Living Lives of Quiet Desperation in VR

Walden by Henry David Thoreau was a short book written on what it is to escape the toilsome confines and distracting hubbub of civilization in favor of simplicity and recommuning with nature. He warned that the mass of [humanity] are living lives of quiet desperation due to our prescribed roles in this fabrication called society and, by retreating to the Pond, put himself forward as a role model for voluntary retreat. Putting aside the damaging ecological effects of truly rural life and the fact that Thoreau often visited his friends/family whenever in need of a hot meal, the act of finding a quiet space for the sake of personal/social disambiguation can be a restorative one. And I think VR can help.

When asked, I’ve often said that one of my top reasons for enjoying VR is removing myself from the near constant interuptions to my own conscious stream coming in the form of smartphone notifications, etc. In VR environments, you have only yourself, the interface, and the resulting exchange. Social VR works similarly, just with the inclusion of other people with whom you’re free to be truly present. What happens in VR can sometimes be more impactful since we’re forced to focus only on it. I’ve recently heard this sentiment related to being alone with VR environments and their inhabitants repeated in a Voices of VR podcast with interviewee Amber Roy.

With that in mind, some developers are working to replicate the Earthly forms of holiday retreats in tourism applications while others invite self-determinism through the creation of environments in social VR platforms like High Fidelity or Anyland. Yet, there are cases of VR apps inviting users to face their demons by confronting their symbol for perpetual internment: the office/cubicle.

As the best selling VR game to date, Job Simulator quickly comes to mind for its tongue-in-cheek, Dilbert-esque portrayal of the office. It seemingly struck a nerve with audiences for its haphazard firings and nonsensical PPT presentations that make our own efforts comparatively meaningful.

Meanwhile, Squanchtendo and Crows Crows Crows reintroduce their theme of the windowless office, seen first in The Stanley Parable, by offering the free-to-play application Accounting. While this experience begins with an oppressive office environment, it takes a more nefarious turn as users learn that the only escapes from such ledger-riddled toil are murder, arson, and suicide.

A third example come The Cubicle, another free application locking users into a chest-high wall. Rather than dwell on superficial tasks (Job Simulator) or existential dread (Accounting), The Cubicle focuses on the environment itself, showing how a sour cocktail of sleep deprivation and intense mundanity might lead to nightmarish perversions of the space itself.

The themes of these three VR experiences can be described as the result of poor/regreted career choices in real life, but I wanted also to mention an app that introduces another theme associated with poor life choices or just bad luck. 6 x 9 gives us the briefest glimpse into the experience of solitary confinement in prison, allowing users to spend a few minutes in a 6 x 9 cell where real inmates will often spend years. The app is intended to educate users on the day-to-day reality of many people, so we might empathize with prisoners and speak on these topics from a place of understanding.

If anyone knows of any VR apps on real or metaphorical confinement and desperation, feel free to share them in the comment section.

And by the way, I didn’t mean to do a disservice to Thoreau earlier. Preserve nature!

Graduate of Cognitive Science, SocialVR Researcher/Designer/Enthusiast. Also, a Writer of Books and Father of One.