From avatars to apps: why we still love to go down the rabbit hole with Alice

Playtime in Wonderland. Pratyeka/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Few in the English-speaking world (and even the non-English-speaking world) are unfamiliar with Alice and her encounters with nonsense and play in Wonderland, whether through the original texts, or their many adaptations. Alice has walked across pages, stages, and screens; she is playable and played.

This timeless text speaks to all - adult, child, reader and player. The adaptability of Lewis Carroll’s language, the openness of its storyworld and the malleable nature of Alice’s character all beckon us to return to Wonderland in its many different guises.

From its publication in 1865, Carroll’s masterwork was a transmedia text – a story which could take many different forms. Its original telling was oral; the story was related by Carroll to the eponymous Alice Liddell and her sisters during a boat outing. The books retain this, as do many of the later adaptations: it is Carroll’s play with language – sounds, rhythms, and amorphous meanings – that sustains all of Wonderland.

The fun of Alice’s adventures is mostly found in the language itself, which emphasises the nonsensical nature of Wonderland and its mad characters. Carroll invents portmanteaus like “slithy” (a combination of “slimy” and “lithe”), creates absurd associations using rhyme and alliteration (as in “The Walrus and the Carpenter”), and jumbles up literal and figurative meanings (like the “caucus race” and the “clotheshorse”).

Alice’s second incarnation. misopocky/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The nonsense and play were a revelation to Victorian England; a society defined by rules, decorum and moral tales. The books flew off the shelves, and were quickly followed by stage adaptations. As each new technology emerged – film, radio, television, and digital media – Alice and Wonderland leaped into new life, from silent films to tablet apps, with varying degrees of success.

Walt Disney’s 1951 animated version – although a flop at the time – is now often regarded as a classic, and is perhaps the adaptation that modern audiences are most familiar with. Yet in his attempt to recreate the success of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, Disney changed a fundamental aspect of the source work: he shoe-horned Alice’s sequence of non sequitur adventures into a formulaic film narrative. Perhaps this explains its initial lack of success, as well as that of later adaptations such as ABC’s recent TV series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland.

Sandbox Wonderland

Where Alice has proven rather successful as source material, however, is in realms where wordplay, riddles, and nonsense are free to gallop at will: roleplay, games, and cosplay. Sandbox, or open world games (such as The Sims, Second Life, and Minecraft), invite the player to explore, engage in adventures, encounter new players and characters, and interact with them according to the rules of the gameworld (or lack thereof).

Otakuthon Alice and the Chesire Cat. Wikimedia Commons

Wonderland itself is a sandbox of wordplay, nonsense, and fanciful characters, a world that cycles through literary, literal, and metaphorical games. It’s no surprise, then, that gamers have followed Alice down the rabbit hole for decades. From Japan and Korea to the UK and the US, Alice has played through text adventures, visual novels, horror games, and plain old video games.

It’s only a short hop from sandbox games to sandbox software. Alice has loaned her name and her sense of play to the educational softwares Alice and Inanimate Alice. Her appeal to children and adults alike makes learning object-oriented programming and multimedia design fun and welcoming, encouraging experimentation and play with tools often seen as daunting and dull. The very elements – nonsense and play – that relieved Victorians from the doldrums of their rule-oriented society today relieves learners from the tedium of rote programming.

Alice the Avatar

What also helps Alice appeal to children and adults, players and learners, is her innate lack of a singular identity. Her one-size-fits-all character – never changing, never growing – can fit almost anyone. She is innocent and completely naïve to the rules of Wonderland; yet she is knowledgeable, frustrated at the subversion of the court. She is weak, failing to comprehend the oddities of the mad tea party; yet she is powerful and capable of working through the assorted language puzzles.

An unnerving question. Smath./Flickr, CC BY

The caterpillar repeatedly asks Alice; “Who are you?”, but Alice is generally unable to achieve a sense of her own self. While “Where am I?” is the central question of other fantasy stories such as The Wizard of Oz and_ The Chronicles of Narnia_,_ Alice in Wonderland_ cycles around the question of identity.

Alice is a figure in transition, between child and adult, learner and learned, apprentice and master. Her struggle in a world where language twists the rules and games cannot be won make her universal. We all relate to her experiences of being lost, misunderstanding and being misunderstood, and chasing shifting goalposts. In reality, these experiences are frustrating and stressful; in Wonderland they leave us, our parents and our children delighted.