Rewatching Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s seminal novel about a future in which virtual reality is the real world has rekindled my interest in the book and film. Wade Watts, the film’s protagonist, is seen stumbling around a run-down trailer park before donning a headset. The Oasis, a virtual world where anyone can do, be, or look however they want, has lured most people away from reality’s crumbling ruins.
Back in 2013, if you’d asked me the same question, I’d have snorted and rattled off a laundry list of concerns raised by my more pessimistic colleagues. Our kids were playing with stuffed animals and I was sorting laundry while my husband donned the Meta Quest 2 VR headset and started playing 3D puzzling game Puzzling Places.
On Google’s Tilt Brush, a 3D drawing app for Android, my 6-year-old daughter spent half an hour creating a winter wonderland, including Lisa and Tom. My 4-year-old son sat spellbound as the image from the headset appeared on the television. When I came back from dinner, I noticed that my husband had put on his headset. When he was done, I told him to charge it because I was going to play a few new games with my coworker in an hour.
In the middle of Oregon’s rainy winter, during a global pandemic, being a parent of an unvaccinated 4-year-old has been a real challenge. We’ve cancelled swimming and gymnastics lessons, as well as playdates, for my children, who attend both school and daycare.
Our lockdown has been extended indefinitely thanks to virtual reality—until my son is vaccinated. I also… I’m not sure if I like it?
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A Glimmer of Hope
It wasn’t always like this. In November, I borrowed a Meta Quest 2 from a coworker to try out coworking and briefings. I found the headset unsatisfactory whether I was using it for work or pleasure. Taking my dog for a walk or going for a jog is my preferred method of meditative exercise. My husband exclaimed, “The killer app is reality!” when he saw the headset sitting unused on my desk for a month.
As the Omicron surge raged, we reinstituted strict social distancing to protect the elderly members of my family from being harmed by our closeness. I downloaded Puzzling Places one night when I was cooped up in my house with no way to get away from everyone I cared about. As you move around a 3D environment, manipulating small pieces of landmarks, clothing, and other objects, soothing music plays in the background. I became addicted to the satisfying click and glow of each small piece being inserted into its proper place.
I added a few more games to my collection. After that, a few more were added. It took some time for me to get used to the headset. The headset is lighter and more user-friendly than previous versions, but it is still cumbersome and uncomfortable to wear. When I was pregnant, ginger gummy chews helped me deal with nausea, so I bought myself a large bag of them now that I’m unable to walk.
Trapped In Metaverse
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.