A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a video from a YouTube tech review channel called Unbox Therapy, showcasing a custom-made PC gaming station that costs more than $30,000. The video, which is seven minutes long and is shot in a warehouse, begins, for some reason, with a Stephen Hawking quote.
“I am very aware of the preciousness of time,” Hawking’s voice states in the video’s cosmic introduction, “I have spent my life travelling across the universe in my mind.”
A dizzying flurry of quick cuts follows, typifying the frenetic editing motif that’s popular among those who create content for the attention-fried. The rig’s cockpit-like design features a reclining chair, a foot-massager, four monitors, top-of-the-line headphones, an adjustable weighted mouse, and a keyboard called an M750, all from companies with names that make them sound like defense contractors. Xidax. Steel Series. GameDAC. Rival 600. IMPERATORWORKS.
“This is where you want to be in life,” Unbox Therapy’s host, Lewis Hilsenteger, declares proudly, as if he knows our deepest secrets, and that one of those deep secrets is that we all want to seal ourselves off from the world in a freakishly opulent game pod.
Maybe it’s the snack crate stocked with Kettle Chips and Christie Collection’s Pirate Cookies, or Hilsentger’s shilling of special edition Unbox Therapy Coke-a-Cola bottles, but on the whole, the thirty-grand rig seems like a little much. And by “a little much,” I mean “a lot much.” It encapsulates not only our proto-dystopia, but the zeal with which some out there seem to yearn for all the scary parts of popular science fiction to become a reality that will somehow kick ass. Very soon, we will be able to spend the majority of our waking hours living in pixels. And for some of us, it apparently cannot come fast enough.
Unbox Therapy’s video might feature the most over-the-top PC setup at the moment, but there are countless other rigs on YouTube vying for the number-one spot. There’s a top ten countdown of the “most elaborate” rigs, including one on which a parent plays the original Super Mario, book-ended by two small children staring up at a ceiling mounted with a television resembling the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Another video shows an entire room, remodeled over five months, to accommodate a man's audio and display requirements. There's an entire series called Setup Wars, approaching 150 episodes, centered on a host critiquing user-submitted photos of their personal computer setups. A recent “budget” episode included a $1500 limit, resulting in unflashy desktop setups that still appear more immersive and powerful than anything most of us use.
I grew up with video games — though not exactly a hardcore fan, I was more into them than your basic enthusiast — and I still play them when time and money allow. I’m particularly fond of engrossing RPGs, the more immersive the better. First-person is ideal — think games like the Elder Scrolls series, or story-based first person shooters such as Half Life and BioShock. I fell off playing them in recent years for a variety of reasons, but rediscovered their appeal in a desperate attempt to cut back on hate-refreshing the daily news cycle. Most recently I spent more than 100 hours playing the excellent sci-fi survival title, Subnautica, and — for the most part — don’t consider it a complete waste of time. I only play what my years-old MacBook can support, but that’s okay for my purposes. I just need to temporarily unplug from the world while hoping there’s still a world that remains worth living in when I return.
In popular science fiction works like Westworld, Altered Carbon, Black Mirror, and Ready Player One, we watch others straddle realities for us. While these often serve as warnings to their audiences, there’s an undeniable portion of fans — often the white, male, mostly affluent gatekeepers of nerddom — who eagerly await their own trip to the future. You can’t blame them, I guess, because of course it will be dope. For them.
There’s not anything necessarily immoral or objectively wrong with wanting to remove oneself from reality, to forge a new one with fewer consequences, less limits, and more kickass explosions. That will become a personal choice for more and more of us in the coming years. What is troublesome is who has first access to new options, and how they inevitably will shape what’s available for the rest of us catching up to them later. At this point, there’s little reason to think they learned anything from the world they’re leaving behind.
“You want to get immersed,” Unbox Therapy’s Hilsenteger explains to the camera in the video. “...From this spot, you can control everything.”
Hilsenteger then demonstrates the rig, fully reclining in the massive seat, personalized Coke bottle nearby, and logging on to play Fortnite, one of the most popular multiplayer shooters on the market. He keeps using short-range weapons for long range kills, never tries for cover, and gets killed almost instantly. For all his fancy toys, he still isn’t very good at the game itself.