Ready Player One: A Book Review

A celebration of toxic attitudes and nerd culture

A few months back I read Ready Player One, written by Ernest Cline, for the London Gaymers Book Club. I had owned this book for a while and was quite excited to read it. It seemed like a fun read, full of action and adventure. However, what we are given instead is a poorly written book with very little substance or character development. Cline sacrifices all of this to score nerd points by showing how many obscure references he can make. And with this we end up with a celebration of toxic nerd culture, as well as politically charged topics that are badly handled.

Set in 2044, the world is said to be falling apart. To escape their woes, humanity spends all their time in virtual reality, the OASIS, a utopian world where you can be whatever you want. The creator of OASIS, James Halliday, dies and leaves behind an Easter egg, like those found in video games, inside the OASIS. Players needed to locate a key that would then lead to a gate. Clear the gate and they get the riddle for the location of the next key. Unlock and clear all three gates and find the Easter egg, and you would inherit Halliday’s entire fortune.

Within the first 20 pages, I found a flaw with the premise. Wade mentions all the issues they now face in the real world, one of which is the fact that the world has now nearly run out of fossil fuels. Because of this, they’ve had to start cutting back on energy usage, “Big-time”. This seems directly at odds with the fact that the whole of humanity is spending all their time using VR headsets, for everything. He even uses it to go to virtual school. This feels like lazy writing to have such a shaky premise and weak world building, especially so early in the book. It shows what little importance the real-life world is to Cline. It never seems to have much of an impact, despite all the problems. Cline’s focus is squarely on 80s pop culture.

This shows throughout the book, as the 80s references come in hard and fast. Even something as simple as Wade climbing down from his trailer where he lives, he compares it to being in Donkey Kong or BurgerTime. Every action he takes, it somehow reminds him of something from the 80s. This sets up Wade’s obsession with the era. Wade is known as a Gunter, which is someone who is obsessed with the 80s and the hunt for Halliday’s egg. Wade spends a lot of time talking to other Gunters as well. Early on in the book, Wade is logged into a chatroom filled with other Gunters, one of which is I-rok. I-rok and Wade find themselves in a confrontation over who is a real Gunter, and they start quizzing each other on their knowledge of 80s pop culture. This feels very reminiscent of current nerd culture, such as console wars, what makes a “real gamer” and who is the “true fan”. It is a toxic attitude that promotes exclusion on even the simplest of things. I have had people tell me that I’m not a “real gamer” because I mainly play Nintendo. I’ve had people tell me that they’re “the [insert topic here] guy” and a bigger fan of said item and give a list of reasons why. It is something I constantly see and find completely ridiculous, but Ready Player One celebrates this with Wade being cheered by others for beating I-rok and shaming him.

There are tons of meme images on console wars. It’s a ridiculous notion (Source)

It is in this chatroom that we are introduced to Aech, Wade’s best friend. Aech is portrayed as a white man in the OASIS. However in the real world Aech’s name is Helen, a gay African American woman. Helen’s backstory is explained in less than a page, right near the end of the book, and isn’t referred to after that point. They go back to the OASIS, where Wade continues to refer to Helen as a man due to her avatar being male. Aech feels like the token diversity character here. Not only does she tick off the “person of colour” box, but also the “sexual diversity” and “gender diversity” boxes. There is a lot of unfilled potential in Aech’s character here. The character could have been used to explore toxic gamer culture. They could have had this revelation much earlier in the book and shown the backlash and hate that Aech received after the fact. Instead, it is brushed under the rug and raises the question of the point of adding this to the story in the first place if nothing was going to be done around it. Instead of building some character for Aech, her differences from her avatar is used for shock value and nothing more.

Cline’s treatment of women in Ready Player One is very poor across the board. Shortly after the events in the chatroom, Wade works out the riddle and manages to work out where the first key is. He successfully beats the boss here and gets his hands on the first key before anyone else. Upon leaving the location, he bumps into a player called Art3mis. Art3mis is a famous female Gunter who blogs her hunt for the egg. Previously in the book, Wade talks about how he follows her blog religiously and how he has a crush on her. When he meets her, she discovers that he has managed to get the first key. At this point, she reveals that she has been trying to beat the boss for five weeks and has been practicing non-stop, yet Wade manages to beat it on his first go. He gives her some advice and she uses that to beat the boss too. The idea that, with all her practice, she couldn’t beat the boss on her own feels farfetched. It feeds this idea that exists in gamer culture that men are superior to women and, without a man’s help, they can’t win.

Whilst Wade is trying to figure out the riddle to find the second key, others successfully find the first key and clear the first gate. Amongst these people are Daito and Shoto. Daito and Shoto are fellow gunters and are both Japanese, which is made apparent at every available opportunity. From the terminology and expressions they use, to their interests, behaviour and choices they make. They come across as very stereotypical and complete caricatures of their culture. I feel like the representation of minority characters could have been handled a lot better than it was.

The second part of the book opens with a text chat room between Art3mis and Wade. This chat really highlights how problematic Wade is as a character, a lot of which is never really called out. Art3mis mentions that she only accepted his chat request to tell him to cut it out, since they’re supposed to be rivals. However, he keeps on persisting and they end up chatting for a while. During this chat session, Wade asks Art3mis if she is a woman and “by that I mean are you a human female who has never had a sex-change operation?”. This comment is downright vile and adds nothing to the story apart from transphobia. It suggests that there would be something wrong with Art3mis being trans, that it would somehow make her less of a woman, which is unacceptable. Wade isn’t challenged on this, which is disappointing. There was an opportunity here to have Art3mis question his attitudes and have him learn and grow as a character, but this is completely missed.

This is a recurring theme throughout the book. Wade’s behaviour is never fully disciplined, instead he is given a small talking to but never educated on his wrongdoings and, for the most part, his behaviour gets him results, so it’s almost like his questionable behaviour is rewarded. After the chat session, Art3mis and Wade grow closer and have an online relationship. However, Art3mis eventually cuts it off when it gets too serious, as she wants to focus on the egg hunt. Instead of respecting her wishes, Wade does everything he can to try and contact her. His attitude here is similar to that seen in 80s movies, such as him standing “outside her palace gates for two solid hours, with a boom box over my head, blasting “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel at full volume”, which is reminiscent of the famous scene from Say Anything. Whilst in this case it doesn’t work, it is never criticised. Art3mis keeps to her word and doesn’t contact Wade. However, this would have been a great moment for Art3mis to call Wade out on his stalker behaviour and for him to grow as a character.

The scene from ‘Say Anything’ that Wade tries to replicate. Or maybe he could just leave her alone? (Source)

As Art3mis focuses on the hunt, Wade starts isolating himself. It is at this point that we see Wade’s obsession with Halliday. There is a wholly unnecessary section where Wade discusses masturbation. He states that he feels no shame performing the act as Halliday’s online diary states how important masturbation is. Halliday states that all smartest people have a hard time getting laid, therefore they need masturbation to release their sexual frustration and, without it, humanity would not have progressed very far. This is probably the most cringeworthy moment in the book for me, but the underlying issue is that Wade liked this theory, which is the bedrock for the issue with his personality. Instead of developing proper social skills, he has spent all his time in the OASIS. A significant proportion of his adolescent years have been spent hanging on everything Halliday. Every word he ever said, every item he ever loved, Wade’s obsession knew no bounds.

Extract from Ready Player One, showing what Halliday wrote in his Almanac, his online journal. Truly disturbing.

Idol worshipping is a serious issue, even in today’s society. It blinds people to the truth behind their favourite celebrity and how problematic they may be. It stops people for criticising their faves and defending them when they’re in the wrong. Halliday is a very introverted character with very poor social skills. He grew up in the 80s and was completely obsessed with the pop culture of the time which, by modern standards, have quite regressive themes. When Halliday’s best friend (Ogden) got married to the girl Halliday had a crush on (Kira), he cut them both off and completely dove into the OASIS. It was clear that his obsession with Kira was everlasting. Being obsessed with both Halliday and the 80s has clearly affected Wade’s behaviour. This can be seen in the way he acts with Art3mis, especially when she breaks contact with him. He never acknowledges her feelings and believes that persistence is key, rather than respecting her wishes.

As Art3mis focuses on the hunt, she manages to find the next key. It is at this point that Wade berates himself for not doing more. He says to himself that it’s all his fault for not working harder, falling in love and slacking off. Not at any point does he acknowledge that Art3mis must have worked hard, or how smart she must be. What’s interesting is, in the aforementioned chat session, he states how “most gunters are male, and they can’t accept the idea that a woman has beaten and/or outsmarted them”. Yet he does the exact same thing when faced with a loss. In his eyes, his loss is because he was slacking and nothing to do with her intelligence.

It is clear up to this point that Art3mis is much smarter than Wade, but this isn’t acknowledged until the very end of the book. At the end of the book all the top scorers, apart from Wade, get killed. This, of course, includes Art3mis. Since she is out of the game, she provides Wade with vital assistance in order to not lose at the final hurdle. It is at this point that Wade, as well as the other top scorers, finally acknowledge her intelligence. In my opinion, Art3mis was robbed of the win. She was clearly a better Gunter throughout the story, and I believe the story would have been much better with her taking the win at the very end.

During the book club discussion, a few raised the point of whether the book needed to delve into these political topics, whether the book couldn’t just be a “bit of fun”. There is nothing wrong with writing a book that is just a “bit of fun”. But if your book is going to touch on very politically charged topics then they need to be handled correctly, such as Aech’s sexuality, gender and ethnicity. Otherwise, they should not be brought in to the story. Likewise if you’re going to promote hatred, such as transphobia, then you can’t expect people to just brush past that. If the book was streamlined to not mention any of these topics and devoid of problematic references, then I would have rated this book a few points higher. But I still wouldn’t love the book, because it would seem like a missed opportunity to call out some very important points on how toxic the gaming community could be. Overall, I gave this book a one out of ten. Maybe if Cline masturbated before he wrote this book, he could have produced something better.

The tweet I wrote upon reading this part of the book
My rating: 1 out of 10

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Vaneet Mehta

Vaneet Mehta

Londoner born and raised. Bi Indian nerd who has way too many opinions and decided Twitter threads and lengthy FB posts aren’t cutting it.