Can virtual-reality headsets pose addiction risks for gamers?

A mental-health professional in Windsor, Ont., is concerned virtual reality may soon cause addiction problems in real life.

'An individual chooses to isolate with their game ... at the expense of their relationships,' expert says

Shawn Rumble, an addictions specialist at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare in Windsor, Ont., fears that virtual-reality headsets may factor into people becoming addicted to various games and platforms. (CBC)

Over the decades, the dangers of virtual reality have served as the backbone of many science-fiction stories.

In the 1950s, Ray Bradbury's The Veldt told the story of two young children who became addicted to a device that turns whatever they imagine into a reality.

Four decades later, a crew member on Star Trek: The Next Generation got addicted to the Holodeck, a virtual-reality space where he confronted the frustrations he held with co-workers.

In the 2008 movie WALL·E, future humans spend their lives sitting in chairs, interacting with everything through screens, as they became highly immersed in the media in front of them.

All of these fictional stories drew some kind of link between virtual reality and addiction.

Today, a mental-health professional in Windsor, Ont., is concerned virtual reality may soon cause addiction problems in real life.

Google Cardboard lets a person with a smartphone cheaply experience virtual reality. (CBC)

"Virtual reality headsets are of a concern because there is a high likelihood that there will be individuals that will become dependent on that game or platform of choice," Shawn Rumble, an addictions therapist, told CBC Radio's Afternoon Drive in a recent interview.

Rumble pointed to a device known as Google Cardboard, which lets a person with a smartphone cheaply experience virtual reality.

He describes the device and app as "the poor man's virtual-reality headset."

Essentially, it's a smartphone holder and headset, which is made mostly of cardboard. But it helps create an environment where a user can immerse his or herself in a virtual-reality setting.

A Google spokeswoman told CBC News in an email that Cardboard "is about making fun VR experiences available to everyone in a simple, fun, and affordable way."

The technology company says Cardboard has been designed to be used for short periods of time.

Google also says it is "always talking to experts about the safety of using Google Cardboard."

'1 step closer'

Yet Rumble said that this and other similar technologies may become a problem for those who are already having issues with game playing.

"It's just one step closer to quote-unquote 'addiction,' it's that much more accessible for individuals," said Rumble.

In his work, Rumble already meets people from many walks of life who are struggling with the role of gaming in their lives. He said they are often adults, a fact he said surprises many people.

Shaun Byrne, the CEO of eSport Gaming Events, thinks some games have a greater potential to cause addiction issues than others. (CBC)

Rumble said virtual reality creates a more isolating environment for a person.

"An individual chooses to isolate with their game or drug of choice at the expense of their relationships with others," he said. "And so, that's very concerning for myself as a therapist and as an educator."

Shaun Byrne, the president of the Windsor-based eSport Gaming Events, told CBC News that he believes some types of games — multiplayer, online, role-playing games, in particular — may be more likely to spur addiction issues than others.

Byrne said he can see how the use of virtual reality could make these same types of games more enticing for users.

"You know, virtual reality could take that to the next level, where you're able to actually just engross yourself in a new environment and you know really isolate yourself from the rest of your life," he said.

With files from the CBC's Joana Draghici and Shaun Malley


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