“Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans. And that led me to wonder, ‘If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities?'” —Philip K. Dick

This morning, my friend Jona fellow Dickhead—send me a link to a Philip K. Dick essay that I hadn’t read in some time. Ready for a break from reading other essays, I went ahead and started reading it out loud to myself, in the Orson Welles voice that I always imagine Dick had (even though he didn’t) due to the vague physical resemblance in their later years.

Philip K. Dick

It’s a brilliant essay and I’ll finish the out-loud reading another day, but I got to the following point and had to pause:

It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?,” to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Baretta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.

So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.

I want to run out this tangent. Though frequently insane, Dick was also prescient. In this passage, he identifies a trend that has continued and intensified in the years since his death. I immediately think of two phenomena in modern American society, about which I feel completely differently.


The first is the Balkanized state of modern American news. It is now impossible to read or watch an account of factual events without either A) being aware that the account is filtered through an ideology, or B) being aware that someone else who holds strongly ideological beliefs would identify the account as being filtered through a competing ideology. In other words, we can watch Fox News or we can watch MSNBC, and we know what color glasses we have on. Or else we can listen to NPR or read the New York Times, and even if we think we’re not wearing glasses, the other guy thinks that we are. (Reverse the left/right polarity if you must, but that feel you must is precisely the point.)

The second is the fact that our “pseudo-worlds,” and “the electronic hardware” that we use to deliver them, have become quite complex and deep in the form of video games. It’s easy to argue that most games are essentially shallow, or that it’s easy to see through them to the bare rules beneath—but that’s no less true of the cop drama that Dick cites.

Both phenomena prove Dick’s point, which is that we’re getting disturbingly good at fabricating false realities. Why is it that one of these situations terrifies me, and the other does not?My wife—no great fan of video games—might argue that it’s precisely because I can’t see the glasses I have on when it comes to games. I’m completely inculcated, a culture warrior; to extend the metaphor too far, I’ve had the laser eye surgery. Unsurprisingly, I don’t think this is correct.

The issue is that only one of these categories of false reality holds out the possibility that readers will completely mistake the media they consume for the real world. News is ostensibly descriptive, but in fact it’s like the shadows on the cave wall. It becomes our reality. As the market (“market realities”) ensures that news channels will absorb stronger biases, those shadows will stretch into shapes that resemble less and less the objects, people and events that cast them. We’ll end up with no shared experience to discuss, nothing to bridge the gulf that divides and threatens to devour us.

Dick uses mental illness to address the question of our ability to communicate across disparate realities:

What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe, it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him. The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown of communication… and there is the real illness.

A month ago, I would probably have argued that this is an example that downplays the danger of that breakdown. Who cares whether we can communicate with a few million schizophrenics, when I’m talking about dividing lines that run right down the middle of society? But I live in Tucson, and just 10 miles from my house, a young man with a “real illness” shot my congresswoman in the head. I’m going to go ahead and say that communicating across all kinds of realities has become important to me.

Still, I don’t worry about games, violent or otherwise. I don’t see The Matrix in our future—not even Strange Days. Why not?To begin with, there is a question of fidelity. The more ambitious a simulation of reality is, the more difficult it is to pull it off without triggering some analogue of the uncanny valley. Characters in paintings don’t animate poorly. No one in Middlemarch runs out of ambient dialogue. Consider the example of reality television: it’s easy to edit the raw footage of reality into invented narratives. Creating a simulation that anyone could inhabit and accept as true? That’s science fiction.

When people accept false realities, they accept realities that directly supplant what they previously believed. That’s part of the allure, the notion that you’re moving into the group of those in the know. (“The watered down one, the one you know / Was made up centuries ago.”) With the exception of ARGs, games don’t attempt to supplant reality in this way. It’s a significant exception, but I’d argue that anyone getting into an ARG knows that what they’re doing is a form of role-play.The title of Dick’s essay is How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later, and this is really the essential difference between news (a worldview) and games (a false world): durability. “I like to build universes which do fall apart,” Dick confesses. I would argue that most game developers also build fragile universes, although this is usually a function of limited ambition and questionable execution rather than intention.

Only MMOs are demonstrably durable, but they rely heavily on social bonds and cultural markers imported from the real world to establish a sense of place and society. And just as with other false realities, we regard as sick the people who choose to inhabit MMOs as fully as possible. In this case we use the language of addiction, since there’s no chance that players accidentally mistook which world was real; only which was important to them. This isn’t good or desirable, but at least it’s subjective, rather than an objective error.

False universes are dangerous when they become worldviews, and worldviews are just narratives that have become robust. We’re still learning to tell stories in games, and even when we succeed, we run into the same reality Welles did: all you have to do is look outside to see there are no Martians.

In his essay, Dick feints at first, holding out the possibility that reality is subjective, and then concludes that it is not. “I watch the children watching TV,” he writes, “and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, they can’t be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child’s ability to withstand the fraudulent.”

If he’s still talking about Baretta, much less Bayonetta, no doubt he’s right. I wish that’s all we had to worry about.