“Ready Player One through a critical lens” is a contradictory statement. In fact, to look at Ready Player One through any lens is probably counterintuitive. It’s literature for the masses–the real life, actual incarnation of the “‘Member berries” South Park skit. It’s a scattered collection of awkward references and jokes that don’t land (“These days, most gunters referred to [the sixers] as “the Sux0rz.” Because they sucked.”), with any cracks in narrative or character band-aided by impossibly dense and inorganic exposition. Ready Player One is not Catcher in the Rye, or Lord of the Flies, or even really The Hunger Games, nor does it try to be. It has no coherent theme or theory, no intentionality. It’s vapid popcorn media meant to be consumed without thought, consumed without care, consumed without reason. It exists purely to exist, to wallow in its own quirkiness, colliding with as many external entities as possible with no regard for its cited source material. It would almost be anarchist, or postmodern, or bold, or some chaotic frankenstein of all three, if it wasn’t so painfully artless. But my problem with Ready Player One isn’t that it’s artless, bad fiction. It’s not even that it’s artless, bad fiction written for boys. My problem with Ready Player One is that it’s so, so, so incredibly popular.
Ready Player One is a New York Times bestseller, and now a Spielberg-fronted movie that has made just over $470,000,000 internationally in a little under 3 weeks. RPO’s cultural mass alone necessitates introspection–not of the brand itself, but of the culture that it epitomizes. Again, Ready Player One as a singular, vacuous entity is not something to take issue with, as bad fiction (even for boys) has always been popular. Ready Player One’s existence is something to take issue with. It’s the culmination of a culture that has spent decades accepting male mediocrity, the culmination of thousands of Parzivals succeeding over their respective Art3mises. The culmination of countless well-cultured, well-read, well-rounded minorities designated to television static, or mic feedback, or a general sort of background noise intended to exist purely as texture–texture that will hopefully retreat quietly when its allotted word count is reached. Texture that’s written as a prize to be won. Texture whose kiss felt as good as Wade had always imagined it would be — texture that blushes when Wade describes her as rubenesque.
These genuinely interesting and diverse characters of Ready Player One exist strictly as “others;” objects in Wade’s orbit to be quipped about, or observed, or pined over, or really any other action that doesn’t require direct contact. Characters like Aech and Art3mis become plot devices, comedic relief, worldbuilding techniques–they become means to an end. They’re robbed of their agency, becoming footnotes in Wade’s omnipotent and all-consuming tales about Atari Joust and blog consumption, observed only through Wade’s lens, on Wade’s terms.
But, much like anything interesting that could be attributed to the book, this “othering” of anyone that isn’t the archetypal Wade Watts isn’t unique to Ready Player One. It’s something that’s plagued mainstream geek culture since geek culture’s inception. It comes in varying shades, from the blatantly misogynistic rants spawned by the eloquently named “booby streamer” epidemic of Twitch.TV, to the subtle implications of John Green’s “Nerd girls are the world’s most underutilized romantic resource.” We’ve seen it in gamergate, in Pewdiepie’s infamous “heated gaming moment”, in the widespread defense of Jontron and his gene pools. Consistently, we’ve seen a culture dominated by Wade Watts’s’ refuse to change, refuse to diversify, to critique itself, to accept anything besides praise. But that’s not Ready Player One’s fault. It’s not Pewdiepie’s fault, or Jontron’s fault, or really any single entity’s fault at all. It’s a cumulative attitude, a sneaking anxiety about change that shrouds geek communities. It’s a refusal to recognize anything outside of the Wade Watts vacuum as either genuine or human.
Of course, this problem can be ignored by both the geek consciousness and, more importantly, by the corporations that rely on it. Depending on the single largest demographic in the United States to buy a product marketed to them isn’t exactly a burden, and the unchallenging homogeneity of that demographic will ensure its stability. For the short term, at least, nothing has to change, so nothing will change. Attempts to prod the geek community in the direction of acceptance has only been met with accusations of “cultural marxism,’ or “postmodernism,” or, as youtube user “Skullman1488” puts it, “sjw propaganda.” We can theorize all we want about the origins and implications of this primal, tribalistic fear plaguing these communities, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. As long as every Parzival finds his Art3mis, why change the happy ending?