We live in a multi-media culture. We’ve come a long, long way from the first video games like Pong and Pac-man. While we were fascinated by the “action” of these games, they pale in comparison to today’s virtual reality games. Whether sports or war, the characters look real and the action seems lifelike. It’s frightening when you think about it.
In August of 1995, my oldest daughter, Erin, attended Student Leadership University, hosted by Dr. Jay Strack. Part of the event included a behind-the-scenes tour of Disney World and Epcot. The students were shown the new concepts being developed for Innoventions. The guides randomly picked four people, two from our church youth group, and Erin was one of the four selected. While they made the other students wait outside, the guide took the four inside and explained what they would be doing and demonstrated how the virtual reality experience worked. They were getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse into what would ultimately become a part of Disney Quest. They were chosen to test ride the Aladdin virtual reality experience. While never leaving a “motorcycle” they each had a helmet placed on their heads. Inside the helmet was “virtual reality.” While sitting on the motorcycle, they were, in virtual reality, flying on a magic carpet through a marketplace.
We’ve spent a lot of time at Disney. Several years ago, our family spent time at Disney Quest, a virtual reality experience located at the Disney Village in Orlando. For several hours, we “rode the rides” and “fought aliens” without ever leaving the comfort of the air-conditioned building. The experience was exhilarating, exciting, and mentally exhausting.
Hayley and I “rode motorcycles” one day at a video arcade. I wiped out, killed a cop, ran over a pedestrian, ran into 15 cars and 7 buildings—and walked away without a scratch. I’ve been skiing and never been cold. I’ve flown a spaceship that tilted and turned. We love the Soaring ride at Epcot, as well as the Star Wars ride at Disney Studios, the Back to the Future ride at Universal, and a dozen others just like them. Why? It’s a “real life” experience.
I can play golf at Pebble Beach inside a small cubicle with a large screen. The game monitors my swing and I “play” Pebble Beach in about 45 minutes for $30. That’s a lot cheaper than the nearly $300 green fee. And I can say, “I played Pebble Beach.” Is this a great country or what? What will they think of next? I must say, having actually played Pebble Beach this past summer, the real thing is better than virtual golf.
There are virtual reality rides in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, and every resort location in America. While watching a movie, you twist and turn as if you were actually there. You can even feel your stomach drop when you take the plunge over the first hill of the roller coaster.
The most realistic games come complete with a virtual reality visor (the key to the success of Disney Quest). The visor looks more like a helmet, but inside there are small TV screens that make it possible for you to ‘see’ 360 degrees as you turn your head. The visor places you inside the game, not outside it. This technology is now a major part of many video games. These games allow you to be a part of a game with multiple scenarios that feels like real life. Technology is being developed even now that will evolve into a virtual reality suit. The clothing will be equipped with sensors that allow you to feel the game. Every sensation that you see, you will also feel.
Virtual reality is a billion dollar business in the entertainment field. It’s the ultimate flight simulator for the novice. People are paying hundreds of dollars for virtual experiences. Stores are full of games promising a virtual event in your own home. Virtual reality is an adrenalin rush.
Is there any danger to this new technology? Possibly. While getting the sensation of driving a car at 200 miles per hour, I don’t run the risk of injury or death. If I wreck the Harley (like I did), I don’t have to go to the emergency room. If I hit a ball in the water, I don’t lose it. If I crash into a tree, I haven’t offended an environmentalist.
This idea of a no risk, low cost, thrill-a-minute experience has its drawbacks. We are developing into a virtual reality culture. You don’t have any consequences to your choices. There are no real casualties. There is no real pain. All it costs you is time and a little money.
The problem is Americans want to feel the real thing without paying the real price. We want to feel like we’re taking a risk without actually taking one. Ultimately this attitude impacts the church and our faith. In a virtual reality culture, our members will want experiences that feel real but don’t cost much or involve any risk. J. I. Packer called it “hot tub religion.” We want the “old time religion” without paying the price of old time commitment. We want the results of an awakening and revival without having to change our lifestyle.
We could be headed for virtual religion. The membership will want to come to church and feel the buzz, get an adrenalin rush, and walk out without any lasting effects. The Christian culture is increasingly feelings oriented. We don’t want to talk much about the cost of discipleship. We shun the cross. We want the mountaintop if we get there without going through the valley.
When we come to church expecting one high after another, when the preacher is only as good as this week’s sermon or the music is only as good as the feeling I get when I hear it, we’re on the verge of virtual church. We could be dangerously close to playing “top the testimony” in a new virtual form. Sensations could become more important than substance. Feelings more important than faith. Virtual reality more important that reality.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is subtle and dangerous. We’ll be hurt in ways we can’t begin to understand. The Christian walk is not a ride you get off of when you feel like it. It is a long walk in the right direction—to a cross and death to self.