Month: September 2016

What We Talk About When We Talk About Alternate Reality

Having just finished Jane McGonigal’s fascinating Reality Is Broken, I thought it may be useful to open a brief discussion of what exactly we mean when we say that a game is alternate to reality. More specifically, I want to ask: what is at stake in the claim that a reality can be alternate, virtual, or broken? What exactly is an alternate reality game an alternative to?

For McGonigal, at least, the ‘alternate’ in ‘alternate reality’ refers primarily to a change in stance, mindset, or attitude towards a given aspect of everyday life; this change in stance, ideally, will lead to a substantial change in action. It has less to do with reimagining the physical facts of reality (as, say, when we read a science fiction novel or play through Skyrim) as it does with reconfiguring our interactions with our current reality. The player of Chore Wars still handles a broom much as anyone else would; the key difference is the attitude of play, competition, and imagination that she brings to the activity.

If McGonigal’s response to a “broken” reality is to fix it through a change in attitude or stance (a response I share), consider, as a useful counterpoint, the way that Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey talks about virtual reality. While McGonigal proposes a radical change in attitudes without needing much of a change in (physical) environment, Luckey proposes much the opposite. For him, it is enough that VR offer a pleasant and temporary distraction – reality ultimately remains unchanged. In a 2013 interview, Luckey explained to tech writer Wagner James why he thinks people in developing nations will be the most fervent supporters of virtual reality. “If you’re talking about Chinese workers or people who are living in Africa, I think the threshold is a lot lower,” he said. “It could be a lot of the early adopters are the people who have a greater incentive to escape the real world.” (If you are interested in the dark side of the VR industry, I encourage you to read the whole article, as well as the associated piece for Wired; it’s really bizarre stuff).

It would be far too generous a reading to suggest that Luckey’s vision of the Oculus Rift offers the same promise as Oedipa’s most hopeful conceptualization of the Trystero, as a sort of “withdrawal […] from the life of the Republic,”1 an authentic alternative to the systems of politics, gender, sexuality, race, and economics that fall so short for so many. No, if you read the whole article, Luckey’s vision of alternate reality – if it can really be considered ‘alternate’ at all – is coldly instrumental: at best, a way for underpaid workers to briefly relax before returning to the call center, or at worst, mere training with VR headset technology so they can better create surplus value for their employers. Absent from Luckey’s conceptualization is any notion of meaningful change, of using a virtual/alternate reality to reconfigure our broken one. No need to create a better work environment, shorter hours, or higher wages, just give ‘em VR!2

Of course, what we will be doing in this class is not, strictly speaking, virtual reality. There won’t (I think) be much in the way of Oculus Rift headsets. And I’m not even suggesting that there is anything wrong with VR itself; it’s possible to imagine a way to use VR in ways more noble than Luckey’s vision. But I do think that his attitude towards VR is a useful counterpoint for thinking about the various stances towards ‘reality’- and its potential alternatives – one could take. If we are going to create an alternate reality, it will be useful to ask what it means for that new reality to be meaningfully alternate.

Jordan Pruett


1. Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. Reprint: Harper Perennial, 1999. Page 101.

2. As if his naively techno-utopian rhetoric weren’t bizarre enough, Luckey recently admitted to be the secret benefactor of the pro-Donald Trump group Nimble America, a Reddit-spawned group that is, in its own words, dedicated to turning the tide of the presidential election through “shitposting” and “meme magic.”