Ever since I started researching into technological addictions, I have always speculated that ‘virtual reality addiction’ was something that psychologists would need to keep an eye on. In 1995, I coined the term ‘technological addictions’ in a paper of the same name in the journal Clinical Psychology Forum. In the conclusions of that paper I asserted:
“There is little doubt that activities involving person-machine interactivity are here to stay and that with the introduction of such things [as] virtual reality consoles, the number of potential technological addictions (and addicts) will increase. Although there is little empirical evidence for technological addictions as clinical entities at present, extrapolations from research into fruit machine addiction and the exploratory research into video game addiction suggest that they do (and will) exist”.
Although I wrote the paper over 20 years ago, there is little scientific evidence (as yet) that individuals have become addicted to virtual reality (VR). However, that is probably more to do with the fact that – until very recently – there had been little in the way of affordable VR headsets. (I ought to just add that when I use the term ‘VR addiction’ what I am really talking about is addiction to the applications that can be utilized via VR hardware rather than the VR hardware itself).
VR’s potential in mass commercial markets appears to be finally taking off because of mass-produced affordable hardware such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and the (ultra-cheap) Google Cardboard (in which a smartphone can be inserted into cardboard VR headset frame). Last year, a report by the marketing and consulting company Tractica claimed that spending on virtual reality hardware could be as much as $21.8 billion (US) by 2020. A more recent report by online and digital market research company Juniper estimated that global sales of VR headsets would rise from 3 million in 2016 to 30 million by 2020. Three markets are likely drive sales, and they all happen to be areas that I research into from an addiction perspective – video gaming, gambling, and sex. I’ve noted in many of my academic papers over the years (particularly my early papers on online gambling addiction and online sex addiction) that when new technological advances occur, the sex and gambling industries always appear to be the first to invest and produce commercial products and services using such technologies, and VR is no different. As an online article in Wareable by Dan Sung on VR sex noted:
“What [VR] headsets offer is immersion; 180-degree (or more), stereoscopic action with you as the star of the show and the adult actors and actresses looking deep and lustfully into your eyes as they tend to your genitalia. It’s small wonder that users have been donning their headsets and earphones in numbers and praying to their god that nobody walks in. Yet gambling and porn are synonymous with addiction, and increasingly, questions are being asked about whether the VR revolution could finally ensnare us humans into virtual worlds”.
I was interviewed by Sung for the same article and I made a number of different observations about VR sex. I commented that in terms of people feeling reinforced, aroused, rewarded, sex is the ultimate in things that are potentially addictive. Sex is one of those activities that is highly reinforcing, it’s highly rewarding and how people feel is probably better than the highs and buzzes from other behaviours. Theoretically, I can see that VR sex addiction would be possible but I don’t think it’s going to be on the same scale as other more traditional addictions. The thing about VR (and VR sex) – and similarly to the internet – is that it’s non-face-to-face, it’s non-threatening, it’s destigmatising, and it’s non-alienating. VR sex could be like that whether it’s with fictitious partners, someone that you’re actually into, or someone that you’ve never met before. Where VR sex is concerned, if you can create a celebrity in a totally fictitious way, that will happen. There may be celebrities out there that will actually endorse this and can make money and commercialise themselves to do that. It can work both ways. Some people might find it creepy while others might see something they can make money from.
In one of my previous blogs I looked at the area of ‘teledildonics’, a VR technology that has been around for over two decades (in fact I was first interviewed on this topic on a 1993 Channel 4 television programme called Checkout ’93). Dan Sung also interviewed Kyle Machulis who runs the Metafetish teledildonics website for his article. He said that in relation to VR sex there is a problem with haptics (i.e., the science of applying tactile sensation and control to interaction with computer applications):
“We’re good on video and audio but haptics is a really, really hard problem…A lot of toys out there right now are horrible and it’s very hard to come up with something quality. So, instead, what the porn industry is aiming for right now is immersion. It may not feel better but they’re so much closer to the action that it may be better, and I think we’re on the cusp of that right now.” First, we need consumer hardware. We need things to be released and available to customers to see if it’s really going to take off or not. But when this happens – late this year, the beginning of next – as soon as the headsets are available, the media is ready and waiting…Of course, there’s straight women, gay men and gay women to develop for too but, for a lot of people, the perfect porn experience is doing something that’s not even physically possible – either through the laws of physics or the laws of land, and that’s something that only VR can solve…Even so, what we saw in teledildonics in gaming is that people used them to begin with but there’s always a lot of fall off with new technologies like this. So, there’s going to be a hardcore set of people who stay with VR porn but it’s hard to say how popular it will be beyond that. We’re all still guessing at the moment. This time next year it will be a completely different story”.
Another area that we will need to monitor is how the gambling industry will harness VR technology. The most obvious application of VR in the gambling world is in the online gambling sector. I can imagine some online gamblers wanting their gambling experiences to be more immersive and for their online gambling sessions to be more akin to gambling offline surrounded by the sights and sounds of an offline gambling venue. There is no technical reason that I know of why people that gamble via their computers, laptops, smartphones or tablets could not wear VR headsets and be playing poker opposite a virtual opponent while still sat on the sofa at home. As Paul Swaddle (CEO of Pocket App) noted in a recent issue of Gambling Insider:
We already know that participation in online gambling is snowballing, so if the entertainment industry can use VR to simulate the experience of being inside a video game, or social media sites can give you the opportunity to not just see your friends’ pictures, but to walk through them, why shouldn’t online casinos be able to do the same? VR may actually be the hook that mobile and online casinos need to draw in more millennials, with the average age of players in mobile casinos currently being 40 [years old], and the average age of mobile gamblers in general being 35 [years old]. Millennials simply aren’t engaging with mobile and online casinos to the same extent as older generations, and I suspect that this is down to younger players being much more used to immersive and sociable gaming, as a result of the cutting-edge developments that are being constantly rolled out in the video gaming industry”.
I agree with Swaddle’s observations as the gambling industry are constantly thinking about the ways to bring in newer players. Today’s modern screenagers love technology and do not appear to have any hang-ups about using wearable technology including Fitbit and the Apple Watch. As Swaddle goes on to say:
“By using VR technology to transport players and their friends to exciting locations for their online gambling experience, such as a famous casino in Las Vegas, or a smoky basement room in 1920s New York, or even to the poker table in the James Bond film Casino Royale, mobile and online casinos may stand a better chance of drawing in younger audiences if they use VR to gamify the casino experience”.
Again, this makes a lot of sense to me and I wouldn’t bet against this happening. Swaddle thinks that such VR gambling experiences will become commonplace in the years to come and that the gambling industry needs to get on the VR bandwagon now.
Perhaps of most psychological concern is the use of VR in video gaming. There is a small minority of players out there who are already experiencing genuine addictions to online gaming. VR takes immersive gaming to the next level, and for those that use games as a method of coping and escape from the problems they have in the real world it’s not hard to see how a minority of individuals will prefer to spend a significant amount of their waking time in VR environments rather than their real life.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Ashcroft, S. (2015). VR revenue to hit $21.8 billion by 2020. Wareable, July 29. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-revenues-could-reach-dollar-218-billion-by-2020-1451
Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.
Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Gambling on the internet: A brief note. Journal of Gambling Studies, 12, 471-474.
Griffiths, M.D. (2001). Sex on the internet: Observations and implications for sex addiction. Journal of Sex Research, 38, 333-342.
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.
Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Internet sex addiction: A review of empirical research. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 111-124.
Griffiths, M.D., Király, O., M. Pontes, H.M. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.27-55). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Juniper Research (2016). White paper: The rise of virtual reality. Available from: http://www.juniperresearch.com/document-library/white-papers/the-rise-of-virtual-reality
Király, O., Nagygyörgy, K., Koronczai, B., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Assessment of problematic internet use and online video gaming. An overview of problematic gaming. In Starcevic, V. & Aboujaoude, E. (Eds.), Mental Health in the Digital Age: Grave Dangers, Great Promise (pp.46-68). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stables, J. (2016). Gambling, gaming and porn: Research says VR is set to blast off. Wareable, September 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/gaming-gambling-and-porn-research-says-vr-is-set-to-blast-off-1682
Swaddle, P. (2016). Is virtual reality the future of mobile and online gambling? Gambling Insider, 23, June 3, p.9
Sung, D. (2015). VR and vice: Are we heading for mass addiction to virtual reality fantasies? Wareable, October 15. Located at: http://www.wareable.com/vr/vr-and-vice-9232
Tractica (2015). Virtual reality for consumer markets. Available at: https://www.tractica.com/research/virtual-reality-for-consumer-markets/
“Online sexual activities no longer are restricted to text, pictures, videos, webcams, and audio. Nowadays, while still in its infancy, we have teledildonics. Teledildonics is essentially a virtual reality application that allows individuals to have sex interactively with people miles away. At present, mobile phones can call up and activate internally worn vibrators. Futurists have dreamed up many other potential ways that technology can be used to pleasure people. In the future, we expect that full body suits will exist that will be able to stimulate all five senses” (Whitty & Fisher, 2008).
“Virtual Reality, or interactive graphical simulations, has been clearly demarcated by the owners of the means of production as an almost exclusively masculine enclave. Almost all applications (at least those that are marketable) respond to specifically male needs, be they physical, emotional, recreational, technical, military or sexual. As with most current Internet commercial activity, female exploitative, male-targeting pornography (‘phallocratic’ applications) will dwarf other applications by the sheer volume of activity. “Teledildonics” (from dildo: artificial penis) will provide unimagined, unlimited and customisable sexual services to male clients” (Walberg, 2006).
“[Male clients will be able to] wriggle into a condom-tight body suit embedded with thousands of miniature electronic sensors, computer controlled to simulate the feel of any object from rubber to skin. Suitably protected participants could then interface sexually with any partner, real, imaginary, or re-created” (McKie, 1994)
“[Teledildonics is] the virtual-reality technology that may one day allow people wearing special bodysuits, headgear and gloves to engage in tactile sexual relations from separate, remote locations via computers connected to phone lines” (Chicago Tribune, 1993).
“Futurologists are predicting drugs which sort out every kind of sexual malfunction and switch libido on and off like a light, ‘teledildos’ operated by computer for those who like to be probed from afar and underwear packed with sensors for couples bored with the limitations of current video games” (Twinn, 2007).
As these opening quotes demonstrate, visions of sex in the future are commonplace and often mention ‘teledildonics’. According to Wikipedia, the term ‘teledildonics’ was coined by hypertext inventor Ted Nelson in his 1974 self-published book Computer Lib/Dream Machines. In his book, Nelson hypothetically described a computer system that could translate sound waves into tactile sensations that could be affected in or on the body via user-operated stimulator device (i.e., a wired sensor system that was capable of converting sound into tactile sensations). However, a short article written by Charles Platt describes a teledildonic hardware device (but does not use the term itself):
“Many men display more affection for their cars than their wives; perhaps the ultimate love-object could be a plastic thing, with many alternative orifices, offering various tactile qualities, shapes and depths…The idea of something like a long sausage, vibrating softly, full of warm treacle, has certain attractions as a sexual toy”.
More recently, it was Howard Rheingold’s essay ‘Teledildonics: Reach Out and Touch Someone’ in a 1990 issue of the cyberculture magazine Mondo 2000 that popularized the concept and is viewed by many as a ‘must read’ for anyone (as Jane Fader asserts) “interested in the intersection of sex and technology, social networks and identity, or history of thought”. I first came across the word in 1993 when I appeared on a Channel 4 television documentary talking about video game sexploitation (in fact, Dr. Anil Aggrawal in his 2009 book Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices defines ‘teledildonics’ as “sexual arousal from computer sex games”). The online Urban Dictionary defines it as the “computer-mediated sexual interaction between the [virtual reality] presences of two humans”. Alternatively, Wikipedia claims that teledildonics refers to:
“…electronic sex toys that can be controlled by a computer to reach orgasm. Promoters of these devices have claimed since the 1980s they are the ‘next big thing’ in cybersex technology. ‘Teledildonics’ can also refer to the integration of telepresence with sex that these toys make possible. In its original conception, this technology was to have been used for remote sex (or, at least, remote mutual masturbation) where the physical sensations of touch could be transmitted over a data link between the participants. Sex toys that can be manipulated remotely by another party are currently coming onto the market”.
For Rob Baedeker, author of the article ‘Virtual Sex’ on the Web MD website, teledildonics (or cyberdildonics as he also calls it) simply relates to any sex toy that can be controlled via a computer. To give an example, Baedeker describes a wireless vibrator called the ‘Sinulator’ that works via an online application controlled by somebody other than the person that physically has the vibrator. He also describes the ‘Interactive Fleshlight’ corollary – “a penis sleeve for men that transmits in-and-out action into vibrations for the Sinulator on the other end”. For his article, Baedeker interviewed Regina Lynn, author of Sexual Revolution 2.0 who in relation to teledildonics was quoted as saying:
“It’s not sex but it is sex I don’t like the phrase ‘virtual sex’ because it trivializes the experience. There are many ways to share sex with people in virtual spaces, and you still have to communicate to the other person what you like and don’t like. It’s such a mental and emotional experience. That’s part of what turns people on”.
However, now that we have Skype where couples can have mutual masturbation sessions with each other real-time and face-to-face, it does beg the question whether teledildonics has a future. It will ultimately come down to whether individuals want and/or prefer tactile over visual cues from their sexual partner. As Antal Haans and Wijnand A. IJsselsteijn note in a 2009 conference paper they wrote on telepresence:
“Touching is an important part of our social interaction repertoire. Despite the significance of touch, current communication devices rely predominantly on vision and hearing. In recent years, however, several designers and researchers have developed prototypes that allow for mediated social touch; enabling people to touch each other over a distance by means of haptic and tactile feedback technology…Designers of such systems conjecture that the addition of a haptic or tactile communication channel will enrich mediated interactions, and generally refer to the symbolic and intrinsic (e.g., recovery from stress) functions of social touch, as well as to the supposed intimate nature of addressing the skin…Interestingly, in the domain of internet-based adult toys there are several commercial systems available that take advantage of combining tactile stimulation with visual feedback”.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Aggrawal A. (2009). Forensic and Medico-legal Aspects of Sexual Crimes and Unusual Sexual Practices. Boca Raton: CRC Press.
Baedeker, R. (2009). Everything you’ve been afraid to ask about sex in cyberspace. Web MD. Located at: http://www.webmd.com/men/features/virtual-sex
Cybersex (2014). Teledildonics. Located at: http://cybersex.wikispaces.com/Teledildonics
Castronova, E. (2009). Fertility and virtual reality. Washington & Lee Law Review, 66, 1085-1126.
Fader, J. (2010). ‘Teledildonics’ by Howard Rheingold. September 15. Located at: http://janefader.com/teledildonics-by-howard-rheingold-mondo-2000-1990/
Haans, A., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2009). I’m always Touched by Your Presence, Dear”: Combining mediated social touch with morphologically correct visual feedback. Proceedings of Presence 2009.
McKie, D. (1994). Cybersex, Lies and Computer Games. In Green, L. (Ed.), Framing Technology. NSW: Allen & Unwin.
Twinn, F. (2007). The Miscellany of Sex: Tantalizing Travels Through Love, Lust and Libido. London: Arcturus.
Walberg, S. (2006). The ideological and cultural processes that represent new communications technologies as’ masculine’. Located at: http://serge.walberg.tripod.com/GenderEssay.pdf
Whitty, M.T., & Fisher, W.A. (2008). The sexy side of the internet: An examination of sexual activities and materials in cyberspace. In A. Barak (Ed.), Psychological Aspects of Cyberspace: Theory, Research, Applications (pp. 185-208). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wikipedia (2014). Teledildonics. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teledildonics