On the Future Prospects of Virtual Reality (VR) Addiction

J. Maxwell Clark
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


  1. What is addiction?
  2. What causes addiction?
  3. Why is it so common?
  4. Will therapy be effective?
  5. What will need to be done on a social level?


The present paper departs somewhat from the traditional edict for scholarly papers in that it is a largely speculative piece on the future prospects of Virtual Reality (VR) addiction. Rather than speak broadly of VR addiction sui generis, it will concentrate chiefly on an aspect of VR that is currently a hotbed of discussion and a most likely candidate for addiction. The particular aspect is VR sex. The discussion will be guided by two basic assumptions; first, it is reasoned that possible VR addiction can be considered in the same terms as contemporary theories of addiction; second, in dealing with this kind of addiction (i.e., VR sex), we will need to employ a broad definition which distinguishes between positive and negative consequences. The paper will begin with a discussion of the effects of the development of technology upon both the individual and humanity as a whole. It will then proceed to a discussion of VR sex: outlining what it promises to be and what some of the implications may be. It will close with a brief conspectus of VR addiction from the perspective of three contemporary theories of addiction.

Some Preliminary Remarks on Technology and Virtual Reality

The human species has, for about the last ten thousand years, been undergoing a punctuated, if not transformational, phase in its evolutionary history. With the emergence of symbolic communication (i.e., language), strictly biological evolution has been superseded by an evolution in understanding, knowledge or, more generally, information. The noted physicist Stephen W. Hawking has referred to this last ten thousand years of human history as the external transmission phase of human evolution (Dr. S.W. Hawking, Lecture: Speculations of the possibility of life in the universe. June, 1993, Vancouver, B.C.); whereas DNA has changed little in this time, human experiential growth has progressed considerably. The last three hundred years, in particular, have been witness to a near exponential acceleration in the rate of information acquisition. While biological evolution has proceeded within a time span of hundred's of thousands of years, the "information evolution" has arguably been reduced to a margin of approximately fifty years or less (This figure is intended to reflect, in the present century, the appearance of revolutionary technological innovations). The significance of the preceding statement is neatly exemplified by the following observation. As Dr. Hawking has noted, it has been suggested that there is approximately one hundred million bits of information contained in the human genes (1 bit being equivalent, in this example, to the answer of a yes-no question), while the Cambridge University library, alone, contains approximately ten quadrillion bits of information. The near incomprehensibility of this figure is compounded, no less, by the recognition that it is neither fixed nor limited to Cambridge. Rather, information is being accumulated and shared at a tremendous rate in points across the globe each day.

If the present state of human evolution, technological or otherwise, would seem not to be wholly indicative of a species in its formative stages of development, then it may be the case that humanity has reached its adolescence (so to speak). This particular ontogenetic phase is marked by quite rapid and profound cognitive and biological changes, among others. Although I have been suggesting that human evolution is proceeding, so far as we are aware, along cognitive lines, this is not to suggest that such developments will not have biological consequences. The adolescent period is also marked by an additionally distinctive characteristic. The psychologist Erik Erikson has observed that adolescence is a critical period for identity formation. During this time, individuals come to consolidate "a personal and public definition of themselves that integrates the opportunities offered by their society with their unique personality traits and instinctive drives" (Alexander, 1990, p. 281). The psychological and physiological rigours of this period, however, make the process of identity achievement difficult; consequently, individuals are prone to experience "identity diffusion" or an "identity crisis": a failure to achieve an integrated sense of identity. Sometimes an identity crisis may be waylaid with the adoption of what Erikson calls a "negative identity." This is essentially an identity that does not meet personal and social prescriptions for health, productivity, commitment, etc. Delinquency and/or drug addiction are typical negative identities. The various roles offered individuals in these anti- establishment subcultures often provide for a ready-made sense of identity.

As I have mentioned, I think that this "adolescence" analogy and the accompanying discussion of identity formation may be suitably applied to our present state of development as a species. Numerous scholars have observed that humanity is currently traversing the gap between what I will call a subjective world view and the purely objective world view of science. August Comte, writing in the nineteenth century, made this observation in terms of metaphysical belief systems yielding to a positivist (i.e., scientific) belief system; similarly, in the present day, many technology buffs, having fully embraced the scientific ethos, are now speaking of a transition from the digital age to the virtual or cyber-age (i.e., from interface to cyberspace). In this last case, the vanguard ushering in this (re)evolutionary transition is Virtual Reality (VR) technology. At present, the theoretical potential of this new technology is "virtually" unbounded; whatever its potential applications, it will require us to reconceptualize our most fundamental definitions of what it means to be human: just how so, will be discussed shortly. The point to be made, here, is that technology is progressing at such a rate that it is almost requiring individuals to re-integrate themselves with each new development. A difficulty or failure to do so may result in an identity crisis and the adoption of a negative identity. Thus far the discussion has centred on the implications of technological innovations for people in industrialized nations, it has said nothing of the implications of advanced technologies for non-industrialized nations. One has to ask how individuals in these nations are going to cope with the prospects of rapid industrialization as a necessity for survival in the global market. An additionally poignant question concerns the effect(s) such developments will have on the process of identity formation for both the individual and the nation. Unfortunately, due to space considerations, discussion of these questions must be reserved for other forums.

In scientific circles VR technology is being spoken of in somewhat Nietzschean terms as providing "the bridge over the abyss": that is, as providing the material means by which humanity will become superhuman, or at least take its next evolutionary leap. And what does this leap entail, but a merging or direct interaction with pure information. This aspect of VR technology and its implications for human development will be discussed briefly in what follows.

If the preceding statement regarding direct human- information interaction sounds vaguely Platonic to the reader, then he/she would not be far from the truth. One writer, Michael Heim (1993), has suggested that VR and/or cyberspace is the embodiment of Platonism. Consider Plato's metaphor of the Cave for example. In this story, Plato describes the lot of people caught in the prison of corporeality. With their attention fixed upon the flickering shadows cast by a physical fire, the prisoners take these images, i.e. sensory objects, to be the highest and most interesting reality. Only when they are able to break free of their corporeal bonds and, thus, leave the Cave do they come to perceive the real form of things, things palpable not to the physical eye but to the mind's eye. In Plato's terms, this is the universal, intelligible world: a realm of active thought. In this realm truth is laid bare, stripped of the imprecise and distorted raiment given by the physical senses. As Plato also writes, the way to this higher truth is not open to all. Formal training, education, is needed to redirect one's gaze beyond the superficial sensory realm; once trained, love (Eros) will guide the mind to the Forms of the intellect. In VR the user, or cybernaut, is very much lost to the trappings of the phenomenal world and is, instead, immersed in a world of digitized Forms: a landscape of pure information.

It should be noted that cyberspace is not to be considered Platonic in a literal sense, but in a distinctly modern and empirical sense. In cyberspace, information does not exist as pure concepts or formulae, but as proceeding from such and represented as well-formed cyberspatial entities. In essence, what VR does is take information and translate it into empirical referents that otherwise seem to possess the ideality of Plato's Forms. As Michael Heim (1993) writes, "the mathematical machine [the computer] uses a digital mold to reconstitute the mass of empirical material so that human consciousness can enjoy an integrity in the empirical data that would never have been possible before computers" (p. 89). Nowhere but in VR is one quite literally entreated to landscapes of pure information. Besides constituting an ontological shift, VR also carries implications for knowledge production and our relationship with our bodies in particular.

In the western scientific tradition, the pursuit and/or acquisition of knowledge has typically been the province of the intellect--quite apart from the body. Knowledge has generally been gained through a passive cognitive process of taking in new information and making associations with old, but now VR promises to change all that. Its promise lies in its ability to objectify concepts and empirical data so that they are more readily tangible to the physical senses. For example, in synthesizing new medicines, chemists are now able to analyze the consequences of various molecular combinations through VR simulations. They are thus able to feel whether certain molecules are attractive or repellent to one another. Similarly, many physicians are developing bold, new surgical techniques via experimental virtual surgery simulations. Moreover, in some cases, VR technology is able to place the physician inside the body of a patient at the site of a potential difficulty. The medium of VR would thus seem to hold profound implications for the representation of knowledge in terms of strictly abstracted symbols. In fact, one of the most pressing questions surrounding the advent of VR technology is that it threatens to do away with this practice altogether. Computers are already being assigned the task of processing hard data, leaving individuals free to explore the results for patterns, differences, and so forth. VR takes this one step further by allowing individuals to interact directly with the information. Thus, "knowing" may no longer be the exclusive province of cognition: feeling may come to play an equally integral role in the production of knowledge. In this way, mind and body truly become synchronous.

Having a physical body also makes us distinct from others. It is the most immediately tangible referent of our identity and individuality. In cyberspace, however, identity issues promise to become superfluous. Moreover, the quality of human interaction stands to become limited and/or barren. Whilst in the virtual environment, we can exist in either a disembodied or cyberspatial form. Whatever the case, as Michael Heim (1993) has noted, we need "...[reveal] only as much of ourselves as we mentally wish to reveal. Bodily contact becomes optional; [one] need never stand face-to-face with other members of the virtual community. [One] can live [one's] own separate existence without ever physically meeting another person" (p. 100). The sheath of anonymity and impersonality afforded individuals in VR could present serious ethical implications. The veritable freedom of the virtual environment, for example, could foster in individuals a kind of contempt for corporeality, for fleshly existence. Consequently, simple human virtues such as respect, warmth, and compassion for others may conceivably languish in VR: so too may responsibility. This theme is certainly echoed in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer, the seminal science fiction work on the future of VR. In the story, the protagonist, a VR addict, despairs at the prospects of not being able to enter cyberspace: "For Case, who'd lived for the bodiless exultation of cyberspace, it was the Fall. In the bars he'd frequented as a [cyberspace] hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh" (1984, p. 6). Besides the intimations of depersonalization and/or dehumanization, the preceding portends an additional equally tenable side of VR: addiction.

At this juncture, the reader may feel warranted to ask how the preceding discussion has had that much to do with addiction. The short answer is that it has had everything to do with addiction. I have attempted to show that rapid gains in knowledge (i.e., information) and, thus, technology as well as the very prospects of VR itself are contributing to a kind of global psychosocial dislocation. As the rate of technological innovations, in particular, quickens, individuals may experience greater difficulty in achieving and maintaining a consistent sense of identity. Following Erikson's theory, such difficulties may precipitate the adoption of a negative identity. While possibly contributing to this sense of dislocation, VR also offers individuals a potential escape from social expectations and reality in general in the lattices of the computer matrix. Providing that one can acquire the suitable technology, the fix afforded an individual in VR will be quick, easy, inexpensive, and "virtually unbounded." In the following, I plan to limit my discussion to what may arguably be one of the most controversial if not potentially addicting applications of VR. The prospect is virtual sex and it is a subject that has been discussed in VR circles even before the technology became a reality.

The Prospects of Virtual Sex: Teledildonics

For William Gibson (1984), cyberspace is much more than a computer-simulated alternative reality; it is an ultimately liberating 'potentiality' bounded only by the imagination. In this sense, it also has a deeply erotic allure to it; it is a place where one's dreams and desires may find satisfaction. In Neuromancer, we see the effect that cyberspace has upon Case, a cybernaut whose desire for cyberspace has grown to addictive proportions:

A year [in Japan] and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly... [S]till he'd see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void...[H]e was no [longer] console man, no cyberspace cowboy...But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he'd cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab,...trying to reach the console that wasn't there (p. 4).

A particularly salacious extension to the possibility of VR addiction is this notion of virtual sex, or teledildonics as it has been euphemistically termed. According to technology critic Howard Rheingold (1991), the term "teledildonics" was originally coined to describe a device capable of converting sound into tactile sensations. The 'dildonic' aspect of this device depended on which part of the anatomy a user decided to interface with the machine's tactile stimulators. The potential of VR makes the technology of this device look crude in comparison. Perhaps the most suitable analogy that can be drawn--in today's world--with the prospect of a teledildonics network is the growing popularity of telephone sex networks. Like the promise of VR sex, telesex offers consumers disembodied sexual experiences; unlike VR, however, it relies largely on the imaginative and fantasy abilities of the user. In a way, VR sex will leave nothing to the imagination. Cyber-coitus promises a fully interactive, 3-D, multisensory experience. For practical purposes, teledildonics users will probably not interact with computer simulations (human simulation technology is still only possible in the worlds of Star Trek or Red Dwarf), but with other users on the same network of the information superhighway. Conceivably, in order to fully consummate this VR-sex marriage, the amorous cybernaut will need to don, in addition to the requisite head-mounted three- dimensional display unit, a fully-fitting electronic body prosthesis; in other words, a bodysuit, containing arrays of sensors and tactile stimulators. Once equipped, the cybernaut will be ready for cyberspace and the titillating adventures that await. When plugged into the network, individuals will likely see a computerized representation of themselves along with representations of other network users. From thereon, the possibilities are better left to the imagination. All that need be said is that the experience(s) will be multisensory; moreover, a teledildonics network, like the telesex networks, will also offer prospective users anonymity, innumerable partners, and freedom from STD's and unwanted pregnancies. Furthermore, if one is displeased with one's encounter, one can terminate the experience with the flick of a switch.

While it all sounds so promising, the reality of VR sex is not quite just around the corner. Howard Rheingold (1991) has noted a number of factors that first must be overcome before an on-line teledildonics network can become a reality. First, in order to accommodate the amount of information that will be required for a tactile VR system, extensive fiberoptic networks will have to be created interlinking both NET users and countries; second, the sheer computing power required to process the calculations necessary for tactile stimulation is so far unavailable; third, perhaps the most formidable obstruction to a global, real-time, shared cyberspace is the physical size of the planet. Basically, the larger the cyberspace network, geographically speaking, the larger the "system lag time"--until, perhaps, the speed of light barrier is broken. The tactile bodysuit mentioned earlier has also yet to become a reality; however, research teams on three continents are currently hard at work on this project and already a number of prototypes are being developed.

If the prospect of VR sex would not seem to be next year's technological triumph, its eventual reality seems inevitable. One thing is for certain, when VR sex becomes possible on the NET, it promises to forever change the face of human intimacy. It will challenge our most fundamental personal and social definitions for what constitutes erotica; it will also force us to radically reconsider conventional moral codes. In addition, Rheingold (1991) has raised a perplexing implication for identity: "[W]ith our information machines and our bodily sensations so deeply 'intertwingled,'...will our communication devices be regarded as 'it's' or will they be part of 'us'?" (p. 353). Indeed, what is to become of humanity? Are we destined to be subsumed by the 'machine' or are we to become something entirely otherwise: a hybrid, or cyborg--part human, part machine, possessing qualities of both, but never fully being one or the other? The sheer availability, accessibility, realism, and unlimited potential of VR and VR sex, in particular, may prove to be irresistible to both young and old alike. For the young, it may offer the thrill of exploration and adventure as well as a means of communicating with peers. For the old, it may offer an opportunity to regain lost abilities (at least in cyberspace), communicate with family and friends, and to find distraction from an otherwise unpleasant or unstimulating reality. This last point is, arguably, for people of all ages, the most powerful reason why this technology may turn into what Rheingold (1991) has cautiously termed the "plug-in drug" of the next century.

By way of conclusion, the remainder of the paper will take the form of a conspectus of possible VR addiction. The discussion will constitute brief responses to the following five questions: (1) What is addiction?; (2) What causes addiction?; (3) Why is it so common?; (4) Will therapy be effective?; (5) What needs to be done on a social level? In my researches I have found that three models of addiction, in particular, seem to provide a plausible explanatory framework for VR addiction; the three models that will be discussed include: the Adaptive Model; Anomie Theory; and the Psychostimulant Model.

A Five-Point Conspectus of VR Addiction

What Is Addiction?

Throughout the paper, I have been arguing the VR addiction/VR sex case essentially from the perspective of the Adaptive Model of addiction. According to this model, addiction is defined as "a lifestyle characterized by overwhelming involvement with a particular activity or activities" (Alexander, 1994, definitions handout). "Overwhelming involvement" is taken to have both beneficial and detrimental consequences; however, "in its negative form, the harmful effects are conspicuous, to the addicted person, to the society, or both" (Ibid.). For example, VR addiction may be considered negative if a person's temporal investment with the technology is such that it is jeopardizing his or her work, personal health, social contact, and so on.

Anomie Theory offers a fairly comparable definition of addiction to that detailed in the Adaptive Model. Here, also, addiction is defined in terms of a lifestyle, but one especially given to "harmful, ritualistic habits" (Ibid.). An example, in this case, might include, again, spending an inordinate amount of time in VR and far fewer in "conventional reality", or engaging in unconventional behaviours (e.g., theft or prostitution) to ensure one's continued access to VR.

Interestingly, there may also be a plausible basis for a psychostimulant explanation of VR addiction (I should just like to admit that with each of these models, I am overlooking critical questions concerning internal validity and the like - these questions would be meriting of several papers in themselves- , and am, instead, concentrating on how well each model's definitions of addiction applies to possible VR addiction). Addiction, from this perspective, has been defined as an "extraordinarily high response probability attached to chains of behaviour that terminate with the self-administration of a particular drug" (Ibid.). In simpler terms, compulsive use of VR technology will be considered to constitute addiction. Although this model focuses almost expressly on drug use, it is not altogether incompatible with the prospect of VR addiction; many VR critics are already referring to VR as a potential drug: "Electronic LSD" is a term currently being batted around in the electronics/media press.

What Causes Addiction?

According to the Adaptive Model, addiction "is caused by an enduring crisis of psychosocial integration affecting a person who can find no better way (in terms of a cost-benefit analysis) of ameliorating the crisis than addiction" (Ibid.). Thus, due to a person's sense of dislocation and difficulty in coping with that predicament, he or she may perceive no other recourse but to find solace in VR and/or VR sex networks.

For Anomie Theory, addiction is caused by a person's sustained failure to achieve the success-goals of society by either legitimate or illegitimate means. A person may respond to this failure by rejecting these success-goals and finding refuge (escape) in the worlds of VR.

In the most general sense, the psychostimulant model assumes that addiction is caused by exposure to certain drugs that have "extraordinary reinforcing efficacy" (Ibid.). A somewhat compatible argument has been made for TV addiction (and, now, by extension VR addiction) by Joyce Nelson (1987) in her book The perfect machine: TV in the nuclear age. In this work, Nelson cites physiological studies which suggest that television viewing reduces people's critical capacities. Specifically, research seems to indicate that during television viewing brain-wave activity "[switches] from predominantly beta waves, indicating alert and conscious attention, to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention: the state of aimless fantasy and daydreaming below the threshold of consciousness" (p. 69). Further research has apparently shown that the left hemisphere, responsible for language and logical and analytical thinking, tends to "tune out" during TV viewing. The right hemisphere, responsible for such things as pattern recognition, analysis of spatial relationships, imagery, etc., would thus seem to be the more dominant hemisphere. Since VR is something like watching 3-D TV, it is not altogether unlikely that it will induce a similar physiological effect.

Why Is it So Common?

Obviously, VR addiction is not a reality yet. However, the rapid computerization of society will find most homes and/or individuals equipped with computer systems that are accessed to the NET. In the near future, we will find that much of our work and menial chores such as shopping, banking, etc., will be done by computer. With the further development of technology, we will most probably find that VR will become the leading means of NET communication. Thus, a home VR system could conceivably become as common as owning a telephone or television.

From the Adaptive Model, VR addiction could become quite common so long as individuals and/or groups are dislocated by our socio-economic system. Dislocation, from this perspective, is argued to impede the process of positive psychosocial integration and encourage, instead, the adoption of a negative identity.

According to Anomie Theory, society's pervasive overemphasis of success, combined with the limited access to institutionalized means, will continue to force many individuals to experience anomie. Since anomie is considered to be a necessary condition of a normal functioning society, retreatism and, thus, addiction, is bound to be a common response.

VR addiction, from the Psychostimulant perspective, may become a distinct reality because the biological mechanisms involved are common to all humans. Providing one has a sufficiently large enough exposure, one will invariably become addicted.

Will Therapy Be Effective?

According to the three models, the question of therapeutic effectiveness is unresolved. The Adaptive Model considers therapy to be potentially useful in terms of aiding individuals in making the transition from an addictive lifestyle to one which constitutes a more positive form of psychosocial integration. Its effectiveness may be limited, however, because individuals (a) do not always seek therapeutic help, and (b) do not always find a suitably manageable form of psychosocial integration. Since Anomie Theory considers anomie to be a necessary condition of a productive society, therapy may offer little more than short-term solutions to help individuals cope with the experience. The implicit assumption in these models is that VR will be less the cause of addiction than will our present social organization. According to the Psychostimulant model, therapies that do not address and advocate total abstinence from the addictive agent-- in this case VR--are considered to be, for the most part ineffective. Therapies that address the physiological aspects of addiction and, thus, encourage complete abstinence, may be potentially effective.

What Will Neet to Be Done on a Social Level? 

For each of these perspectives, addiction has been addressed in its broadest sense; consequently, suitable action tends also to be addressed to the macrosocial level. The Adaptive Model, for example, holds that addiction will only begin to cease being a problem when our socio-economic structure begins to inhibit dislocation and encourage psychosocial integration. Similarly, for Anomie Theory, until society is restructured such that anomie is no longer experienced, little can be done to control addiction. Finally, since the Psychostimulant Model tends to hold to the idea that "once an addict always an addict", social policy will need to endorse total abstinence.

Regulation and control of something like VR sex will prove to be difficult. How will we monitor and regulate people's activities on the NET? Further, what will be the moral and ethical fallout from attempts to do so? There may be a possibility that the NET will be policed by computerized moral censor devices. Then we will have to ask the inevitable question of who' s morals will be enforced. One option that may be implemented involves identifying NET users by an identification number that contains the user's age. Socially regulated VR sex networks can then be established and access could be limited to users of a certain age. Unless a totalitarian enforcement policy is effected, the latter would seem to be the most practicable solution. If the current trend of technological innovations in VR is any indication, VR sex seems destined to become a quite tangible reality.


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Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. New York: Ace Books.

Heim, M. (1993). The metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, J. (1987). The perfect machine: TV in the nuclear age. Toronto: Between the Lines.

Rheingold, H. (1991). Virtual Reality. New York: Touchstone.