Plunked down in the middle of some citrus groves, Walt Disney built Disneyland in 1955. Anyone remember the original five “lands” of Disneyland?
There’s Tomorrowland, where Space Mountain and Star Tours continue to please the masses. Down the path from there is Fantasyland, home of “It’s Small World” (or, better named, ‘It’s mind-numbing boat ride, after all…’). Next is Adventureland, a place that’s always good for an alligator attack on the Jungle Cruise or a spine-shattering jeep ride with Indiana Jones. There was Main Street, even though no one remembers this was actually a ‘land.’ Main Street was the quintessential and nostalgic tribute to candy shops, shoe shine stands, lavish parades and Abraham Lincoln.
And, finally, there was Frontierland…the Wild West. Big Thunder Railroad. Throw your hands in the air…
Among the many masterstrokes of Disney, the spatial layout of Disneyland theme park has to be one of them. First, funnel hordes of people through Main Street, a place of comfort and safety, on their way to the great unknown of the other lands. Then, when the day was done, you returned through the safety of Main Street America as you made your way to the parking lot. Safety, danger, safety. In reality, there was Main Street and four ‘frontier’ lands.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of ‘frontier’ lately. It’s ingrained in the American imagination. The frontier evokes the call of the wild, an untamed wilderness that fuels the songs of rugged individualism. To live in the frontier is to carve your own way against the elemental forces of nature; it is a celebration of freedom claimed by sheer grit and determination. It’s Lewis and Clark, Conestoga wagons, and the Donner Party (which, I assure you, was not a party).
The modern frontier no longer exists in space, even though reiterations of Star Trek and the timely release of The Martian continue to spike public interest in NASA’s doings from time-to-time. No, the real frontier exists in virtual worlds—worlds that are built from nothing into something, filled with landscapes and cultures and languages and bad guys. People are moving into these worlds in droves; a migration that will reshape reality as we know it. The share of time people devote to virtual worlds is increasing by the day, leaving many to wonder what the real world has left to offer.
Virtual worlds are god-worlds, but not in a pejorative sense. I simply mean that, in the universe of the digital, anything is possible. The game designer can literally create anything he/she can imagine, then offer it up to others for exploration. Minecraft was an early example of a successful god-world. In Minecraft, the player is given the building blocks, adequate space, and an efficient interface; he/she just supplies the creativity.
I think it’s a mistake to think of these virtual worlds, these frontier-lands, as trivial toys with which to play out some adolescent narcissistic fantasy. This is partially because I believe that the ‘frontier concept’ has been the setting for modern myth-making, from Tolkien to Tatooine, Pandora to District 12. Myths are not, by definition, untrue stories of fanciful beasts and gods. They are, by and large, a collection of commonly held stories that have explanatory power for a community.
“Myths are not, by definition, untrue stories of fanciful beasts and gods. They are, by and large, a collection of commonly held stories that have explanatory power for a community.”
The very nature of the frontier—of a world beyond that which is known and accessible—lies at the very heart of our common morality. In the postmodern world, ‘enlightened’ individuals tend to shy away from absolute moral claims; to say that something is good or bad lacks the appropriate nuance for a nuanced age. Yet, epics are set in frontier spaces where evil is unabashedly evil. Villains wear black. The frontier is a world of mystery, monsters, and quests … and quests are not engaging unless they have a strong moral motivation for joining.
“The world is about to end unless you drop this ring in a volcano many miles from here.”
“Okay, let’s do this thing.”
“Oh, there are bad guys who will try to stop you.”
“Okay, who’s got a battleaxe I can borrow?”
The frontier is a space of relative moral clarity, even when the landscape is fraught with the unknown. Sure, central characters might have some moral ambiguity, even have significant moral flaws (e.g., Witcher, Rooster Cogburn)—but there are monsters to be vanquished. And monsters are always bad. There has never been an orc with a heart of gold. I surmise that this is one of the driving forces behind the popularity of fantasy/frontier role-playing games—while the central character might have some moral scruples here and there, the quest on which you embark is terrifically black-and-white. Everyone knows who the bad guy is. This knowledge creates clarity, purpose, and an indomitable sense of worthiness in the quest itself.
The frontier world holds a tension together: a place of little law and yet a clear sense of good-evil.
Will the frontier of the digital remain morally clear? Or, will the god-worlds of tomorrow become speak-easies that protect all manner of vice and debauchery? In short, I wonder if virtual worlds will be a place to slay monsters, or a place to become one.
When the earliest settlers moved West in early parts of our nation’s formation, they brought children. To a large extent, they knew the dangers implicit to frontier travel—but they brought them anyway. I find this fact relatively useful, not in the sense that we are to bring our children into the worst that these virtual worlds will offer, but in the sense that communities have a responsibility to prepare their children for adulthood and moral living—not, repeat NOT, shelter them and give them blue ribbons for nothing.
“I wonder if virtual worlds will be a place to slay monsters, or a place to become one.”
I wonder if the Church will ever acknowledge the presence of these god-worlds, let alone prepare its members to brace for the coming social impact of this generation’s exodus to the digital frontier. The Church proclaims a certain reality, one that is super-imposed onto the physical world that is evident around us. But what is its message if the culture begins to shun the present nature of reality and retreat into an alternate non-physical world altogether? Whatever the answer is, I’m jumping off the sidelines and onto the field for this fight. And I’m bringing my kids with me to identify what’s godly in these god-worlds and what’s monstrous.
The best way to hunt a wolf is to find out where the wolves live and go there. At some point, we need to be willing to bring our children on the hunt…train them to see what is in the frontier and to think appropriately and virtuously about what’s “out there.” Protection and safety are good things, but they absolutely must be subservient to greater causes like independence and virtue – and these things cannot be accomplished without confronting monsters.
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.