Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One tells the story of a dystopian society in the near future where people spend most of their waking hours inside a virtual reality simulation called the OASIS where they can live out any fantasy they can imagine. After the creator of the OASIS (James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance) dies, it is revealed that he has embedded a series of video game–like puzzles within the OASIS. The first person to solve the puzzles will inherit Halliday’s stock and become an instant billionaire. The trick is that the solution to the puzzles requires exhaustive knowledge of 1980s nerd culture.
The stereotypical image of the “nerd” as it emerged in the 1950s was someone — usually a white male — who cared more about academics than sports and who was uncomfortable around members of the opposite sex. But by the 1980s the term came to include not only bookishness and awkwardness but also an interest in science fiction, fantasy, and computers. In the ‘80s, nerds were obsessed with things such as Star Trek, Dungeons & Dragons, and computer games.
Ready Player One is essentially a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which nerds’ obsession with sci-fi pop culture turns out not to be a waste of time but in fact the key to a massive financial fortune. When the novel came out in 2011, this conceit made sense. The rise of the internet and Silicon Valley made computers cool and turned nerds Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg into superstars, but pop culture was on the verge of becoming dominated by things such as comic book superheroes and Lord of the Rings–style fantasy (as in Game of Thrones) that were previously considered uncool.
The movie adaptation of Ready Player One comes at a very different time. Since 2011, we have become more aware of the dark side of nerd culture as its implicit racism and sexism have come out through the concerted harassment of women in the video game industry (in the so-called GamerGate controversy), the backlash against the all-female Ghostbustersreboot, and the racial and gender diversity of the new Star Wars cast. We are seeing a sort of gate-keeping exclusivism from nerds who feel that their childhood is being taken from them. Things nerds were bullied for liking in middle school are now being co-opted by the cool kids who never would have given a member of the A/V club the time of day in 1988. Now white male nerds want to “Make Pop Culture Great Again.” They feel like their identity is being appropriated, and so they naturally become nostalgic for a time when, though they may have been a ridiculed minority, they could at least achieve a sort of status within their own subculture by knowing the most trivia.
Nostalgia plays a significant part in Ready Player One. Though set in 2045, the main character Wade Watts (played by Tye Sheridan) is obsessed with 1980s pop culture. It is appropriate, then, that the movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, who perhaps had the most influence on the nerd culture of the ‘80s. Spielberg himself has a strong penchant for nostalgia. Along with fellow movie nerds George Lucas and Robert Zemekis, Spielberg took the sci-fi and fantasy clichés from the movies he loved during his own childhood and transformed them into the ‘80s blockbusters that shaped a whole generation.
So Spielberg seems like a perfect choice to tell a story about a hero with an encyclopedic knowledge of old movies and video games. But Spielberg in fact turns Ready Player One on its head. Right from the start, Spielberg highlights the inherent dystopian themes that remain implicit in Cline’s story. As awesome as the OASIS is, Spielberg never wants you to forget what it is doing to your real-life body. He is constantly intercutting images of the virtual world with shots of people wearing VR headsets.
The opening scene shows “The Stacks,” a vertically stacked trailer park slum where Wade Watts lives. We see people in each trailer using VR to escape their everyday lives. They live in overcrowded proximity to one another but without ever interacting with each other. “Reality is a bummer,” Wade tells us. “Everyone is looking for an escape.” There is at least one reference to the real-life opioid crisis when his aunt’s loser boyfriend spends all his money on video games like a drug addict.
But what they are unintentionally “escaping” from is each other. We see families ignoring one another at the kitchen table, lost in VR. We see people using VR at work while they are supposed to be paying attention to a meeting. We even see people on a date using VR instead of interacting with each other. All of this is contrasted with true human connection, as in the scene in which Wade and his love interest Samantha (played by Olivia Cooke) meet in a real-life, unplugged vegetable garden. The scene is shot in a notably quiet and slow-paced style that feels like a breath of fresh air in contrast to the glossy, breakneck edited, overstimulating style that Spielberg uses for scenes inside the OASIS. Where the original novel was a sci-fi prediction of a future society, an attempt to imagine what the world might look like once the internet of today is replaced by immersive VR, the movie is an allegory of the present, using futuristic VR to comment on current trends in social media. As we all are becoming increasingly aware, social media often separates us from each other more than it connects us.
In the movie, Wade says people love the OASIS because of “all the things they can be” there. He says of his VR representation, “That’s me” — but is it? Unlike the novel, the film problematizes the characters’ use of digital “avatars.” Wade’s avatar “Parzival” is a false projection that can be changed at a whim, unlike stubborn reality. When he tells Samantha (whose avatar is called “Art3mis”) that he loves her, she points out, “You only know what I want you to know. You only see what I want you to see. That’s what you’re in love with.” Reality is what exists, whether you want it to or not. And in the film, it is reality that saves Wade. Without his real-life friends, Wade never would have survived, much less defeated the story’s villain (a corporation that wants to monetize the OASIS by adding advertisements, turning it into a place where we profit off of one another instead of finding true connections).
As a movie, Ready Player One is not perfect. The characterization and world-building are rushed and confusing, while the themes are stated too obviously. And because the film emphasizes collaboration between the main characters where the novel establishes them as competitors each seeking to win the same prize, Spielberg inadvertently reduces all the other characters into Wade’s sidekicks. But overall the film is an improvement over the novel. Spielberg has taken Ernest Cline’s wish-fulfillment fantasy and transformed it into a friendly critique of the nerd nostalgia. Nerd culture at its best is about shared nostalgia. Nerds don’t feel at home in the world. They are socially awkward, and their interests are ridiculed by their peers. So, ideally, nerd culture can be a way connecting with other social outcasts over common passions.
There is nothing wrong with nostalgia per se, Spielberg’s film argues, as long as we remember that the purpose of nostalgia is to create a community of real people who not only bond over shared interests but can also be counted on when we need a physical helping hand or shoulder to cry on. In the film, Halliday comes close to recognizing this point when he says, “As terrifying as reality can be, it is also the only place you can get a decent meal.”
Spielberg is himself a nerd with his own childhood obsessions, but he uses nostalgia to tie us to one another, not to push us deeper into self-isolation. Spielberg’s wisdom here is about more than just video games. He offers us an ethics of technology in general. Technology is good, Spielberg argues in Ready Player One, as long as it allows you to connect to reality. Whether we are talking about virtual reality, movies, video games, or social media, if technology becomes a way of distorting reality and hiding from reality, then it becomes toxic. In the end, Spielberg’s message is that technology can help us find love and friendship, as long as we use it responsibly.
John McAteer is associate professor at Ashford University where he serves as the chair of the liberal arts program. Before receiving his PhD in philosophy from the University of California at Riverside, he earned a BA in film from Biola University and an MA in philosophy of religion and ethics from Talbot School of Theology.
“Too often in our contemporary culture, theologically informed beliefs are not considered a legitimate claim to knowledge.” — Frank Beckwith