In order to feel good, humans require interaction with nature. We have a genetically based affiliation with the natural world—a primal desire for the outdoors known as biophilia. This phenomenon describes our urge to connect with other life forms and manifests itself in our love of gardening and camping to owning pets, gifting flowers, and even selecting waterfall wallpapers for our smartphone backgrounds.
The link between the environment and the health of the human mind is a growing subfield of psychology, and research shows clear evidence linking the physical world to the health of our mental world. For example, studies have found that exposure to nature helps reduce our stress levels, restores energy and mental focus, prevents depression, and aids healing of physical ailments, while too little exposure fosters anxiety, despair, numbness, and abstract grief.
But many people don’t have access to these green, feel-good settings. More than half the world’s population currently lives in cities, where it can be hard to access nature in the quantities needed for optimal physical and psychological wellbeing. By 2050, the UN predicts that 70% of Earth’s population will live in urban areas. And with urbanization often comes more environmental destruction, which will only take us further away from the natural world.
In lieu of the real thing, humans are gravitating toward “technological nature”: man-made wildness consumed in the form of nature documentaries, video games, and VR stimulations. There are a growing number of media and technologies that mediate, augment, or simulate the natural world, from dreamy VR video games to 12-hour livestreams of Norwegian tidal currents. But can technological nature have the same benefits as a walk in the woods for ecologically alienated city-dwellers?
In 2008, Peter Kahn, a director of the Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems (HINTS) laboratory at the University of Washington and author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life, embarked on a project to determine how our proximity to nature affects us. He compared how workers felt in offices either with no window, a window with a view of the outdoors, or a 50-inch plasma-display television ‘‘window’’ streaming a high-definition, real-time view of the outdoors. Surprisingly, he found workers who looked at the plasma windows benefited in terms of their psychological wellbeing and cognitive function, even though the workers knew the scene wasn’t real. The plasma “windows” weren’t as effective as the glass windows facing the trees, of course, but they were significantly better than nothing.
The futuristic concept of choosing to experience nature virtually shouldn’t be too much of a stretch from our current-day behaviors. After all, we already love watching nature on a screen. BBC’s Planet Earth II, which was found to spark joy and lower anxiety in viewers, was the company’s highest performing show of 2016 and was also the most watched nature documentary in the last 15 years. In the gaming world, two of the 2017’s most critically acclaimed games, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn, involve the free exploration of gorgeous forests and mountains; the latter’s environment is even directly inspired by the Planet Earth series.
“Very few people are privileged enough to go and visit the awesome natural sites that inspired the world of Horizon Zero Dawn,” says Jan-Bart van Beek, the studio art director at Guerrilla Games who produced the game. “There aren’t many places featuring raw, untamed wilderness left on Earth anymore. The ones that do exist are often hard to visit but are really breathtaking, tending to fill visitors with a sense of awe and appreciation for the natural world. That’s what we wanted to give to our players: a virtual vacation to a wilder, more beautiful world.” For those who don’t seek adrenaline from nature, other virtual experiences aim to instill a sense of calm instead: A PC game was even just released in which the player is Henry David Thoreau achieving spiritual fulfilment by Walden pond.
While indirectly experiencing nature via technology has its merits—and is better than no exposure to nature at all—there is something sinister about thinking we can try to replicate the real thing. Technological nature changes the primitive relationship humans have with their environment, and once that starts to shift, there may be no turning back.
“One of the most common and insidious misconceptions [about technological nature] is that people see the benefits but not the costs,” Kahn says. We become divorced from the visceral experience of being a body in an environment, from our instincts and senses, and from an interaction with nature’s innate energy. If our experience of the wild is compromised by the spectacle of technological nature, we may stop developing positive associations with the environment in the first place.
“Games are fun, but to suggest kids should be immersed in them as opposed to being immersed in the forest presents a challenge,” adds author and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Wade Davis. “With technology you can create any infinite possibilities—you could create a situation where in a woodland a jaguar would come up and lick your cheek—but then does that become the benchmark for what nature should be, so that when someone goes into nature, it becomes almost a letdown?”
While the producers of nature documentaries, immersive video games, and VR experiences may hope their creations will lead people to cultivate a deeper appreciation of nature, their dilemma is that their products can only reference virtual nature up against the lived experience of walking in a forest or watching swallows fly. For these virtual experiences to have their desired effects, we need to feel the real version, too. “The realistic ideal is that we employ technological nature as a bonus on actual nature, not as its substitute,” Kahn says.
If we come to rely upon technological nature instead of the real thing, we might lose awareness of what it’s mimicking. Instead, vibrant nature is a primal key to our happiness, and digital replicas are merely reminders of how remarkable—and inimitable—true beauty is.