Op-Ed: Suzanne Leibrick weighs in on the implications of Ready Player One as a representation of VR culture to the broader public.
First, a disclaimer: if you haven’t read Ready Player One already, now would be a great time to stop reading. I know, I know, you really want to hear what I have to say, but read on at your own risk.
Another disclaimer: I’m not here to discuss whether or not I think this is a “good” book, or whether I think Spielberg can make it into a great movie. As someone who firmly believes in the power of VR, and that it’s going to change how we interact with computers in the future, I think there’s a lot to be said for the fortuitous timing of the book and film.
Having said all that, there are some things I want to talk about that aren’t so great. The book is set in the year 2045, where human civilization is in severe decline—there’s an energy shortage, people are starving, and really, everything sucks. But here’s the kicker: despite all of that, everything still sucks more for women and people of color. No matter how bad our white male protagonist has it, things are still worse for non-white-straight-cis-males.
It’s very hard to explain VR to someone who hasn’t tried it before. The easiest route to explaining VR is simply to put a headset on someone and let them experience it for themselves. In the 90s, the first real generation of VR devices were depicted pretty well by a few films (for example, Lawnmower Man). In the intervening years, we forgot both about the hardware and the sci-fi possibilities of VR.
Now, with the birth of consumer ready VR devices, it’s more important than ever for us to show people why they should care about VR—because it will soon become an integral part of their lives. Their literacy and understanding of VR will be what determines their ability to participate in it. I hope the film version of RP1 will be able to do that, and do it well. In some ways, this could be crucial for the early industry as a whole. This is why we need to be thoughtful in the ways we discuss and analyze some of the tropes and ideas presented in the story itself.
In the world of Ready Player One, since everyone spends most of their time in VR, one of the key themes that crops up repeatedly in the book is how people choose to be represented. Today, we’re all used to the idea that in social communities online, we are usually represented by either our name or a handle, along with a profile picture of some kind. In the OASIS, the virtual reality successor to the Internet, everyone can choose to represent themselves however they like, although to go to high school in the OASIS, students must have an avatar that is both human, and the same age and gender as them.
Beyond the boundaries of high school though, every person can choose how they look and sound to the rest of humanity. As a concept, this is fine, but in the book we are stuck treading over old stereotypical gender roles repeatedly.
For example, Art3mis, the main female character in the book, is someone who Parzival, the protagonist, white, teenage male, first admires from afar. She’s a famous ‘Egg Hunter,’ or Gunter—the class of people in the book who are searching for a hidden easter egg in the OASIS that will make them the owner of the OASIS. She blogs online, but multiple times through the book, Parzival mentions that she might not really be female, but could be a hairy knuckled, male-pattern balding fifty-year-old guy named Chuck. In part, the reason that many people challenge her female identity is that they just can’t believe that a woman would be as knowledgeable as she clearly is—she’s too skilled to be female.
As a woman in the tech world, sadly this idea is all too familiar. In situations where gender isn’t explicitly stated online, women are generally assumed to be men, since men are the “Default human” we are trained to expect. The more knowledgeable you appear, the less likely you are to be seen as female. This occurs repeatedly in the book, to the point where Parzival seems to need to assign a “real” gender to everyone he interacts with, from a teacher that he muses might be female for all he knows, but is probably male, to a person he meets in reality whose gender he can’t determine—so he decides to think of this person as male.
At another point in the book, Parzival mentions a black market programmer. Despite once more having no clue as to the identity of this person, he refers to them as male, presumably because when someone has programming skills, they must be male. He also repeatedly asks Art3mis whether she is female, and at one point decides that she must be, because he’s attracted to her, and he doesn’t want to be attracted to a guy.
What we get is a book that mentions gender a lot, but doesn’t really understand what it is saying about it.
These kind of ideas are damaging for many reasons, in part because at no point should it be acceptable to decide someone else’s gender for them. Parzival’s best friend, Aech, presents in the OASIS as a white teenage male, and until he meets her in person, Parzival isn’t aware that she’s actually black and female. She, coached and prompted by her mother, had hidden her identity, because the OASIS “was the best thing that had ever happened to women and people of color.”
Not an Oasis for Everyone
When the Internet first really began to become popular in our real world, this was an idea you would see a lot—that no longer would we be perceived by our gender, ethnicity or other physical attributes, what we had to say would be evaluated on the merit of our ideas alone. Fast forward to today, and many women online still experience floods of harassment simply for speaking our minds. Female journalists view it as a hazard of their job. In today’s world, being visibly female and speaking online inevitably lead to harassment.
What saddens me about Ready Player One is that it describes a world where this is still the case. Science fiction has a history of helping us imagine worlds that are either horrific warnings of the worst dystopias, or visions of the way the future could be so much better than the present—Star Trek being the most classic example here. I really wanted Ready Player One to be more aware of this history, by either showing us just how bad things could be for anyone that’s not white and male, or giving us hope that things won’t always be as bad as they are today. Instead what we get is a book that mentions gender a lot, but doesn’t really understand what it is saying about it.
Acceptance or Allowance?
As an example, after discovering Aech’s true identity, there’s an obvious moment of awkwardness, followed by Parzival slowly realizing that she’s still his friend. At that point, he has this thought:
We’d connected on a purely mental level. I understood her, trusted her and loved her as a dear friend. None of that had changed, or could be changed by something as inconsequential as her gender, or skin color, or sexual orientation.
Reading that, you might think “Wow, what a great guy, he’s just understanding her for who she is.” But the truth is, none of the things he thinks of as inconsequential really are—he’s already made clear throughout the book that gender is extremely important to how he perceives people, and we, as humans, generally also identify ourselves by these same factors. Who we are is in part, defined by who we identify as, and what groups we identify with, whether those factors are gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or our love for VR.
The statement echoes one that you might have heard before: “I don’t see color.” I don’t feel qualified, as a white woman, to go into all the reasons that’s bad, so here’s an excellent breakdown. The implication, though, is that who we are, who we identify as, is a bad thing. Being female, being black, being gay, these are all implied as negatives, probably in part because the experience of being those things is still negative in the world of RP1. What Parzival is really saying, though, is, “I see who you are despite all of these things that I’m going to say don’t matter to me, but really they do.” And yes, Aech most definitely catfishes Parzival, and should probably have told him the truth about her a long time ago, but it also says something about the world they live in that even despite their close friendship, she never feels comfortable coming clean before she has to.
Parzival also decides, a little later, to keep referring to Aech using male pronouns, because her avatar is male. He doesn’t ask her what she’d prefer, but instead decides that the identity he most easily accepts for her, that of a white male, is the one he wants to continue thinking of her as. While the book doesn’t suggest that Aech is trans, this is the kind of behavior we often see people adopting around trans people, refusing to accept their choice of pronoun, their choice of name or identity. This is another symptom of the idea that who Parzival wants someone to be is who they are—that he gets to choose their identity for them, and for the most part, when he decides to choose someone’s identity throughout the book, he decides that they are male, because that’s easier for him, or more simply that he often can’t appreciate that they might be female – especially if they show high degrees of competence in areas like gaming, programming or general “gunter” knowledge.
The Object of Affection
Of course, Art3mis, the love interest is the sole exception here. She’s his love interest, his reward for completing his quest, and often his sole motivation. While she gets to be female (when he eventually pushes her so hard she admits that she is female), there are other places where her consent doesn’t matter to him at all. This is probably the issue that bothers me most with this book; Ready Player One, in many ways, is the masculine version of Twilight—its hero is an everyman, someone easy for many men to identify with. 80s Pop culture references aside, this is stylistically a young adult book for men. That’s why it’s so problematic that, just as with Twilight, consent doesn’t really matter, and lack of consent can even be seen as romantic.
— VRScout (@VRScout) February 27, 2017
At one point in the book, Art3mis decides she doesn’t want to continue her OASIS-based relationship with Parzival. She wants to concentrate on the quest, and tells him so. She cuts off all communication, blocking his calls, emails and chat requests. She even stops writing her (very popular and lucrative) blog. She does everything she can to completely cut him off from access to her, and yet he still spams her with requests and emails, sends her avatar flowers, stands outside the door of her OASIS fortress, and even drops “lovesick bombs” on it from above, comprised of mixtapes and notes. He’s lonely and isolated, and so we’re supposed to feel sorry for him because he loves her, and yet she has rejected him. But—and this is really important—this is not romantic behavior, this is the behavior of a stalker.
Most people, when rejected, feel hurt, but in general they will move on relatively quickly. In Parzival’s case, he stalks her for weeks or months, and only really stops when she progresses forward in the quest ahead of him. He decides to focus back on the quest, because he wants to prove himself to her, and so that she will talk to him again. Something that is intrinsically important to her, he wants to beat her at, so that she will pay attention to him again. None of this is healthy behavior, which would be fine if that’s how it was portrayed in the book; if it was clear that this is really unacceptable, that the character is in the wrong here. But instead, it’s romantic. Eventually, Parzival gets what he wants; he wins the quest, meets her in real life, and she becomes his reward—a far too common theme in gaming and culture in general.
This is not the world’s worst book. There are also other issues I didn’t get a chance to address here (Daito and Shoto as racist caricatures for example). I’m hoping that in the movie, some of these issues will be addressed differently, that the female characters won’t be shallow foils to show how great the hero is, but rather fully fleshed out characters in their own right, who have the right to say no to a man and have that decision respected. Most of all though, I hope that rather than continuing the popular lone exceptional geek theme that we have been stuck with since the 80s—we can instead visualize a future which includes the ability for women and people of color, for all people, to be themselves, online or off, where they are given the freedom to define and express their own identities, and where we can appreciate and love who they are inclusive of that identity, not in spite of it.