Holy gatekeeping, Batman!
I'm not the first person to rant about Ready Player One and I certainly won't be the last. Since the book's debut in 2011 readers' responses have slowly and excruciatingly headed downhill until they came to a fiery crash at the announcement of Steven Spielberg's movie adaptation. Take even a cursory glance at the current pop culture landscape and it's not hard to understand why. RPO embodies everything we've always despised----and have only recently begun to push back against-----about male-centric nerdom.
Forget the increasingly outdated 80s nostalgia. Forget even the shallow interpretation of the Hero's Journey. I want to talk about how RPO romanticizes every fan stereotype we've been trying to leave behind since the late 1990s. Like transformative vs. encyclopedic knowledge. Spend just a day immersed in fandom and you'll realize that people love to divide active involvement into two simplistic categories: those who memorize (the men) and those who create (the women). Spend two days immersed in fandom and you'll realize how complicated that assumption is, but the stereotype still stands. It's fanfic vs. trivia contest, vids vs. wiki entry, "I want to write a story where these two cute boys kiss" vs. "Really? You're an MMO fan? Fine, name five games released in the last ten years...bitch."
Only kind of gatekeeping I can get behind
RPO is all about that masculine, gatekeeping, encyclopedic knowledge. Our hero Wade Watts (who says straight out that he was named that so he'd sound like a superhero's alter ego. Talk about heavy-handed) is a fountain of information within the virtual reality of Oasis. More importantly, that information comes to mean something. When Oasis' creator Halliday dies he tells the world that he hid an Easter egg somewhere in the game. Whoever finds the egg gains total control over his creation. And the puzzles that lead to the egg can only be solved through knowledge of one thing: himself.
It's a fanboy's ultimate dream. That all that obsessive, useless memorizing of a Thing---in this case a celebrity---will lead them to fame and glory, ultimate power and trillions of dollars. (No. I'm not exaggerating that last bit.) The puzzles are solved by carefully and meticulously going over every aspect of Halliday's life, cataloguing his preferences, relationships, his biggest regrets. As if that wasn't creepy enough, the story manages to ensure that Wade in his nerd boy stereotype manages to always come out on top. It doesn't matter if the antagonist IOI has a team of thousands of fans just as obsessed as he is pouring over the same information. It doesn't matter if the beautiful redhead on that team figures out the final clue first. It doesn't even matter that, once again, we have a woman more talented, more dedicated, and more intelligent than the guy pursuing the same goal. Oh, Samantha has her moment when she gets to the second key first, but it's a token victory at best. The game literally pushes everyone else out of the room---guess we have to rely on her now, huh?---and people would really be up in arms if she didn't get to do at least one third of the work. Despite her own goals though, including a never again mentioned desire to get revenge for her dead father, Samantha tells Wade that he has to be the one to win because... why again? Weren't you just rightly telling him that he has no concept of the game's real world implications? That he's shallow and impulsive? So why are we putting him in charge?? Oh yeah. Because he's the male hero. That's some grade A lampshading right there.
The story makes sure that the nobody with no resources fanboy comes out on top against all logic. Wade is just the sort of guy that seems fine until you bother to look closer. He believes that a utopia is where anyone can change their sex or their race, not understanding why conflating the trans community with someone like Rachel Dolezal might be a problem. He seems sweet because he reassures Samantha that he's not disappointed after meeting her in real life, completely ignoring her (correct) accusations that he doesn't know her. Wade isn't disappointed because Samantha is still hot. She's not a guy or, heaven forbid, overweight like he'd worried. A birthmark about as off-putting as Gerard Butler's Phantom makeup isn't going to dissuade him from her thin figure, wind-swept hair, and otherwise flawless skin. Oh no. Wade is a progressive fanboy who accepts his 'damaged' prize with grace.
At its core RPO is the narcissism of one white dude enabling the narcissism of another white dude and the entire time I was just thinking, really? This is how we decide the fate of the world's greatest creation? I mean Wade's abilities as a leader aside, we're romanticizing memorizing the creator's life so extensively that all the players become walking memorials to him? How about we give those transformative fans a chance instead? You know, the ones who might actually create something fantastic within Oasis.
If we're following that very simplistic gendered division, it's the women we should be looking to. All the artists within the Oasis who already imagined and built the amazing world that the players now inhabit. Helen, who built an Iron Giant from scratch and had the forethought to record their enemy's confession-----that's the kind of person who should be in charge of the Oasis. Not a boy who thinks he's talented because he memorized Halliday's favorite movie and tries to lord that knowledge over others. And yes, in the end Wade splits the power with his friends, but that doesn't detract from the fact that everyone around him thinks he's the Oasis' special little snowflake. If anything, his decision to split the power five ways paints him as inaccurately benevolent, completely ignoring the fact that everyone else had to step aside to give him that power in the first place.
It's a familiar narrative. Geek boys were Bad and now everyone watches Game of Thrones so I guess they're kind of Good, but that reprieve doesn't extend to the fic writers and plushie sewers and Mary Sue sketchers. Those who are doing "women's work." The world still doesn't have much space for us and neither does Ready Player One. This isn't a love letter to fandom, it's a celebration of a particularly toxic type of fan who would like nothing more than to watch everyone not like him shown to the door. Unless you're an able-bodied white boy who can recite every film your celebrity obsession ever watched? Yeah, move along.
For all that though, I enjoyed the spectacle. I enjoyed the heart-pounding car race and the nifty CGI; watching mecha Godzilla battle a Call of Duty squad and Stephen King's The Shining made even more twisted. Spielberg's adaptation also has a thin layer of real nostalgia to it, encouraging conversations about aging, regrets, and exactly how much time we spend ignoring our problems instead of solving them. We've got a supporting cast that includes two Asian men and a butch black woman, so that's pretty cool. It's not enough to redeem the film's overall message though.
Go into RPO with your brain turned off. Let yourself enjoy the fact that a Chucky doll is used as a weapon and there's anti-gravity dancing. There's cool aspects to it and ultimately a part of me was very entertained for two hours.
The rest of me though? The fan part that's still bothering to think? Not so much.