What is Progress?
Right now, my kids are at a nearby creek catching toads, wading through mud, getting sweaty, excited, curious, and happy. If I imagine the world 20 years from now, I wonder if all of these experiences will be virtual. I recently had the great pleasure of trying out a demo of the HTC Vive virtual reality headset when my brother-in-law Todd Harris generously gave me a tour of Hi-Rez studios to help me learn about the gaming industry. It’s pretty difficult to adequately describe the VR experience, but there were 2 big lessons I learned from it:
1. The future is here.
Everyone knows some form of virtual or augmented reality will someday be a large part of our lives. What I didn’t realize is that the optics and processing are so good now that this future is here, today. Sure, not many people have these headsets today, since they just came out this year. But they are now on the market at a price some can afford. Remember the first kid on your block to get a Nintendo? Perhaps not, because he or she was only the coolest kid on the block for about a week, until every kid cried, begged, and screamed to get one. This too will happen soon and even parents who can’t afford a VR headset will find a way.
2. What you see and hear is more important than what you know to be true.
Somehow the optics have gotten so good that you’re not looking at a screen, you are instantly inside a different world. It makes you step back and realize how our eyes don’t really see an object, but merely sense photons that we believe come from an object because that’s how our brains interpret those signals. Wherever you fall on the debate as to whether there really is an objective reality we’re sensing, when you put on that headset there’s no denying how easily our brains can be fooled. Logically I knew I had a headset on, but my logic didn’t change my perception that I was underwater gaping at the awesome immensity of a Blue Whale who was swimming by, looking back at me. It was breathtaking, and that’s a word I could never use to describe an HD movie scene, or an IMAX 3D experience. Those technologies are now completely obsolete.
So what does this mean? Entertainment is about to take a powerful leap, giving us all a sugar rush of excitement, but after the rush is gone, where will we be?
My dad gave me the best financial advice when I was about to graduate college, and I’ve relayed this advice, unsolicited, to every intern I’ve worked with in my career. Start saving a large chunk of your income (i.e. maxing out your 401K) starting on your first day of work. It’s the only time in your life where you won’t notice anything missing. If you don’t save that 15%, in a few weeks after your first paycheck, you’ll expect, and somehow need, all of that money. Our standard of living adjusts very quickly, and our income only adjusts when we first make a real paycheck.
Virtual reality, like the rise of smartphones, will change our standard of living, but if increased happiness is our measure of progress, then after we’ve adjusted to the new standard, we will likely not have progressed at all.
Will my grandchildren ever catch toads in a creek? Would you if you could stay in an air-conditioned room and join all of your friends and cousins to play in a virtual creek full of magical beings? Where you could jump in, set the temperature of the water, and choose how muddy you’d like to get. Where catching the elusive glowing toad gives you superpowers, and lets you take on his abilities, spitting loads of gooey slime all over your friends. Where spiders and snakes are there for a thrill, but their bite is just a passing pinch. Where you can explore a different creek every day and everything you see can be chopped down, lit on fire, or used to build a fort.
Perhaps, to find happiness, what we need is not something that entertains us better, but an improved capacity to find happiness with whatever we have. Perhaps that 15% we should save is analogous to time we should spend doing things that are hard, where we struggle to build something, or to get somewhere. Where we build up our capacity to deal with stress, discomfort, boredom, and inefficiency.
In 10 or perhaps 20 years we will spend more time in the virtual universe than in the physical one. Game designers will be the new architects, governments, and gods of our virtual existence. I’m trying to spend more time away from screens, with my kids, in a creek, on a field, or in a pool, but as a game designer it’s increasingly difficult. Still I find no point in fighting against the inevitable, so as I build a virtual experience I’m keeping that 15% in mind. I’m building a game where you can fail and recover, but failures have real consequences. Where in lieu of physical stress, gamers will at least be stressed mentally to balance a number of factors, think strategically, and have patience. Too much of this and no one will want to play, but the right amount might entice people seeking a challenge away from the mindless time suck of a game like Candy Crush, towards the creative, exploratory experience of a game like Minecraft (yeah, I know, still a time-suck).
So what is progress? It’s worth noting that standard definitions of the word “progress” describe forward movement towards a goal. There’s no mention of something getting better, or improving over time. The question of whether something is “better” comes from the subjective measure of the goal. Capitalism tells us that progress comes from the goals of making faster, cheaper, smarter products that make money for shareholders. So progress can be seen as the inevitable current of change towards the goals of powerful entities. We’re living in a game of Monopoly where even the winners don’t know or care much about what happiness is. Progress is not about good winning over bad, but the ever-changing game of making money and power.
So it’s up to us to think about our goals, to ask ourselves what really makes us happy, and to teach our children how to think about goals before consumerism convinces them that their happiness will be found in their next Shopkins purchase. To do my part, as my son’s birthday approaches, I’m getting him a roll of duct tape, cardboard, a whittling knife, and balsa wood. My wife is giving in and getting him a bunch of used Shopkins knockoffs on Ebay (I still love you, sweetie) Note: Please ignore this advice when purchasing Robocto, the game that will give you a life of happiness and fulfillment.