When I was growing up, one of the first fully computer animated Saturday morning cartoons hit television screens across the country. For a kid raised during the era in which personal computers were becoming more pervasive, ReBoot (1994–2001) fired my imagination with the idea that an entire world of characters, conflicts, and stories existed within that dull gray box my parents had purchased from Micron computers. The premise and mystery of ReBoot was summarized in the show’s opening voiceover narration, “They say the user lives outside the net, and inputs games for pleasure. No one knows for sure, but I intend to find out.” Unlike the story that many parents might have peddled about video games being a waste of time, ReBoot cast digital play as a grand battle with lasting consequences. The detailed and palpable reality that the show gave to its characters and settings demonstrated the imaginative possibilities of virtual worlds.Virtual reality offers the possibility of deliberate crafting of an alternate, idealized, or improved reality.
Of course, in the earliest days of film, the concept of a digitally created reality didn’t even exist, and so dreams often became the vehicle through which film explored strange and unusual places. Film had an ability to show us images that, while based in our lived experiences, gestured to other fantastic possibilities. Georges Méliès The Astronomer’s Dream (1898) and A Trip to the Moon (1902) gave life to dreams of the future. Likewise, Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) put the fantastical experiences of the dreamscape onto screen with what were (at the time) spectacular special effects. Throughout much of the twentieth century, it was dreams and the mind, perhaps a result of Sigmund Freud’s tremendous scientific and cultural influence, that often served as the site for representing fantastic worlds. Consider MGM’s adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (1939), which changed the conceit of the original narrative to one in which Dorothy’s entire adventure is reduced to a hallucination resulting from a (likely) concussion. Still, The Wizard of Oz raised the question of whether the dark glass of sleep is preferable to our waking lives.
Dreams also offered an opportunity for filmmakers to experiment with the incorporation of unique visual forms into their stories, as in Alfred Hitchcock’s collaboration with Salvador Dalí for Spellbound (1945). This film, famous for its eerie set designs, envisioned a dreamscape fraught with meaning—here, dreams hold the keys to all kinds of deep psychological mysteries. The fascination with dreams has not disappeared from film; Richard Linklater’s Waking Life (2001) was the artsy, quasi-philosophical film of choice for pretentious college students in the early 2000s. The rotoscoping visual style of Waking Life also demonstrated how dreams and alternate realities provided space for both aesthetic and narrative experimentation.
Yet with the advent and proliferation of computers, filmmakers discovered a new frontier for exploring the relationship between reality and the possibilities of imagined worlds: virtual reality and video games. With dreams, there is a sense that control of the experience is just out of reach, an asymptote that we approach but never cross. On the other hand, narratives of virtual reality offer the possibility of a stronger sense of power in these digitally imagined realms. Unlike dreams, where we are in a sense beholden to the subconscious imaginings of our minds, virtual reality offers the possibility of deliberate crafting of an alternate, idealized, or improved reality. We can control what we experience like never before.
Of course, this possibility is precisely what prompts the construction of Pandemonium in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. After having been cast out of heaven, Satan opines that “To reign is worth ambition though in Hell: Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Subsequently, the demons of Hell build the palatial edifice of Pandemonium, a term that Milton coined specifically for the poem. Seeking control even in the midst of terrible defeat, Satan and his followers construct a monument to their futile grandeur. Likewise, what are we building in the virtual worlds that we see on screen? The overarching tenor of the films representing digitally rendered realities suggests that such creations are fraught with danger, deception, and even death. Such films point to an underlying cultural anxiety surrounding the power and potential of technology to supplant our reality with something else.
What is the source of this anxiety? It could be simply the residual resistance to new technology that we see replicated through much of human history. Even Plato’s Socrates was suspicious of the impact that the technology of writing would have on memory, fearing that we would come to place too much trust in the written record, supplanting our ability to recollect. It seems silly to us now, but the Socrates’s concern might illuminate elements of our passion for virtual reality. In our own time, writers have wrestled with concerns about technological advances. In 1988, Wendell Berry published his essay “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” which he concluded with a list of requirements that he posits any new technology should satisfy. The first four all concern how the new compares to the thing it replaces; Berry argues that the new should be cheaper, more efficient, and “demonstrably better” than the thing it replaces. At the heart of both Socrates and Berry is a concern about what is being supplanted. What are we seeking to refashion, recreate, or improve?
In the case of virtual reality, the very name itself is telling. Perhaps the films that show virtual reality as so troubling suggest a concern with the idea of supplanting reality. In some ways the Christian story reflects the dangers of replacing reality with one of our own creation. The first sin is one in which Adam and Eve reject the ordering of their world in an effort to replace it with one in which they would attain equal footing with God. Of course, the opposite occurred, resulting in the world as we experience it now: broken but with whispers of glory. Like the deception of the serpent, many of the films that cast virtual reality as a dangerous technological tool, focus on the ways that it can be used to manipulate unwilling participants in the simulation.
The Matrix (1999) became one of the most famous examples of this vision of virtual reality, in which humans have become enslaved by their own machine creations, living in an endless “neural-interactive simulation” that gives the film its title. Perhaps the most intriguing character in the original film is not Neo, Morpheus, or any of the “good guys,” but Agent Smith, performed so well by Hugo Weaving. When I was in college, I was so spellbound by the monologue he delivers to Morpheus late in the film, that I combed the Internet in search of an .mp3 recording, which I still have on my computer to this day. During his speech, Agent Smith describes the first Matrix, which was designed as a paradise where all the human subjects would be happy. But according to Smith, this version of the simulation was disastrous, because the human subjects would not “accept the program.” The implication is obvious: We aren’t made for paradise.
While The Matrix’s articulation of this idea was the most overt, a number of other on-screen virtual realities fall in line with this idea that we are by nature adapted to brokenness and that this is the only reality we can accept. Both Tron (1982) and its sequel, Tron: Legacy (2010), suggest that while the potential of digital creation may draw us toward the possibility of perfection, what we accomplish always falls short. Even with the power to completely control what we experience, as virtual reality in film often does, the results are disappointing. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) articulates this tension with great facility near the end of Tron: Legacy, “The thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable; it’s impossible, but it’s also right in front of us all the time.” Within these words is an intense longing; while perfection seems to be within reach, it remains intangible.Virtual reality will one day form a part of the truest reality that awaits us.
Likewise, in Ernest Cline’s popular novel Ready Player One (2011), which is currently in production with Steven Spielberg directing, the story revolves around a global virtual reality system called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Silly acronyms notwithstanding, Cline’s choice of moniker for his fictional system is indicative of a keen sense of longing—a refuge in the desert of existence. As the novel’s protagonist indicates, with the OASIS “you could become whomever and whatever you wanted to be.” The user’s wants and longings drive personal choices in the system, with the possibility of becoming something better than yourself, which entices players to allow the virtual world to consume more and more of their lives.
Perhaps C. S. Lewis articulated this idea best in his essay The Weight of Glory, when he points out that even though we often encounter beauty in the creative expression, we mustn’t allow it to define our understanding of what paradise is:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”
In a way, Lewis affirms many of these narratives; the beauty, the paradise that seems so apparent to us in the possibilities of virtual reality, can only ever be shadows. The Christian story ends with the final realization of the world whose shadow has brushed against our lives for so long, but for the moment, even our most powerful tools of creativity will strain to grant us an echo of the unheard tune.
If our digital creations will continue to have an innate limitation, what then is their future? In Source Code (2011), Captain Colter Stevens, a fatally wounded soldier played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is wired into a virtual reality created using the memories of the victims of a terrorist bombing of a Chicago commuter train. In an effort to prevent a future attack by the same terrorist, Stevens is called upon to use these victims’ memories to identify who bombed the train. However, the simulation is only able to reproduce the eight minutes preceding the explosion, forcing Stevens to relive the first attack over and over in his desperate attempt to uncover who hid the bomb in the train’s lavatory. When I first saw the film, it taxed my credulity, as the scientific basis for the virtual reality it purported to represent was flimsy at best. But perhaps the very fact that Source Code’s final scenes defy explanation is why it remains one of the more compelling stories of virtual reality.
While Stevens’s handlers try to convince him that the virtual reality environment he’s experiencing will cease to exist the moment that it ends, he begins to believe that his actions in this digitally reconstructed space might have consequences in the “real world.” The scientists and military personnel in charge of the Source Code program implore Stevens to stop trying to save the victims on the train, since in the real world these people have already died. Seeing the simulation as inconsequential, Stevens is encouraged to treat the people around him in insulting ways in effort to complete his mission faster. But this ill-treatment cuts against Stevens’s instincts; in the same way that many video game RPG players might prefer to play through the game’s story using their real moral sensibilities, rather than as an evil or unethical character. In the end, Source Code affirms Stevens’s charitable posture; the humility and love that he demonstrates in the simulation convinces the Source Code operator who has had the most contact with him to disconnect his life support rather than allowing Stevens’s memory to be erased for continued Source Code experiments. And yet, death is not the end of the story.
The last moments of the film give us two diverging visions of reality: in one, Stevens has died, succumbing to his wounds without the intricate technological systems keeping him alive, and in another, he begins a new life in a world formed from the allegedly finite simulation. But he had to die for it to be realized. At this moment, Source Code moves from science fiction to fantasy, but in this moment it also grapples with questions much larger than just the technological possibility of controlling our sensory inputs via a computer. In the same way that the Christian faith sees this life as a precursor, a foreshadowing of the life to come, upon Captain Stevens’s last breath, a new world opens to him.
What, then, connects these digital worlds to the true new world that awaits us? Drawing on prophetic language in Isaiah 60, Andy Crouch suggests that many familiar elements from our lives may reappear in new forms in the world to come. Like seeing a fine painting in person after years of looking at a blurred photographic reproduction, the new creation will present us with the best versions of our cultural creations. I hope that these redeemed and exemplary artifacts of human ingenuity and creativity will include our imaginative use of digital tools to create all kinds of virtual spaces. Although our films have often traced how these technologies can be used to hurt us, perhaps we can begin to imagine how virtual reality will one day form a part of the truest reality that awaits us.