Is This Real Life? Is This Just Virtual Reality?

Science Fiction

Is This Real Life? Is This Just Virtual Reality?

One of my favorite things about Sci-Fi November is getting the chance to discuss various specifics about things I like within science fiction. (Last year, I discussed cyborgs, clones, space, and multiverse theory.) These posts generally get pretty long, because, I mean, there’s a lot to say about these topics! I can write essays about these things, but still these posts feel like I’m barely scratching the surface. Even still, I hope you enjoy my discussion and join in!

Today I thought I’d explore the ways that virtual reality is presented in various science fiction stories. It seems to be a common theme, especially for futuristic (and YA dystopian) books, and I think it’s something that most people are curious about, even if it might frighten us a little.

Defining Virtual Reality

The ever-trustworthy Wikipedia has this to say:

Virtual reality (VR), sometimes referred to as immersive multimedia, is a computer-simulated environment that can simulate physical presence in places in the real world or imagined worlds. Virtual reality can recreate sensory experiences, including virtual taste, sight, smell, sound, touch, etc.

Remember back in the 80s (or was it 90s) when you could get into a little mini-van looking thing and watch a video of a roller coaster as the whole contraption moved about in order to mimic the roller coaster ride? (No? Please tell me I’m not the only person who has ridden one of these.) That was my first (and only — so far) experience with “virtual reality” and it makes me laugh to see similar technology now being employed in special pay-extra-for-me seats in the movie theaters.

But I’m more interested in a deeper, much more immersive sort of virtual reality. The kind that lets you forget your physical body and pretend you’re in a whole different place that feels, looks, smells, and sounds real. I guess, sort of like a lucid dream, only induced on command and easier to control. The kind you often read about in books or see imagined on film.

Virtual Reality as Video Games

Some of them are monitored and well-regulated

In each of these futuristic novels, VR video games are commonplace.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline In Ready Player One, Wade spends the majority of his time inside the OASIS, which is basically a virtual reality MMORPG (and then some). VR is achieved by donning a visor and “haptic gloves” which all the person to access the OASIS and operate within it. Extra cool (rich) people can buy additional pieces to enhance their experience with things like scents, a treadmill-like thing (so they really ARE walking/running everywhere), including a full haptic suit an rig(basically a reclining chair) for the full-body experience. There are even options to sync your avatar’s facial expressions to your real ones.

Insignia by S. J. KincaidWhen the reader first meets Tom in Insignia, he’s hustling people at VR video games in the arcade portion of a casino. In this version, all you need to put on is a visor (I believe) and you’re in. Hands also play an important role here, though, as Tom’s especially skilled at VR games due to his high dexterity. They also use VR games as training exercises for the special branch of the military that Tom gets involved with, which allows them to take on various roles and adjust the atmosphere as needed.


Ender's GameIn Ender’s Game, the titular character becomes sought out by the military due to his high skill level at VR video games. He does a LOT of virtual gaming when he joins them, and again, they use these games for military training exercises. I can’t remember the specifics of the VR gear here, but I want to say it’s pretty minimal.

And then there are the ones players get stuck inside!

In each of these series, a virtual reality video game is something NEW — and as one might expect, things go awry pretty quickly…

Sword Art Online is probably the most popular anime series on this topic, and though I find the premise quite compelling, the execution bored me. The story goes that there’s a new VR MMO, which requires you to don a visor in order to access it. On launch day, everyone starts playing, and then realizes they can’t LEAVE the game. If someone tries to wake them up by removing the visor — they die. If they die in the game — they die in real life. How do they escape? Make it to the top — ALIVE!

Log Horizon is similar in concept, but far superior in execution, from my perspective. In this series, players have been delving into the world of Elder Tale for a long time — until one day, something happens that shakes the world and locks the players inside. Suddenly, everything in the game is REAL, and they have to figure out how to live, eat, and survive in this virtual world until they can figure out a way to wake back up into their physical bodies. Guys, this show is AMAZING.

.hack// is probably the first recognizable instance of this sort of storyline, and it came in the form of a video game (so meta!). You play as a character who loves playing a particular MMO, until naturally, things start getting weird and people get stuck in the game (and weird things are happening OUTSIDE the game as well). I never got too deep into this franchise, but I still find the whole idea pretty compelling.

I didn’t really pay much attention to Tron until I watched the Legacy version a couple of years ago. It was then that I realized it was all about how some kid’s dad had figured out a way to turn this arcade game into a virtual reality that they could enter and inhabit and do stuff inside. Of course, in Legacy, dude gets stuck inside and has to figure out a way to make it back out alive. Eek!

And then there are the holodecks in Star Trek!

Star Trek: The Next Generation – Data playing as Sherlock Holmes in the holodeck

You didn’t think I could go this whole post without somehow mentioning Star Trek, did you? I love how the virtual reality in Star Trek is so vastly different from that in basically every other science fiction story (at least, those I mention here). In all the others, VR is achieved in the mind; in Star Trek, it’s achieved in a physical space, using lifelike holograms.

The people of Star Trek mainly use their holodecks for recreation: virtual vacations, holonovels (which basically the LARPing of the future, hahaha), and playing games (war games, sports, whatever). But they also use it for training purposes and strategy planning; they can test out a variety of different scenarios to see what works and what doesn’t, what’s probably and what’s less likely. I find the whole thing quite fascinating.

Virtual Reality as a Way of Life

Beyond video games, then, are those sorts of VR technologies that end up being adapted as a main source of entertainment and fulfillment — a way of life — for the people who live in these futuristic societies.

There are some in which VR has blended into everyday life

Under the Never Sky by Veronica RossiIn Under the Never Sky, there are people who live in “safe” little bio-domes, basically. Since their physical space is pretty limited, they spend the majority of their time in a virtual world, which they access through a device that fits over an eyeball. They do just about everything in this virtual world — hang out with friends, exercise, go to school, play musical instruments, etc. It’s their main source of communication with everyone in their lives, as well.


Ready Player One by Ernest ClineSimilarly, in Ready Player One, the OASIS becomes a main way of life for much of the developed world. Space is limited, and many people live in stacks upon stacks of trailers — not very comfortable living conditions. So, they step inside the OASIS, a huge virtual universe for them to explore. Many people work in the OASIS, and school is done completely virtually (each student gets a set of school-assigned visor and gloves!).

And there are some in which VR is a promising new technology

Elusion by Claudia GabelIn Elusion, Regan’s father has invented a whole new immersive VR technology that will allow people to escape the crappiness of the physical world (there is so much air pollution that they can’t go outside without wearing a gas mask some days!). Elusion® is unveiled as the revolutionary new source of entertainment and happiness — that’s right, it’s built specifically to increase a person’s happiness. Users access Elusion® by donning a visor and wristband, which serves as a bio-monitor as well.


Caprica_Promo_Poster_7Caprica — the SyFy spin-off of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica — has a strange sort of pull for me. Though I was admittedly more interested in everything going on outside the VR world, there’s no question that the VR technology plays a huge role in this story as a prequel to BSG. Zoe becomes obsessed with the virtual playground (accessed via a visor) that her father’s technology corporation developed and all kinds of crazy-interesting things begin to unfold.

Virtual Reality as a Means to an End

And finally, we have those stories in which virtual reality is used to pretty much fight baddies — possibly in outer space.

In Insignia and Ender’s Game, teenagers are recruited by their governments’ military organizations in order to wage wars in out space, because we all know that teenagers are the best at playing video games!

In The Matrix, the story goes something like this: we all live in a virtual world (maybe?) but there’s like the bad guys who want to destroy it (us?) and so there’s some special people who can hack into The Matrix and do stuff; however, none of them are good enough so they have to find The One who can do, like, special ninja VR hackery and save everyone. Or something like that.

Interestingly, Insignia and The Matrix are the only ones I can think of in which the VR (or some portion of it) it accessed by hooking up some cable thingy into the back of a person’s skull. You’d think there would be more of that!

What do you think about virtual reality?

Do you like the idea? Do you want to try it? Does it scare you? What are some of your favorite books, video games, TV shows, or movies that involve VR technology?

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