Alex Golub discusses, in the January 28 entry on this page, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of his best. As Golub implies, Dick drops the proto-VR line midway through the book for one of his unique renditions of mind-altered hell. I actually remember less of the political situation in the first half than the endless, shifting realities of the last half, and particularly the character who realizes he is never going to know objective reality ever again. I found Dick’s sociology wanting in comparison, a mixture of isolationist paranoia and classically liberal pleas for love and peace, even in spite of happiness. But Golub draws a parallel between the escapist proto-VR of Dick’s book and today’s multiplayer games in terms of the sheer amount of energy people pour into them.

I take exception to his equating of first-world living with the total boredom of Mars, though. With Dick, the glamor and decadence of the Perky Pat game was inviting, but it’s made clear that it’s the distraction, the consumption of time, that made it necessary. Golub says:

Purged of the pathology of paranoic war mongering and financial scare tactics, in a realm where the world is as we have created it, the world online may prove to be an opening to utopia whose space we ought eagerly to explore.

He is assigning more anomie to people than most actually have (which, in this scheme, is a compliment of how aware they are of their surroundings). The gamers I’ve known have happily gone from gaming to other pastimes; the addiction was not qualitatively different from sitting down in front of the television all night long. In truth, multiplayer games are the first world, a new manifestation of things to consume that keep people occupied.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences. Games allow for an imposition of artificial utility on groups of people that keep relationships going. Since utility-based relationships are always more durable, more constant, and less stressful than emotionally-based relationships, providing this utility in so many new and more enveloping forms is the most remarkable thing these games offer. Who wants to play intramural volleyball when you can start up an economy or take over a third of the land? The sheer amount of shared accomplishment is something that most people won’t get from their work.

But still, work isn’t so bad for the middle and upper-middle classes. It’s not the nightmare that C. Wright Mills projected on to them, even if by all logic it should be. The minority of creative, neurotic, dissatisfied types run into trouble, but ask most workaday people, even the single, lonely ones, if they grant no importance, meaning, or significance to their jobs, and few will go whole-hog on it. Many will say that they would be far more bored without their job than with it. They won’t say that they’re happy, but they are involved, something that wasn’t even possible on Mars. The times that they spend griping with their coworkers about this and that hold the same kind of emotional significance and attachment as multiplayer games. For amusements and even for accomplishments, they have to look elsewhere, but not for involvement.

Now, the word “amusement” is misleading, since there is far more importance in these things than the word suggests, just not the sort of escapism to which Golub alludes. They provide tremendous amounts of safety and comfort, sometimes in very impersonal ways. I’m thinking of a quote from cartoonist Chris Ware:

I know that if I had [a teleivision], you know, I might, “Oh well…” turn it on, maybe see what’s on, and before I know it, I would be back to the way I was, eating Doritos and slugging orange pop. One of my art teachers at the University of Texas actually admitted that he had to have the television on to paint, otherwise he said he felt too “lonely.” Television does seem to have this curious presence to it–I don’t know if it’s the high-pitched whine that the cathode ray tube makes, or what it is, but it can almost provide a sense of another person being in the room.

Judging by the amount of time I spent, for example, reading The Philosophy of Sinistar, the same goes for computers.

Some sociologist (was it David Riesman?) said that before television, the great unwashed masses found plenty of ways to waste their time in equally lazy and uncreative ways. Likewise with online games–you can theorize forever about the communities, the psychologies, the human relationships, but they are fundamentally amusements that cohabitate with “real” lives rather than supplanting them. The best thing about them is that no one is ever going to write a book called Playing The Sims Alone.