Ready Player One.

Read the book last year, saw the movie tonight. I found the movie to be a disappointment for a variety of reasons and combined with a reflection on Molly Ringwald’s piece on the drive home, realized the Cool Kids still only pretend to understand and like us. Molly Ringwald doesn’t realize she was not the innocent hero in Breakfast Club, her character deserved to be called names and her job was to realize she wasn’t any better than the other kids. The audience understood.

I was never a gamer, and quit playing my one MMORPG before starting grad school. There were, however, years when slipping on the headphones and sliding into my online persona felt more real than my life. A gamer friend pointed me toward the William Gibson book, Neuromancer, because he said I reminded him of the main character. “You aren’t playing the same game the rest of us are.”

Tonight in the theater, the audience laughed at the fat woman dancing on a pole in her VR universe. Alone in her trailer, she wore hot pink velour and danced for an unseen audience who appreciated what she had to offer. Somewhere, she was desirable, and people in the theater found the notion preposterous, as intended, and laughed. The movie played lip service to the tragedy with a voice-over by the main character, explaining how people could be anyone in the Oasis. The book was much more direct, showing as the economy moved from real life to virtual life, real life ceased to exist except for the people who operated the online universe and its requisite real life infrastructure. There should have been no people on the streets in the movie. Everyone is at home, imprisoned by rigs which allow them to pretend to escape their imprisonment, receiving deliveries from drones, isolated from other people. Only the very poor and very rich still are outside.

The appearance of the Molly Ringwald piece was coincidental,  but the leader of the corporatist scum of IOI was styled to resemble the vice principal from Breakfast Club, Richard Vernon. Do you remember when the Internet was the opposite of corporatist? When it was going to free us, connect us, and let us wander the world of ideas? Now you’re imprisoned by your Facebook advertiser profile and aggregate activity, with Twitter and Google deciding what you may see and read and watch. We accept the deliveries from search bots as if they were all the world had to offer, and remain isolated from people who don’t think as we do.

The amount of time and effort it takes to master game content is staggering, and the high-end gamers I knew would shrug it off as inconsequential. It was possible to spend thirty or forty hours a week playing the game and still not reach the highest levels of play. Excellent play required research, preparation, and social capital inside the game. Moving to higher levels of play involved remembering incredible minutia, e.g. running into the walls of an elevator while it descends in a particular quest allows the player to drop through the floor and reach the bottom a split-second earlier. Only noobs ride it all the way down. Someone had to find that hole, reproduce it, and transmit the knowledge through their social network. The movie invented an impossible first stage to the easter egg hunt. It is inconceivable that an entire player base of expert VR gamers didn’t turn around to find the back way to the solution and the first key. Only noobs run the actual quest. The key to winning is in the metagame, which the book illustrated again and again. The movie missed the mark by trying to make a movie which appeals to the masses, who, like Molly Ringwald, don’t realize they aren’t one of us.

Sometimes I miss being able to sit down with a glass of iced tea, a sandwich, and tirelessly roam lush landscapes with my great sword in hand. I miss all the people and the laughter and the sense of accomplishment. There is a line in the movie, uttered by the female lead, Art3mis, to Perzival  “You don’t know me. You only see what I allow you to see,” as if this were some sort of revelation on the nature of online life and not the human condition.

It is difficult to “be” IRL. It is difficult to “be” in-game. The pressures are similar, other people have expectations, needs, and wants. They make demands on your time, energy, and resources. The persona in-game doesn’t have to worry about endless laundry or paying bills and can log out when the grind is all too much. Maybe the checking in and checking out is what prevents us from mastering either world. The difficulty lies in remaining present to experience, to the Self, and answering the great questions –

  • Who am I?
  • What’s important to me?
  • What am I willing to trade?
  • What’s non-negotiable?

Tomorrow is squat day.

 

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