Digital Doldrums: A Review of Ready Player One

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I read Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in the same fashion that many of us consume culture today: obsessively and all at once. This was fitting, as the culture Cline describes in his novel is one of binge consumption. While I enjoyed the immersive world that Cline portrayed and the extensive knowledge of popular culture that went into its creation, I still put the book down with a feeling of dissatisfaction. I was dissatisfied not with the dystopian narrative (which can feel tired due to its transformation into a cliché), but with the banality of its acceptance. Ultimately, Ready Player One is an example of a nerd’s ultimate wish fulfillment – where an obsessive knowledge of popular culture can save the world from tyranny.

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Ready Player One depicts a dystopian future where climate change has wrecked much of the planet and governments are mostly ineffective. Poverty and inequality are rampant and people have taken solace in the online virtual world of OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). Originally designed as a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), OASIS quickly took off as a virtual space where  people gather to meet, work, shop, play, and live. When the lead creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, dies, he leaves behind a hidden Easter Egg and initiates a global contest where the person to find the Egg and gather the most points will inherit his vast fortune, control of his company, and the OASIS. The protagonist, Wade Watts (or Parzival: his online avatar) is an Egg Hunter who grew up in the OASIS and has devoted his life to solving Halliday’s riddles and finding the Easter Egg. When Wade discovers the first clue to finding the Egg after 5 years of searching, the contest kicks into overdrive as he competes against other hunters and the nefarious Innovative Online Industries (IOI) to solve Halliday’s final puzzle.

The world, the real one, in which the novel takes place is depicted as a horrible place to live.  Hunger is rampant and power outages and food shortages are common. Wade lives in a vertical slum where trailers are stacked in order to save space. Poverty is the norm and debt bondage its punishment. When you fail to pay a debt, bounty hunters are sent to collect you and bring you to a labor facility where you can work off your debt. Of course, you must also pay for the resources the company uses to take care of you, so often you find yourself in a never ending cycle of debt and labor. A debtor’s prison disguised as a company town.

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While people use the OASIS as a haven for escape from the harsh realities of the world, we find that the glamorous world of OASIS isn’t so perfect either. While it only costs 25 cents to make an OASIS account, money (credits) are required to do most things within the virtual world, from travel to buying items to going to a virtual club. At first, Parzival spends most of his time at his virtual school, simply because he can’t afford to go anywhere else. Further, since OASIS credits are the dominant global currency, people who work to pay off their debt often work in the OASIS. The inequality of the real world is also the inequality of the virtual.

Ready Player One fully embraces the logic of digitalism. Digitalism can be described as the belief between a stark, but symmetrical, distinction between the material and the semiotic and what Matteo Pasquinelli characterizes as “the cult of the digital network.” Here, the Internet is conceived as a digital utopia, where we are freed from the confines of our human bodies in order to embrace the superiority of the mind.  From this perspective, human differences are collapsed and race, gender, social class, sexuality, and other embodied aspects supposedly disappear. For digitalists, the development and spread of the Internet is associated with the spread of a global democratic and intellectual culture that focuses on the desire for information to be free. As Wendy Chun describes, this view of the internet “[promises] technological solutions to political problems.” Accordingly, there is no consideration of the amount of offline labor that is necessary to sustain the online world.

In the novel, Wade develops a morning exercise routine and diet using the OASIS in order to lose weight and maintain health, as OASIS players spend much of their time stagnant. He describes his hatred of the routine and the necessity of diet and exercise. For Wade, his body is source of disgust and shame and he longs for the addictive release of logging into the OASIS, freeing his mind from the confines of his physical body. I would argue this disgust and rejection of the body is characteristic of a digitalist perspective. This is evident in the term, “meat space” which refers, usually pejoratively, simultaneously to the body as flesh and meat and the physical world more generally. One can also see this idea in action with the proliferation of products such as Soylent, Silicon Valley’s favored meal replacement drink. With Soylent, foodways involving taste, cultural history, and the joy of a shared meal are dismissed and replaced by nutrition, efficiency, and speed. The body becomes a machine to be effectively supplied with energy in order for the mind to take the reigns.

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The contradictions of his world never seem to shake Parzival. When Wade learns his best virtual friend is not, in fact, a man as he assumed, but a black lesbian, she explains that the OASIS was the best thing to happen to people of color because it allowed them to hide their race. Here, racial difference is not so much as collapsed, but further reified, as discrimination is seen to stem, as Chun puts it, “from the presence of raced bodies rather than racist institutions.” Of course, none of this matters to Wade, who doesn’t feel betrayed and immediately accepts this truth about his friend. Yet, Wade agonizes over the true identity of his love interest, Art3mis/Samantha. He often wonders if she is really an old, overweight man named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement just pretending to be a woman online. Even though he repeatedly states that he likes Samantha for her mind (her true essence), he only reinforces a vision of heteronormative (online) relations, where the worst thing that could happen is that he might discover the mind he is in love with is in a man’s body!

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Despite Parzival’s fierce desire to protect the OASIS, it ultimately is just an expression of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism,” the notion that capitalism has not only taken over the present, but the future as well. Fisher observes that it is almost impossible to conceive, let alone actualize, alternative social structures outside of capitalism. As alternatives become unthinkable, we seek only to modify the existing system, which, as Fisher points out, will never achieve anything beyond a seemingly permanent status quo. This is evident in Ready Player One. Wade and his friends are only interested in maintaining the fantasy of the OASIS as an “escape hatch into a better reality” (18), even as it is entirely enmeshed in and constitutes real relations. But, none of the contradictions of the world seem to cast doubt on their vision of the OASIS.  They contradictions only strengthen their resolve. It is very much as the acronym OASIS describes: ontologically anthropocentric.

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At the end of the novel, there is an epic battle where the gunters (egg hunters) fight the IOI empire.  The battle is a nerd’s dream come true – all of your favorite technology, magic, weapons, armor, and the like from every possible video game or book or movie or TV show are used in the same battle. Voltron fights Mechagodzilla while spaceships from Star Trek do battle against arcane wizards who have access to lightsabers and the battle culminates with the detonation of the virtual equivalent of a nuclear weapon. The postmodern pastiche at its apotheosis. Cline uses the climax of his novel to show off his impressive knowledge of pop culture and his own personal canon. And, ultimately, that’s what I felt that the book was about – the establishment of the author’s nerd cred. Any critical element that the author alights upon is quickly lost in the next obscure reference.

And there are just so many references! In the effort to establish a breadth of encyclopedic knowledge, the author neglects to develop any sort of wisdom and reproduces the logic he seems to challenge in the first place. And, much like the OASIS itself and even much of popular culture today, there isn’t anything new. There is only an an obsession with the past, what Simon Reynolds calls “retromania,” and the recreation of existing social relations. Like all of our remakes, reboots, and adaptations of our favorite series, we just have more of the same.

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