We’ve taken care of everything
The words you read
The songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together, common sons
Never need to wonder how or why
Rush – 2112
With Netflix’s sometimes sensationalized documentary The Social Dilemma taking off like crazy in social circles of the internet I believe it is time to take a look back at a book that tackled many of these issues years ago, 2011’s Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I want to be clear this will be just about the book not the movie, which in my opinion was bad, very bad. (Mainly for the reasons it missed everything that will be discussed in the coming paragraphs) On top of all that Ready Player Two is coming out later this year in November so there is no better time to look back at the book that started it all.
For a high level synopsis Ready Player One is a fun romp through a digital world with lots and lots of nostalgia placed in a dystopian 2040s. The book starts with a death, the death of the most important person in the world, James Halliday the creator of the Oasis. When James dies he places an in-game competition, whomever will win will take his fortune and take control of the Oasis itself. This starts a mad dash by both people and companies who want to win that prize. The Oasis is the in-world VR where people can be anyone, and you can do everything from school, to work, to play. From a nostalgia point I must thank the book for introducing me to the greatest song of all time, Rushes 2112. (Which I am listening to as I write this.) Within the Oasis we see many aspects of geek/nerd/pop culture from the 80s, 90s including D&D and Arcades. All this happens well exploring a tale of man versus machine and freedom over control. If you have never read the book I truly recommend it. With that, Warning, spoilers ahead.
With all that out I now want to get the plot of my conversation, the real world of Ready Player One and the Social Dilemma. Many times when Ready Player One (RPO) is discussed people discuss the fun virtual world, The Oasis, but don’t discuss the real world as much. I think it says a lot that the first chapter after the introduction starts with the line “I was jolted awake by the sound of gunfire…” This is not a good world, this is a world that stands on the precipice of destruction due to human flaws like greed and overuse of resources. The only way to escape the horrors of the world is to enter a different one, the Oasis. The real world in RPO is one with a multitude of problems including, a debt slave class, overpopulation, subpar living conditions, violence and lack of acceptance. These are just some of the issues, and from how the book makes it seem something most of the population must deal with and decide not to through escapism. When it comes down to it the real world sucks, and there is a way out in the Oasis.
As the book continues we are introduced to one of the major players in making the world so sucky, Innovative Online Industries or IOI. IOI a competitor to take over The Oasis using the vast employee pool they have to all compeat and agree to give the winnings to IOI. They know if they can control the Oasis they can market and control more of the population. (For more on this check out Propaganda by Edward Bernays.) They know for so many people the real world, the physical world is no longer real but The Oasis is. Taking a twist upon an old quote He who controls the Oasis, controls the masses. IOI does many things to make the world a worse place, it has literally prisoners who cannot pay their debt so they are forced in cages and made to work for IOI to pay it off with no form of freedom until they pay off their debt. (This was known as serfdom in the past and partly how American settlements were founded in colonial times.) IOI attacks the people in the real world multiple times, including killing one of the competitors for the Oasis and attempting to kill Wade, our hero, by blowing up the stacks (the stacks is a collection of trailers stacked on top of eachother for people to live in within the overcrowded world.) In this overly depressing world, IOI is the bad guy, and if they win the freedom of the Oasis will be put behind a paywall.
While exploring the problems of the real world we must also look to Wade’s best friend, Aech, or by her real world name Helen Harris. Helen is an black lesbian who was kicked out of her home by her mother for her sexual orentation. Even in the future of this world people discriminate against family members due to their sexual orientation still. Just 18 years old she is forced to live alone in a van, in a world that frankly isn’t safe. It’s no surprise she looks to escape to the Oasis, take on a completely different personality, and uses the Oasis to be a white male, because in the Oasis you can be anything.
We really need to explore Wade, our protagonist, to get to the crux of the story, the moral quandary. Wade is the main character and he is the one the world is explored through. It is his home, his village, that gets blown up in an attempt to get to him, it is his home that has the shooting in it during the opening of the book. He lives in a broken home with his aunt, and is not treated well, he is treated so poorly he has a place to escape to in order to escape to the Oasis, so he is in his own space, while being in the social network that connects most the living world. Wade follows a hero’s journey, to the point his avatar is the only one to ever be resurrected in the Oasis. (For more on the hero’s journey please reference the work of Joseph Campell.) Along the way though Wade starts to experience the real world, and get real connections. He also realizes something, maybe the world went to shit because people had a place to escape to, a place where they truly did not need to face the fact everything is breaking. In true hero fashion Wade wins the competition, but he is presented with a dilemma, one we never find the answer to, does he press the big red button and delete the Oasis, does he take the world out of their fake comfortability and force humanity to face reality.
So if you have watched the Social Dilemma you may see how this all connects. We are now inundated with social media profiles that present a world to us that is viewed through a looking glass, a bit less real and shading the real world ever so lightly. Ready Player One was tackling these issues while at the same time presenting us a fun story. But at this point I must ask you a question, if you could flip a switch and turn off the internet for the world, would you?
“Listen…I need to tell you one last thing before I go. Something I didn’t figure out for myself until it was already too late…I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. 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. Do you understand that?”
Ernest Cline – Ready Player One
~ Jake Duell