I did virtual reality before it was cool – Patricia Minger

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By Patricia Minger

I have climbed Everest. Over a dozen times. And Denali, too. I have wrestled the rapids of the Boh in deepest Borneo, and balanced on the spine of the western United States on the Pacific Crest Trail. By now you must think I am some badass adrenalin junkie.

What if I told you that I also hunted a vampire in 19th century London after growing up on the prairies of the Midwest? That I have fallen in love dozens, no, hundreds of times? That over and over I lost my parents, my children, my lovers and friends, travelers on the same journey? I’ve flown through the stars on a ship who sang.

You are correct: I have done, and been, none of these things. Yet I have experienced all of them through an ancient ritual of virtual reality: storytelling.

Fiction and memoir are the original experience of virtual reality, and they are still, in my mind, the most captivating. What is missing from the ever more sophisticated virtual reality platforms of today is the emotional connection that make us long to get into the skin of another person.

Don’t mistake me; I could really enjoy landing a jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier, or battling an intergalactic menace. It would be challenging and fun, in the way that mastering any skill can be. But it is a skill. The emotional engagement consists of fear or excitement, but rarely goes beyond the adrenalin of these states.

Novels and memoirs draw us deeper into the human experience. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild describes her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, but also explores her inner journey, shaped and highlighted by her physical trials. The most riveting accounts of the ascent of Everest always have a larger human story to set the challenges in perspective. The loved ones at home, the human error or hubris that leads to tragedy, or the perseverance that leads to triumph, are far more fascinating that the lack of oxygen and the sub-zero temperatures, the serendipity of the universe that chooses who lives and who dies.

The might novel Shantaram leads us into the very heart of the poorest places in Mumbai, and into the dangers of smuggling and gunrunning. Lives are constantly at stake, and they are lives we have come to care about in the telling of personal stories. It is a certain contrast to the tallies of generic dead in war games, and on the evening news.

There is no virtual reality equivalent for the burdens and joys of quieter stories. We no longer live in multi-generational homes, often families are scattered across the country if not the globe. More than ever we need to hear the voices of our parents and our contemporaries as they struggle to find meaning in life, or care for elderly relatives, or despair over a child who has fallen prey to drugs. We need to hear these stories in order to understand that we are never alone in our trials. And we need to hear these stories to be uplifted.

Today we are ever more isolated, in spite of being more connected. To me, this paradox exists in part because as we try to assimilate the global world, the numbers are too great, and everything becomes generic, artificial. It is very hard to care in any meaningful way about thousands of refugees, or hundreds of homeless people, or troops killed in a battle half a world away. Our senses are dulled, and the meaning of an individual life is diminished, both by the never-ending stream of death on the news, and the fact that entertainment has made risk and death impermanent and without consequence.

Virtual reality can touch every one of our senses except our hearts. We learn to embrace compassion and respect from stories, not from events, no matter how cataclysmic. To take an example that bridges both ends of the spectrum, the Marvel Comics Avenger movie series is filled with amazing 3D and IMAX adrenalin-producing scenes. But what brings us back, what keeps us speculating and analyzing and anticipating the follow-up? Is it the hope for one more way to destroy New York? No, I think in the long run it is the emotional arc of each character. We care, not because the explosions were exciting, or the landscape was spectacular, but because the characters touch us, intrigue us, speak for us. We long for characters that look like us and live like us, not because we want to see them get blown up, but because we want them to live to fight another day.

Apparently people are reading less. That is most unfortunate. I say that not because I am a writer, but because I think we still need to engage in the virtual reality of storytelling in order to make sense of a world filled with people like ourselves. When we experience loving and yearning, aching and grieving, and exaltation and satisfaction in the company of characters or writers who speak our language, it reminds us that individuals matter. It equips us to engage with our neighbors. And that is essential to making sense of the enormity of the information we are now asked to process.

Pick up a book. Read it to your child. Let it take you into a life you haven’t.

Patricia Minger grew up in Oakland, California. She earned her BA in English from UC Berkeley, spending her junior year abroad in Stirling, Scotland. Since then she has taken novel-writing courses from both UC Berkeley and Stanford University and participated in a week-long workshop with New York Times best-seller Elizabeth George. Magic Flute was a finalist in the 2012 San Francisco Writers Conference Indie competition. She currently lives in Northern California and is working on her second novel, about a small town at the foot of a big mountain.


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