The death of culture in Ready Player One’s unintended dystopia

[Forgive the self-indulgent rant… I didn’t expect to write more about Ready Player One but I disliked the book so much that I couldn’t help myself. I could even keep going!]

One of my persistent (and probably irrational) anxieties is that I will present my personality like a bad dating profile: a laundry list of likes and dislikes. I like anime. I like video games. I don’t like sports. Though mostly true, those statements feel facile. They beg for just a little extra effort and nuance. I don’t want other people to think of me only in terms of the media I consume or the hobbies I enjoy.

I don’t have a coherent response to this “dating profile problem,” for lack of a better term. Worse, I’m not sure that it really even is problematic, other than being a bit boring (boredom! the horror!). The closest I can get to a solution is something like this blog’s modest attempt to produce reviews with a little rigor. If it is insufficient to state that “I like this,” maybe answering the question “Why?” will come closer to whatever undefined ideal I fear violating.

That all is a roundabout way to say that I hate, hate, hate, hated Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One. Why? Because it does exactly what I try so hard to avoid: the book defines itself solely by the 1980s-ish pop-culture icons that Cline clearly adores. Ready Player One fails because it barely even tries to answer the question “Why” from my “dating profile problem.” Throughout the book’s 250-some pages, Cline continues to chant “I like this. I like this. I like this” until his virtual reality world begins to seem unintentionally dystopic. Cultural creativity itself seems to die in the ironically named OASIS, replaced only by lazy references to the pop-culture properties that form Cline’s canon of “things I like.”

As a primer on the book’s premise, I’ll quote from my other essay (about Cline’s persistent misuse of Japanese culture):

To anyone unfamiliar with the work, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (screen name: Parzival) as he explores the VR MMO “OASIS” in order to find an easter egg left by an eccentric billionaire game designer obsessed with 1980s nerd culture. The easter egg contains the designer’s multi-billion dollar inheritance and the developer keys to OASIS itself, meaning that millions of independent and corporate “gunters” (= easter egg hunters) promise to give Wade stiff competition. The book’s main protagonists form the “High Five,” a loosely associated group of the game’s top five gunters as they make a nauseating number of pop-culture references to solve the egg’s 1980’s themed puzzles.

Ready Player One presents a dystopia so over-the-top that it could have made a solid parody of sci-fi pessimism if the book hadn’t ignored its real world setting in favor of its virtual one. Just about every modern anxiety makes the list. In no particular order, the world suffers from …

… global warming, sea-level rise, energy shortages, rolling blackouts, nuclear bombings, terrorism and casual assassination, severe economic inequality, widespread drug addiction, mass looting, epidemic obesity, global starvation and malnutrition, multiple endless wars, government gridlock or state failure, “fascist” corporations, indentured servitude into functional slavery, the total loss of privacy, the end of net neutrality, and the threat of video game microtransactions (they targeted gamers! Gamers.)…

… and I’m sure I missed a few more cataclysms that Cline crammed into the book (was there something about gun violence?). But I would add one more figurative feature to the dystopia that I don’t think Cline even intended: the death of culture.

When I use “death of culture,” I don’t mean it in the sense of an old crank drumming up a moral panic about the kids these days listening to their rap music or rock-and-roll music or swing music or jazz music or whatever (I’m sure even Mozart must have scandalized the aristocracy of his time). Cultural change is fine and good. I don’t even mean to criticize mass-appeal, iterative franchises that take few risks like Star Wars or the Marvel universe. At the very least, iteration implies change. Instead, by “death of culture” I mean an end to any sort of artistic or intellectual innovation, an end to human creativity. Ready Player One’s dystopia is unappealing because the players in the OASIS never seem to create anything new.

Given that Ready Player One focuses on its gaming bona-fides, I was surprised that the book misses one of the great appeals of modern multiplayer games: user generated content. Many people play Minecraft or Rust or even old fossils like Garry’s Mod or Second Life because those games offer unique tools and contexts to create interesting locations and stories and devices. Even “theme park” MMOs with minimal player freedom like Guild Wars 2 or World of Warcraft have strong creative mini-games via virtual character dress-up time. For many players, mixing and matching perfect outfits has overshadowed the game itself. Trading in cosmetics has become a serious business.

[An aside, while reading, sometimes I wondered if Cline has played games newer than those on the Atari 2600. Who calls experience points “XPs” anymore… or ever?]

But for a VR world in which players can live out their dreams, OASIS displays a stark lack of novelty. For example, Wade’s starship hanger contains an X-wing from Star Wars, the DeLorean from Back to the Future, and the Serenity from Firefly. However, he never designs his own vehicles to fit his own unique needs and aesthetic preferences. He even fails to draw inspiration from old works to synthesize them into something new like, I don’t know, a Firefly-class X-lorean. He just copies existing icons, installs the AI from Knight Rider, and slaps on some Ghostbusters stickers. Isn’t that kind of boring?

The other protagonists demonstrate the same lack of creativity, as if they can only express their individuality through nostalgia for a time they didn’t even live. Much like Wade, Shoto flies the titular Bebop spaceship from Cowboy Bebop, boringly re-christened the Kurosawa. Aech’s chat room, akin to player housing in an MMO, is “perfect recreation” of Ogden Morrow’s 1980s basement, complete with obsolete Betamax and LaserDisc devices. Art3mis wears “Road Warrior-style racing gloves” as part of a “mid-’80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look.” (Please writer, do your job and show us: what exactly does that look… look like? It’s sooo lazy). Where is the “OC do not steal” culture in OASIS? Do none of them enjoy customizing their own unique characters?

Even Art3emis’s blog, the most creative endeavor in the whole book, does little more than document her study of the 1980s geek canon. Wade offers a representative example: her most recent blog post is titled ‘The John Hughes Blues’ … an in-depth treatise on her six favorite John Hughes teen movies.” That on its own is fine (I suppose this blog does the same thing), but Art3emis’s entire personhood from her outfit down to her favorite drink order at bars depends on references to her favorite things. She lacks any personality beyond that of a manic pixie (nerd) girl destined to fall into Wade’s lap because they both happen to have the Rocky Horror Picture Show memorized.

The settings in the OASIS suffer from the same referential blandness. For example, regarding the architecture in the world, Wade explains:

Re-creations of the Tyrell Building [from Blade Runner] were among the most common structures in the OASIS. Copies of it existed on hundreds of different planets, spread throughout all twenty-seven sectors. This was because the code for the building was included as a free built-in template in the OASIS WorldBuilder construction software (along with hundreds of other structures borrowed from various science-fiction films and television series).

Most of the game’s sectors have branded themes like the Star Wars or Matrix areas and all of the prominent locations in the plot are simple recreations of existing locations or cultural products. Wade finds the first key in the D&D module Tomb of Horrors and opens the first gate in another “perfect” digital recreation of Halliday’s hometown. The other keys appear in a VR version of the ancient adventure game Zork and the temple from Rush’s album 2112.  Even in the real world, Ogden Morrow’s mansion “looks exactly like Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings movies.” Did the architects of OASIS ever aspire to anything more than imitation? Sure, maybe draw inspiration from the aesthetics of an elven city, but why copy it precisely?

Nothing new exists in Ready Player One, as if people stopped dreaming up new books or movies or video games the moment OASIS first went online. Apparently, writers and artists and animators have ceased to exist. Only programmers remain, perfectly recreating the great works of the past down to every detail, like monastic scribes in Dark Age Europe copying copies of copies of the great theological treatises written centuries prior. Replace the quill with a mouse, the vellum with a keyboard, and the dim candle light with the dull, blue glow of a computer screen and OASIS begins to look like a stagnant cloister worshiping 1980s pop-culture orthodoxy.

The crazy part about that analogy is that it is uncharitable to the Dark Ages. Somehow, Ready Player One’s dystopia is worse. Scribes at least performed the valuable task of disseminating old manuscripts and the medieval scholars in Europe’s first universities expanded on Aristotelian philosophy. By contrast, OASIS’s 1980s-centric cultural landscape rewards nothing but memorization. Most of the egg hunt’s tasks more resembled trivia quizzes than thoughtful, creative challenges. Two of them required nothing more than regurgitating lines from the movies War Games and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (to that end, Wade had “memorized every frame” from Holy Grail after 157 viewings = 240 hours!).

My biggest problem with Ready Player One was that the book never seems to attempt any sort of introspection over such a culturally stagnant dystopia. In fact, it often does the opposite: Wade is rewarded with billions of dollars and the girl of his dreams for his implausibly perfect study of the 1980s nerd canon rather than for his creativity. Cline presents Wade’s intolerable pedantry as a positive. In one extreme eye-rolling example, he defeats a bully by slamming him with trivia from the Swordquest games, to which everyone in the chat room “bursts into applause.” It’s so stupid! Meanwhile, when asked what he would do with $240 billion, Wade responds “‘I don’t know … The usual, I guess. Move into a mansion. Buy a bunch of cool shit. Not be poor.’” It’s positively Randian in its selfishness, except at least Rand’s entrepreneurial heroes deigned to create something new. The only virtue of Cline’s vapid protagonist’s is a flawless memory.

Is memorization and recitation difficult? Absolutely. I just finished a month-long marathon coaching four diligent Japanese middle school students through an English speech contest. But in the digital world, is it valuable? I’m not so sure. Google exists. If I want to learn who created the Swordquest games, I just need to type “swordquest” into my search bar and… oh hello, before I even click a link, the information box tells me “Designer(s): Dan Hitchens and Tod Frye.” I don’t need to memorize and “recite” that fact to expose an intellectual fraud like Wade did. I just need to have a cell signal and know the extremely simple process to do an online search.

To Cline, intelligence seems to express itself through a person’s sheer capacity to remember information rather than their ability to reach creative solutions. It is telling that Wade tunes out of his Latin class because he had already memorized the verbs, as if that were the only thing required to learn the language. Could Wade use the verbs in context though? After all, a hard drive can store vast amounts of data but no one would call it “intelligent.”

Culture requires creative intelligence. A pessimist might say that every story has already been told and cite something like Kurt Vonnegut’s story arcs or Joseph Campbell’s myths. However, a few clever twists or timely details or personal touches (remember the lack of individuality in the Ready Player One’s supporting cast?) can give the most archetypical works an air of novelty. For example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows the same story and character beats as A New Hope, but the new settings and characters made the new experience enjoyable. Despite being entirely derivative, The Force Awakens still demonstrated some degree of creativity.

By contrast, the copy-and-paste “culture” in OASIS’s nostalgic dystopia (nostalgopia?) is just truly intolerable. Without the constant churn of old ideas recombining into new stories and mixing again with whatever comes next, culture calcifies and dies, like the cold, lifeless asteroid Wade calls his virtual home. Or, as Wade literally calls it: “Its designation was S14A316, but I’d renamed it Falco, after the Austrian rap star. (I wasn’t a huge Falco fan or anything. I just thought it sounded like a cool name.)”

I can’t argue with the rule of cool, but good god, try a little harder. It’s pathetic and lazy. I don’t want to live in a world with such a shockingly stagnant culture.

So here’s a piece for a hypothetical dating profile: I hate Ready Player One. Have I explained why?

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