I need to talk about Ready Player One. I’ve needed to talk about it for weeks, nay, months. I’ve started and deleted a few posts because I am so frustrated with this book that I can’t get my thoughts together. So, I’m just going to jump in and I hope you’ll bare with me.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is one of the novels that my partner put on my sci-fi/fantasy reading list. It is a more recent novel, published in 2011 that captures nostalgia for 70’s and 80’s pop-culture, technology, and gaming. It also has a problem with gender and identity.
In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines—puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them.
But when Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win—and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape (Amazon).
Ready Player One seems to be recommended to anyone who reads sci-fi and enjoys playing video games. Go to Goodreads or Amazon and you will read reviews that express how much the reviewer couldn’t put this book down. They finished within a day or hours of starting it. This book took me months. I kept putting it down and leaving it down. It is a quick read. It is an easy read. I can see why many would zip through it. However, this is one of the first times that I have felt a wall being layered brick by brick between a novel and myself. The more recognizable the pop-culture and game or internet references were, the further away I felt. This book should be right up my ally as a gaming, pop-culture loving, internet using person. So, why did I feel so left out as a gaming, pop-culture loving, internet using woman?
The story is a typical hero’s journey with Wade (also known as Parzival) meant to stand in as an “every-person” but the fact of it is he stands in as an “every man.” His OASIS avatar looks “more or less” like himself, quickly highlighting that digital life and real life identity mesh for Wade and this privilege seeps through the entire narrative. I am weary of stories that offer nothing new besides the white, male, cis-gender protagonist conquering all. When stories focus on this concept, all other characters are props to help fulfill his destiny. I’m not saying stories can’t be about men, but I think it is time to move passed this singular story that is a misrepresentation of men and women. As a woman who has played video games since 1989 and on the internet since 1997, it down right sucks to not see yourself in a narrative like this. Or at least not a complex self.
“She occasionally posted screenshots of her raven-haired avatar, and I sometimes (always) saved them to a folder on my hard drive. Her avatar had a pretty face, but it wasn’t unnaturally perfect…Big hazel eyes, rounded cheekbones, a pointy chin, and a perpetual smirk. I found her unbearably attractive…Art3mis’s frame was short and Rubeneseque. All curves.”
Art3mis is the only woman in the OASIS, or that’s what we might as well believe. She is a higher level, has more experience and celebrity than Wade. She should be powerful, independent, complex. Instead, Wade spends a lot of time talking about how beautiful her avatar is. A lot of time taking screen shots of her to look at again later. A lot of time trying to get her to date him, talk to him, connect with him because he has a crush on her, so, like, she owes him, or something. And you know what? She goes for it. This is one of the things that made me put the book down because I have no idea why she goes for it. The narrative never enters her thoughts to give a different perspective. I have no idea what she sees in Wade or why she would give up her time and energy to this guy. The only explanation is that she does because he wants her to.
Art3mis is the type of female character that pays lip service to women as gamers or women as serious members of online communities instead of truly representing them. When internet and gamer intersect, women are erased and their very existence in these spaces is questioned. I can’t help but think of recent events of online harassment toward women in game development and game criticism and game play. Women who have opinions and complex experiences. Women who demand to be heard instead of forced into the realm of eye-candy or sheer non-existence. As a character, Art3mis is a disservice to these women because she lacks a narrative that illustrates what she deals with as an OASIS, gaming celebrity. What struggles did she encounter in a predominately male cyber space that either sexualizes her or questions if she is a woman at all? I know what this character should be and I am angry that she is nothing more than the fantasy gamer girl who got to where she is without complaining or calling out the oppressive culture around her.
And then there is Aech.(*spoiler alert*)
“Aech’s avatar was a tall, broad shouldered Caucasian male with dark hair and brown eyes. I asked him once if he looked anything like his avatar in real life, and he’d jokingly replied, “Yes. But in real life, I’m even more handsome.”
Aech is Wade’s best friend in the OASIS. They hang out in a virtual chat room that is programmed to look like a 1980’s basement where the two play games, watch movies, and talk about girls. Aech’s avatar reflects Wade’s and he does not question the race or gender of this person. But Aech is not who Wade thinks he is. When they finally meet in real life, Wade learns that Aech is female. Aech is black. Aech is a lesbian. Confronted with this real-life self, Wade has a moment of anger. He feels betrayed that this person would lie to him. His own identity is so fixed that he has a difficult time understanding the complexities of why someone might hide certain aspects of themselves (I mean, really, is he new to the internet?) However, he quickly overcomes this anger and decides that Aech is still his best friend, therefore accepting her based on the guy he thought she was. Wade decides to continue to refer to Aech as male.
I am angry about how Aech is dealt with as a character. Upon meeting, she explains that her mother told her the OASIS was the best thing that could have happened to people of colour, especially women. Aech follows her mother’s lead and creates a white male avatar so as to best blend in with a clearly racist and sexist society that does not accept her. There is so much to unpack about this piece of character information, but it is left as simply fact. For Ready Player One, it is just a fact that online life is a bonus for women of colour because they can blend in with the norm. The white, straight, male, cis-gender norm. If that isn’t a frightening message to just throw out there, I don’t know what is. Like my problems with Art3mis, Aech becomes threefold as not only gender but race and sexuality are thrown into the mix to pay lip service to diversity in online and gaming experiences without truly dealing with the reality of those experiences.
On some levels I am actually conflicted about this novel. What I have explained in this post are the ways that gender and identity are a problem. It was enough of a problem for me that it took away from enjoying the book. And yet, all those pop-culture references and internet lingo and gamer love – I know it. I love it. There is a whole other post in this book about pop-culture as religion that fascinates me. But I still need more. I need more about and for women as gamers and internet users and pop-culture lovers. I need more about how systems of power and oppression operate against women, people of colour, and LGBT persons online and in gaming communities. Because it is happening, it’s harmful, and we need to talk about it.