IF YOU LOOK AT THE official, conventional division of the U.S. economy into its ten or twenty sectors, you see only part of the fantasy-industrial complex, nothing like the sprawl that it actually comprises.
Arts, entertainment, and recreation is a small sector, down with Mining and Utilities. Of course, it includes Hollywood—the Hollywood that, before the 1990s, hadn’t discovered reality television and wouldn’t have released The Matrix or The Truman Show,expensive movies based on the premise that reality isn’t real but the uncannily realistic product of a conspiracy to deceive us by an all-powerful fantasy-industrial complex.*1 They were movies that tens of millions of Americans instantly, deeply understood and adored but that, until then, would have been bewildering.
But the fantasy-industrial complex is a lot more than movies and TV and theater and advertising and publishing and theme parks and gambling. It’s much of information media, on the Internet and on TV and radio and in print, and not only the parts infatuated with celebrities and their products. It’s not just videogames but large chunks of the Internet. It’s the adults who go out in public dressed as soldiers and anime characters and superheroes and Santa as well as the people who pretend to own professional sports teams and fantasize online with strangers about committing horrific crimes. It’s a lot of the firearms industry and more and more of the politics industry. It includes much of the real estate industry—themed housing developments, themed restaurants, themed shopping centers. America has a retail glut that drives sellers of indistinguishable commodities to speak of “retailtainment” and “entertailing.” It’s pieces of the healthcare industry—cosmetic surgery, psychopharmaceuticals—and, when and where it can get away with it, the financial industry. It ranges from the megaindustrial to the artisanal. It is the hearts and minds sector. It’s the sector that punches way above its economic weight and dominates American life.
The fantasy-industrial complex has grown by enabling the suspension of disbelief more and more powerfully and ubiquitously: movies, then radio, then TV, then Disney’s theme parks and all their amateur spin-offs—Renaissance Faires, war reenactments, cosplay—and then videogames. Each new wave of entertaining fiction was more immersive than earlier ones, seemed more real. As this output seeped and then gushed into everyday life, the old willing suspension of belief was joined by unconscious suspension of disbelief, all the unreality that we tend to forget is unreal. By that I mean everything from a brand-new Mediterranean villa in Wichita or an eighteen-room log cabin in Scottsdale, each with a lawn meant to evoke Currier & Ives or Downton Abbey, to the shopping centers simulating the simulations of Main Street USA and EPCOT, to surgically fictionalized faces and bodies.
Now there are casinos in forty of the fifty states (and other kinds of legal gambling in almost all the rest) where people sit for hours or days at a time magically thinking they’re a moment away from becoming rich. We’ve made ourselves into one transcontinental gambling hall, each of our thousand casinos another room in the labyrinthine national casino occupied by millions of Americans all the time, Las Vegas only its magnificent center, Emerald City in our coast-to-coast Land of Oz.
In Fantasyland, it’s hard for people to know where and when to draw lines or impose limits. Everything’s relative. Everyone has her own truth. Imposing ours is judgmental and undemocratic and elitist. “Plastic surgical technology allows us to do things to distort reality,” the Santa Monica plastic surgeon Arthur Jensen told me, “or to deny reality in ways that now become…is it fantastical? What is reality here? What is fantasy? The girl who has implants, that’s her new reality.”
The digital revolution permits ever greater immersion in the unreal. There are the obvious malignancies, such as the new fictional news business, but the general blurring between true and untrue is pervasive. We no longer think of filtered Instagram or Photoshopped images as unreal. Google Photos can automatically combine separate images to generate new, improved pictures—that is, real-time revisionism to chronicle moments in your life that didn’t happen that way. We can interact with phantom knights and super-Nazis and extraterrestrial robo-warriors, and we can pretend to be fictional characters as we interact with those software creations—or with actual humans who, like us, may or may not be who they seem to be online. Now that most of human interaction is digital and potentially anonymous, we can covertly role-play whenever we want. We required new phrases, catfish and sock puppet, for people who masquerade online as romantic partners and fans of themselves, respectively.
We read messages and see the intimate visual details of celebrities’ lives on social media; 15 million or 50 million or 86 million of us have identical unmediated connections with America’s most famous people, including the president of the United States. Which makes us feel as if celebrities are our pals, in a way that People and the subsequent glut of celebrity media could not quite do. Meanwhile the American fantasy of becoming famous for real feels less fantastical than ever. Reality TV has turned hundreds of schmos (and Kardashians) into celebrities. There are almost as many reality shows on the air now as there were television shows of any kind in 2000. YouTube is a gateway to celebrity that has no gatekeepers at all.
The fantasy-industrial complex comprises, at one end, goods and services and experiences that we know are entertaining confections, and at the other end things we don’t consider fantasies at all. In between is the large zone of fictions we probably know are make-believe but sometimes—we lose track, get immersed, become confused—almost, kind of, sort of, actually do believe are real.
Was the New York City cop Gilberto Valle actually preparing to kidnap, murder, and cannibalize women he knew when he was arrested in 2012? Or was his elaborate scheming with online comrades all in fun—his way of making the fictional “snuffplay” stories and pictures he consumed on the Internet feel more real? My guess is somewhere disturbingly in between. A federal jury convicted him, but on appeal Valle’s lawyer argued for “the right [of fantasists] to fantasize about whatever and whomever they like,” and the judge agreed, overturning the conviction. It was “more likely than not,” he ruled, that “all of Valle’s Internet communications about kidnapping are fantasy role-play,” no different from what half of Americans do when they pretend they’re killers in Grand Theft Autoor Halo, since “no real-world, non-Internet-based steps were ever taken to kidnap anyone.” But hadn’t Valle used the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database to track the women? Isn’t most of the Internet now the real world?
The case of the “cannibal cop” is extreme, but it is a cautionary tale. The more conscious we are of consuming any particular fantasy, the less problematic it is. I don’t take the hard line of the biologist and professional atheist Richard Dawkins, who’s practically Maoist on the subject. He argues that reading fairy tales to children may dangerously “inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism.”
Rather, I think a different Oxford don, J.R.R. Tolkien, had it right in the lecture he gave just after he published The Hobbit. “Fantasy,” he said in 1939, talking about fantastical prose fiction, “is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make.”
And yet…look at what’s become of the culture industry lately. I don’t think the explosion of fantasy fictions is unrelated to our general metamorphosis. It’s not a coincidence that TV megahits of the last decade have been series about an ancient land where dragons and magic are returning (Game of Thrones) and a contemporary America beset by vampires (True Blood) and zombies (The Walking Dead). Or that The Bible, the 2013 miniseries about Jesus, was created by an inventor of reality TV (Survivor, The Apprentice), aired on the History Channel, and was watched by one hundred million Americans. Mark Burnett called his follow-up series on NBC, A.D.: The Bible Continues, “House of Cards meets Game of Thrones,” and he was thrilled to see the “billboard on Sunset Boulevard, all across the Valley…[that] says, ‘The crucifixion was only the beginning.’ You go back to like ten years ago…what was the chance on network TV [that there would be a show] all about the resurrection? It’s amazing! God is moving.” It is amazing.
During the 1970s, a couple of each year’s biggest movies at most were fantasies; nowadays only one or two are not. Only in the 2000s, a half-century after the Tolkien books appeared, did Hollywood finally turn them into a giant franchise. It’s not a coincidence that in the last decade, more American adults read Fifty Shades of Grey than any other novel, or that it began as fan fiction pornofying the Twilight fantasy books. The most popular books of the last half-century, apart from the Bible and Quotations of Chairman Mao, are the Twilight and Harry Potter series, The Alchemist,The Da Vinci Code, and The Lord of the Rings.
“If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence),” Tolkien said in that same 1939 lecture, “then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish.” It turns out he was half right. Many Americans now are in a state in which they don’t want to know or can’t perceive factual truth, yet the perishing of fantasy featuring elves and orcs and superheroes and zombies and angels is nowhere in sight.
THE WHOLLY NEW medium of digital gaming—born in the 1960s and ’70s, huge by the 1990s—is now uncannily pseudoreal and immersive as well as pervasive. No matter how immersed in a novel or a movie you become, there is no explicit, individual version of you in those stories; you can’t affect the narrative; your fellow characters and the fictional landscapes don’t respond to things you do or say. And gaming is dominated by fantasy fictions. Is that connected to the larger transformation? Or is it just because digital technology got so good at faking and transmuting reality? Those are different ways of asking the same question.
Starting in the 2000s, broadband Internet allowed for massively multiplayer online worlds populated by countless other real people in fantasy form, fellow émigrés from real life. The newer, more ultimate-Fantasyland business model for game makers involves making the commercial transaction itself part of the fantasy. You joined Farmville for free on Facebook because you were bored by life and real people, including yourself, so you killed time by pretending to be a farmer raising livestock and growing crops. But the standard production cycles of the pretend sheep and rutabagas were too slow—that is, too realistic, thus boring. So you spent real money to make your imaginary farming happen supernaturally fast.
Such “social gaming” often amounts to a breathtaking parody of the fantasy underpinnings of our consumer economy: inessential wants are conjured—for the first time, totally imaginary wants—and turned into lucrative needs. There’s also the part that parodied the global sweatshop economy: American players started paying real money to low-wage workers in China, including labor camp inmates, to do online “gold farming” for them, the tedious game-world work that generates virtual currency.
Today most American adults inhabit digital game worlds some of the time, and a quarter of those are so seriously engaged that they devote at least five hours a week to playing with the best set of blocks ever (Minecraft) or angsting and living and dying in some supernatural netherworld (Mortal Kombat, Final Fantasy) or on Earth in a realistically violent past (Assassin’s Creed), a realistically grotesque present (Grand Theft Auto), or a realistically ghastly future (Halo, Fallout, Call of Duty).
Virtual reality is finally, actually here, and the gear costs no more than a smartphone or a game console. I’ve tried a state-of-the-art version, with positional tracking sensors pasted to me, so I could physically move around inside the virtual reality. The experience was extraordinary. My half hour in virtual reality—walking on a narrow plank over a scary pit, flying like Superman through a high-rise cityscape—was something like taking hallucinogens for the first time. Unlike on an acid trip, not for a moment did I really think I had magical powers or faced death, but to my mind’s more primitive, unconscious parts, the experiences seemed absolutely real.
The next step is augmented reality. It exists and works, and before long it will be available to everyone. Google, Warner Bros., and blue-chip Silicon Valley venture capitalists have shoveled $1.4 billion into the start-up Magic Leap, which has no products or revenues and almost a thousand employees. Its augmented reality technology won’t encase your eyes in a headset’s miniature-movie-theater mask. Instead, as you look around at the real world, teeny projectors will beam images directly into your eyes, onto your retinas. Reality and virtual reality will be seamlessly blended. All the imaginary things you see—the zombies or Ryan Gosling, the hovering Millennium Falcon or Jesus Christ—will appear to be there in the corner of your living room or in your backyard, in real life, right there with you. Microsoft has its own technology called HoloLens, versions of which have already shipped to developers.
I can’t wait. It also gives me the heebie-jeebies. Who knows the consequences of these technologies? Will they be ridiculous, sublime, wonderful, or awful? Another immersive and breathtaking new medium for fiction, or…something weirder, deeper, more existentially transformative? All of the above, I’m guessing.
IN THE MEANTIME lots of people are still so exceptionally committed to acting out their fantasies they want to be face-to-face and body-to-body with other flesh-and-blood humans, immersed physically as well as mentally, unable to escape by clicking a button.
Their prototypes and inspirations all appeared during the two decades encompassing my Big Bang, from the mid-1950s to the mid-’70s—Disneyland, living history, Renaissance Faires, Civil War reenactments, LARPing, retro obsessions of all kinds, BDSM clubs, Halloween costumes for adults. Millions of Americans now put on costumes and carry props and go out into the world to pretend for hours or days or a week at a time that they’re not exactly or remotely themselves, that they’re more interesting people living more extraordinary lives in more thrilling places or times—soldiers, comic book and movie characters, aristocrats, detectives, murderers, wizards, one-of-a-kind beings. The scale ranges from groups of friends who wander around in character to gatherings of thousands of strangers, the production values from kids-in-the-basement to Waiting for Guffman to chic extravaganza, the protocols from actual-life-with-a-twist to Method-acting-to-the-max. An elite corps of twenty-five thousand immerse in Burning Man each year, but a third of a million men and women now attend the two biggest annual Comic-Cons, in San Diego and New York City, many of them dressed as fantastical heroes and villains and creatures.
The original L.A. Renaissance Pleasure Faire from the 1960s now lasts for six weeks and attracts two hundred thousand visitors. Its owners operate three official spin-off versions. Indeed, there are three hundred annual Faires and Fayres and Festivals and Feasts and Gatherings and Wars and Mayhems around the country. Five million Americans a year attend one of those. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) is still going strong—now with sixteen kingdoms in the United States, many tens of thousands of people dressing in their jerkins and chemises and armor to forge iron and eat roast peacock, ride horses, fence, shoot arrows, and throw spears and axes.
Civil War reenactors are the original gangstas in this realm, LARPers and cosplayers before those terms existed, but now they seem strangely—oh, what’s the word?—right, dated. The Internet has made it much, much easier for reenactors—as well as cosplayers and LARPers and Burners and all the other outdoor fantasizers—to find costumes and gear and one another. Americans now reenact battles of every time and place. People pretend to be Vikings, Roman legionnaires fighting Celts, Catholics and Protestants fighting the Thirty Years’ War, British soldiers fighting Americans in 1782 and 1812, Americans fighting Mexicans in 1847, Old West gunslingers, and especially Nazis fighting GIs. Although “SS troops may not have any facial hair,” the WWII Historical Re-enactment Society does permit beards for Nazi alpine troops if they are “no longer than two (2) centimeters,” but everyone in the unit “must have beards in order for 1 person to wear a beard.” The Vietnam War is reenacted as well. They call it “doing the Nam,” playing recordings of Armed Forces Radio Service broadcasts from the 1960s and deploying Huey helicopters. Some refer to their fake Vietnamese prisoners as “gooks” and “dinks” and perform mock executions.
I get the appeal of playing army; I was once nine years old. I loved summer camp games of Capture the Flag, digging foxholes, and darting around with a toy machine gun. More recently I spent an afternoon dressed in camo, carrying an assault weapon and sneaking through the Connecticut woods on an imaginary mission to search and destroy friends and family with paintball bullets. Paintball, an American invention from the 1980s, is now passé, a thing for unserious farbs like me. For people deeply committed to acting out contemporary combat fantasies, it’s now all about airsoft guns. Airsoft rifles look exactly like the M4 rifles and MP7 submachine guns the U.S. military use, and exactly like the AK-47s foreign bad guys use. The coolest ones are gas-powered and have recoil, like the real things, and they can be set for fully automatic fire, many plastic quarter-inch rounds per second. Nearly all the imaginary soldiers forgo the fluorescent orange barrel tips meant to signify that the guns aren’t deadly weapons.*2
Like survivalists, airsoft soldiers love using real and fake Pentagon acronyms. Instead of the children’s term playing army, they use the neat-o made-up word MilSim for what they do, and talk about their plans for MOUT (military operations on urban terrain) and CQB (close quarters battle). Thousands of uniformed, locked-and-loaded players “enlist” for each of the biggest events, which consist of multiple “scenarios” over several days. Some bring their own armored vehicles, prop tanks, and APCs. They wear helmets with audio headsets so they can say “Enemy down!” when they pretend to kill somebody. One of the main MilSim operators hires “VIP commanders,” such as an Army Ranger lieutenant colonel from the Somalian Black Hawk Down debacle, and a former Soviet army sergeant who occupied Afghanistan.
But almost no big MilSim events are reenactments. Instead, the battles are improvised and happening now, fictional but in their Syrian and other Middle Eastern specifics entirely plausible. The wars are enacted in private police and military training facilities, in defunct factories and mines and amusement parks—and on army and National Guard bases that the government lets them use for their make-believe. Because, of course, the U.S. military operates its own combat theme parks where soldiers can train before they deploy to places where the bullets and bombs are lethal. The Indiana National Guard has a full-scale fake town that civilian simulators use, with a “governor’s mansion,” a “culture-specific farm,” “collapsed structures,” and an “engineered rubble pile.” A couple of hours south, a fake town at Fort Knox that also hosts MilSim combat has “burn on command” buildings and cars, a subway entrance, falling telephone poles, an exploding gas station, and simulated odors of rotting flesh. The guy who created the Fort Knox effects made official visits to the name-brand public theme parks and debriefed their designers, but “in the realism department,” he has said, “we have both Universal and Disney beat.”
The most serious MilSim enthusiasts form their own units, invent their own gadgets, and travel the country from imaginary conflict to imaginary conflict. Probably the best known is a squad in New York State, the Green Mountain Rangers, who think of themselves as elite commandos who sometimes go rogue. Their fantasy, they say, is “a lifestyle rather than hobby or sport,” not “the normal airsoft ‘game.’ ” The language of their official history is a simulation of military pride that I’m sure to them is absolutely earnest and real. A dozen years ago, after “many of the founding members weren’t able to continue the commitment level the lifestyle called for,” the few good men who remained “built a hard forged unit structured on new cutting edge principles of training,” conducting “weekly trainings for months that [took] them to a new level of integrity and honor.” Their fake-war stories sound like war stories, such as the “final assault that culminated on a 10KM ruck deep into enemy territory, undetected to deliver a dawn lit airstrike package and direct assault to the Russian Base camp.”
There’s a lot of manly-man grrrrr-ing. The big MilSim operator Lion Claws refers to the people who play enemy combatants as hajis—the Islamic religious term that has become something like the contemporary version of gooks. Their backstory-writers can’t resist slipping in tendentious bits of pseudoreality, such as Operation Lionclaws XII in 2013, in which “we have a Commander in Chief”—unnamed—“who is adverse [sic] to utilizing a boots on the ground force.”
A company based in Oklahoma, American Milsim, doesn’t stage foreign wars. And it combines superrealistic airsoft combat with what LARPers call “campaigns,” enacting one continuous, evolving story over years. They put on a weekend battle every couple of months around the South and Southwest. Their premise is an armed American insurgency that broke out in 2012 after an infrastructural breakdown that led to increased federal taxes and regulation. Texas, Louisiana, and Alaska seceded from the United States and formed a confederacy. The American Milsim players have been pre-enacting a contemporary U.S. civil war.
In their battles, real “helicopters provid[e] touch and go OP’s [sic],” and military cargo trucks and armored personnel carriers rumble around; there are night-vision goggles, lasers, robots, drones, rockets, suicide vests, grenades that really explode. When players take certain fantasies too far, “staff may ask for your name when a War Crime is recorded, [but] this information will not be made public.” Depending on which side prevails in each weekend’s battles, the Washington, D.C., regime or the confederacy (the Coalition of Sovereign Territories) can win or lose states. Online “news service” reports appear that insert new fictional twists into the narrative, such as the emergence of a separate force (“The Patriots”), soldiers and veterans “worried about violations of the constitutional rights of US citizens,” and the independent secession of western states in reaction to “the increasing [federal] tax burden.”
All these guys are aware that they’re playing army. In Fantasyland, however, as art imitates life, so does life imitate art, and boundaries blur.
Consider Eric Frein, for instance, who was an extremely devoted MilSim reenactor in rural eastern Pennsylvania for nearly his whole adult life. He sometimes pretended to be a Nazi, but he really geeked out over the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s, when he was a boy. His special thing was pretending to be a Serbian soldier, a member of the particular real-life unit involved in the massacre of thousands of Bosnian civilians.
Do all MilSim dudes hate the government and have survivalist fantasies? No, but Frein did, so in 2014, living in his parents’ basement at age thirty-one, he decided to take it to the next level. Instead of his airsoft replica AK-47, he picked up a real one and became a real sniper, ambushing two Pennsylvania state troopers, one of whom died. How awesome, he must have thought when they fell. He lit out for the woods, smoked his special Serbian cigarettes, lived off the land, and outsmarted a battalion of cops, some of them in full combat gear, for seven weeks.*3 How totally awesome. “I almost think that some of this is a game to him,” said the state police colonel in charge of the operation. “A war game, if you will.” As that phase of his greatest game ended and Frein was arraigned for murder, a citizen screamed at him, “You’re not a real soldier!” But that was just one interpretation, one person’s opinion, one truth.*4
Isn’t Lion Claws’ slogan “Building a New Generation of Patriots,” and don’t they partner with the U.S. Army Recruiting Command to convince potential soldiers that war fighting is cool? Surely some of the American MilSim gamers have understood their games to be training for a fantasy that they don’t consider a fantasy—the secession and patriot insurgency and civil war that may arise after the tyrants in Washington, D.C., finally give the order to confiscate their guns and open the FEMA concentration camps.
Let me quote once more from Tolkien’s lecture, which he delivered a few months before the fantasy-besotted Nazis started World War II. “Fantasy can, of course, be carried to excess. It can be put to evil uses. It may even delude the minds out of which it came.”
*1 The directors and star of The Matrix, by the way, said they were inspired by Baudrillard’s 1981 book Simulacra and Simulation.
*2 Every year U.S. police kill someone carrying an airsoft gun without the fluorescent markings. Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer with a real Glock nine-millimeter in 2014, was carrying a perfect airsoft replica of a semiautomatic Colt .45.
*3 The uniquely American militarization of police was also inspired by playing-army fantasies. The Los Angeles Police Department created the first police SWAT team in the late 1960s, training on Universal Studios’ back lot. As police all over the United States militarized, The New York Times reported in 1975 that “some departments have been stimulated into adopting a SWAT strategy by the [new] weekly network television program [S.W.A.T.] that erroneously depicts SWAT teams getting involved in almost every phase of police operations.” Before long, SWAT teams everywhere were getting involved in every phase of police operations.
*4 In 2017, Frein was convicted and sentenced to death.