For less than a thousand dollars you can buy the spaceship pictured above. Well, sort of. I mean, you can’t actually buy an 890 Jump LTI, a luxury yacht designed to be a part of Chris Robert’s mega-successful crowdfunded videogame Star Citizen, because this ship hasn’t been released yet. What you will be buying is the right to own it if and when it actually is released. Which, according to the ebay listing, might not be for years. In fact, Star Citizen itself hasn’t been released yet, a fact which hasn’t prevented it from developing a thriving grey market in virtual goods.
You might find it strange that someone thinks a thousand dollars is a reasonable price for a virtual object set in an imaginary future which doesn’t yet exist, even as fiction. But I think it is precisely this double dislocation, this hyper unreality, that explains its value.
Look at the smooth white contours of this sleek vessel, hovering beneath the blue sky of a peaceful planet. Imagine taking possession of this beautiful craft, having it glide forward at your touch – pristine, powerful, yar. The delicate, dreamy beauty of this moment can’t possibly withstand the rough turbulence of reality, even simulated reality. One day the 890 Jump LTI will actually come out and there will be something disappointing about it. Textured polygons, in all their brute factuality, will never measure up to the gossamer perfection of this perfect moment suspended in your imagination. To own a ship, even a virtual ship, is to be burdened by practical and worldly matters. But to own the concept of a ship, no price could be too high.
A bustling futures market for a virtual world that doesn’t exist yet. Sounds like something out of science fiction, but what it actually is is science fiction in a new mode. Ordinary science fiction allows us to project ourselves into an idealized distance. The genius of Star Citizen is to double-down on this projection, to create a hyper-future that is far, far away, in fictional time and real time, the pleasures of conjecture multiplied exponentially to produce a refined essence of pure speculation.
In The Precession of Simulacra, Jean Baudrillard describes “a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes.” Which sounds to me like a pretty good description of the 890 Jump LTI, and of Star Citizen, and of Kickstarter itself, which has discovered a way to sell us hopes and dreams in their pure forms.
There is, I think, something of the double future in our newly-rediscovered passion for VR. Not only do we want the futuristic beauty of the holodeck, we want it to remain perpetually a year or two away, forever just out of reach.
And videogames in general, bursting with promise, so full of possibilities. We’ve spent so much energy dreaming of what they might accomplish once they reach their full potential, once we solve some of the fundamental challenges, when they evolve beyond this awkward adolescent stage.
But maybe what we really want is an artform, not for the 21st century, but for whichever century is next. An artform for our hopes and dreams, suspended in a future that neither recedes nor comes closer, but remains hovering on the time horizon like a beautiful mirage.