Skip to main content
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can virtual nature be a good substitute for the great outdoors? The science says yes.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Between 1972 and 1981 Roger Ulrich investigated the records of 46 patients recovering from gallbladder surgery. Patients’ rooms on one side of the hospital looked out onto deciduous trees. The others looked out onto a brick wall. Ulrich, who believed his view of a pine tree aided in his recovery from kidney disease as a teenager, wanted to find out whether those with natural scenery might enjoy greater restorative benefits than those without.

The results spoke for themselves — and went on to influence a generation of nature research. Patients with the tree view enjoyed shorter postoperative stays, had fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses, took fewer moderate and strong analgesic doses, and had slightly lower scores for minor post-surgical complications. Even from a distance, the earth’s flora impacted the patients profoundly.

Small, tranquil moments like wind rustling through trees; Panoramas only accessible from mountaintops; Fewer of us are experiencing such events than ever before. But as it turns out, taking a forest bath in a nature-rich title such as Red Dead Redemption 2 might just stimulate our brains in similar ways. According to scientific researchers across the world, virtual nature could provide psychological and physiological benefits comparable to the real thing.

World of Warcraft experienced a pandemic in 2005. That experience may help coronavirus researchers.

Covid-19 has forced many indoors, and even before that, longer-term trends such as urbanization and computerization had profoundly altered humanity’s relationship with the great outdoors. Now, ongoing research is attempting to understand exactly what we’re missing out on, and how we might access nature remotely using video game and VR technology.

The mesmerizing quality of nature

Twenty-nine years on from Ulrich’s hospital experiment, a small team in the Department of Psychology at Canada’s University of Waterloo discovered that exposure to a virtual forest decreased stress. The simulated woodland was created using a tool from 2006’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, a hit role-playing game released four years prior. Participants were given free rein in a 1,600-square meter environment teeming with richly detailed foliage. They didn’t encounter mulchy smells or wiggling microbacterium, phenomena which carry stress-relieving benefits in the real-world. Still, they enjoyed a sense of relaxation in the polygonal forest. Positive emotions rose while telltale signs of anxiety — heart rate and skin conductivity — decreased.

Multiple papers authored by teams throughout the world have recorded similar results. In Taiwan, researchers tested VR scenes from the idyllic Aowanda National Forest against bustling Taipei cityscapes, noting a reduction in negative feelings such as confusion, fatigue, anger-hostility, tension and depression. (“VR technology can serve as an alternative way to access nature environments for restoration,” they wrote.) Swiss researchers, meanwhile, measured lowered respiratory frequency and arterial blood pressure in subjects exposed to VR nature in an ICU setting.

From surgery simulators to medical mishaps in space, video-game tech is helping doctors at work

Alex Smalley, leader of the Virtual Nature project, which explores how digital experiences of the natural world can impact health and well-being, says there are two theories which might explain digital nature’s positive effects. The first is Edward O. Wilson’s biophilia concept, which hypothesizes that over millions of years humans developed evolutionary preferences for lush, abundant environments because they offer a space to recover from stress and fatigue. Then there’s attention restoration theory, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan in the 1980s, which suggests that the mesmerizing quality of nature, which can be attended to without significant cognitive effort, allows us to recuperate from attention-sapping and often hyperstimulating modern life.

“Rich, verdant scenes of nature offer this idea of soft fascination,” says Smalley, referring to attention restoration theory. “If I’m sitting by a lake and the water is slowly rippling, that holds my gaze. I’m not analyzing the ripples but they allow my brain to go into a relaxed state, and that allows the bit of my brain that’s been forced to focus to replenish.” Crucially, we can experience these effects not just through in-person nature but remotely through digital and video representations. Anyone who’s experienced the gently fluttering grass in 2017’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will testify to its calming, hypnotic quality.

The clinical applications are manifold. Smalley imagines prescribed doses of virtual nature for those who might struggle to access the outdoors physically, be that hospital patients recovering from major surgery, the immunocompromised, or elderly people in care homes. “Our current situation, with everyone being in a heightened state of anxiety, and being stuck indoors, actually mimics these conditions really widely for the bulk of the population,” he says.

For physically disabled gamers, the Switch is incredibly accessible. Here’s why.

Still, Matthew Browning, Assistant Professor in the Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department at Clemson University, and Director of the Virtual Reality and Nature Lab, warns virtual nature can only simulate nature’s audiovisual components. Physical trees, plants, and other vegetation offer myriad benefits, from the absorption of air pollutants and noise to the secretion of chemicals known as phytoncides which boost our immune system.

Browning believes our psychological responses to nature aren’t necessarily inherent but develop through personal experience. As a former state and national park ranger in the barren Utah landscape, he developed a fondness for deserts. Others, however, including his wife, don’t hold such positive feelings. “My theory is that there are these transitional periods in our life where we become very familiar and attached to landscapes,” he says. “And those times drive our preferences later in life.”

This matters because reactions to virtual nature are likely similarly based on our individual circumstance. Browning’s own research tests the effects of virtual nature relayed through videos in a VR headset. The more tailored the dose of virtual nature, so the rationale goes, the more effective the therapy. He hopes that further research might be directed toward hyper-specific experiences to the extent that medical staff capture familiar, comforting surroundings using video. The results, he says, could be “huge for the patient experience.”

Sublime digital landscapes

Most people isolating during the covid-19 pandemic won’t have access to concentrated, laboratory-ready virtual nature. But nestled amid the landscapes of games such as Horizon Zero Dawn are stretches of unending ecological beauty. Development studios have created near-photorealistic recreations of nature, simulating not just its minutiae but larger phenomena such as towering redwoods, rolling valleys, and vast, star-filled skies. Crucially, such environments often instill the same sense of wonder we feel outside.

With coronavirus closing schools, teachers are using games to take their students exploring

According to Alice Chirico, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, such awe-inspiring experiences play a vital role in stimulating positive mental health. “It’s a transcendent emotion. When you are so overwhelmed by the vastness of what you are seeing, then you feel small,” she says. “This diminishment of the self isn't just a way to feel annihilated, it's a way to find your place in the universe. By doing that, you feel more connected.”

This might sound new age, but it’s supported by discoveries in psychology and neuroscience. Experiencing awe engages the parasympathetic nervous system which helps us relax, as opposed to the sympathetic nervous system — in charge of “fight or flight” responses and releasing adrenaline and cortisol. Awe may also play an important role in attention restoration, offering us an opportunity to rest our focused attention as involuntary attention takes its place.

Over the past decade, blockbuster video games such as Death Stranding have begun to embrace interaction, which moves beyond the often pervasive combat of their forebears. In particular, photo modes — the ability to take pictures in-game as we might in the real world — are transforming these sites into quieter, more contemplative spaces, arguably aligning them with a tradition which stretches far beyond the computer. Smalley points to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, monastic traditions centered on rest and recuperation in greenery, and the picturesque painters who arguably began to formalize how we perceive nature. “These ideas have existed for a long time,” he says.

Now, during the pandemic lockdown, players might increasingly seek nature in video games — the glittering, twenty-first century incarnation of such enduring traditions.

Lewis Gordon is a video game and culture writer. His work has appeared in outlets such as VICE, The Verge, The Nation, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter @lewis_gordon.

Read more:

‘Being pregnant changes everything’: The game industry awkwardly grapples with maternity

Blink-182′s bassist lives in Quarantine. Rather, that’s the name of his Animal Crossing abode.

Virtual races are drawing millions of viewers. Sim racers and streamers are seizing the moment.