Ready Player One

I watched Ready Player One yesterday and really enjoyed it. The movie not only connected with my childhood (I remember finding the Easter egg in the Atari game Adventure, which wasn’t as exciting to me as a child as it seems looking back and appreciating the significance of the game creator’s name being hidden in there) but makes powerful points about the dangers and positive potential of technology and games for our time as well as the future.

I won’t discuss the details of the plot, so that I don’t need to offer a spoiler warning. The movie is a delight for people who grew up in the 1980s playing Atari, watching movies, listening to music, and consuming other popular culture from that era. There is no need to dig into the plot’s details in a way that reveals key elements and might put you off reading further. I haven’t read the book, and so I can avoid commenting on differences between one of the big reveals as it occurs in each.

The movie is set in a not at all unrealistic future in which there has been an increase in poverty, but also such widely available virtual reality gaming technology that most people find themselves able to cope with real-world poverty and hardship by immersing themselves in the virtual gaming realm known as Oasis, which has lots of smaller games, activities, and aspects, but all of which are linked in a single shared “world.”

The movie definitely depicts both the shortcomings and the accomplishments of technologically-enhanced interconnectedness. The key figure is the late James Halliday, who invented this gaming platform and embedded in it some games and quests that could eventually lead a successful person to become the owner of Halliday’s shares in the company. Needless to say, there are powerful corporate entities that would love to take possession of that prize.

As an academic who studies popular culture, I both liked and had qualms about the place of “Halliday scholars” in the movie. For the most part, the quest was for an accumulation of knowledge of facts, with the hope that this accumulation of trivia could unlock secrets within the game. This is rather more like the way conservative Christians attempt to redefine “scholarship” so as to mean amassing superficial familiarity with texts and ideas in the hope that they will lead to doctrinal insight, rather than critical analysis and the attempt to understand events on a deeper level. Yet I appreciated that they key (which led one to obtain a key) was not mere trivia, but making connections, and ultimately coming to understand Halliday better. Understanding and analysis rather than the ability to regurgitate trivia is the aim of that which genuinely deserves to be called scholarship. On the other hand, there may be some similarity between the quest to discover new information about otherwise well-known figures, events, and stories, and the quest for Easter eggs.

The movie addresses – to a limited extent – the corporatization of online platforms and gaming, recognizing the insidious nature of the corporation and the ways that pursuit of profit and advertising can ruin something that is otherwise positive. What the movie does not really address is what it means if this technology is run by an individual or group who is focused on maintaining its openness and benevolence. Does that just mean lower profits, or does that create something that is in fact financially unsustainable? If the former, then if Facebook continues to treat us as dispensable products, we should be able to replace it with something else. If the latter, then we may have no choice but to either forego the technological interconnectedness of Facebook and other social media like it, or sell our souls (or at least, all pertinent information about our souls) to them in exchange for the substantial benefits that they provide. And let’s not kid ourselves – as Ready Player One reminds us, those benefits are indeed significant.

Online interaction has great potential for us to hide our true selves, to craft an image that doesn’t correspond to reality, and to lose ourselves in way that sustain real-world injustice, serving as the opiate of the masses (and thus connecting directly with Karl Marx’s famous critique of religion). But I hope that everyone reading this has had the experience of discovering how online connection can keep us in touch with family and friends, spawn new friendships, and foster deep and meaningful discussion rather than merely superficial conflict. The internet can foster the latter, too, to be sure, but depth depends on the participants, whether in the real world or a virtual one. The movie seemed to me to strike that balance, recognizing both the harm and the good that this technology offers, and thus resisting facile attempts to either deify or demonize it. And ultimately it showed that a healthy interconnection between virtual and real-life interaction may have more to offer than either can on its own.

What did you think of Ready Player One?

 

 

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  • John MacDonald

    But I hope that everyone reading this has had the experience of discovering how online connection can keep us in touch with family and friends, spawn new friendships, and foster deep and meaningful discussion rather than merely superficial conflict.

    I definitely have tried to come to a deeper understanding of religion and religious people through internet discussions – especially on this blog. It used to be my opinion that God and God related issues were just silly superstitions and magic lore that were irrelevant to my life. A big question I have always had in the past is how can so many people, historically and today, be so superstitious and childish? I’ve enjoyed interacting with liberal Christians who take a more critical approach to their faith.

    I still believe that if there was a loving, caring, personal God who watched over us and has a plan for our lives, there wouldn’t be tragedies like earthquakes or childhood cancer. That isn’t love. In fact, it may be depraved indifference murder. To constitute depraved indifference, the defendant’s conduct must be ‘so wanton, so deficient in a moral sense of concern, so lacking in regard for the life or lives of others, and so blameworthy as to warrant the same criminal liability as that which the law imposes upon a person who intentionally causes a crime. And what about historical and continued animal suffering?

    Also, there is no more reason to suppose humans have an afterlife than spiders do. I also raise my eye when religious people praise God in thanks after winning a sporting event, or healing them in answer to prayer – Did God also cause the other team to lose, or selectively answer your prayer while ignoring the prayers of others?

    Most of all, I appreciate the stimulating discussion. I sometimes regret that I stopped with a Master’s degree and didn’t go on to do a PhD because I do enjoy my contemplative time.

  • Mike Dunster

    I haven’t seen it yet – I’m planning to see it next weekend. This weekend I went to see ‘Love Simon’ – not a huge fan of high school rom coms, but I wanted to see how it handled gay romance.

  • Joshua Hauck-Whealton

    ” – to a limited extent – ”

    That sums up the book for me. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything that raised more questions about contemporary culture, yet was so uninterested in exploring them. I hope the movie is better.

  • TrevorN

    Seeing as you asked “what did you think of Ready Player One”, I can answer. I read the book. To the end, although when I got to the end I decided I hadn’t enjoyed it as much as I thought I had while I was still reading it. Some books are like that, they shrink on you. This was one of those. I haven’t seen the film and probably won’t unless it turns up gratis on one of my subscription services.