Users the world over engage in a virtual, multi-user environment in which they, playing the protagonist, must work their way up an increasingly violent learning curve. They share their experiences, of the struggle and of the enemies which seek to destroy them. It is a finite experience, and their journey does have an end; once this endgame arrives, they will start the process afresh.

If you’ll forgive my cheesy comparison, this is not merely a summary of the World of Warcraft-style MMO grind; it is Mercerism, the semi-religious practise carried out in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Extract from "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" by Boom! Studios; via io9.com

I find Mercerism a curiosity because it is starkly similar to modern MMO games. In Dick’s book it is, of course, another example of the divide between human and android. Since its users must possess a degree of empathy in order to benefit from Wilbur Mercer’s journey, no android is able to appreciate this shared experience, of a man climbing a mountain with stones thrown at him throughout. The empathy boxes which enable these encounters may only allow their users to ‘fuse’ with one character, but they do so while feeling the emotional responses of their peers. Take away this mechanical manipulation of people’s moods, and I wonder if our online worlds are so far removed.

The inhabitants of ruined Earth are united by their empathy with Wilbur Mercer; they feel able to connect with one another based on this shared narrative, and while it is not the norm in ‘reality’ there are many cases heard of people using Second Life, World of Warcraft and similar worlds for social and sympathetic means.

  • Are citizens like John Isidore entranced by what is essentially a grind to level 80, and subsequent rolling of an ‘alt.’?
  • Were our society to suffer a third world war-styled catastrophe, do you think it likely that such MMOs may persist?

Philip K. Dick is renowned for picking up on the human condition in ways like this – Mercerism has, for many, been a tricky aspect of the book’s plot, and it was removed from the Blade Runner film altogether. One might speculate that the cinema serves a similar role too, and many have described Mercerism as Dick’s commentary on television. Certainly it is possible that, as a theatre audience shares their emotional responses to Rick Deckard’s story, the Mercerism analogy would have over-egged their experience. Who knows? Still, if we are so inclined to share our experiences online, perhaps it was inevitable that this cyberpunk vision seeped through and became a reality.