…one thing an imaginary world needs, I think, is to fail. Those toiling away on CGI dinosaurs and VR helmets might consider this: When the illusion is perfect, it will no longer amaze. Lifelike is impressive because it’s like life, meaning slightly, deliciously different. Lacan says that in early childhood we see ourselves in a mirror and find that self way more impressive than the mess of tingles, aches, smells, and partial glimpses by which we previously knew ourselves. We admire that resplendent individual, and we form ourselves in her image. We are our own wannabes. One of the first things Sims players do—especially in Sims 2, where you can model a face in considerable detail—is make someone who looks like them. (But slightly, deliciously different.)…
Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming by the Book, demonstrates that a fictional wall seems more solid when a fictional shadow or beam of light slides across it. The magic-lantern scenes that glide over the panels of Proust’s room confirm its permanence. Comparing the fleeting to the durable, we take our eyes off the magician, forgetting that both light show and wall are illusions, projections of the magic lantern of language. In a related way, enclosing a book within a book, or a play within a play, makes the enclosing world seem more real. Walter Benjamin and Baudrillard have warned us of the infectious nature of the copy: The reproduction undermines the original. But perhaps there is no original and this is not a problem. Perhaps it is the likening operation that creates the sense of an original; perhaps it’s the imaginary world that brings the real world to life. Cave artists painted deer so that real deer would come. Mechanical canaries can teach real canaries to sing. Books can show us how to live. I had it backward: The way out is the way in.
Picture a 13-year-old girl sitting at her computer, watching her miniature read a book. The girl sits quietly. The Sim sits quietly. Pages turn with a rustle. The plates on the floor buzz with flies. The need to pee is getting urgent on both sides of the screen. What is happening? Nothing and everything. When my Sim reads a book, sunk in an illusory inwardness, a bit of code flipping the pages of another bit of code, I imagine for her an imaginary life, and imagining this, my world brightens, and I think I can feel what it is like to be real.