In 2045 Americans live in garbage. Instead of dealing with the problem, trash has been normalized, and we are literally buried in the recent past. One might say we’re already there with the current Golden Age of media-creation and availability where everything is an instant artifact. This is not a traditional film review, but rather looks at the Spielberg/Cline/Penn film Ready Player One (2018) through the archaeogaming lens focusing on entangled themes of nostalgia, memory, history, technology, and reality. The film is based on the 2011 book by the same name, largely reproducing it while adding some new twists, turns, and challenges. Like the book, the film is a pop culture fiesta, but unlike the book, the film attempts to tackle thoughtfully Big Themes of nostalgia and perceived v. actual reality. This post only covers video games and gaming culture, leaving film, television, music, and printed media to the media archaeologists out there. This is good for you, dear readers, because it means I won’t spoil my favorite part of the movie for you.
If you do decide to see the film, try to see it in 3D. Over half the film is set inside the Oasis, a universal virtual reality online hub, and the use of 3D approximates the feeling of how immersive of VR can be.
MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
The technology of the Oasis appears within the first minute of the film. Set in 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, the fastest-growing city in the US, the near-future fuses Second Life, the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and the Matrix (both William Gibson’s and that of the Wachowskis and Masamune Shirow). Within the first minute we see an old woman in a housedress with boxing gloves on wearing strap-on Virtual Reality (VR) goggles. The visual trope of active users engaging with whatever is streaming through their eyes and ears continues throughout the film. VR is a physical experience, visceral as well thanks to haptic gloves and bodysuits for those who can afford them.
The use of the Oasis is cynical. In a voiceover, Wade/Parzival explains that at some point people gave up on trying to fix the “real world” and instead focused on surviving it. The Oasis provides entertainment, employment, and education to billions of people who use it to get away from this physical reality. Edward Castronova writes about the idea of using synthetic worlds because things are so much better there than in the current natural world (see 2007’s Exodus to the Virtual World). This is not presented as a good thing, but rather as a commentary on the fact that we let the natural world suffer while we engineer a digital paradise. Here then is the Oasis.
The Oasis itself is not a video game, but it does contain countless video games within it. It is accessed via WiFi, goggles, and gloves at a bare minimum, supplemented by anchored cables and/or omni-directional treadmills. Unlike Sony’s Playstation VR and similar, players have to walk/run in real-time to get to where they want to go. Interfaces are traditional head-up displays and interactive screens, players swiping and tapping, pinching and zooming, always being fed data while engaging in Oasis activities. The body is in the Oasis just what it is in the natural world: meat-that-moves-the-brain.
Gaming concepts blend with day-to-day life in 2045. Permadeath is real: losing your avatar results in a loss of coins, gear, and reputation, resetting you to zero, and in effect zeroing you out of society. Everyone is focused on making enough money in the Oasis to survive, and survival means more time spent in the Oasis. It’s real-life gold-farming in order to buy perks, power-ups, and even basic fuel.
Having been introduced to the hardware and the concept of an MMO (massively multiplayer online space), we learn that one of the co-creators of the Oasis, Halliday/Anorak (everyone has a “real” name and an avatar name) has died, leaving behind a game for all in the Oasis to play, the winner receiving sole control of the Oasis itself. The game consists of three challenges, which reward three keys that can be used together to open the door to the Easter Egg housed somewhere in the near-infinite universe of the Oasis. It is no accident that RP1 was released on Easter weekend. The nature of the games all center around Halliday’s obsession with pop culture. In the book, this obsession restricts itself to the 1980s. The film, however, delights in what must have been a rights/permissions nightmare for Warner Bros. as nearly every frame contains dozens (if not hundreds) of media references both heard and seen.
The film paints most people as nostalgic, fondly recalling a favorite game, character, or song. It revels in creative output, occasionally (but rarely) celebrating the creators behind that content. RP1 grapples with the concept of “fandom” early on, and continues the argument of what that means for creative work that no longer seems to belong to the creators, but rather to an enthusiastic humanity who takes those stories to heart. For every scene featuring video game characters from Halo’s Master Chief to Overwatch’s Tracer, the audience in the theater with me delighted in who they could spot, and the feeling of joy that discovery gave them. As I watched the credits, people behind me were reminiscing about Starcraft II. Blizzard Entertainment properties featured heavily in the film, reflecting a perceived demographic of player-viewers. As an aside, I’m curious about how intellectual property (IP) laws will change in the next 30–40 years that would allow people to wear avatars from popular media in an open environment such as the Oasis, mixing with the IP properties of other brands and publishers.
Contrast this with the “101”ers who work for IOI (Innovative Online Industries), basically the corporate scabs of the Oasis who seek to take it over for the purposes of advertising to users. The film comes out strongly against in-app purchases, and against those who purport to play but are really in it for financial gain. “A fanboy knows a hater when he sees one,” Wade/Parzival shouts late in the film. I kept thinking about how Disney has bought up everything from Star Wars to the Marvel universe and wonder just how much of a media consumer Disney’s top brass actually is as opposed to one making smart business decisions. We’re slowly seeing Disney create a media empire that would make a place like the Oasis possible from an IP perspective. They already have ample practice in this with the crossover video games Disney Infinity, Disney Universe, and Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes.
The toxicity of fandom and specifically gamer culture finds a home in the avatar of I-R0k, a self-important douchebag of a player who is elite, arrogant, incredibly skilled, with game-wealth beyond imagining. At the same time, we also see the anti-gamer culture in Wade/Parzival’s clan, High Five, which features two young Asian brothers (Sho, 11, and Daito, late teens), an African-American woman (Helen/Aech, late twenties, who plays as a male orc), and a white woman (Samantha/Art3mis, late teens), and Wade (white male, late teens). This diverse team shows the best of what cooperative play can offer, and serves as a tonic for what is often toxic gamer behavior. The film goes so far as to even nuke gamers to reset everything to zero.
The Oasis quest is rooted in nostalgia and memory. The Halliday Journals serve as an online archive within the Oasis containing every recorded memory of the Oasis’ eccentric co-founder along with copies of every bit of media he ever loved. A literal recreation of Ask Jeeves (called the “Curator”) leads users to anything Halliday-related. The Curator curates all of the things associate with one single person, much like we in 2018 have delegated our memories to our social media. Halliday’s memories can be viewed in VR, observed at different angles, and replayed over an over again by obsessed Gunters (egg-hunters). We see the trope of the obsessed fandom and the cult of personality as Wade and Samantha quiz each other about Halliday, and we learn that his favorite video game was GoldenEye. During the viewing of one of Halliday’s memories, we hear him complaining that we’re moving forward whether we like it or not. “Why can’t we go backwards for a change?” Meanwhile at IOI headquarters, we hear from its CEO Sorrento that “we’re in a war for the future.” Sorrento is the futurist while Halliday fixated on the past. The former wants an empire of advertising revenue (Facebook ads, anyone?) while the latter styled himself as a video game Willy Wonka. It’s money v. creativity in gaming, although Halliday knew what he had created and intended to invest his earnings back into making the Oasis an even more creative play-space.
Digital memory is selective, however, in the Oasis just as it is for us now. We continue to struggle with what to preserve, and nostalgia helps us make those decisions. For Halliday, he maintains a version of his younger self in order to remember those early playtimes of discovery, but he purges all but one memory of the woman he loved. “Escape your past,” weaves itself into a clue for finding one of the keys. The theme of turning back time appears throughout the film, including the use of a “Zemeckis Cube,” a Rubik’s Cube that rewinds time in the Oasis by 60 seconds. Sometimes going back in time is useful, and reminds us of the countless times we have failed in games only to re-spawn for another attempt at making a leap or solving a puzzle.
The Zemeckis Cube is one example of an Oasis “artifact”, something that can either be bought or found in the synthetic world. These artifacts are great equalizers; anyone can find them and, with skill, use them to improve their lot within the Oasis. Another artifact includes the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, recalling another nerd classic. The fact that these media-inspired artifacts can be either found or sold reflects part of the lives of many archaeological finds. We have archaeology in the open, often referencing something from pop culture past. Interestingly, pop culture in RP1 has both a terminus post quem and terminus ante quem starting in the 1970s and ending precisely at 2018. Even though Halliday dies in 2040 and the action of the film transpires in 2045, pop culture stops in 2018. It’s as if this is the last year worth remembering, especially where video games are concerned. People’s lives are so difficult now that they thrive on everything that came before, the opium of mass media and shared fandom. We live in the past in 2045 just as we do now in 2018.
There are real artifacts in the virtual world of the Oasis, too. Players use an Atari 2600 attached to an older color television set in order to play vintage games. Old technology is accessed through new technology, and haptic gloves must manipulate the simple stick-and-button controller getting a literal feel for the game and the console upon which it is played. The Oasis also sports a robust modding community, recreating classic media icons for use by players within. RP1 focuses on film-related mods that can then be used in gaming spaces (e.g., the Delorean from Back to the Future and Akira‘s iconic motorcycle race head-to-head in one scene). The character of Aech makes a living creating these mods, a digital model-maker with a love for past cultural icons. As players we seek that which is authentic — the more authentic something is, the closer to “real” and “actual” it becomes. We define ourselves by our things, and we find our tribes through a shared enjoyment of things we love so much that we have to put that love on public display.
There are two themes in the film that could become entire graduate-level seminars. The first is the notion of digital cultural appropriation. One of my friends was so mortified to learn of the use of one beloved film character that he is boycotting RP1 outright. This goes back to the sense of entitlement of fans of a creative property. At what point do we get to take a character and turn it into something that differs completely from the author’s original intent? There are those who would claim that we’re overthinking this, that what happens on-screen is no different than kids picking up the toys they like and making them fight each other to make a new story. It’s a fine line that RP1 walks in its battle sequences, but one that reflects a culture of players who love something so much that they absolutely must have it as a “skin” or in their inventory for use whenever (and however) they want it. I think we will see more of this content appropriation, things that vary from the original, for better or worse. Media is our modern cultural heritage. Authors of fan fiction are already playing with characters and narratives, and this irritates the “purists” who want their one story and one character as canon. The movie asks us “who owns what we love?” The movie makes a case for the fans who are the ultimate stewards of content, preserving it through play and through a robust oral tradition and the very American (Jeffersonian) idea of “lots of copies keep stuff safe.” It’s open access in an open world, but it’s the kind of open access the content-creator has to pay for in order to make that content available for the end-users. In RP1, fan-curated content is good, and corporate ownership is bad.
The other thematic issue in RP1 is how it treats the concept of “reality.” In the film, Spielberg and Penn seem to be on the very traditional side of the dualism between physical reality and virtual reality. There is no room for blended reality, or the fact that our everyday lives are spent physically within digital environments from games to video to email and word-processing. We get the lines late in the film that “reality is real” and that “reality is the only place where you can get a decent meal,” yet that speaks to a presumed supremacy of physical being ignoring the fact that the entire movie hinges around the fate of a digital space completely entangled with commerce, economics, and productivity. RP1 preaches at the end, basically telling everyone to get their heads out of their digital assets in order to go outside for a day or two. I agree with the idea, but felt that the film could have left that unsaid while still communicating the message through its narrative construction.
In the end, RP1 is a fast-paced meditation on how we treat our entertainment and our memory of that entertainment. It is the lingua franca of the 2000s, our modern Latin. The more media you have consumed, the more you will get out of the film’s deep, deep commitment to celebrate all media from the past 40 years. Those younger viewers (or viewers who do not have that much invested in the pop culture vernacular) will miss a lot, but will enjoy the action of the film. If anything, it will encourage them to go discover such media touchstones as Atari’s Adventure (1979). “It’s so much slower here,” Wade reflects as he gets his bearings on a Columbus, Ohio rooftop garden. Sun, sky, and plants. A quiet breeze. And maybe that’s all we need. Or maybe those are already artifacts of a bygone era.
Trivia: I’ve actually met the Triumvirate responsible for RP1, but not all at the same time. I met Spielberg when he visited the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree where I was on the Arena Shows staff. I’d like to think he noticed my all-access pass that had “Indy” written across it. I met Zak Penn when he was shooting interviews for the Atari: Game Over documentary in 2014, and met Ernie Cline at the site of the Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico at the party he threw after the main digging day at the local arcade/mini-golf/go-karts. You could tell that Penn and Cline were cooking something up, and the film is the net result.
—Andrew Reinhard, Archaeogaming