Ready Player One: Gaming, Gender, and Identity

Ready_Player_One_coverI 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.

Enter Art3mis.

“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.

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18 thoughts on “Ready Player One: Gaming, Gender, and Identity

  1. You make a lot of interesting points… I’m sure it’s frustrating to be in that position. At the same time, I feel like you’re missing some other noteworthy gender issues in the novel. Certainly, the protagonist is a cis white male. It’s important to point out that there’s nothing actually wrong with that… to dismiss that group out of hand is still prejudice, no matter how many of them there are or how much representation there is. In truth, the character is simply a stand-in for the author, and that’s who the author happens to be. When it comes to Art3mis… again, as the narrative is in first person, her motivations would always be filtered through the protagonist’s lens. Ultimately, it was always going to be the narrator’s story.

    But it’s the specifics of her characterization that I think are worth examining… I that notice that you made no mention of her overt reluctance to become involved romantically or her constantly-referenced independent nature. She didn’t fall for a powerful figure or give up her autonomy; their relationship was entirely natural. She also held all the power in that relationship, deliberately keeping back her real name and her trust, and ending things unilaterally when she felt overwhelmed. I agree that her character is a stereotyped “geek girl” figure, but you didn’t refer a defining aspect of that character, specifically her hyper-competence. She’s smarter and more capable than the protagonist at almost every turn. Though he’s better at the simple mechanics of Joust than she is, she’s the one who solved the actual intellectual challenge of the first riddle, as well as the second and third. She’s condescending to those around her, but the author clearly expects the reader to celebrate that rather than view it critically. Again, it’s a caricature of a person, a fetishized figure that’s enormously popular right now. My question is, were you as annoyed by those attributes as by the ones you mentioned? If so, I applaud your approach to equality in this regard. This particular ham-fisted attempt to craft a strong female character, popularized in the Whedon/Moffat mold, remains popular at least as much because female audiences consider it empowering as because a certain segment of the male population is drawn to it. When you take her characterization with the the fact that her avatar is deliberately short and stout, and that the author uses “she” as the default pronoun throughout the book, it’s pretty clear both that he thought he was promoting equality and that he hasn’t really thought through what that means.

  2. Don’t forget the racial issues. I knew from the moment the top five met that Either Daito or Shoto would die in real life. To show how dangerous the enemey (sixers) were. Which is made easier to disconnect as they were the foreign, less important characters. Who, of course, since they were japanese, had to spout “They have no honor” or “That’s not honorable” every other line. For a book that liked to emphasize the reemergence of 80’s culture, we would expect to see more american 80’s culture in Daito and Shoto’s personal broadcast channel. But no, they were all japanese. Of course. I even expected one of them to go kamekaze, which shoto arguably almost did. It was stupid, lazy writing, and sadly predictable.

    I read this the past two weeks (which I just finished reading 15 minutes ago) since it was suggested to me by a coworker, but I have been increasingly upset the more I read it. I kept going further and thinking to myself “maybe I’m wrong, and neither of the asian characters will die, or maybe I’m wrong, and Art3mis WON’T end up as a trophy for the main hero protagonist, or maybe even ANYONE other than parcival would win.” But no. It was infuriatingly archaic in narrative. But I’m glad I came across this article. This all hurt (and truthfully, I don’t normally care about these infractions nearly as much), but this was too much for me to handle. This article made me feel better to know that I wasn’t the only one who found these problems with the book.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. I totally agree with you on the racial issues with this book, too. Like the issues with gender and sexuality, racialized characters are cardboard cut out stereotypes – which is so disappointing and infuriating.

      I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one who felt this way through Ready Player One.

    2. Yes. Same! Glad to know I’m not alone. It was a fun read in some respects but I found myself cringing during the descriptions of women. I went looking…is it just me!?? So thank you.

  3. Spoilers.

    A very frustrating book, because it should be better in these areas. But falls into these norm cliches.

    I don’t remember it being explained how Art3mis solved the the two key puzzles, but she was the first. But she seemed to be the smartest of the group, and a self-made celebrity. But in the end was the prize / princess at the end of the final dungeon(maze). After saving the world, the hero has to solve a token puzzle to find her at the end. A little gross.

    The create of Oasis is obsessed with a girl, but only sees her as her d&d character. Not a huge issue, but just another part that is a tad “hmm..how introspective was this?”

    I might have skipped over this part too much, but I think the main character was overweight, but within a short time becomes fit. So we have the main character be as he is, but Aech is the opposite in this way as well. Fat, black, female. Good thing Art3mis isn’t fat. Good thing Aech is a lesbian, we wouldn’t want any complications there, our hero couldn’t possibly be interested. Which is fine, because I don’t think the author would be able to pull it off. I couldn’t. But maybe that would be a good sign to just drop the romance angle, if one isn’t able to write it any better.

    It was an cheap often fun read. And for what it is, it’s fine. But as an apparently broadly loved book about video game / internet culture, I don’t quite get it. Oh well.

    I found this book after reading an article about The Martian film, and how he found the adaption better than the novel. He went on to put Ready Player One as an example of mediocre writing that could potentially have a great movie presence. So I didn’t come into this book with great expectations haha…But I’m not too optimistic about the screen adaption.

  4. (spoilers)
    I agree with your entire post. But it’s not like gender was the only thing not well explained in the book. At one point, Wade’s home explodes, killing his aunt and neighbors. Does he feel guilty for his role in this? Does he think that perhaps he should have accepted IOI’s offer and played them on another level, saving his family and neighbors in the process? No. He knows his family and neighbors are going to die, he lets it happen, and he feels only the slightest flicker of guilt afterward. (And only for his nice neighbor – apparently if you’re a mean aunt, you deserve to die in a horrific explosion.) The protagonist ignores and looks down on the people of the stacks even though he claims to be one of them.

    I mean, yeah, the gender stuff bothered me before this point, but I’m used to ignoring gender stuff. But the whole IOI bomb passage was where I was like, wow, this author really just doesn’t get human experience. And when you don’t get human experience, how can you possibly write about it on more than a caricature level?

  5. I’m reading the book now and I feel exactly as you do. Now that I know it only gets worse I’ll probably skip the book which is sad because I was a big arcade gamer in the 80s and I played Atari’s adventure many times but the book’s cliche and shallow depiction of women is so disappointing and frustrating.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Maui.
      Like you, I love all the 80s games and pop culture in the book, but felt so disconnected from it because of the gender cliches.
      I hate to think what this movie is going to look like.

  6. I’m reading it at the moment, and finding the Smurfette aspect sticks in my craw. Art3mis is, as far as I can see, a depressingly generic Trinity figure – smart, capable, attractive, ostensibly out of his league but still going to end up as the prize, just like in The Lego Movie and a billionty other pop culture texts.

    I’m relieved to hear Aich isn’t a dude, but nevertheless the romance between Wade and Art3mis reads like an 80s montage and rings completely hollow. (I’m assuming that she was leading him on, having accepted the IOI offer, because otherwise it really makes no sense for her to be interested in him. Although now I’m liable to start shipping her with Aich.)

    And, yes, I feel like I SHOULD be loving this book – I’m a geek, I’m enjoying all the nerdy 1980s stuff and I’m enjoying the Inceptionish storytelling slipping from physical reality to layers of cyberspace – I’m not a gamer, but I’ve spent time in Second Life and this stuff interests me a lot. But I can’t escape the strong sensation that this book is aimed at the asshats who have lost their minds over the female Ghostbusters reboot, the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies and Gamergaters and self-proclaimed Nice Guys who bitch about “Fake Geek Girls” and don’t think we exist. It just reeks of that Sad Puppy entitled straight white douchebro mindset.

  7. I read this book last year and while I enjoyed it at the time, I decided to look back at it a month ago after reading Cline’s other book “Armada” and I can’t help but see all the problems you’ve pointed out and MORE. It’s jawdropping at how out of touch the author seems to be as he assumes that if he puts enough nerd culture in one book he’ll be fine.

    To top it off, in an interview, Cline stated that he liked “strong female characters” when referring to Art3mis. It’s incredible.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. That quote from Cline is really tone deaf about what makes a female character strong as well as interesting – because that certainly isn’t achieved in this book.

      I’m curious and terrified to see what this movie adaptation is like.

  8. I know I’m late and Christine (great article btw), you’ll probably never see this but THANK YOU. Just read this book and I loved the mythology and the prose but Wade and Art3mis were so frustrating and I couldn’t help but root against their relationship. She was just a male fantasy the entire time and nothing more. Also, Wade, you’re girlfriend leaves you so you don’t leave your apartment for 6 months, buy a sex doll, and decide if you lose the contest you’ll jump of a building… that man is a psychopath! The book should’ve been about Aech, way more interesting character then either of the other 2

  9. I first “read” this book as an audiobook. It’s well done, narrated bun Will Wheaton, and I had a lot of road trips and I think I was halfway through the second listen when another thing about the Ready Player One universe started to bug me. Art3mis is really the only woman of note anywhere. In a world based on 80s pop culture and sci if, where every chapter contains list after list of references to books, music, film and tv, there are no references to works by women or female artists. No Madonna. Outside of a single reference to Art3mis naming her private planet after Pat Benatar, nothing. No Ursula Le Guin? It’s an entire universe crazy for this whitewashed version of the 1980s where women did not exist unless they were the love interest of the guy in War Games. After I noticed it, every time Cline hit me with another list I would wait to find any women represented. None. Of course not. The only role for women in the entire universe of the book is to be objects for Wade to seek.

  10. Thanks for your post on this! I can see why they decided to make this into a film, mainly because it falls into so many of the common mistakes video game movies make (like Scott Pilgrim and Vs. The World – although I really enjoyed that movie). Honestly, none of the relationships in this book made any sense and I couldn’t stand the terrible, terrible Japanese stereotypes used to ‘characterize’ Daito and Shoto.

    However, another thing I found troublesome was that each of these characters were 1980s experts at the expense of their school/social lives primarily because they wanted to get the $$$, in a game created by a man who fired his employees because they didn’t share his obsessive interests. And, even though in the end there was an attempt at redemption where Halliday gives some deathbed advice to Parcival to rejoin the real world, along with a Big Red Button to blow up OASIS, the world has still already become a dystopian hell-hole. Art3mis wanted to use the $$$ to save the world; the question is, why didn’t Halliday use his $$$ to save the world already?

    I feel that, given how much love Cline put into researching all of the 1980s video game/pop culture references, money shouldn’t be the ultimate motivator for Parcival, Art3mis and Aech, and Shoto/Daito. Especially Daito, who apparently didn’t even like American pop culture and needed Shoto to help him. If Ready Player One is really a book about loving 1980s video games, I think it should it should be about characters who really grew to love 1980s videos games and pop culture naturally and not because of money.

    Overall, I did manage to enjoy this book because I like world building and I thought that a world based entirely on 1980s pop culture references was really fun. I also really liked the final boss battle – it really felt like one of those glorious Gundam space wars, and Ultraman vs. MechaGodzilla was pretty bada$$. I just wish the characters inhabiting this world weren’t a bunch of stereotypes.

  11. I just finished this book, and I know this is an old review but oh my god I have been ranting to my friend for the past several hours about everything I’ve disliked about it, and boy you sure summed up almost all of it in one review. The two Japanese characters, of course they have to borderline go kamikaze, and of course they’re both super into Japanese culture, and of course they have to unnecessarily say arigatou instead of thank you to emphasize their CULTURE AND DIFFERENCE

    and OF COURSE the poc woman has to be fat and a lesbian. gotta check off all those boxes. I swear it she were disabled too it would be the icing on the cake. and there’s some social commentary about poc woman having to pretend to be cishet white male to succeed, but alas it’s only mentioned very briefly in a single paragraph. could’ve been explored ever so slightly, and maybe add in the harassment angle of women gamers, but nahhhhh

    this entire book has felt like Big Bang Theory – throw enough references in there and maybe people will ignore your terrible writing.

    “Are you a woman? And by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?” – I’m not even going to start unpacking this one either. Mention trans women in extremely brief, while talking about catfishing, because of course that’s what trans women are, just catfishing. And naturally trans men don’t exist.

    I’m just really irritated as all hell that this book is getting rave reviews.

  12. I’ve been listening to the Ready Player One audiobook very slowly for the past month or so. Today I got to the point of meeting Aech in real life and hearing her say that the oasis is the best thing to happen to POC, esp. women….
    As a female POC, I was really pissed off. It’s pretty despicable to me that anybody would have that perspective that it would be a *benefit* for a person to be able to hide themself and be a white cis male….. wtf. That concept is oppressive not a blessing! A black lesbian woman and all of her skills and ideas should be represented by her. If every female POC presented their amazing talents or brilliant ideas as a white male, that would just perpetuate the idea that white men are most capable or most intelligent, right? Personally, this really hit me hard and I turned the book off as soon as Aech’s and Wade’s “conversation” was over. I grew up around mostly white people, feeling like I was too dark and I remember even wishing there was a way to make my skin lighter. I also thought that being friends with boys was better and I remember feeling pride when a guy would tell me I wasn’t like “other girls”. It took me a long time to break out of those toxic mindsets that were put upon me by my environment, parents, and society. I am so disappointed that I didn’t stop listening to the audio book sooner. I absolutely cannot continue. I really appreciate that you’ve written this – I agree that conversations *need* to be had.

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