Spoilers for Ready Player One (the novel).
Until I listened to Ready Player One (read by Wil Wheaton on Audible), I had heard only positive reviews of the book. At the time, I didn’t even know that the movie was coming out; I simply had a credit burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to read something that I had heard of. The book was high on the recommendations list (likely because of the movie), and, based on its reputation, I bought it and began to listen.
Almost immediately, I figured out my take on the book. I would have enjoyed it more pre-2014, specifically 2011 or 2012 when the book came out. This was the golden age of the nerd. Geeking out was becoming more and more socially acceptable. Superhero movies were at the top of the box office, Dungeons & Dragons was rapidly increasing in popularity, and shows like Big Bang Theory were on everyone’s television (the argument of whether or not this is actually an accurate representation of geek is better left to Parzival). However, like many counter-culture movements, there was a strong opposition against the other.
By the time I was aware of the prejudice and bigotry in the geek community, Gamergate was already in full force. I was already well settled within the community, and I didn’t want to leave, but I also questioned my reasons for staying. Is liking video games worth being a part of the same community that threatens women and makes them flee their homes? Could I go to conventions anymore knowing I could be browsing the same vendors as the perpetrators of these awful events?
In Ready Player One, the villains are an amalgamation of every evil corporation in every video game, movie, TV show, or book. Their only pursuit is money, and they have managed to take over vital aspects of society. It creates the dystopian setting in the book. The Oasis is the utopian geek paradise where gamers are ultimately powerful while the real world is ruled by corporations. Luckily, Parzival is so good at The Oasis that the real world is rarely a problem.
I wonder how much of a perfect society The Oasis was for Aech and Art3mis. Aech, in order to excel, uses a white male avatar. The world is easier for her when she does. I admire Cline’s acknowledgement that even The Oasis would be rife with racism and sexism, but her identity as a black lesbian is never fully explored. Even when Parzival knows she is not who she says she is, he still thinks of her as white, male, and straight.
Then, there’s Art3mis. Despite being a better Gunter than Parzival in many ways, Art3mis still loses. Sure, she receives part of the prize at the end, but she is unable to overcome real world barriers or beat Parzival at games. Art3mis nearly always figures out the puzzle first, but, what Parzival can do in one attempt takes her weeks. Presumably, this would have also prevented her from playing a perfect game of Pac-Man and gaining an extra life.
The women and people of color in the book often only succeed out of the kindness of Parzival’s heart. He gives them hints, magical artifacts, and even a total restoration of their character at the end of the book. When Parzival isn’t talking about how cool he is and how many movies he can quote, he sometimes mentions the other characters. His reasons for liking them or being interested in them, with the exception of Aech, are simply not convincing. Shoto and Daito are friends with Parzival merely for being in the top five. Art3mis starts as an obsession after Parzival decides that she’s both “naturally” beautiful and competent. She remains an obsession for him for the remainder of the book.
Parzival pursues Art3mis with a creepy fervor. Despite repeated attempts to get him to leave her alone, Parzival goes against her wishes and continues to message her and practically stalk her. Though the criticism has been around for longer than Ready Player One has been published, Gamergate and conversations about feminism and media have since given a more severe backlash to the trope of pursuing a woman until she gives in. While this would have been more socially acceptable (but still criticized) when Ready Player One was published, it now makes the book’s hero into one of many villains in The Oasis.
I wonder what Ready Player One would look like from Art3mis’s perspective. Long before she found the first Egg, she was a semi-popular Gunter, known for her streams and blog. Presumably, she would have faced some harassment by merit of being a woman on the internet. Then, she gets second place on the scoreboard. More harassment. When she takes the first place slot, I can only imagine what she must have faced from the hordes of angry users. On top of all of this, her competition is trying to get her to go on a date with him, despite her repeated refusals.
I also wonder what it would be like from Aech’s perspective. Did she enjoy having to be confined to a particular avatar in a fantasy where anyone can be anything? If The Oasis is anything like any other game, what was it like for her to hear the vitriol spewed from other players, knowing it was about her?
Essentially, Parzival just isn’t the most interesting character in Ready Player One. He’s a guy that’s good at games because he plays them a lot. He faces some issues with poverty and loss, but he very quickly overcomes them. Parzival goes into the final battle with a literal army behind him. The other characters likely went in with many of that same army against them.