Lockdown was a dark time. We were seperated from friends, from family, even from our work environments. The usual activities we’d do to escape from our homes were unavailable and actually illegal. It was a strange era, a weird point in time and space where the things we said and did now feel like they belong in an episode of Black Mirror.
I spent August to December of 2020 entirely alone. I saw a few friends a handful of times, but 99.9% of those months were spent companionless in a small flat in Bath. As an ordinarily solitary person, I didn’t think much of it on any given day. If you had asked me if I was lonely, I would have said no. Of course not. I can call anyone I need on my phone and I have friends on Discord I speak to almost every night. I stream too, three or four times a week to a community that loves me. I was fine, wasn’t I? Wasn’t I?
I started a new job in September of 2020 at a different site and dove into work. Between streaming and my normal job, most days were busy with writing or entertaining. Eventually I was asked to review a VR game and was sent a headset in December. The only VR gaming I had done previously was some Beat Saber on my brother’s PSVR so this would be intriguing.
I got the toy out of its box during the weekend. I let the system update during the morning while I had paced (as I usually do) around my flat collecting glasses, plumping pillows, and hoovering— cleaning so I would have room to play. And then I sat and put the headset on, adjusting it for comfort and defining the area in which I was free to move, making the settings my own.
When it finally took me to the home screen, to the game’s den, it took my breath away. I sighed, a long and continuous sigh I had held for longer than I knew. I was somewhere else. Finally I was ‘out’ of my flat.
The Oculus Quest 2 (or Meta Quest as it’s now become) has a start screen where you can sit in a living room far above a crimson valley. It’s inspired by tropical retreats, though entirely impossible as a realistic setting. But I could almost smell the trees. Almost.
I’m half Caribbean and forever hardwired into my brain is the view from my grandparents’ house in Grenada, looking out over the coast of the island. This is as close as I had felt to that, as close as I had felt to nature and to being somewhere else, anywhere else in months. I was breathing in air I could pretend was from another continent for a while. So I sat looking out over that pixelated horizon for maybe 30 minutes.
Dazed and a little embarrassed at how emotional I had become, I decided to look through the other easy features that the Quest provided. The game I was going to review was refusing to download so just getting familiar with the tech was the next priority until I could email someone on Monday.
I realised YouTube had some travel videos. Neat! I could get even further away from my flat. I mean the view from the home screen was nice and all but it did lack a little realism. I found one that walked the streets of Tokyo, a city I’d had the fortune of visiting before. Elated I sat and smiled as I got to see a new street, bustling with people at the dead of night. YouTube had not disappointed and, oh, what’s this? Adam Savage has a series tailored especially for the Quest, let’s check that out.
Savage’s show Tested had been adapted to the VR headset so you could look around at your surroundings as the Mythbuster worked on his projects. If you’ve ever watched Tested before you know how clever the host is, so what could be better than sitting and enjoying his little moments of genius in VR? So I loaded it up, ready to learn something about a drill bit I’ve not seen before.
And then Adam Savage did something no one else had done in a very long time. Adam Savage looked me in the eye. The Mythbuster smiled as he gleefully explained whatever it was he was building and I was enamoured. Not by incredible skills but by someone talking to me. Someone speaking and looking at me in my eyes and smiling.
And then I started to cry.
It was the weirdest thing. I was crying. My tears were absorbed by the foam hugging my face as I was unable to wipe them away. Doing so would require removing the headset and breaking my contact with another person. Savage was there, being a human and having a conversation. It meant so much although he obviously wasn’t really in my flat. He wasn’t really talking to me. But for this moment, for this second in time, it was the closest thing I had to someone. Anyone.
When the video ended, I sighed again. I was satisfied with my interaction for all but a few seconds before feeling a little sick. Though I’ve not seen the movie, I had read Ready Player One years previously, and felt dirty confirming the possibility of a world like that to myself. A laughable dystopia where we all preferred headsets over real humans, for a moment, felt entirely possible. I took the headset off.
The sun had set. I was in a dark room, entirely alone once again. If you had somehow been able to look through the window at the moment, you’d see a young woman with bloodshot eyes and hair malformed by the pressure of a head strap, quietly sitting on a dining room chair. I sat in the dark for a moment longer, eerily aware that the brightest light I could see was from the glowing headset in my hands. Down below I hear a car pass. In my flat there is only my breathing and the inoffensive tinkling melody emanating from the Quest. Everything was so still and dark.
I realised then that the metaverse felt possible. If somehow you caught someone in a position like mine, entirely devoid of real human interaction and gave them an out, they’ll take it. Anything to be away from themselves. Even as happy as I am to be alone most of the time, months of being away from friends and from family had shaken me more than I had acknowledged. I was lonely. I was embarrassed to admit it but I was.
I never got to review that game. Myself and the PR never quite worked out what had gone wrong with the download, it just never worked. So I put away the Quest, changed by the power those two little screens held over me for that evening. I had got what it felt like to prefer a virtual world. And I’m scared to ever feel like that again.
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