Can Love Be Virtual?

Headsets, Heart-Strings, and Human Connection

Sam Bush / 2.14.22

With each passing year, the virtual reality industry seems to be on the cusp of world domination. The clunky Sega Genesis headgear of the 1990s has finally given way to the sleek, snow-white simulators of Meta 2. As this modern phenomenon picks up steam, there is already plenty of talk around how entire societies will exist in a digital realm. People will have virtual jobs, virtual relationships and virtual lives. No longer will Madonna be a material girl in a material world; in fact, there’s a chance we’ll all be completely simulated by the time she turns 90.

But this idea is nothing new. In fact, we’re already waist-deep in a virtual landscape. Take the Chinese hit mobile game Love and Producer which was downloaded more than 10 million times in its first two months. The game is free but customers (mostly women) can pay to develop a relationship with an imaginary lover — a CEO, a policeman, a scientist, a pop star. One customer bought a $39,000 billboard ad to wish her cyber sweetheart a happy birthday. Rather than being a sexual fantasy, the game was mostly used to fill a relational void. These fictional boyfriends weren’t stripping their undergarments so much as picking you up on their imaginary motorcycles and counting sheep on the pillow next to yours. With Love and Producer, one could get the emotional gratification of a relationship without having to be vulnerable to all the risks that come with human interaction. The stakes were nonexistent. Nothing lost, nothing gained, right?

To be clear, I don’t mean to knock the foibles of another culture. From Netflix to video games to pornography, many people login to a simulated reality on a daily basis in order to escape the here and now. You have your own quirky foibles and so do I, each of us grasping for a variety of crutches to get through life. One could make a case that, perhaps with a few exceptions, melancholy should be avoided by any means necessary. That said, it’s easy to see that something significant is lost when it comes to virtual companionship. We may be spared awkward first-dates and bitter breakups, but the pains of love are requisite in order to access love itself. We’ve seen firsthand how confusion between the real and the ideal hardly ever leads to a positive outcome.

It’s no coincidence that, as our social world has become increasingly virtual, we have been simultaneously losing our faith in each other. Traffic cameras and face recognition software were originally invented to provide a sense of security, but they have actually reaped the opposite. It seems we are more suspicious and skeptical — indeed, insecure — than ever before. Psychologically speaking, it is significantly more difficult to trust another person through a screen. If a person’s intent can often be misconstrued in a simple Zoom meeting or an email, our willingness to commit to a relationship in our digital age has also been weakened. The less we are able to pick up the more firsthand features of a person — their smell, their favorite literature, the pace at which they walk — we are more prone to distrust others than to trust them. The virtual world is far cleaner and more sterile than the natural world, but it is also far less fertile for things such as faith, hope and love.

The same year that the Love and Producer game was released, Father John Misty’s nihilistic hit, “Endless Entertainment Forever” described a virtually blissed out reality all too well. “No gods to rule us, no love to confuse us,” he sang, depicting a world in which everyone is plugged into a never-ending VR hub. “It’s like the images have all become real. Someone’s living my life for me out in the mirror.” As prophetic as these words sounded five years ago, who knew that they would cut that much deeper today. Having been semi-quarantined for half of the time since then, we have been gorging ourselves on images and information while being starved for love and compassion. Our cyber-lovers may help us feel better — they may ease the pain of fear and loneliness — but they function more like anesthetics than medicine.

The truth is that matter, well, matters. Taking a virtual tour through the Amazon rainforest may be preferable to taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood, but no amount of computer-generated reality can compete with the exhilaration of accidentally brushing hands with your crush. No amount of software can yet replicate the thousands of pieces of information our brain processes as we sit across the table from someone who makes us go weak at the knees. We may want to avoid all of the awkwardness of being a person in the world, but doing so would cause us to miss out on the very creatures in whom God delights so much.

Furthermore, pain, loss and suffering are all built into the framework of life. If they were to be surgically removed, reality itself would be lost along with them. That’s not to sound unfeeling, but, instead, clear-eyed and grounded. Having an accurate understanding that life involves suffering may prepare us for the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that are bound to come our way. As Hannah Arendt once said, “For mortals, the ‘easy life of the gods’ would be a lifeless life.” Thankfully, God’s own life can hardly be called easy. Not only did he subject himself to pain, but he understood it as a necessary means of expressing His love for us.

From my own experience, the spark of love ignites in a place of utter humanness. In a major sense, the inception of nearly every loving relationship is a flicker of grace where judgment was expected. If you have ever been in a loving relationship with someone — romantic or otherwise — it is likely you can trace the origin of your love for that person to a very human moment, full of vulnerability. Instead of turning away, that person turned towards you. They smiled with understanding when you expected a disapproving frown. They reached for your trembling hand and slowed your anxious heart. Those moments likely had nothing to do with deservedness and everything to do with belovedness. 

Perhaps this is why love is such a terrifying ordeal. When love is on the line, there is everything to lose or gain. As Robert Capon put it, “What is love if it is not the indulgence of the ultimate risk of giving one’s self to another over whom we have no control?” 

Every single expression of love involves more risk than a computer could ever replicate. There are an infinite number of ways to respond to a loving gesture just as there are endless ways to be wounded. Loving someone leaves you exposed to rejection, exclusion and injury, but there is a unique delight in being loved not for one’s strengths, but in one’s weakness, awkwardness, and shame. That moment of grace is the very thing that sparks one’s desire to be with another person. It’s the spark to which a loving relationship returns to again and again. No VR headset necessary.

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One response to “Can Love Be Virtual?”

  1. […] Gnosticism with two parts Matrix and a dash of A Brave New World, and you have a recipe for a sci-fi dystopia. I would love to see a rebrand of the VR headset to highlight how we can connect with people at a […]

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