Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, an adaptation of the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline, is about to debut. And the internet is ready and waiting to tell him why that’s a terrible idea.
“Ready Player One is a terrible book and it will be a terrible movie,” the Outline proclaimed.
“Many people find its take on games and so-called genre art to be a dull, pandering tableau of reference points as an end unto themselves,” the A.V. Club informed.
Reading the end of Ready Player One, opined a writer for Tor, “I felt like a kid who thinks eating an entire cake by himself sounded fun — I was sick of it, and craving something of real substance.”
A time traveler from 2011 could be forgiven for being deeply confused by this response. In 2011, Ready Player One was beloved. It was “a guaranteed pleasure.” It was “witty.” It was not only “a simple bit of fun” but also “a rich and plausible picture of future friendships in a world not too distant from our own.”
What gives? How did the consensus on a single book go from “exuberant and meaningful fun!” to “everything that is wrong with the internet!” over the span of seven years?
Luckily, there’s a perfect stepping stone that can help us understand exactly how this transition happened. In 2015, Cline released his second book, Armada, to a reception that looked a lot closer to the consensus on Ready Player One today than the consensus on Ready Player One in 2011. And that’s because in 2015, the geek community of the internet was still in the throes of the seismic event known as Gamergate.
Gamergate was a toxic cultural battle filled with harassment so vicious it would become a major influence on the alt-right — but fundamentally, it was about who gets to be a geek, which parts of geek identity are worth lauding, and which parts are destructive. Gamergate changed the way we talk about geek culture, and in the end, it would make it borderline impossible to think about books like Ready Player One as harmless, meaningless fun.
When Ready Player One came out, it felt like an escapist fantasy for gamers
Back in 2011, it was almost impossible not to think about Ready Player One as harmless fun.
The premise is appealingly silly and insubstantial: It’s 2045, and the dystopian world has become unbearable. As an escape, most of humanity spends its time plugged into the OASIS, an expansive VR landscape that incorporates most of the 20th and 21st centuries’ pop culture into itself, so that users can pilot the spaceship from Firefly to a Dungeons & Dragons castle.
The plot is more pleasant nonsense. The founder of the OASIS, James Halliday, has died, and he has left his fortune — and control of the OASIS itself — to the person who can track down an Easter egg he’s hidden inside the game. To find the egg, hunters (gunters, in the parlance of the book) will need an encyclopedic knowledge of Halliday’s beloved 1980s pop culture. And our hero Wade, an 18-year-old video game addict from a trailer park, is sure that he’s just the man to do it. He just has to find the egg before a massive corporation gets its hands on it instead, regulating away the freedom of virtual reality and ending the OASIS as Wade knows it.
What ensues is an exuberantly paced quest narrative that begs to be devoured like candy and refuses any hard questions or contemplation on the reader’s part. Why would you want to think about how potentially toxic empty nostalgia can be? Ultraman’s fighting Mechagodzilla over here!
The writing was never very good — it’s mostly just long lists of pop culture references and Wade’s opinion as to whether the property in question sucks or rocks — but for the kind of book Ready Player One is trying to be, that doesn’t necessarily matter. The primary aesthetic pleasure here is one of recognition: Yes, I know that reference, and yes, I agree that it sucks or rocks. And Ready Player One is there to serve that pleasure to its readers on a silver platter — assuming its readers are also gamers obsessed with the bits of ’80s pop culture that were built with teenage boys in mind.
But the main thing Ready Player One is doing is telling those ’80s-boy-culture-obsessed gamers that they matter, that in fact they are the most important people in the universe. That knowing every single goddamn word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail can have life-or-death stakes, because why shouldn’t it? (Yes, that is a crucial step in Wade’s battle to save the OASIS.)
For readers in Cline’s target demographic in 2011, that message felt empowering. For readers who weren’t, it felt like a harmless piece of affirmation meant for someone else. Everyone deserves a silly escapist fantasy, right? And since Cline’s silly escapist fantasy wasn’t specifically meant for girls — unlike, say, Twilight, which was getting savaged in popular culture at the time — Ready Player One was largely left alone by the people it wasn’t built for. There was the occasional harsh piece of criticism from the in-group, but mostly, the response was welcoming. Even the New York Times, which noted that “gaming has overwhelmed everything else about this book,” gave it a gentle, mostly positive review.
Four years later, Armada came out to a very different reaction.
By the time Armada came out, Cline’s escapism had come to seem toxic
Armada, like Ready Player One, is primarily a delivery mechanism for geek nostalgia and geek affirmation, only in this case it’s focused on alien invasion stories rather than just ’80s pop culture. (Although this main character, like Ready Player One’s Wade, does have an anachronistically encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s stuff.) It takes the premise that the video game industry is actually a secret government strategy meant to train civilians to fight against an alien invasion — so when the aliens come, gamers are the human race’s best hope of survival.
Over the course of the book’s first act, 18-year-old Zack Lightman goes from nerdy high school gamer to a captain in the Earth Defense Alliance, adored by all for his video game prowess and provided with not only his favorite snacks and gaming music but also a specially bred strain of weed designed specifically for gaming. “All those years I spent playing videogames weren’t wasted after all, eh?” he crows to his mother. (Cline loves the word eh. His characters all sound vaguely Canadian because of it.)
The aesthetic pleasure here is the same as it was in Ready Player One — “I get that reference!” — and so is the central idea: that gamers have the potential to be the most important people in the universe. But in 2015, readers no longer welcomed such pleasures with universally open arms.
The Washington Post dismissed it as “nostalgic narcissism.” The A.V. Club found it “depressing.” Armada was a dull retread of Ready Player One, critics opined, filled with off-putting nerd gatekeeping and lists of better and more interesting stories instead of any original ideas of its own.
“It’s as though Willy Wonka made you prove you knew the chemical composition of nougat before he let you into the chocolate factory,” The Verge complained.
The most oft-cited and deeply damning Armada review was at Slate, by Laura Hudson (now an editor at Vox’s sister site The Verge). “The shameless, jejune wish-fulfillment of the book burns hot and bright,” she wrote, arguing that Armada was “cringingly terrible and transparent” in its “self-indulgence,” and that Cline’s status as the apotheosis of nerd culture “should be troubling to anyone who identifies with the label.”
For Hudson, the empty nerd nostalgia that Cline’s work champions points to something toxic in nerd culture itself. “It’s a valuable question for gaming culture — and ‘nerd culture’ more generally — to ask itself,” she wrote: “Do we want to tell stories that make sense of the things we used to love, that help us remember the reasons we were so drawn to them, and create new works that inspire that level of devotion? Or do we simply want to hear the litany of our childhood repeated back to us like an endless lullaby for the rest of our lives?”
Hudson doesn’t mention Gamergate by name, but that’s the elephant in the room here. Gamergate is why the toxicity of nerd culture is a more-than-reasonable peg for a review of a book like Armada in 2015. It’s why, at the time, people were thinking a lot about the toxicity of nerd culture in general. And it’s why, four years after the debut of Ready Player One, it was no longer easy to think of Cline’s nostalgic, nerdy fantasies as harmless.
Gamergate is about gatekeeping. So is Ready Player One.
Gamergate’s origins are nebulous and contradictory, as ably outlined by my colleague Todd VanderWerff. What’s important for the Ready Player One conversation is what Gamergate had evolved into by 2015, and that is: angry gamers (mostly young, straight white men) hurling abuse at their targets (mostly women) in the name of a kind of nerd purity.
That abuse took the form of graphic rape and death threats, sometimes so detailed and specific that some of the women targeted by Gamergate went into hiding. Occasionally, Gamergaters would send SWAT teams to their targets’ homes (a popular trolling tactic that has led to death in at least one case).
It was all a particularly vicious and brutal kind of gatekeeping. Gamergate’s targets were primarily people who were interested in performing feminist critiques of video games or in making nontraditional video games for women or disabled people or people of color. For this, packs of angry nerds decided that they must be punished.
Culture writers who think a lot about nerd culture were deeply shaken. They started to write think pieces about how nerd culture could have become so deeply toxic, so profoundly misogynistic and destructive, that it could birth a movement like Gamergate.
“There’s a fundamental lack of empathy or understanding for other human beings at play here,” argued Andrew Todd at Birth Movies Death. “These people live in a fucked-up alternate universe where everything is done for the lulz, or to win points in some kind of psychopathic game of one-upmanship. What we’re seeing is the gamification of a social struggle.”
At Destructoid, Jonathan Holmes pointed the finger at “the sentiment of elitism. The idea that there are certain kinds of gamers that deserve to take pride in that name, and others that should be ashamed. The process of establishing superiority over another group of gamers by belittling them.”
“By the turn of the millennium,” wrote Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra, the cultural imperatives of gaming were: “Have money. Have women. Get a gun and then a bigger gun. Be an outcast. Celebrate that. Defeat anyone who threatens you. You don’t need cultural references. You don’t need anything but gaming.” Those imperatives, she concluded, would create “an amorphous cultural shape that was dark and loud on the outside, hollow on the inside.”
And unfortunately for Cline, his work reads like a compendium of all the aspects of nerd culture that critics have come see as a breeding ground for Gamergate.
How Gamergate killed Ready Player One
Both Wade and Zack follow Alexander’s imperatives like they’re checking them off a list: They start off poor but then make millions from their video games. They earn cool hacker girlfriends like trophies. They get guns, and then bigger guns. Their cultural references are valuable purely for their use in gaming — any culture that exists outside of their video games might as well not exist. And gleefully, they celebrate their outcast status.
“I was too weird, even for the weirdos,” Wade announces at the beginning of Ready Player One. His school doesn’t “get” him, so he heads to the OASIS. There, his ’80s pop culture knowledge ensures his high social status, and his debates with his best friend — over which ’80s properties rock and which suck — are considered “high in entertainment value.” When a fellow player dares to question his knowledge, Wade is able to beat him into submission under a stream of trivia (“You’re holding Swordquest: Earthworld. … Can you name the next three games in the series?”) until his rival “lowers his head in shame” and the watching, awestruck crowd “bursts into applause.”
The world of Cline’s escapist fantasy is a world of elitist gatekeeping. It is a world in which a person’s value is determined by their knowledge of esoteric cultural trivia, where those of lesser value must be defeated and wiped away, and where gaming is all that matters. And, crucially, it is a world specifically for straight white men.
Cline’s cultural references are all aimed at boys. The pop culture of the ’80s that’s built for girls — like Jem and the Holograms or The Baby-Sitters Club or the American Girl dolls — has no place here.
There are girls in his universe. Wade’s best friend has a white male avatar but is secretly a black lesbian, a revelation to which Wade reacts by deciding that it does not matter because he doesn’t even see people’s race, gender, or sexuality. It’s a passage that reads remarkably like the “I don’t care if you’re black, white, green, or purple” speech, and that carries the same basic problem: Wade should care that his best friend is a black lesbian because those are important facts about his best friend’s life. But in this world, they’re unimportant, because only things that affect straight white dudes really matter.
And then there’s Art3mis, Wade’s love interest. Art3mis is as flat as a paper doll, a character who exists only as a prize who will reward Wade when he proves his masculinity. Sure, we’re told that she’s strong and smart and a great gamer — but she’s never allowed to be such a good gamer that she poses a real threat to Wade. Her gaming skills are just good enough to make her a worthy prize for our hero, unlike other girls, who we are given to understand are empty-headed and vain. (Wade is forever comparing the avatars of other girls unfavorably to Art3mis’s effortless cool, an attitude you can see repeated in some of Cline’s old poetry.)
And Wade wins her by hunting. Art3mis repeatedly tells Wade that she’s not interested in a romantic relationship, but Wade wears her down in the end by sheer force of his nice-guy persistence. “She’s basically a NPC [non-player character],” concludes Beth Elderkin at io9.
All of these issues may have seemed trivial or unimportant pre-Gamergate — but by 2015, that was no longer the case. Now, they were all many critics could see when they looked at Cline’s work. What used to seem fun and frothy and harmless in Ready Player One was dead; Gamergate killed it.
To be fair to Cline, at no point does his work endorse harassing women or minorities or suggest that Gamergate was a super-good idea that’s just been tragically misunderstood. So to some readers, the persistent association of his work with Gamergate seems to be both a stretch and fundamentally unjust. Why can’t they just read a fun dumb fantasy about gamers saving the world without feeling like they’re somehow endorsing rape threats?
“Hey, guess what?” wrote Chris Meadows at TeleRead. “Many of us who abhor Gamergate are nonetheless gamer nerds ourselves, and we actually can enjoy reading about video gamers being depicted as awesome while still feeling that women are people and worthy of respect, too.”
And of course you can read Ready Player One as a fun dumb fantasy. No one’s stopping you! But Cline’s world is not just one in which gamers get to be awesome, but also one in which gamers get to be awesome specifically because everyone else sucks. It’s a world in which women are trophies, the concerns of straight white men are all that matters, and the greatest possible calling of anyone’s life is the rote memorization of trivia at the expense of all else.
Cline does gesture at the idea that there is a world outside of video games. Wade is briefly humiliated and depressed by the life he’s built for himself — one of total isolation, in which he never leaves his crappy apartment with its blacked-out windows because he’s too busy searching for Halliday’s egg. And when he encounters Halliday’s avatar in the OASIS, Halliday passes on some words of wisdom to him: “As terrifying and painful as reality can be,” he says, “it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.”
But the moment reads as lip service, because Ready Player One’s heart has no time for the world outside of video games, not really. It’s too busy nerding out over how freakin’ cool it is that Ultraman is fighting Mechagodzilla and a kid is saving the word by reciting every goddamn word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
And in a pre-Gamergate world, the sheer glee and fun of moments like that were enough to make the dark underbelly of the fantasy disappear and carry Ready Player One to the heights of cultural phenomena. But post-Gamergate, the dark underbelly has become all too apparent. The fun isn’t quite enough to carry the book anymore — so now the onus is on Spielberg’s forthcoming movie to overcome its Gamergate baggage.