On a whim, I recently started rewatching Ready Player One, the Steven Spielberg adaptation of Ernest Cline’s seminal novel about a future in which virtual reality is the real world. In the opening scene, protagonist Wade Watts clambers around a ramshackle trailer park before placing a headset on his face. Everyone has largely abandoned the decrepit, rundown reality for the Oasis—a virtual world of limitless possibilities, where everyone can do, be, or look like pretty much anything they want.
If you’d asked me if we were close to Ready Player One a year ago, I would’ve snorted and listed any of the objections my more skeptical colleagues have noted. However, on a recent Saturday afternoon, my husband put on the Meta Quest 2 VR headset to play Puzzling Places, a 3D puzzling game, while our children played with their stuffed animals and I sorted laundry.
After lunch, my 6-year-old daughter was allowed to spend a half-hour in Google's Tilt Brush, a 3D drawing app where she created a frosty winter scene, complete with falling snow and snowmen named Lisa and Tom. My 4-year-old watched, enraptured, as the headset cast to the screen. After dinner, I caught my husband putting the headset on again. I told him to charge it when he was done because I was going to try a few new games with my coworker in an hour.
Being the parent of a still-unvaccinated 4-year-old, in the middle of a rainy Oregon winter, during a still-ongoing global pandemic, has sucked. My kids go to school and daycare, but to mitigate their risk, we have canceled swimming and gymnastics classes, and playdates. Virtual reality isn’t perfect, but it has allowed us to extend our lockdown indefinitely—until my son can be vaccinated. And also … I kind of like it?
A New Hope
It didn’t start out this way. I first got the Meta Quest 2 as a loaner in November, to try coworking with my colleagues and experiment with briefings. For work or relaxation, I found the headset utterly unsatisfying. If I want to meditate, I will take my dog on a walk; if I want to blow off steam, I go for a run. “The killer app is reality!” my husband crowed, as he saw the headset sit dusty and unused on my desk for about a month.
That was until Christmas, when both sides of my family visited and we reinstituted strict social distancing to protect older family members in the middle of the Omicron surge. Trapped in my house with no escape from all of my loved ones, I downloaded Puzzling Places one night. Meditative music plays as you manipulate small pieces of landmarks, clothes, and places in a 3D space around you. The satisfying click and glow as I put each small piece into its place was addictive.
I downloaded a few more games. Then a few more. Getting used to the headset didn’t come easy. The headset is much lighter and easier to use than older iterations, but it’s still heavy and awkward. Getting plopped down into empty space with no legs is still disorienting; I bought myself a big bag of the same ginger gummy chews I used to combat nausea during pregnancy.
Still, I persisted. In all honesty, I would not have if I were able to do literally anything else. A coworker suggested playing Beat Saber and FitXR. I organized a game of Blaston. My skeptical husband found that he also loved Puzzling Places, and my 6-year-old demanded a (short) turn. My 4-year-old still doesn't want to try it, but it's only a matter of time.
Nowhere to Go
The idea of sticking your children in virtual reality probably isn’t going to get me endorsed on many parenting blogs. I, too, would like my children to enjoy unfettered freedom; large, indoor birthday parties and reading hours at the library; and the company of their friends and family. We do the best we can. We go for walks by the river and go roller-skating at the park.
We go to bed on time. I cook dinner. We go on our daily stupid little walks. Outdoor gatherings are truncated because I live in Oregon, where sitting outside is often rainy, damp, chilly, and unpleasant, even if you have a fire pit and heat lamps.
Vaccinations and boosters are literal lifesavers, but my child still can't have them. I'm not even mad at being left behind as the vaccinated world moves on. Two years is a long time to go without restaurants, live concerts, and travel. I just can't justify the risk. My kids need school, and I need them to go.
The first time I downloaded Tilt Brush was the first time I was able to give my 6-year-old a truly new experience in a really long time. Her little mouth dropped open as she turned around and around. “I like it too much, I’m not getting out!” she declared. I cast the headset to the TV and could see her waving her hands in the dark, making flowers and hearts come to glowing life with her hands. It was amazing.
At this point, however, the bar is low. She hasn’t been on a plane to see her cousins since 2019. After she was vaccinated, I took her to a restaurant, and then to Target. The experiences filled her with awe. Years ago, we took them completely for granted.
Meanwhile, my son is still unvaccinated. The endless months stretch on and on. I don’t know how long it will be until the Quest 2 bores us, just as the piano now bores us, or the bread baking, or the roller skates, or any of the endless other ways we thought we would be able to make it through what we imagined would be at most a temporary disruption. The sun goes down, and the Oasis beckons. I just hope by the time we can get out of here, we’ll still want to.
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