God and Pac-Man in ‘Ready Player One’

Editors’ note: 

Warning: This review contains spoilers for both the book and movie versions of ‘Ready Player One.’

For several years, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One has been a novel that I’ve loved and recommended. But after recently rereading the book, in preparation for reviewing the movie, I realized I had missed the point. Judging by the newly released film version, Steven Spielberg—one of our most hopeful artists—didn’t get it either.

The story itself is straightforward enough. Both the book and film are about the Hunt, a global quest carried out within a virtual reality game called the OASIS, with the winner inheriting both the game creator’s fortune and even the game itself. To win, contestants living in the year 2044 must become experts on 1980s pop culture. On almost every page there’s a reference—Duran Duran, an Atari 2600 game, a John Hughes movie—that will appeal to those who love the 1980s.

Perhaps I was initially too distracted by the novel’s cheery name-check nostalgia to notice the darkness underneath. I originally thought what made it a dystopian story was the setting: “The ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars.” It wasn’t until a second reading that I recognized the dystopian was embedded in the nihilistic nothing-matters theme.

God Is Dead, Let’s Play Pac-Man

Within the first few pages of the book the teenage hero, Wade Watts, explains what he wishes people had told him about the human condition:

Here’s the deal, Wade. You’re something called a “human being.” That’s a really smart kind of animal. Like every other animal on this planet, we’re descended from a single-celled organism that lived millions of years ago. This happened by a process called evolution, and you’ll learn more about it later. But trust me, that’s really how we all got here. There’s proof of it everywhere, buried in the rocks. That story you heard? About how we were all created by a super-powerful dude named God who lives up in the sky? Total [BS]. The whole God thing is actually an ancient fairy tale that people have been telling one another for thousands of years. We made it all up. Like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

Oh, and by the way . . . there’s no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny. Also [BS]. Sorry, kid. Deal with it.

A few pages later Wade mentions his religious neighbor and reveals the true nature of the book:

She was always praying for me too. Trying her hardest to save my soul. I never had the heart to tell her that I thought organized religion was a total crock. It was a pleasant fantasy that gave her hope and kept her going—which was exactly what the Hunt was for me.

Although the movie doesn’t make it as explicit as the book, the message of both is the same: If there is no God and life has no meaning, then it doesn’t matter if you spend every waking moment reading ancient Dungeons and Dragons manuals and watching re-runs of Family Ties. As long as you don’t harm other people, it doesn’t really matter what you do with your life.

God of OASIS

Wade may reject God and organized religion, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that.” What Wade (and just about everyone else in Ready Player One) worships is James Donovan Halliday (played in the film by Mark Rylance), the creator of the virtual reality world OASIS.

Cline has described his novel by saying, “It’s kind of like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but if Willy Wonka was a videogame designer.” To this description I would add “and a narcissistic cult leader.”

Like Wonka, Halliday is a wealthy eccentric who holds a contest to see who will inherit both his fortune and also the fantasy world he created. Wonka, though, tested his contestants to see who possessed the most virtue, specifically honesty and integrity. In contrast, Halliday wants someone who—in the book—is obsessed with his own pop culture obsessions, and—in the movie—with the minutia of his personal life.

In the book, Wade advances in the contest by solving a series of puzzles related to games, movies, and music from the 1980s. But in the movie version, Wade (Tye Sheridan) solves absurd puzzles simply because it’s what the script requires of him.

For example, in the second challenge Wade must solve a riddle by remembering a name Halliday has mentioned only once in his entire recorded life (somehow Wade knows this) and connecting that to The Shining (“Halliday’s 11th-favorite horror movie”) and also knowing that Stephen King hated Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of The Shining (which the movie doesn’t note, but which was mentioned in an interview in The Paris Review in 2006) and connecting all that to . . . I can’t remember, because by then I had lost all interest. And you likely will too. By the end of the movie’s two hour and 30 minute run time, you’ll have forgotten most of what came before.

Twitch.tv on the Big Screen

Of course, you don’t watch a film about virtual reality in a dystopian future for a coherent plot. You go for the spectacle. You go to see what the director of E.T., Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark can do with $175 million dollars and the most advanced film technology on the planet. Whether Spielberg fulfills your expectations will largely depend on how much enjoyment you gain from watching other people play video games.

Whether Spielberg fulfills your expectations will largely depend on how much enjoyment you gain from watching other people play video games.

Many millions of people do, which is why four years ago Amazon spent $1 billion to buy Twitch.tv. People around the world spend up to 20 hours per week on the streaming platform watching other people play video games, so it was inevitable there’d be a film genre created for this demographic. Ready Player One isn’t the first in the Twitch.tv genre (Hardcore Henry beat it by two years), but it’ll be the genre’s first blockbuster.

Despite Spielberg’s technical mastery and the stunning visuals, the movie still feels underwhelming and derivative. Many of the scenes resemble a launch trailer for a new video game release (which are often better than the games). And the best gimmick, the thrill of seeing disparate characters—such as from DC Comics and the Star Wars universe—in the same film, has been done before (and better) in The Lego Movie.

Can’t You Just Let Us Enjoy the Movie? (And Why I Can’t)

If you’re a fan of the book or merely looking forward to seeing the film you’ll be annoyed with me, and yet not at all surprised. You’re probably thinking to yourself this is the typical review where a Christian egghead ruins a fun movie through overly serious analysis.

And maybe there is something to that criticism. As Bob Dylan said, “They got a lot of forks ’n’ knives / And they gotta cut somethin’.” That’s typically true of Christian movie reviewers: we got some worldview training and 1,200 words; we gotta take our cut at some pop culture.

But for all its flaws, Ready Player One is a cultural phenomenon that deserves serious consideration. If a film is going to earn half a billion dollars and be viewed by hundreds of millions of people, we should give some thought to the message it’s sending. And Ready Player One sends the wrong message for our era.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

A message worthy of praise was within the film’s grasp, for there is a scene that, with a slight change, would have transformed its entire meaning.

A message worthy of praise was within the film’s grasp, for there is a scene that, with a slight change, would have transformed its entire meaning.

After Wade wins the contest, Halliday turns over the keys to his kingdom and points to a red button on the wall he says will not only shut down the OASIS but also delete all the files so that it can never be recovered. Naturally, for comic relief, the script has Wade stumble and nearly press the button by accident. “Try not to delete it on your first day,” Halliday snarks. It’s meant to make us (or at least gullible children) gasp and respond, “Can you imagine if he’d deleted the game.”

Well, yes, I can imagine that. Wade should have deleted the game and freed humanity from their bondage to the OASIS. He could have showed the world that, like the prisoners in Plato’s Cave, they were missing out on reality by hiding in an unreal world. Instead, in the film Wade and his friends decide that in the future they’ll take the OASIS offline for two days a week so that people can experience the pleasure of embodied interactions. Rather than being continuously enslaved, they’ll get a 48 hours per week of reprieve. In the context of the film, that’s considered progress.

As a satire this would be a wickedly biting rebuke to our incessant desire for constant technological distraction. But Cline and Spielberg appear to be serious in thinking this is the only compromise needed. Their message is that we would be better off living in the virtual world for most of our lives, coming up only occasionally to walk the dog or feed the children.

If Ready Player One had been made in the 1980s, this techno-utopianism could have been dismissed as a misguided fantasy. But for a 2018 film to present this as an aspirational future is disturbingly obtuse. After all, many millions of Americans are already living a lower-tech version of this dystopia.

In America about 14 million men are “prime working-age male labor-force dropouts.” As demographer Nicholas Eberstadt notes,

[T]he overwhelming majority of the prime-age men in this un-working army generally don’t “do civil society” (charitable work, religious activities, volunteering), or for that matter much in the way of child care or help for others in the home either, despite the abundance of time on their hands. Their routine, instead, typically centers on watching—watching TV, DVDs, Internet, hand-held devices, etc.—and indeed watching for an average of 2,000 hours a year, as if it were a full-time job.

Information technology is not necessarily to blame for these men being out of the workforce. But it’s undoubtedly affecting the way they engage with their families and communities. Will the inevitable introduction and widespread adoption of virtual reality technology make their lives better or worse?

When Play Becomes Worship

Commenting in 1996 on the recently introduced term “cyberspace,” the media critic Neil Postman said when confronted with a new technology we should ask, “What is the problem to which this technology is a solution?” and “If there is a legitimate problem that is solved by this technology, what other problems will be created by my using it?”

For many people, the “problem” virtual reality will solve is boredom with the “real” world. Even though God-created wonders far surpass anything Halliday and other game designers could create, many still prefer a digital simulacrum to reality.

There can be value in escapist worlds like those of Ready Player One insofar as they foster curiosity, wonder, awe, and gratitude. Play is, after all, something too-serious Christians need to value (along with Sabbath). But play, like anything else good, can become idolatrous when it is all-consuming and becomes an end to itself and an object of worship that replaces or distracts us from who we should truly worship. We can enjoy playing Pac-Man. But it shouldn’t be a substitute for God.

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