June 21, 2016, is one of the most anticipated dates in recent gaming history: it’s the day when No Man’s Sky, a galaxy-exploration game in the works since 2013, is finally released in the US.* Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about the game’s genesis in the New Yorker last year; the game will allow players (at least those fortunate enough to be immortal) to visit no fewer than 18 quintillion planets, each with its own distinct biomes and landscapes. I haven’t touched a console in almost two decades, yet the promise of endless virtual worlds to wander around — taking flânerie to the cosmic level, as it were — sounds incredibly seductive.

In its own way, this virtual cosmos — unexplored, gorgeously designed, and effectively empty (its scope ensures you could avoid other players forever, if you so wished) — is yet another iteration of our contemporary drive to project real-world longings onto virtual spaces. Second Life, the shared, multiplayer virtual universe, has capitalized on similar desires (though with a more obvious layer of social interactivity), and shows no signs of slowing down well into its second decade.

But what is the desire fueling these elaborate constructions? At first, they might strike us as virtuously non-political: you just traipse around these beautiful pixels and set your brain on auto-pilot. But that sounds like a far too facile explanation. Has any mission of exploration, real or virtual, ever been divorced from expansionist fantasies? Not to mention that virtual reality was enmeshed, from the beginning, in a tension between its military potential and the progressive politics of its developers. It’s a point made clearly by VR pioneer Brenda Laurel, in an excellent oral history of the medium by Adi Robertson and Michael Zelenko: “I think everyone was hopeful, and looking forward to a change in consciousness. Either that, or they thought we were a bunch of crazy hippies.”

Perhaps what is at stake in these worlds is a particular type of aestheticized politics: a game of “what if?” in which we get to experience harmony and beauty unavailable to us in the world we actually inhabit. In other words: these games are part of a utopian tradition.

That tradition is as at least as old as Plato’s Republic. In its current version, though — as a narrative of world-building, in which the worlds being built always straddle the line between the antiseptic and the irresistible, the futuristic and the nostalgic — the tradition starts with Thomas More’s Utopia, which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year. More’s work has been delighting and perplexing readers since it first came out — in his invented island, chamber pots are made of gold and meals are eaten at Brooklyn-ready communal tables; genders are surprisingly equal (for 16th-century England, at least), but slavery is still alive and well. It’s a place where justice and prosperity alternately feel wholesome and sinister.

As Terry Eagleton declared in a recent essay on More at the Guardian, “Alternative universes are really devices for embarrassing the present.” And Utopia certainly pokes one pointed finger after another at the stratified, violent chaos of Tudor England (initially published in Latin, the first English translation only came out years after More himself had been beheaded for his religion-based dissidence). His book laid the blueprint for all literary alternative-world creators to come later, from Swift in Gulliver’s Travels to second-rate sci-fi movies: keep it strange, keep it familiar, keep it fun.

The question utopias pose to us, according to Margaret Atwood (writing on one of More’s literary great-great-grandchildren, Huxley’s Brave New World), is twofold: “What sort of happiness is on offer, and what is the price we might pay to achieve it?” What is new in the more recent crop of virtual worlds is that they answer the former through an embodied experience, not a literary escapade, and their price is literally whatever it costs to buy the hardware and software they require. For the right amount of money, our senses will experience utopia in both its beauty and its sublimity. Until we switch it off. But what happens to us when we “return?”

Leaving utopias behind is as tricky a process as constructing them in the first place, if not more so. We’ve seen these scenarios play out with all-too-real consequences in American history. Julia Scheeres reconstructs, with terrifying precision, the gradual collapse of Jim Jones’ community in Escape from Jonestown, all the way to the unspeakable violence that ended it. And almost two centuries before it, the wave of utopian fervor that took hold over vast swaths of the United States left many more broken lives. As Chris Jennings reports, in his book on American utopianism, the “real” world becomes all the more unliveable to those who have tasted perfection: “one young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the ‘chilling cordiality of the world.’”

Many of us still remember the awe we experienced when we first plunged into the 3D jungles of Pandora, in James Cameron’s Avatar, where a naive, spiritually connected society fought to preserve their corner of the world — which just happened to sit on vast reserves of the precious, terribly-yet-aptly-named mineral, unobtanium. At the time, sensationalist reports were circulating about people experiencing post-Avatar depression, a syndrome triggered by the impossibility of ever moving to Pandora full time. Six years later, the highest-grossing movie of all time seems to have been largely forgotten (at least until the sequels start rolling out). Can a clumsy post-9/11 political allegory claim a spot in our memories when we have 18 quintillion planets to check off our bucket lists? (Now there’s a mission for an enterprising digital nomad — not that the utopian promise of digital nomadism is itself exempt from the thornier aspects of logistics, or politics.)

More’s Utopia gives us a model to rework and adapt, to rail against or to push towards. Our latest utopias, even when they’re shared with millions over screens of all sizes, seem to have a shelf life constrained by our free time and attention spans (anecdotally: both are dwindling). They (likely, hopefully) won’t lead to bloodbaths, but even at their most connected iterations, one can’t escape the knowledge that what we’re herding — what we are, once inside — is just pixels.

* The game’s release date has changed after the publication of this post. The game came out on August 9, 2016.

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