big advance here is that it allows multiple users to project into the same virtual reality, thereby facilitating person-to-person virtual interactions. In one demonstration of a game called Rigs, Morpheus-equipped gamers blasted one another with laser guns in a futuristic battle arena, a la real world laser tag. As one Sony executive said, "Being in VR with someone else is a really different experience than being alone."

Admittedly, VR has not quite advanced to the point where every gamer on Earth is going to run out and buy these new devices. But the amount of progress we've seen since the Rift was introduced just three short years ago is utterly astounding. And it's only a matter of time before gamers are strapping on interactive headsets and full body sensors, and turning their backyards into interactive, VR battlefields. This is actually pretty cool, because the sedentary people who are sitting in their basements gaming with other sedentary people who are also sitting in their basements will soon be running around outdoors, playing the same basic games but getting a bit of sunshine and exercise in the process.

That said, Rule 34 is likely to kick in pretty quickly, meaning some gamers will be playing with porn stars instead of bazookas. However, unlike war gamers, sex gamers may find themselves inflicting and experiencing real world injuries. After all, I see every day the ways in which 2D porn and webcams damage and often destroy lives and intimate relationships - creating emotional and psychological trauma for betrayed spouses, neglected children, and others. It stands to reason that when the digital experience inevitably becomes even more realistic (with immersive 3D) this damage will continue and possibly worsen. To be honest, I fully expect within the next five or 10 years to see a tidal wave of new clients struggling with serious life issues related to VR sexuality.

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. As a well-known expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, he has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among others. He is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships (co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information, please visit his website.