In Matt Ruff’s seventh novel, 88 Names (Harper, Mar. 2020), he follows the exploits of a digital sherpa who leads gamers through the challenges and dangers of a virtual world. Eventually, his online interactions have offline consequences. Here, he speaks with PW about the slippery nature of virtual reality.
What sparked your interest in online role-playing games?
I was always interested in computers, but what led me to 88 Names was hearing about the phenomenon of gold farming in online games. There were people making real money selling virtual items, and that struck me as an interesting thing to write about. I came up with the idea about 15 years ago and let it marinate for a while. As time went by and the internet got bigger and bigger and social media became a thing, setting a story in a virtual environment seemed topical and timely. I was fascinated by interactions in cyberspace, the ambivalence of game companies in setting rules and getting people to play certain ways, and the endless adaptability of users in game environments. It’s a combination of trying my hand at a sort of Neuromancer thing, and also exploring the difficulty of navigating in an environment where you have total control of how you look and sound, and you can pass yourself off as anyone, and you almost never interact with the actual person.
How does the novel delve into these questions of identity?
Part of the fun of online role-playing games is trying on different skins. You may try to limit a person to one identity or tie their reputation to one identity, but they’re going to find ways to get multiple names and accounts. That’s just so fascinating to me: how do you have relationships in an environment like that, where you’re never really sure who you’re dealing with, or if you’re deal- ing with the same person in more than one form?
What’s the appeal of virtual reality as a form of escapism?
Part of it is the sense of empowerment. You can do things in virtual reality that get you to believe that you’re more powerful than you really are. You may be a kid or trapped in a low-level job, but you can go online and pretend to be an evil mastermind. It’s a popular fantasy for people, being a troll or a villain; it can be a power trip or liberating. You also can go online and admit things about yourself or your beliefs without the repercussions of doing so in real life. In real life the people you know might judge you if you did.
Why, 35 years after Neuromancer, do cyberthrillers still resonate?
Technology is catching up. VR is finally becoming a thing. And with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, everyone’s online now. Even 10 years ago, this wasn’t the case. Now a lot of people are spending time online, not necessarily telling people who they are. It’s almost like we’re all part of a massive role-playing game even if we don’t realize it.