Spoiler Warning: I’m going to talk about aspects of this book that appear through the entire story. This will ruin a mild twist at the end.
My friend recommended Ready Player One to me because she knew I liked video games. I took her up on the recommendation (albeit many months later), thinking that it would be something like Ender’s Game, another book tangentially related to gaming that I enjoyed. When I actually got down to reading it, however, I felt an overwhelming frustration. The book relies heavily on how the general public would stereotype a gamer to define its main characters. The classic image of the fat, adult male with no life prospects that still shows up in recent media. Ready Player One had a chance to promote an image that contradicts the negative public image surrounding gamers but instead defines its main characters as “gamers” while it relies on negative stereotypes and “geek” qualities to provide that definition.
The first thing that caught my eye was the forced atheist message. The main character, who also serves as the narrator, moves away from establishing the world early on in the story to deliver a harsh critique of all organized religion. During my read-through, it felt wildly out of place. It wasn’t really character development because the narrator created a whole fictional conversation to put down religion. It seemed like a sub-theme of the book, but I can easily say that it had no impact on the story. Not only was it unnecessary, but it also then attributes a religious orientation to the gamer persona, which only creates problems. The image of a gamer should be broad in its definition, accounting for the common threads that connect gamers but leaving out the areas where they will differ. Religious orientations naturally differ within any secular group, so it’s upsetting and narrow-minded to see Ernest Cline attempt to jam the atheist image into the gamer definition.
Another issue arose while the narrator described the world he lived in. The setting is a dystopian America, brought about because people cared more about the virtual reality simulation OASIS than their real-world problems. The narrator even explicitly says that he would rather be in the OASIS than the real world. In other words, American society pretty much collapsed because people used a video game to escape their problems. Sound familiar? Critics of video games have long said that they are problematic because their users escape into the game instead of facing reality. The fictional people of America are the manifestation of this anti-video game sentiment. This seems to validate anti-video game arguments, while the book really should not fuel the fire against its main characters.
With all of this present, it is no surprise that all of the main characters have some form of social anxiety or inability to connect with others. This goes beyond just the narrator. Every main character who plays in the OASIS and even the creator of the OASIS prefer talking through the game where they can alter their voice, appearance, and name rather than in real life. This fuels another stereotype, that gamers are antisocial and have trouble interacting with other humans. Cline does not seem to use subtle language in his narrative, because the narrator expresses this characteristic blatantly, just like his preference for virtual reality. I’m not suggesting that the characters need to be exaggerated social butterflies, but it doesn’t feel good to see so many of them blatantly and consistently validate the extreme introvert image.
Being a dystopian future, Cline decided that food should be scarce. That makes perfect sense, but it makes much less sense to have every character be overweight another gamer stereotype. The only character not overweight is Daito, but he’s from Japan. All the Americans represented in the story range from slightly overweight to borderline obese. Thought Cline never explicitly talks about this part of the characters, the implicit commentary is still loud and clear. The successful, dedicated gamer looks like this, and the consistent application of the stereotype gives the reader no reason to think any other possibility exists. This loops back to the same base issue that many other points here raise: the presented gamer is too narrowly defined and dependent on stereotypes to accurately portray the gaming community as a whole.
This indirect commentary manifests more clearly in the associated media that each main character enjoys. They all enjoy cult classics from the 1980s in the fields of cinema, anime, comic books, music, and video games. This makes sense within the narrative because the competition they all compete in demands this knowledge. There’s never mention, though, of anyone possessing an interest in anything else. The complete scope of their interests rests within this geek culture. The underlying messages proclaim that these gamers either cannot or do not want to involve themselves in other pursuits. This adds an odd dimension to the gamer definition promoted in the book. This is perhaps the most obvious example to a modern gamer that this book contains very specific characters that are defined as gamers, but I hesitate to think that a non-gamer would understand this nuance.
To be clear, this isn’t a book review. The book itself is enjoyable enough to read. I just don’t like the consequences of this story being provided to the masses. This had the potential to be a force that updated the image of the gamer to the masses, but it instead relied entirely on old tropes. In the end, Halliday suggests some of these ideas may be off-base, but it was done so in a poor way that didn’t really counteract any of the points that the narrative cemented (if that was even the purpose of this character’s change of heart). Perhaps, in emphasizing 1980s culture so heavily in the book, Cline also kept the public imagery of a 1980s gamer in his character.