Virtual Worlds Overtake Us

The more vivid your memories of the ’80s, the more you’ll love Ernest Cline‘s Ready Player One. It’s the geek out of all geek outs…with some nice its of commentary on digital vs. real and our reliance on virtual worlds and, just maybe, a bit of post-apocalypticism thrown in to boot.

Ready Player One is set in the United States of a distant future. Our world has gone to shit. Global warming, wars, famine, and the like have all taken their toll. So has human neglect as citizens live and thrive in the OASIS, think an immersive (physically and visually) Facebook meets video games experience where people spend more time than in the real world. Their avatars can move from universe to universe (given the right credit balance of course) and compete in quests or develop relationships and friendships. The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies and leaves a will that stipulates that his creation and inheritance (many billions of dollars in value) will be left to the one who competes in and completes a quest to find the hidden egg in the system he has created. In the process, the player(s) must obtain three keys and unlock three gates. The book follows the young Wade Watts, a.k.a. Parzival, a teenage gunter (one obsessed with the quest) and his attempts to locate the keys and egg. He and his fellow gunters fear that the egg will fall in the hands of the “Sixers” representatives of an “evil” corporation that would take over OASIS and monetize it, thus pricing out many of the users who benefit from it the most. Along the way, Wade/Parzival makes strong friendships and powerful enemies and arrives at a realization about his virtual and real selves that is mutually dependent on one another.

Cline’s book is packed to the hilt with references to even the most obscure films, video games, television programs, and many other pop cultural artifacts from the ’80s and ’90s. There’s almost an “Oh yeah!!” moment on every page, but they are never distracting. In fact, they virtually drive the plot forward. There’ll no doubt be a bit of score-keeping, and perhaps competition, among readers to see who remembers the most.

At the same time, Ready Player One is a testament to the blessings and curses of virtual worlds and the alternate identities we create to inhabit them. Wade/Parzival is a bit of a loner in both worlds but matures over time through his actions, first in the OASIS and then in the real world. Wade gains a confidence in his real world abilities through his virtual successes and fame. In turn, his real world successes empower his virtual interactions, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. Cline shows that virtual worlds can eradicate all the social barriers that we daily construct to separate ourselves from one another. He also shows how the most unlikely of friendships can not only come from but can be enriched by online interactions.

At the same time, obsessions with virtual worlds (social networks or video games) can lead to increased real world problems through neglect and apathy. It remains to be seen whether or not Wade/Parzival and his friends virtual actions will have positive real world effects. We can tout the benefits of social networks and increased connectivity as individuals, but in what ways are they making our societies better? The tension between the “gunters” and the “Sixers” reveal the tension between those who want to use the OASIS as a free and open space of interaction and communication and those who would use it for monetary gain. In this case, however, both would continue to neglect the troubles that plague what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Ready Player One has been locked and loaded in my Kindle for quite some time now. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it because, aside from being an occasionally thought-provoking read, it’s one of the most fun non-real-world experiences I’ve had in a long time.