“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.

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