(This is a critical essay about Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and as such contains a lot of spoilers about the book.)
In 2044, cheap energy has ended and climate change and wars wrack the world. Most people escape reality by spending their time in OASIS, a virtual reality created by a programmer named James Halliday. People shop, go to school, work and play games inside OASIS. When Halliday dies, his wealth and OASIS itself is left to whomever can solve his riddles and find the crystal egg hidden inside OASIS. Since Halliday grew up in the 1980s, all of the puzzles revolve around 1980s geek pop culture. Ready Player One may be set in 2044, but its real roots lie in the 1980s.
Enter Wade Watts. He’s a poor teenager who is obsessed with solving Halliday’s riddles. He’s spent his life as a “gunter”, an egg hunter who’s obsessively memorized every movie, TV show, comic, and video game that Halliday was enamored of. He manages to solve Halliday’s first puzzle, which gets his name on the leaderboard and sets off a frantic race for Halliday’s billions.
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, is part coming-of-age journey, part mystery. One of the characters explicitly compares Halliday’s quest (and thus the book itself) to the Atari 2600 Swordquest games such as Earthworld1, but the novel’s more literary antecedent is Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, with its reclusive and wealthy businessman who, upon his death, wills his fortune to whomever can solve his word puzzles. The book is full of geek tropes. Beyond the obvious and ever-present references to 1980s nerd media there’s the theme of lone gunters like Wade, who love OASIS and the freedom it (supposedly) provides, versus the evil megacorporation I.O.I., which has hired an untold number of gamers and 1980s scholars in an effort to gain control of OASIS. There are geek conversations like “Who would win if Mechagodzilla fought Ultraman? Wouldn’t that be cool!” turned into actual events in the book.
The cavalcade of 1980s references are used for color and as the key to solving puzzles, but they’re never explored in any depth. It’s as if Cline is saying, “Hey, remember how cool that thing from your childhood was? Yeah, it was really cool.”2 It’s fun to see geek culture references blenderized and re-mixed in the same way that modern culture is blended together online, mashing up TV shows, movies, and memes3, but there’s little more to the references than that.
The book focuses on Wade’s quest to solve Halliday’s puzzle and become owner of OASIS. Along the way he meets other gunters, like his friend Aech and his rival and eventual love interest Art3mis, and they grow apart and together as in any 80s teen film. Ready Player One alternates between action, geek banter among friends, and large info-dumps that slow the book’s pace. It’s at its best when it’s slinging nostalgic references as fast as it can, like how OASIS only costs twenty-five cents for a lifetime account — “it’s the greatest videogame ever created, and it only costs a quarter” as the book tells us.
I’m square in Ready Player One‘s demographic crosshairs, as I’m a geek who grew up in the 1980s playing videogames, watching science fiction movies, and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Even now I spend my spare time writing text adventures, a videogame genre that rose to prominence around 1981 and was commercially dead by the decade’s end. Given my history, it’s no surprise that I recognized the riddles that referred to the old D&D module “Tomb of Horrors” and to Zork. It’s also no surprise that I found the book so engaging, at least at first. Unfortunately, by the end I was not nearly as fond of Ready Player One.
One thing that I didn’t enjoy is the uncritical nostalgia that forms the core of the book. It celebrates obsessive geek trivia knowledge, the kind that is like a drunkard’s walk through Wikipedia. James Halliday, who created OASIS, uses his wealth and humanity’s desperation to encourage people to obsess about a decade that is more than half a century gone, and to do so without understanding the context in which that decade’s pop culture was created. As Halliday’s business partner Ogden Morrow said after Halliday’s death, “Jim always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that.” The book celebrates that obsessive love, and it is the kind of love that admits no growth and no change, that refuses to let go of the past.
That’s minor next to the book’s big problem: the book’s ending act, to use an 80s metaphor, has several after school special moments crammed in it, complete with giant flashing moral statements. However, those moral statements are simplistic and misguided, and are uneasily wedded to a John Hughes teen coming-of-age story.
Take Wade’s friend Aech. When we first meet Aech we’re told that his avatar was a “tall, broad-shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes”. Given that Aech’s avatar is the only one whose racial characteristics are described, it’s no shock that, when Wade meets Aech outside of OASIS, he turns out to be female, African American, and gay. Aech’s mom taught her to pass4 online as a white male because it made life easier. When she came out to her mom, her mom threw Aech out of the house. Wade’s response to learning this is a more convoluted version of the plaintive cry, “But I don’t see race!”
As we continued to talk, going through the motions of getting to know each other, I realized that we already did know each other, as well as any two people could. We’d known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her, and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.
This erases key components of who Aech is. Racism is clearly alive and well given Aech’s mom’s advice to her. In fact, it’s undoubtedly worse in the US of 2044 since times are so bad and unrest leads to greater racial tensions as people fight to keep what little they have. Homosexuality is still contentious, given how Aech’s mom threw her out of the house for being gay and how “fag” is still an insult:
I-r0k flipped [Aech] the bird. “If you two fags already knew about the Swordquest contest, how come I’ve never once heard you mention it?”
Aech’s gender, race and sexuality and how she’s reacted to them are key parts of who she is. They have to be, if she is to be human and not a two-dimensional construct. Ready Player One‘s approach to this is to minimize those aspects of Aech. She’s the only person of color and only homosexual in the entire book, making her stand in for all gay or non-white geeks. And the message the book has for gay or non-white geeks is the same one nerd culture typically broadcasts: pretend to be white, straight and male and we’ll get along just fine.
Then there’s the ongoing theme that what really matters is the real world. At various points in the book Wade sounds vaguely ashamed of how he’s spent his young life, talking about how he’s unhealthily obsessive about Halliday’s quest. Ogden Morrow, Halliday’s former partner, agrees.
But years later, Morrow wrote in his autobiography that he’d left GSS because…he felt that OASIS had evolved into something horrible. “It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity,” he wrote. “A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect.”
You’d think that Halliday, who always had problems relating to people and spent the ending years of his life building and playing OASIS, wouldn’t agree, but he does. His parting advice to Wade, after Wade has finished Halliday’s quest, is as subtle as Helen Hunt’s famous scene from Desperate Lives.
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world….I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
The problem is, the rest of the novel contradicts that. Early on Wade says that he’s obsessed with 80s pop culture to an unhealthy degree, but it turns out to be exactly what he needs to win the girl and get all the money at the end.
Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.
But not in OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually…. I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me.
And Wade doesn’t have any real epiphany that he should make the world better. His girlfriend/geek crush object Art3mis wants to spend money to tackle world hunger, fix the environment, and solve the energy crisis. By the end of the book Wade agrees, kind of sort of, but it never goes beyond that. Wade begins the novel completely broke both in real life and in OASIS, living in a giant maze of stacked trailer homes in Oklahoma City and being unable to go anywhere in OASIS other than the educational world of Ludus. By the end he’s rich, has killer equipment with which to play OASIS, and has even been flown about the post cheap energy world in a private jet. You never get the sense that Wade remembers how bad off the world is, or is driven to make it better. It’s as if Katniss won the Hunger Games and wholeheartedly embraced her new celebrity life, uninterested in making her District’s life better. That kind of leveling up is fine for a CRPG, but it’s heartless in a world as broken as that of Ready Player One. And no matter how much Halliday says that the real world matters, his actions don’t line up with his words. He decided to give all of his money away in an online competition instead of using it to improve the real world. In terms of computer billionaires, he is more Steve Jobs than Bill Gates.
If Ready Player One had stuck with geek in-jokes and references tied to an action plot about Wade leveling up and hacking the Gibson5, it’d be a decent piece of fluff. As it stands, it celebrates the self-referential, inward-looking nature of geek culture while reinforcing some of its more blinkered views of the world and the people in it.
1I played this game when I was young but never made any progress in it. The game gave clues that referenced a page and panel in the included comic book, and we were supposed to find a word in that panel. It wasn’t until I read the Wikipedia article on the games that I realized that I was supposed to look for the words hidden in the background instead of what the characters in the comic book were saying. Don’t I feel dumb. ↵
2I can imagine an alternate universe version of this book that plays with the connection between the latchkey kid generation of the 1980s and their consumption and love of that era’s media, one that deconstructs references to Thundercats and War Games. Ready Player One is not that book, not that it has to be. ↵
4With all that implies. ↵
5Yes, that’s a 1990s geek reference. I am large, I contain decades. ↵