"Have you ever tried VR porn?" Vander Caballero asked me. The video game developer was trying to convince me of VR's potential to revolutionize intimacy. "Do you want to try it right now?"
Of course I said yes. Of course I did. It's hardly what I expected from my demo session of his new game, but you don't say "no" when a game developer offers you the opportunity to try VR porn. I know this from experience. (I don't know this from experience.)
Caballero was the creative director on the critically acclaimed puzzle game Papo & Yo. I'd just finished playing through the GDC demo of his new game, a Pokemon Snap-alike called Time Machine, in which you go back in time to get up close and personal with living, breathing dinosaurs. And I mean close. The game's main mechanic is scanning (in order to collect data about how reptiles lived back when they were still cool and gigantic), and it's frequently tense, sometimes terrifying. I was inches away from a sea-dwelling Pliosaurus' eye, and I'd have been megaton fish food if not for my ability to temporarily slow time while preparing dinosaurs' for their close-up.
It was really cool—not to mention one of the more unique, strangely intimate experiences I've had with VR—but I still had my reservations. Caballero wasn't fazed. He wanted to convince me that VR won't just take over games; it will take over our lives. He said he already uses his Samsung Gear VR headset on buses, trains, and planes. He transforms his commutes by going to other places. His journeys are destinations. Or when he's at home and his wife is sleeping, he can just strap on his headset and chill out in his own fully modeled movie theater.
That's when intimacy entered the picture. I suggested that it's kind of strange to hear Caballero—a person whose previous games have preached empathy, emotional intimacy, and understanding—rally behind habits that effectively cut him off from the rest of the world. I found it doubly strange because Caballero is such a warm, personable person. He grins frequently, he gestures broadly, he laughs easily. Conversations with him quickly take on their own sort of intimacy. He has a way of making people feel comfortable being open and honest, delving into topics that might not be in the realm of, for instance, a typical video game interview.
When faced with the idea that VR might—in certain cases—wall people off from each other, Caballero retorted that VR has the potential to put humanity into empathy overdrive, if applied correctly. Proximity, being close and connected to someone, the feeling that you could reach out and touch them if only there wasn't a wall of ones and zeroes in your way—that can be nearly as powerful as real life, he said.
Then came the porn. Not the type of intimacy I was thinking of, but sure!
Caballero handed me his Samsung Gear and opened a VR porn film he'd downloaded. It was a real person in a real environment—not a game engine—but I was able to look around at my leisure as the proceedings unfolded.
It was breakfast-themed. Sunlight lazily streamed into a white-walled kitchen as a red-haired woman stripped on a table that I—or my "avatar"—was seated at. Occasionally she took sips from a glass of orange juice because thematic consistency or something, I guess. As she slowly shrugged out of a thin white shirt, she frequently made eye contact with "me," whispered and giggled playfully, teased touch but witheld sensation.
She got close. Really close. If she were a real person, we'd have been nose-to-nose. It was weirdly uncomfortable. My brain—only partially aware that what it was experiencing wasn't real—surged its synapses with mixed signals, ones usually reserved for awkward encounters with actual humans. "Who is this person? You just met her. Why is she right in your face? Please step back please step back please step back she's not stepping back. Why can't you step back?" I could count the moments of eye contact in eternities, it felt so awkward.
I am sometimes scared of people—especially when I can't talk to them. VR porn triggered that reaction hardcore.
The illusion that she was a real human broke when she got even closer. My body was so confused by the lack of heat—no warm breath on the nape of my neck, not even a single heartbeat—that I felt it as a phantom sensation. I realized that I didn't feel like I was with another person so much as I was being "stroked" by the intangible ghost hand of some eerie automaton, a one-size-fits-all skeleton wearing intimacy's skin, paying no heed as said skin sloughed away to reveal its true nature.
Then she started eating her own underwear, and I wasn't into it at all. Apologies to folks who are into that, but it's not my thing.
Still, I couldn't deny that elements of the VR porn app were effective, even if only briefly. My brain believed it was dealing with another human being. It was really confusing and kinda weird, as a result. I couldn't deny that it prompted a strong reaction, though.
Later that day, I talked with someone else who'd also tried VR porn (albeit not with Vander Caballero; that is, to my knowledge, an honor only I can lay claim to), and his experience was totally different from mine. He explained:
"At first it felt surreal and disconnected, but I timed myself to get off at the same time she did," said this person, who preferred to remain anonymous. "And suddenly, I came, and we had that moment of [exhausted breathing sounds]. She was breathing at the same time. And then she looked me in the eye and leaned in and said, 'I love you, baby.' I was like, 'Wow, that was amazing.' And then I realized I'd only had that experience with a few girlfriends in my life. That's when I realized this shit is crazy. To connect with a human you need so many things, and this achieved it almost immediately. This girl was there with me, and she recognized me, and she appreciated me."
So that's really... something! There's no denying that this person had a powerful, intimate experience thanks to VR. It didn't necessarily assuage my fears that some people might use VR to become more reclusive—in some ways, it made me more apprehensive—but the whole experience convinced me that possible pros are just as numerous as possible cons. Who's to say what the social ramifications of such a young technology will be? Maybe we'll strap on VR goggles to be closer than ever before with people halfway across the world. Or maybe we'll use the tech to be millions of miles away from people while riding the same bus. Maybe we'll don them to avoid encountering people different than us—meeting strangers, learning to understand them—at all costs, or maybe we'll use them to inhabit their lives, literally take a walk in their shoes.
Maybe we'll stop having sex with each other. Maybe this is the end of humanity.
Fuck if I know. All I know for sure is, VR has the potential to cause widespread change, both in games and beyond. If nothing else, it will help you hide your porn better, seeing as it will be strapped to your face.
You thought I was gonna try to end with something more insightful, didn't you? Well, that's what you get for having expectations.
Illustration via Shutterstock.