Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Ready Player One and The Matrix.
There’s a world of difference between how branding and advertisement communicate and how media created for entertainment or artistic purposes communicates. Very broadly speaking, art and entertainment attempt to connect us to worlds, characters, and plots, and speak to us as people by making deep or compelling arguments about why we should be engaged in them. E.g. maybe the hero is charming enough that we hang on their every word or maybe the media is revealing something about the nature of love we hadn’t thought about before. We get to see a relatability in these characters, plots, and places, and are given time to grow close to them which is exactly what makes a bunch of words on a page or images on a screen into human beings or meaningful events or beloved alternate universes.
By contrast, advertisement isn’t about building fully-formed people, places, and events; when it so often comes at you in twenty-second chunks, it doesn’t have the time, and so much more than other media, it relies on symbols as opposed to fully-formed entities. The product is juxtaposed against broadly-drawn icons which mean something to us culturally, and there doesn’t have to be a logical connection between the product and these symbols. Shots of an SUV will be intercut with shots of a mountainside to send the message that buying the car will give you freedom and bring you adventure. A happy family will be shot gathered around a cereal box to suggest that if you buy that cereal, you’ll get the happy family too. The media does not make an argument for you to value the product or the surrounding settings or characters in their humanity. It literally can’t because the majority of the audience aren’t actually going to have their lives transformed by a new sofa or diet pill; we understand that adverts are grossly exaggerating the benefits of products. They’re just the shallow depiction of Entity A alongside Entity B, hoping you’ll come to associate Entity A with Entity B.
The logos, names, and other signature imagery of companies are also placed on products and in advertisements in the same manner, in an effort to get you to associate the two. E.g. When you see the SUV, the mountainside, and the car company logo, not only is the SUV associated with freedom, but so is the company and their logo. This is how a brand is built up in your head, and the intention is that you don’t just come to value the product: the actual tangible object or set of objects you can find some joy and use in; you also begin to value this abstract concept that’s attached to the products. Again, I’d argue that valuing a brand in itself is not rational; there are countless examples of the quality or nature of products differing from the “brand identity” representing them. However, the hope on the company’s part is that instead of approaching each product with a default position of scepticism and considering it on its own merits, you’ll buy the product just because it has the right name or logo on it. And what really makes marketers giddy is the idea that that brand will become part of your identity, economically intertwining you with a company because you think they’re selling you bits of your self. Obviously, it’s unhealthy to attach your identity to anyone whose interest in you is purely to make a profit.
If you’ve got all that then you’ll also understand (although not necessarily agree with) the criticism that “nerd culture” is inextricably connected to consumer culture in an unhealthy and shallow manner. I think this criticism is sometimes made unfairly; while nerd media does exist on some level as a connection of brands and symbols, we all have the opportunity to see the humanity in it and value it outside of a consumerist context. That’s why I often attempt to write about video games from a more human perspective, rather than just penning product reviews. However, we also can’t ignore the degree to which branding became part of the culture surrounding superhero fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, comic books, anime, and video games. We know the people who will go to see the Marvel movie just because it’s a Marvel movie, we know the fans obsessively following companies’ every press release, and we know about the console warriors. Not to mention, all those “references” which nerd culture is awash in are basically the same uncontextualised branding symbols that marketing relies on.
There may be no better proof of that connection between referential culture and branding practices than the film adaptation of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. From the perspective of business, there’s no question about why the branded characters and objects that appear in Ready Player One do. For Warner Bros., the company directly profiting from the film, including references like Tracer from Overwatch or the D&D logo entices people who already like those things to engage with this product. For the owners of Overwatch and D&D (Activision-Blizzard and Wizards of the Coast, respectively), the film functions as an advertisement for their products that potential customers will willingly watch and become excited over. There might be less to fear from this big business manipulation if we had a culture of critiquing and identifying marketing efforts in nerd culture media and not a push to immediately consume anything tagged with the correct cultural symbols, but that’s not the world we’re living in.
For some guidance, consider this passage from Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho in which the protagonist, Patrick Bateman, describes his living room:
“A glass-top coffee table with oak legs by Turchin sits in front of the sofa, with Steuben glass animals placed strategically around expensive crystal ashtrays from Fortunoff, though I don’t smoke. Next to the Wurlitzer jukebox is a black ebony Baldwin concert grand piano. A polished white oak floor through the apartment. On the other side of the room, next to a desk and a magazine rack by Gio Ponti, is a complete stereo-system (CD player, tape deck, tuner, amplifier) by Sansui with six-foot Duntech Sovereign 2001 speakers in Brazilian rosewood. A down-filled futon lies on an oakwood frame in the centre of the bedroom. Against the wall is a Panasonic thirty-one-inch set with a direct-view screen and stereo and beneath it in a glass case is a Toshiba VCR”.
This is part of a paragraph that stretches over roughly three and a half pages and is intended to begin painting the portrait of Bateman as a person not just driven by consumption, but specifically, by conspicuous consumption. Bateman needs to be seen owning the right furniture and electronics, wearing the right suits, and eating at the right restaurants. The novel is adamant that by defining himself through the consumption and display of products and services, Bateman is an empty human being, and this behaviour is part of the character’s quite literal insanity. Compare this to the following passage from Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, narrated by the protagonist Wade Watts:
“When it came to my research, I never took any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended gunter reading list. Douglas Adams. Kurt Vonnegut. Neal Stephenson. Richard K. Morgan. Stephen King. Orson Scott Card. Terry Pratchett. Terry Brooks. Bester, Bradbury, Haldeman, Heinlein, Tolkien, Vance, Gibson, Gaiman, Sterling, Moorcock, Scalzi, Zelazny. I read every novel by every single one of Halliday’s favorite authors.
And I didn’t stop there.
I also watched every single film he referenced in the Almanac. If it was one of Halliday’s favorites, like WarGames, Ghostbusters, Real Genius, Better Off Dead, or Revenge of the Nerds, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.
I devoured each of what Halliday referred to as “The Holy Trilogies”: Star Wars (original and prequel trilogies, in that order), Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Mad Max, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones. (Halliday once said that he preferred to pretend the other Indiana Jones films, from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull onward, didn’t exist. I tended to agree.) […]
Somewhere along the way, I started to go overboard.
I may, in fact, have started to go a little insane”.
Canonically, Watts has a reason beyond conspicuous consumption for hoovering up all this nerdy media, but the conspicuous consumption is part of it. Watts is building his nerd cred, and the way we build nerd cred is by proving how many media properties we’ve consumed from the pre-approved classic nerdy media list, and by displaying how much trivia we know about them. In Ready Player One, the mandatory list is even made physical. Showing deep attachment to media may not in itself constitute fetishism of that media as a product, but companies easily can and do manipulate that sort of attachment for profiteering. Again, this much is evident in the way that media corporations have bought in to Ready Player One. And while there’s nothing wrong with defining yourself in part by an investment in escapist media, if that’s the load-bearing pillar of your identity then you don’t have much of a human identity. You’re defining yourself by things rather than feelings in the way that Bateman is.
It doesn’t help that often in nerd culture communities, the valued connection to the media is not in understanding how people put it together or how it might speak to people, but simply in saying you’ve consumed it and that you have painstakingly memorised the most literal details of it. It’s an unsettlingly inhuman way of thinking about books, films, and games. In Ready Player One, not only is Watts often rewarded for treating nerd media this way, but the novel and film aim to empower us through trying to get us to identify as Watts and by letting us recognise all the media references baked into them. Again, us taking this approach to media is incredibly advantageous for anyone in branding because it constitutes a fetishisation of symbols without any scrutiny of what those symbols factually represent.
Just as a person forming their identity out of a bunch of pop culture media leads to an empty person; any work done to build out a film using offcuts of other media fails to give it an identity of its own. This is not to say that you can’t reference other fiction in your fiction, but those references only add to your central work if there’s some sort of connection between the two. E.g. In John Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars, he uses and subverts the “fault in our stars” lines from Shakespeare’s Julis Caesar. Where Shakespeare’s Cassius thinks that human misfortune is a consequence of our poor choices, Green argues that sometimes misfortune is just the hand the universe has dealt you. By comparison, the sophistication in Ready Player One’s references come down to “Wasn’t King Kong cool?” or “Remember WarGames?”. This style of writing doesn’t inform the script in any way.
The height of this and a perfect encapsulation of Ready Player One as a whole comes with The Shining scene. In order to solve one of the clues that will lead them to their end goal of “liberating” the virtual world, Watts and his associate researchers enter a computerised recreation of the Overlook Hotel from Kubrick’s film. As a fan of Kubrick, it was impossible not to appreciate this miraculous simulation of his world, correct down to the tiniest details. At the same time, the scene in the hotel is an exploration of director Spielberg and his relation to Kubrick. Wedged in here is a message about how it can be acceptable and even positive for a new artist to remix and reinterpret an older artist’s work. That’s all good stuff, but what do the Overlook Hotel and these characters’ interactions with it tell us about them? We know that Watts has some distant connection to this world because he idolises Halliday and The Shining played an important part in Halliday’s’ life, but this helps to fill out a character that exists off-screen more than it does speak to the central cast. About the best we get out of the Overlook is that it teaches us that the character of Helen Harris, despite having a fierce, muscular avatar, can be scared in some situations, but that’s more of a joke than anything.
The Shining is a horror film that, depending on your interpretation, is about isolation, domestic violence, and/or the Native American genocide. Ready Player One is a sci-fi adventure film about escapism through media and the conflict between big business and the fans of pop culture. Where is the link in tone or subject matter between The Shining and Ready Player One? The Overlook Hotel could have been swapped out for any other location from any film or game, and it would have the same amount of significance to Watts, the secondary cast, and their journey, which is in itself a proof that it has no relevance to who they are, where they’re going, or what this film is. This is why, when they’re thrown at you in quick succession, the references of Ready Player One are the creators of the film expending a lot of time and effort to tell you nothing about these characters beyond “they like nerdy stuff”. It also doesn’t challenge these characters in any way beyond giving them another enemy to fight. It has the same hollowness that advertisement does.
There is one reference in the film which goes in the complete opposite direction, however, and speaks on a human level while incorporating nerd culture paraphernalia. Both Watts and the bad guys know that to get the final key to unlock the treasure at the end of the film, they need to play Adventure for the Atari 2600; they’re just not all on the same page about what actions in the game will release the key. Watts works out that to get it, he needs to unlock the easter egg in Adventure which prompts the game to display the name of its programmer, Warren Robinett. See, all of Ready Player One is a trip through the video game world of the OASIS to discover the secrets hidden there by its creator, James Halliday, who shares some similarities with Robinett. Whoever unlocks all the secrets will become the ruler of the OASIS.
At the time Robinett worked for Atari, the studio refused to credit developers under their real names for fear that they would get poached by rival studios. Robinett, displeased with this policy, secretly gave dedicated players of Adventure a way to make the game display the text “Created by Warren Robinett” and thus, the first easter egg was born. So Watts’s raid into Adventure to reveal the person who created it ostensibly mirrors his raid into the OASIS to reveal Halliday as a human being. I don’t think the OASIS does reveal that much about its creator, not least of which because big-budget action MMOs and media stitched together from other peoples’ media both often fail at functioning in an autobiographical sense, but there’s intent in the “Adventure” metaphor.
By the end of the film, you’re left with the sense that Spielberg’s general strategy has been to try and give the audience heightened respect for the world outside of entertainment products but that he’s fighting against the fundamental premise of Ready Player One by trying to do so. After Watts solves the final puzzle of the OASIS, he becomes its new ruler, and he meets Halliday or perhaps a simulation or ghost of him; it’s intentionally ambiguous. Halliday tells him that he’s come to see the importance of living in the real world and this obviously has an impact on Watts because, in the final scene, Watts announces that for two days of the week he will keep the OASIS closed, having seen the need for people to take some time offline. But what about Watts’s adventure awakened him to this?
Most of the film is him and other characters being consistently rewarded for investing more and more in the unreal world of the video game; the only time when this stops being true is when it comes to Watts or Halliday pursuing a woman they’re interested in. Halliday strikes out with his date because he doesn’t take her dancing like she wants and instead watches a film with her. Similarly, after Watts confesses his love to romantic interest Samantha Cook, despite only knowing her for a week, Cook tells him that he doesn’t know her and that they’re just acquaintances in an MMO. This plot point seems like it’s going somewhere and motivates Watts to seek out Cook in the offline world. It’s perhaps the only time that the personality and beliefs of the protagonist are challenged. But what is the experience these two have outside the game that connects them as human beings that they couldn’t have had inside the game? It seems to be simply Watts confirming that Cook is an attractive partner to him. There’s no mistaking that the screenplay was written by two men, or that the film, despite trying, seems to find few good reasons to live in the real world.
Sometimes, it doesn’t even get the artificial world right. The puzzles that Watts has to complete seem all too easy. The first of them involves a racing game where the solution is just to go backwards at the start of a level instead of going forwards. Remember, in the Ready Player One universe, the whole world is meant to be hooked into this MMO trying to solve these puzzles, and there’s even a megacorp full of egghead researchers doing the same. When you consider the fiendishly hard puzzles that were solved by communities for real games like P.T. or The Black Watchmen, the idea that the players of the OASIS don’t think to go backwards at the start of a level, the thing we all do when looking for collectables, is asinine. I know this might seem like nitpicking, but this is a film that’s meant to be speaking to nerds, and here the speech is all wrong.
And all this criticism comes before we get to the cultural complications of Ready Player One setting up nerds as an underclass. It’s not surprising that a novel doing that exists, but it is surprising that a novel found success doing it as late as 2011. 2011 wasn’t the year of kids getting stuffed into lockers for saying they liked video games; it was the year of the fourth and fifth Marvel Cinematic Universe films, and by this point, the Wii and mobile platforms had skyrocketed the mainstream acceptance of video games. While Ready Player One sets nerds up as the new punks, the counter-culture of their time, real nerd media is, by comparison, completely mainstream, which is why a film with a budget as big as Ready Player One’s is something Warner Bros. could safely unload boatloads of capital into.
In the film, there’s a scene where Watts grills the villain, billionaire tech mogul Nolan Sorento, on his knowledge of nostalgic pop culture. Sorento has no connection to the pop culture artefacts that Watts is referencing but a team of experts are feeding him answers through an earpiece. Eventually, Watts manages to catch Sorento out, proving he’s not a real nerd, he’s just a poser. But think about how this kind of interaction contrasts with nerd dynamics in the real world.
In the real world, this kind of interrogation on who “the real nerds” or “the real gamers” are is a gatekeeping tactic, disproportionately wielded by men against women, as a way to exclude them from the nerd community. While Ready Player One depicts it as a form of recourse the powerless use against the powerful, it’s anything but. And while this image of the out-of-touch, stuffy corporate villain makes sense from the 80s perspective that Ready Player One speaks from, the tech overlords of the 21st-century are self-styled cool nerds. This hasn’t made them any less toxic for the world; on the contrary, being able to market themselves as more relatable human beings has served as a PR tactic to draw attention away from their more ethically questionable activities. So what does it matter whether your oppressive CEO knows their John Hughes films or not? Ready Player One is obsessed with the 80s, but the 80s had different social dynamics than the year 2018 does, and the film can’t make cultural statements as if we were living four decades ago and expect them to land. It’s not without some precedent that many people become uncomfortable at the implication of nerds as an oppressed people. While the nerd community has many wonderful people in it; the worst of the people it has to offer have been bigots punching down at groups below them, attempting to use “nerd” or “gamer” as an underclass status that shields their actions from criticism.
None of this is to say that Ready Player One, as a film, shies away from investigating power struggles that affect the real world or the way that capitalist interests might compromise the media we care about; this is actually the central conflict of the movie. Wade Watts and his posse must take control of the game world of the OASIS before the corporatists of Innovative Online Industries do. If Watts wins, he can take care of his fellow gamers, and if IOI win, they’ll jam the players’ HUD full of ads. The most spot-on commentary the film makes is the smaller stuff about how money-grubbing premium and ad models in games are getting in the way of pure enjoyment and represent the interests of the worst kind of people in the industry.
However, the film never stops to consider that maybe contemporary nerd culture doesn’t exist separate from the people who are in charge of it. That the nature of properties like World of Warcraft and GUNDAM and the way we relate to them is a product of the economic environment they were created and marketed in. That perhaps our media experience wouldn’t be a dizzying mishmash of brand symbolism and references if it existed outside of over-riding interests in profiteering. It also doesn’t stop to consider that maybe the utopian nerd culture of the future wouldn’t exist as a practical dictatorship either; that the concept of “rulers” of nerd culture is what got us into this jam in the first place.
Even worse is Ready Player One’s proposed antidote to dystopia. The film is compelling for the reason that most modern dystopian films are compelling: it’s clearly speaking to the economic inequality that we have become all too familiar with in our lives. The underdogs of the film live in a wasteland of poverty, trying to push upwards against an economic elite. There’s even a truck in Watts’s trailer park which says that it takes Medicare on it (or perhaps Medicaid; I can’t remember perfectly). The oppression of Ready Player One is all too real and in the real world there are two competing views for how we should relate to products and businesses in an environment where capitalism in its current form has done untold damage to our planet and its people. One school of thought tells us that the solution is a new consumerism: we buy products that are more sustainable, or that claim to have been made using labour practices that are not totally abhorrent.
The other school of thought says that this approach, or at least, this approach alone is not enough. It says that the way we ended up with a world ravaged by wealth disparity was that an unregulated capitalism incentivised and rewarded those who exploited other human beings. It also says that continuing to funnel money into the systems and economies which have caused such staggering inequality to begin with only empowers those systems to create more inequality. The proposed solution is actual political action (with the understanding that just consuming products does not count as political activism), as well as removing corporate elites as the rulers of society. The details of what that action and removal should entail are the subject of much debate, but in itself “do something political” and “remove oppressors from their positions of power” are pretty common sense political opinions that the majority of people support.
Ready Player One recognises the need for the removal of profiteers as the defacto leaders of our modern economic wastelands, but oddly, combines this idea with that initial concept of voracious consumption of the right products. It sees a nerd culture and even a whole society ruled by a private businessman and believes that only by engaging obsessively with that private businessman’s product can he be beaten back. It’s not wholly unexpected when you consider the cultural seed that Ready Player One grew from. Gamers and other types of nerds have frequently responded to calls to see their hobbies in a political or socioeconomic light by saying that such requests get in the way of the more important job of enjoying nerd media as simple escapism. “Get your politics out of my video games” the wise proverb goes.
It’s not hard to imagine how such a group of people may have rallied around the novel Ready Player One. Most escapist media is about escaping into something that is canonically real. It’s escapism onto the deck of a spaceship in the 26th century or to the ramshackle towns of the wild west. Ready Player One is an outlier in that it’s escapism into escapism; it’s audience empowerment about audience empowerment. This is what has led to the view of the novel as fetishising escapist media rather than just being it. Like any story, Ready Player One needs stakes, and so the characters have to save the world. In most other stories, this would result in characters having to sacrifice their comfort and entertainment and to face more adversity than just playing a hard video game. However, Ready Player One is so smitten with entertainment that all it primarily depicts the characters staying fully immersed in the entertainment while saving the world. The need of the heroes to endure situations which may be uncomfortable and the design of traditional video games to create complete comfort are at odds with each other in this story. Ready Player One becomes powerfully self-indulgent and makes its heroes poor role models.
The film is a kind of anti-Matrix. In the Wachowskis sisters’ 1999 far-future sci-fi, an oppressive elite trap human beings inside a simulation. The simulation is relatively comfortable comparative to the fallen real world, but the heroes of the film are those who choose the harshness of the real world over the indulgence of the simulation. That they’d do the opposite is unthinkable because The Matrix rightfully makes the point that anyone who controls the simulation has control over the people within it, and so retreating into the simulation is to experience the world as your enemies would want you to. One of the villains of the film is Cipher, a turncoat who chooses the “ignorance” of the simulation over the horror of the real world. By comparison, Ready Player One is a story about a simulation controlled by oppressors that glorifies submitting to the simulation; to worlds which were, in many cases, created for the purpose of making as much money from people as possible and keeping people engaged and satisfied.
Engaging with such simulations is comfortable, and in certain quantities, even healthy, but often the right thing to do is not the comfortable thing to do. I’m not here to criticise Ready Player One on the grounds that it isn’t mesmerising or appealing. The film is, within reasonable boundaries, both of those things; the creators of the picture have managed to create a virtual world that seems like it would be bliss to live in, and that’s the problem. These escapist worlds are beguiling, and when misused, even distracting from what life can otherwise offer because they’re not a way to form a personality and they’re not a way to affect real world change. Thanks for reading.