Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sidequest Corner: My Thoughts on Ready Player One

It's been a while Cybertavern patrons. You're probably wondering why I haven't posted just about anything last week. Well I owe you an explanation.

Simply put, I had to pull the plug for a while.

Turn off the news, turn off social media, and take a while to recharge my mental and creative batteries.

And to recharge myself there's only one thing I know to do: read some books. When you do a lot of critical thinking about such things like animation or gaming, it's always good to go back to the basics and enjoy the vast plethora of imaginative and intellectually fulfilling majesty that is the written word.

I finally finished up Jim Butcher's first installment in his new Cinder Spires series, The Aeronaut's Windlass. A swashbuckling tale of sci-fi steampunk with giant spider monsters, airships, crazy magic users and talking warrior cat tribes. Just silly and pulpy enough to be a fun read.

Also due to the pending release of its cynical Hollywood mandated remake, I am finally plunging into the 1,500 page monster that is Steven King's It. The book is one hell of a slow boil, but if you want a crash course in how much detail is enough in terms of imagery and character expression, this is a good case study. Also despite the silliness of the made-for-TV miniseries with Tim Curry, the book is still creepy as hell and pretty nasty with its subject matter. Kids getting mutilated, profanity and 1980s flavored homophobia, there's a reason why an R rating is a must for a more appropriate adaptation of this material. I'm not even a tenth of the way through the book but I'll keep you posted.

In terms of comics I finally read through the entirety of Bryan Lee O' Malley's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World series. I enjoyed the Edgar Wright movie for what it was but the comics are on a whole different level. While the movie was basically a Win The Girl story with young man-child protagonist and a lot of video game references thrown, the comic is a lot more nuanced. Going into detail about the entire supporting cast, humanizing the main relationship between Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers, and following through on the biggest message that got lost in translation: adulthood doesn't just happen overnight. In fact, you may see me take a Jump to that world in Multiverse Desperado down the line, assuming the Reapers of Mass Effect don't kill me of course.

Well enough beating around the bush, it's time to get to the title of this post, my thoughts on Ernest Cline's Ready Player One.

Usually on Sidequest Corner I try to keep my posts rooted in game design or game industry stuff, quick and brief examinations of stuff that has been on my mind that leaves me concerned or excited for the future, but for this post I do want to expand this to talking about gamer culture and how it has deified this book as “The Holy Grail of Nerd Culture.”

Mostly because I find the whole thing to be a lot of hogwash. A fantasy for a bunch of people who spend too much time playing and not enough time broadening their horizons. Worse still, it's pitched to people who practically have a monopoly on other sci-fi or nerd culture stuff aimed directly at their sensibilities.

Put the laser guns down. Hear me out.

First, a brief synopsis. The book takes place in a dystopian near-future in the year 2040. Everything has gone to crap with a grabbag of factors. Low housing, high population, corporate sleaze, pick your social poison, it's here. But the masses have learned to cope with this crappy world by using a mash-up of VR, social media, and gaming with a program called The Oasis. You plug yourself into your rig, slap on the headset, and suddenly you are the master of your own destiny. You can hold a job there, go to school, and of course go on futuristic video game sessions like a realistic World of Warcraft Raid or whatever.

The world is terrible and you've been screwed over, so escape to The Oasis and make a new life among your dreams says the book.

As for the core conflict, the head of one of the major corporations who created The Oasis dies and leaves an elaborate scavenger hunt in the program. First one to find all the keys and beat all of the challenges gets his fortune.

Guess what these keys and challenges are based off of? 80's nerd culture. Don't worry if you don't understand any of them though, because the protagonist will explain every single one of them to you.

Remember Monty Python?

Remember Zork?

Remember Joust?

Remember Pac-Man? Remember He-Man? Remember Transformers? Remember Thundercats? Remember War Games? That movie with Matthew Broderick where they play chess against a computer? It was a really long time ago so you probably don't.

I am not exaggerating. That is how the author does it.

And this is where Ready Player One is its most nakedly pandering. An entire sixty years later and for the most tangential reason imaginable, the guy who kicks the bucket being raised in the era, people are completely enamored with 80s pop culture. The sociological primordial ooze that gave birth to what would become gaming and nerd culture as we know it today. After SIXTY YEARS of many developments happening in the world – such as the rise of gamification in the work place, literally taking the structure of ritualistic repetitive activity and using it to help improve productivity and morale in the work place across ALL FORMS OF LABOR to say nothing of what else could have developed in decade's leading up to the story's present – apparently doesn't get better than the decade that gave us cartoons designed to get you to buy merchandise, unchecked corporate excess full of hookers and blow, and melodic but also lyrically and intellectually shallow rock and roll.

From here the book is basically an adventure quest. Main hero gets allies, starts looking for keys, deals with rival gangs and factions, love interest is introduced, things get intense when hero's allies get attacked in the real world while plugged in, and it resolves when the hero wins the prize and is told that reality is important and it should be lived, not wasted away by living in a fantasy. A message that screams of hypocrisy since the main hero basically became a billionaire by wallowing in a fantasy world created by one's love of the past.

There is a skeleton of a compelling sci-fi story in this book, which is why I'm actually interested in seeing how Steven Spielberg adapts the material, but so much of it is destroyed by it being so utterly pleased with itself. It doesn't just love 80s culture, it wants to emulate it, even to its own detriment.

Think about it. The crux of 80s pop culture was founded by the Reagan Adminstration taking a lot of marketing restrictions off of companies so they could go hog wild with selling entertainment and products, which was putting more money into the economy which was fueling initiatives to fight against the Communist threat in the Cold War. Buy Transformers, buy the bigger meal at McDonald's, buy and consume so we can stick it to the ruskies, it's the American Way!

You know what else contextualizes the mass population paying for stuff by big companies in order to feel comfort or safety in an uncertain world? Dystopian sci-fi stories. And in both instances, the result is usually short-term profit but with long-term problems, be it either a housing or job crisis down the line when the bubble pops or a rebellion by a bunch of punks who won't take oppression anymore. This parallel is not even mentioned.

Also, for a book from an author that loves sci-fi and gaming culture so much, I find it disgusting that it does not take into account various uses The Oasis could have used to prevent the world from going to crap. Tangential Learning, or the way you can learn various skills or ideas by shear virtue of being introduced to them in a different context. Games like Kerbal Space Program do a great job of expressing the complexity of space rocket launches done by NASA for example. Yes, it is used as an education tool, but it only seems to be for the sake of maintaining and perpetuating the program.

 There is also the complete missed opportunity of Augmented Reality Games, experiences that use the real world as its base rather than a virtual interface. Pokemon Go is a fantastic example of this, and not only has it been great for getting people into healthy habits of walking every once in a while, there are also countless stories of how it helped small businesses thrive. The book was published in 2010, and this type of game experience has been around in smaller capacities around that time, but apparently Ernest couldn't figure out how to work Galaga into it or whatever.

But probably the most aggravating of all is how much the 80's themes of personal empowerment and prosperity should reinforce one of the greatest triumphs of gamer culture: translating skills learned into a career to better the world. Not give up gaming as "kid stuff" but using what you learned through your hobby to better yourself as a person while still keeping it as a part of your life. Worse it reinforces, even glorifies one of the most unhealthy stereotypes of gamer culture: that the world isn't going to get any better so just sit down and play.

Once again, a theme of 80s pop culture was the prevailing idea that you should continuously strive for riches and material wealth, which was equated with happiness and fulfillment, by always plugging away. Marty McFly in Back to the Future has this happen to him at the end of the movie when he changes history. Do his parents have a more loving mutual marriage shown with more passionate and worldly members of the family embracing each other? Nope. McFly gets a present of a big honking truck, his brother and sister all have on fancy suits and rush out of the house because they got well-paying jobs, and his dad is now an accomplished sci-fi author. And the bully that used to torment Marty's dad? He washes their car and does chores for them. All of this because through the events of the film, Marty helped his dad get off his ass and fight for what was important to him. And it paid off in spades.

Meanwhile, our allegedly lovable everyman schlub in RPO has a vast understanding of 80s culture, is great at pattern recognition, is able to coordinate dangerous situations under pressure with several allies showcasing resource management and human resource management skills, he apparently is fantastic at coding because at one point he hacks into the police station and steals vital information to save his friends.

Yet not once does he parlay any of these skills into a job or career that pulls him out of the boonies. He's an antisocial hermit says the book? Look at my above examples and tell me if that sounds like someone whose antisocial. Also, remote office work is a thing that we have now, there is literally no excuse.

But apparently it all worked out. He stayed locked away, played his games, and then suddenly became a billionaire. Not through tournaments like a video game answer to Rocky, but because he remembered how cool the 80s was and remembered cheat codes for Joust.

Ready Player One is unbelievably smug and self-satisfied with itself. It preaches to the choir, it loves hearing itself talk, and for a sci-fi story there are so many problems with it it makes me want to scream bloody murder. Almost no research was done in making things believable and everything about it is surface level, hackneyed and boring. To hold it up as “The Holy Grail of Nerd Culture” massively under values nerd culture as well as overvalue a book and author who could have used a second draft.

All of that being said, I will still check out Steven Spielberg's film adaptation because he notoriously makes film adaptations that are lightly based on the source material, adding in depth and nuance and a spinkle of whimsy to whatever he makes.

I mean, have you tried reading Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park? Very different story.

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