Pop Culture and the OASIS

I recently finished reading Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. And yes, this essay will have some spoilers. It’s not a review, nor do I really spoil all that much. There are certain scenes I need to reference in order for my argument to make sense. But there’s actually a lot going on in this book that I won’t be touching on and even if you read this essay before you read the book it’s still definitely more than worth the read. So, I won’t be insulted, if you want to venture elsewhere for now because you want this book to be all surprise when you read it, I’ll more than understand.

For those of you still venturing forth without reading the book first, let me try to capture the basic premise of the book in a few sentences.

In the not so distant future, all energy resources are depleted. As such, the world’s economy is basically taken out behind the barn and shot. There’s no work, the world’s pretty disgusting, and people who live day to day are usually addicted to crystal meth and really horrible. But, most people have an escape in a video game software program called OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation). In short, it’s a virtual reality where an entire simulated universe exists. Kids go to school in the OASIS, most people who have employment work in the OASIS, and accessing the OASIS is entirely free. The designer of the OASIS believed that technology should be accessible to everyone. On the day of the designer’s death, word spread about a game he set up in the OASIS universe where people plugged in can perform tasks to find keys that open gates; the first player to find all three keys and gates wins the designer’s fortune.

I’m not going to go into details about characters or conflicts or anything like that. What is interesting to note is that all of the main characters are adamant in completing the game themselves, by themselves. They even address the possibility of working together, but decide against it at every opportunity except for once.

Towards the end of the book, when the third gate is found, it requires three keys to open it. But each player can only hold one of each key. Which means a team of at least three has to open the last gate.

I’ll tell you why this interests me and helps bring up a point I’ve been thinking about.

A lot of this book rests on two things: gamer stereotypes and pop culture references. All the tasks and challenges the characters face in this book are direct references from pop culture from the late 70s to the early 90s. Because a vast knowledge of pop culture from this era is needed to complete the game and potentially win the prize, the characters in this book study and memorize pop culture, resulting in extreme fanfare of everything from John Hughes movies to Rush records to Atari games. The entire culture surrounding this not so distant future world is entirely dependent on this game designer’s favourite games, books, movies, and music.

The protagonists in the book each represent archetypes of gamer stereotypes: they each have their unique back stories and social problems, but they are all introverted, shy, insecure, and despise the world around them. And that’s the whole reason why they plug in to the OASIS. It’s why they’re all so obsessed with finishing this game and knowing all of this pop culture trivia: it’s all they have that’s worth living for.

Frankly, this has been my own experience with pop culture as well. Especially growing up. In wasn’t athletic, I wasn’t good at school, friends were few and far between: in short, I was the weird kid. I fit the stereotype perfect. I hated school, I hated everyone I went to school with, I purposely made myself sick just to avoid leaving my house for another day. I remember there being entire summer vacations when I didn’t leave my house unless it was to go to Blockbuster and rent another video game or another movie.

If it wasn’t for Playstation, Star Wars, and Iron Maiden, I don’t know how I would have turned out. Each school day was survival, knowing that at 3:30, I got to go home and read comic books, play guitar, and, most importantly, be by myself. I couldn’t stand people, especially people in my own age group. I tried to make friends, but it was like I couldn’t figure out how to do it. Most of the kids in my neighbourhood just wanted to play sports all of the time. I knew nothing about sports. I watched hockey occasionally, but that was the extent of my sports knowledge. Even then I had no idea was icing or offside was until I was in my 20s. My brain had no room for that. I had to memorize the maps in Quake and Greedo’s lines in Mos Eisley (before this fills my comments section, yes, I know, Han shot first).

Something happened as I got older. I started actually finding kids my own age into the things I liked. I remember who I sort of consider my first friend. He kept his love for Star Wars under the radar in hopes that the other kids wouldn’t find out. He found out I liked Star Wars and introduced me to a card game taking place in the franchise. He started showing me other card games too like Magic: The Gathering, Battletech, and Marvel Overpower. Soon, we found a few other kids into the same games. I had basically the same group of friends throughout the latter half of elementary, junior high, and a bit of high school. We all wound up interested in other things by the time high school ended and I don’t remember the last time I talked with any of them. But, when I look at my group of close friends now I realize that we connected on the same things that my friends from school and I did as well.

And that’s why there needing to be three keys to open the third gate is so important. What that says is that being into the pop culture is great and all, but what really matters is the people you connect with based on your love of pop culture. The connection might start with just being into the same movies. Suddenly, you’re showing each other different books you both like. You start trading CDs and going to shows together. If you’re the creative type, you might even start working on projects together. And this isn’t even something that happens when you’re young. A week after I started dating my girlfriend, I posted an article on here that talked about how “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel was one of my favourite songs. I shared the article on my Facebook page and she commented on it saying that Say Anything is one of her favourite movies ever. I`ll get her to watch Star Wars soon enough.

Throughout Ready Player One, the designer of the OASIS, James Donovan Halliday, becomes one of the most prominent characters in the book. He`s never actually present or even alive in the book, but the entire design of the OASIS and all the challenges in the game give a full picture as to who this man was and why pop culture as so important to him. But, most of all, he didn`t just design the game to see who would get his fortune. He wanted to share all of his favourite games, movies, and music one last time. Because the world sucks and escaping is great; but, it’s always better to have a great group of friends to escape with.

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