Ready Player None: Toppling the Diseased Colossus of Geek Culture

Features / April 19, 2018

GRASSO: Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One has now been in theaters for a few weeks. It’s been a moderate success domestically, and a huge one at the foreign box office, much like other modern CGI showcases. Back in 2011, when the book first came out, I took a flyer on it for a couple of bucks on Kindle, figuring, hey, I like ’80s nostalgia, and I like dystopian fiction, why not? Through the first couple of dozen pages, I nominally enjoyed the setting: an economically bifurcated future where the masses are in thrall to their VR devices while the real world decays all around them. Then the ’80s cultural touchstones started oozing into the narrative. Honestly, I didn’t find it outrageous that a futuristic tech mogul, James Halliday, would base his global virtual reality MMO (called the “OASIS”) on all the media properties he loved growing up in the 1980s; that seemed just the kind of immature man-child move that fabulously wealthy tech moguls are doing all the time these days. Halliday holding a contest planting hidden “Easter eggs” in the OASIS and allowing a lucky OASIS-dweller to win control of the company, Charlie Bucket-style? Also eminently believable and, so I thought at the beginning of the novel, sharply satirical. But it was Cline’s refusal to engage in this plot device critically in any way that really started rubbing me the wrong way.

Cline certainly demonstrated his bona fides: the first OASIS puzzle is based on notoriously cruel (and somewhat obscure) 1978 AD&D module Tomb of Horrors. But I think the first moment that I, also a child of the ’80s like the novel’s Halliday, started groaning inwardly was when protagonist Wade Watts, ostensibly born in the late 2020s, spends time memorizing meaningless factoids about ’80s pop culture and simply listing them. If Ready Player One really was a satire, I thought to myself, it was absolutely not breaking kayfabe in any way.

By the end of the novel, of course, it’s clear that the nostalgia exhibited in the narrative is wholly unironic and even joyless, that the gender politics on display are startingly retrograde, and that Ready Player One exhibits all the hallmarks of the kind of toxic geek culture that straddles our society like a diseased colossus. And now here’s the film version, which ramps up the “do you remember x” impulses to 11, and folds Spielberg himself into the Spectacle in a way that would give Debord himself pause.

CUDMORE: I got my copy of Ready Player One as a gift from my friend Mike, who is usually pretty good about what books he gets me for Christmas. And, like you, Grasso, I enjoyed the first few pages, because, hey, I love ’80s references and adventure stories. But the scene that did me in was when he created a nightclub, and he described himself as wearing the same outfit as Peter Weller in Buckaroo Banzai and I thought, “No, fuck this guy and the classic NES controller he rode in on.” Because by that point, the book had descended from using the references as a plot device to forward the OASIS puzzle, with the reader figuring out the puzzle alongside Wade Watts, to simply screaming GOONIES!!!! the loudest.

I threw the book across the room.

I honestly hadn’t thought about Ready Player One until the movie was announced. Even then, I tried to avoid it. But I finally saw the trailer, against my will, and dear God, what a hideous mess. But hey, I wasn’t going to see it, because I lost my virginity and I’m married to a good-looking man and can watch grown-up films because I’m a Big Girl.

Then I read his poetry. And since then, I’ve been training, Linda-Hamilton-in-T2 style, to take this motherfucker down.

ROBERTS: I’m way too old and drink way too much to join you in a training regimen, Libby, but goddamn, I wish you the best. So, no surprise: I got through maybe 10 or 20 pages of the book—thankfully, I read it in the store—and had enough. References do not make a novel, etc., etc. At first, I was simply miffed as a writer who admires, you know, good writing. I had a blog at the time about the shit I liked and consumed as a kid in the ‘70s and ‘80s (surprise: I’m a middle-aged white guy), about how that shit eventually became geek culture; anyway, a whole bunch of people told me how great the book was, they couldn’t put it down, I was going to die, and so on. And when I came back and said I thought it was pretty bad, there were some pretty emotional reactions—from the gents, obviously. I had actually offended them by not liking this list of shit from the ‘80s that Cline digs, recited over a gruel-like plot of It’s-a-scavenger-hunt-in-The-Matrix!

The same thing happened, to a lesser extent, when I had issues with Stranger Things (which I actually ended up liking—and I really liked Season Two), and that’s when I figured it out (I’m slow): chipping away at random middle-aged white guy’s nostalgia porn is like saying the shit he loved in the ‘80s, the shit that “made him who he is,” isn’t actually special or all that interesting when taken out of the context of his nostalgia; therefore, random middle-aged white guy isn’t as special or as interesting as he thinks he is, and that is something random middle-aged white guy can’t accept. Because, look at him, he’s Random Middle-Aged White Guy, and he “never grew up,” and he knows all the secret nerd handshakes (Laura Hudson’s take on Kline is definitive), and he’s the most interesting random middle-aged white guy in the world!

Also, living in the ‘80s wasn’t like living in the OASIS for all of us (more on that in a bit). American divorce rates peaked; the middle class was getting raked over the coals, and lots of kids’ parents couldn’t afford that fucking giant Voltron, or even Transformers, or even Go-Bots (gasp); the inner cities were meat grinders; the smog was so bad it was “bourbon-colored” and we weren’t allowed outside; nuclear waste was dumped into rivers and oceans like so much chum. I could go on, but it won’t matter: the ‘80s has achieved “special status” as a decade, much like random middle-aged white guy has unlocked “special status” by virtue of his participation in—and domination of—said decade. At no other time was the American boy the center of so much fawning, sprawling commercial attention. 35 years later, why should anything change? Only now, the boys are (nominally) men.

It hardly matters that picking over the rotting flesh of pop culture past like the insatiable living dead—or, as some like to call it, “refusing to grow up”—just might be a bad thing for the rest of the culture, especially the next generation of kids, who need and deserve a better diet.

MCKENNA: I’m probably less angry about Ready Player One than the rest of you, because my main problem with it isn’t how annoying it is (though I’m sure it is, given how fucking annoying the trailer and the part of the book I read were)—it’s how boring it is. Being a hugely passive character by nature, I don’t usually get bored, so when I actually do, the sensation is so awful that it makes me want to throw up. Maybe it’s because my memory is too shitty and scattershot and I’m too lazy to actually bother learning all this bollocks in any detail that I struggle to experience this type of exercise as anything other than a deadening—and in my case, inevitably frustrating—test, but if so, thank fuck for my shitty memory. I was a “nerd” in the ‘80s, and even at the time I found a lot of this stuff boring. And as Kelly points out, the majority of us didn’t have access to most of it anyway—we fantasized and dreamed about it, and, for me at least, what remains vivid about that time is more the result of my advertising-stimulated fantasies than anything I actually owned or saw.

This isn’t coming from someone who wants to affect any kind of cultural high ground, by the way: it’s from someone who wasted a couple of hours he could ill-afford yesterday gazing lovingly at copies of a 1977 Sci-Fi Poster Magazine on eBay. I’m not allergic to nostalgia—I’m drowning in the fucking stuff, unfortunately. And even so, as I watched the trailer for Ready Player One, I felt that awful fatigue washing over me: the sensation of realizing you’ve stayed too long at a party, and now all that’s left is the loud, dead energy of the people who don’t seem to have noticed we’re not actually having fun anymore. That’s my problem with it and my problem with all this fucking nerd-dom bollocks in general: it’s boring—it’s the memory of excitement, not excitement itself. In fact, it’s just occurred to me what it reminds me of—two of the things in my privileged childhood that I most detested: coloring books and jigsaw puzzles. No magic, no mystery, just the pointless rote completion of something you have already seen.

Like the rest of you, I read the first few chapters of Ready Player One and, like Mike, thought the setting was reasonably interesting for a YA book. And then I just put it down one day and forgot it existed. I genuinely don’t understand what people found entertaining about it.

GRASSO: Richard, you’re spot on: Ready Player One (the book, at least) turns nostalgia into a joyless exercise, a senseless repetition of lists and facts, a grim collectors’ checklist. For God’s sake, one of the tasks in the book’s scavenger hunt is merely reciting the entirety of Matthew Broderick’s dialogue in the movie WarGames! As someone who’s been at the mercy of too many clueless geeks at conventions reciting whole scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (yes, it absolutely does happen in real life), I’m not going to say that this impulse is alien to the geek mindset, but God yes, it’s tiresome. There’s the famously awful passage from the book (which itself achieved meme status) that’s basically just a list of stuff Wade has to memorize to master the OASIS and looks for the whole world like a verbatim copy of the “Interests” list from Ernest Cline’s Livejournal circa 2005.

It’s not just tiresome, in fact; this profusion of signifiers and reminders and references ends up emptying these cultural artifacts of any referent and, in the process, they simply become empty cultural calories. Jean Baudrillard famously posited that the endless reproduction of images under late capitalism would usher us into an era where all symbols lose their meaning as signifiers. I’ll point you all to the fake movie posters that came out a few weeks before the film, uncanny take-offs of iconic late-20th century images with the main character Wade Watts’s Parzival avatar clumsily, almost hastily inserted, as proof that Baudrillard was fucking right.

I’m finding one crucial difference between the book and film really interesting in this vein. The first is the decision to expand the book’s purely ’80s signifiers to a much more ecumenical set of references from the final three or so decades of the 20th century. I mean, hey, why leave that millennial money on the table and exclude The Matrix, Iron Giant, and Nintendo 64 classics like GoldenEye? Maybe the team of marketing consultants who helped Spielberg and Cline put together this movie realized there’s a danger of Gen-X nostalgia fatigue and they should tap into the red-hot ’90s nostalgia that’s so popular right now. Also, granted, you really can’t make tasks like reciting the entirety of WarGames or playing Zork exciting in a cinematic context. Funnily, it’s sort of a final insult that even this kind of rote Gen-X nostalgia is considered too boring for the silver screen. This temporal expansion of the symbols and signifiers in the OASIS, though, paradoxically makes the film version of the OASIS a little more believable. After all, one assumes if there was going to be a worldwide virtual reality environment, it would make sense that it would be settled and populated by all kinds of people with all kinds of interests from all kinds of periods and media properties. In the book, Halliday ruled over the OASIS’s semiotic environment with an iron fist. I’d still like to think that in any dream of cyberspace there would be outlaws making their corner of the environment as bizarre and idiosyncratic as they’d like it to be. Then again, looking at recent events and the top-down nature of today’s internet, maybe that’s just not possible anymore.

The most horrifying aspect of Cline’s book and Spielberg’s movie perhaps is that it’s all too believable that this is what the internet will become one day (if it’s not there already): a huge meaningless morass of references to other things. I’m still not sure if Cline’s intent is conscious satire or commentary on the authentic horror of this situation because I feel like Cline is just too big and sincere a fanboy to see it.

CUDMORE: My biggest problem isn’t Ready Player One itself, but rather, the rewarding of Cline for being just the absolute worst. He is patron saint of white male mediocrity, the sort of man who fails upward despite having, from what I can tell, no real talent other than the ability to regurgitate the most generic of 80s pop culture, showered with praise for doing less than nothing. He is a Funko Pop figure brought to life by an evil spell, the empty hollow soulless artifact of something that was once unique and interesting and cool, now rendered generic and pointless.

But more than that, Cline is a hideous person with a black rotting soul and a jagged-ice core of that very specific nerd misogyny running through his rumpled man-suit. There are thankfully few Harvey Weinsteins in the world, but every woman knows at least a half-dozen Ernest Clines of varying degrees of creepiness. Guys who think they’re feminist by referring to porn stars as “cock-hungry nymphos with gargantuan breasts and a three-word vocabulary.” Because these aren’t real women, you see, these are “vacuum-headed fuck-bunnies.” Because REAL women dress modestly (tweed skirts!) and let a man raw-dog them until Battlestar Galactica comes on.

This sound like you? Good! Ernest Cline wants to put you in porn! Because, as the poem quotes, all men need porn. Because women, even real ones, are only good for sexual gratification. And you are only good for such pleasures with Ernest Cline if you know Luke Skywalker’s home planet. Lucky you!

Even luckier, you can download him reading these poems! I recommend playing this during a house party when you want everyone to leave.

Honestly, in re-reading this stupid poem, I just kept imaging a really good-looking TV show cop (alternately Detective Elliot Stabler from SVU or Detective Dutch Wagenbach from The Shield) finding a hand-written verse crumpled next to the body of a strangled sex worker in an alley. It was the only thing that kept me sane, filtering my trauma and anxieties through a pop-culture lens, so please give me a bajillion dollars and a spot on the NYT best-seller list and a job jerking off lame jokes for the shitty MST3K reboot.

(I hope you appreciate what I did for you there, dear reader, suffering through that for you. My knees are now clamped so tightly shut that Clive Owen couldn’t pry them apart with a crowbar and a bottle of champagne and a vintage virgin copy of Aja on the turntable.)

Every woman knows a man who gets mad at her for wearing makeup because “she’s pretty without it.” Every woman knows a man who tells her she doesn’t have to wear a crop top even though it’s 90 degrees out and maybe she’s a grown-ass woman and is finally fucking happy that crop tops are back in fashion because her mom wouldn’t let her wear one in 1998. Every woman knows a man who has called her a slut because she wouldn’t date him, a man who otherwise calls himself a “nice guy.” Ernest Cline is the Nice Guy to End All Nice Guys.

I’m not saying Ernest Cline is a serial killer who targets sex workers because he thinks no one will miss them when he punishes them for humanity’s ills. But I am saying that Harry Knowles, the sex offender founder of Ain’t It Cool News, was the model for Aech, so I’ll let everyone draw your own conclusions.

The success of the film version of Ready Player One proves this: We, as women, can never fully trust men to be our allies in this fight. Women carry so much of the labor of making things right, we created #MeToo and #TimesUp, a few of us unearthed our pain and our suffering so that those who don’t have a safe space to do so might be able to one day balm that hurt. And men sit there, and they say, “We’re with you, Harvey Weinstein is a monster,” and then we say, “So, I can count on you NOT to go see a movie written by a guy who has these huge issues with women?” And they say, “No, because my half-chub wants to see the Iron Giant fight shit, because I am a white male and the concept of sacrifice in solidarity for a larger purpose is completely foreign to me, wah.”

To all of you ticket buyers, even my friends who I love, I say this: You made the choice to fall short. Own it and do better.

I have two goals left in this life: One, hear Walton Goggins call me “Darlin’,” and the other is to throw a drink in Cline’s face. Something cold, like a margarita on the rocks, so that the ice and the salt gets in his eyes and everyone laughs at him and he leaves the party in the sort of hot, blubbery tears only an impotent fuckface can cry. That’s my porn. Come at me, boy, I’ll make you a star.

ROBERTS: Okay, I’m not going to say anything nice about Ready Player One, because I can’t think of anything, but I will say that it has a significant number of younger fans who I think really identify with this fictional world of 2044, where everything’s shit (global warming, poverty, corporate overlords), and, instead of making any sort of effort to fix the problems, the powerless masses hide and muck about in a giant video game. For the younger generations (the main character of RPO is 20 years old), that fictional 2044 is now, and the mythical ‘80s that Cline worships—carefree, tangible, communal, fun—is the OASIS. They’re nostalgic for a time they never knew, much like generations throughout history have built movements and cultures around their fond (mis)perceptions of ancient Rome, or the Middle Ages, or the Viking Age. There’s a similar vibe to Stranger Things, where the US government has opened a portal to an alternate universe where everything is shit (it’s more of a Lovecraftian kind of depravity and deterioration, but it’s still shit). In this case, that dimension, the “Upside Down,” represents Trumpland America, and the nominally real world of 1980s Indiana is the paradise. Again, it’s this idea that living through the ‘80s was some kind of utopian fantasy, like living inside an arcade or an episode of Fantasy Island.

MCKENNA: What is there to add, really? A few paragraphs into RPO, I was already starting to find its relentlessly one-note voice wearing, and, to be honest, thinking about the fucking thing has turned out to be just as draining as RPO itself. The mystery to me is where the endless appetite for this shit comes from. I can understand the kids and the younger people who, as Kelly says, pick up on something in this commodified version of the ‘80s that touches them the way aesthetic shards of, say, the 1950s touched young people in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But the grown-ups? Are people never sated, even now that we live in a world where we’re surrounded by the tired, overpriced gonks and signifiers of nerdery and geekdom all of the fucking time?

I do get the feeling that all this plays differently in other cultural milieus compared to the US and, perhaps to a slightly lesser extent, the UK. Places where these concepts arrived later or in a different form and so still retain a frisson of galvanizing creative electricity that isn’t just the static of some bellend smugly reeling off a list of toys. Despite containing the seeds of the same awful fruit, nerdery here in Italy, say, isn’t the same thing as it is in the US. There are plenty of arrogant privileged idiots, of course, but in my occasional brief contact with it, you can still feel the gentleness and the rage of the outsider—the thrill of excitement, not just the ritualized braying and smug, entitled boorishness you encounter in places where nerdery is now part of straight society.

I’m old and from Britain, and so I was probably well into my teens before I first heard the word “nerd,” and the first time I did, it was an insult. For what it’s worth (clue: nothing), I would like it to be a fucking insult again, not a trough of shit for people to roll around in while they pretend they’re the outsiders and not just lamer jocks who use memory and access in place of actual muscle to play the cultural bully. When I started to grow out of being a kid (to whatever extent I actually did), part of the point of liking this stuff—of continuing to like it—was that it felt like an act of cultural provocation (however tiny) towards a world that couldn’t have given less of a shit about it. A tiny refusal to believe in the prevailing reality, like a form of existential dissidence, a way of refusing to accept the norms. A stupid, trivial, pointless, privileged way of refusing it, maybe, but there you are. In its stupid, trivial, pointless, privileged way it was rebellious. People obsessed over this shit because it was ephemeral and that was a way of saying you weren’t keen on the official version of reality. Or maybe I’m just kidding myself. And, like a lot of “nerds,” I didn’t inhabit a community of nerds, there was just me; so maybe my feeling that there is a non-toxic way for this stuff to inform your adult life is just more self-deluding bollocks. But, in any case, it’s not ephemera any more—it’s got more reality than most of our lives. And this fucking film is the proof of it.

GRASSO: I’ve spent a lot of time the past few years—academically, professionally, and personally—thinking about nostalgia. It’s an explicit part of the We Are The Mutants remit, after all! And it’s a big part of what I love about writing for WATM. But there’s always a danger with nostalgia of entering the kind of reverie that only wishes to go back to the past and does not engage critically with what a cultural product says about its time and place. I mentioned in my article on Mark Fisher the theories of scholar of Soviet culture (and nostalgia) Svetlana Boym, and her dichotomy of “restorative” nostalgia (prone to reactionary fantasies about making things great again, usually at the expense of some sort of scapegoat), and a “reflective” nostalgia (one far less reverent towards the past and instead more playful, more willing to topple sacred icons). Ready Player One may look on its surface like a free-flowing remix of the signifiers of the past, but, as Libby said earlier, the narrative seems to come with a whole bunch of associated cultural signifiers: “Let’s go back to a time when capitalism could be ostensibly harnessed for good (the 1980s), when patriarchy was perhaps not as under siege as it is today, and boys could be boys and win the girl at the end!” Cline’s other work and writing, as Libby noted, seems to back this assumption up. (I’d direct the reader to Molly Ringwald’s thoughtful and emotional look back at her own involvement in John Hughes’s ’80s oeuvre as an example of what a truly reflective nostalgia can look like.)

And really what this all boils down to is a way for the capitalist system to defuse rebellion and co-opt and recuperate critique into itself. “It was capital,” says Baudrillard in his Simulacra and Simulation (1980), “which was the first to feed throughout its history on the destruction of every referential, of every human goal, which shattered every ideal distinction between true and false, good and evil, in order to establish a radical law of equivalence and exchange, the iron law of its power.” In Ready Player One, we’re dealing with a fictional virtual reality in the form of the OASIS that recycles the imagery of six decades ago, mixing references from different franchises and universes with no rhyme or reason at all. Layer upon layer of simulation is added until all context and meaning is lost. And then this loss of meaning itself occupies the void. The economic system seen in Ready Player One features debt servitude and crushing poverty that people seek to escape by entering this simulation. Ostensibly, this is a system that Wade and Samantha seek to topple in the film’s final act. But even the victory and “liberation” at the end of the film are a compromise with the immanent and implacable forces of capital. Wade, the new ruler of the OASIS, simply decides to shut down the OASIS on weekends, encouraging people to leave virtual reality on occasion. This is a kind of pleasant, inoffensive, neoliberal evocation of the actual class struggle; a sly evocation of victories, like the five-day work week, that were won by labor unions with real blood. Wade Watts isn’t a liberator; he’s just a new boss, same as the old one, with maybe something of a conscience and a friendlier countenance. The “gunters” in the OASIS didn’t win their own liberation; it was bestowed upon them by the boy-hero who led an army and became a man (or “The Man,” perhaps more accurately). More patriarchal myth cycle bullshit.

CUDMORE: I believe the philosopher William Joel said it best: “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” Nostalgia is, at best, a slow poison. Sure, it’s fun to reminisce about the good times. But stay too long and you’ll find it becomes an addiction. Will there be a time where the next generation is nostalgic for the Ready Player One Funko Pop figures we squandered in our foolish youth?

Nostalgia works like this: When you see a thing you recognize, the pleasure centers of your brain light up. You feel good. But so much of that is likely based more on what surrounded that thing—the people you were with, for example—rather than the thing itself. Even the dumbest movie, or a horrible song can carry with it a good memory if it is linked to who was there.

I saw Jurassic World at the drive-in the night of my wedding. I sat there with my new husband and the friends who had known me the longest. It was a terrible movie that I remember nothing about, but when I see a sign for Jurassic World, I feel good, because I think of this happy memory. Then I move on. I don’t have to brand myself in order to recall a pleasurable memory.

But Cline, and by extension, Spielberg, are just two more in a line of suits who have weaponized nostalgia as a means of keeping a populace in line. They feed you a sweet and fattening diet of comforts; the movies that got you through your parents’ divorce, the toys you once begged for, now so easily accessible and with more points of articulation. It’s Pleasure Island. You never have to grow up, never have to feel bad. All they have to do is whisper Ghostbusters” and you belong to them. You will give them all the money in your wallet just to feel that way again. The world is a fucking garbage fire right now. I suppose I can’t blame you. I waste a lot of hours on my mini SNES. I have a Spike Spiegel Pop figure on my dresser. I’m not immune to the seductions of my past.

In the film Labyrinth (1986), Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) dreams that she meets with the Junk Lady, who piles her arms with familiar toys—her teddy bear, a doll—and tells her not to worry, that she has everything that is important to her right there in her childhood bedroom. “No, no, there’s nothing you want out there,” the Junk Lady tells her. But Sarah quickly realizes that those toys, those tangible remnants of her childhood self, are just junk, that it is time to grow up, and with that revelation, she is able to complete the labyrinth and rescue Toby from The Goblin King (David Bowie) and his terrifying pants (David Bowie’s Penis).

You can’t buy back that 7th grade sleepover. You can’t ever see Star Wars again for the first time. Filling your living room with all the toys you could never have or got rid of the first time will not fix whatever is broken inside you now. And there is so much to be broken over, I know that. But don’t let a low-level grifter like Cline use that brokenness to rob you blind. Escape the OASIS he himself made for you.

Libby Cudmore is the author of The Big Rewind (William Morrow 2016) and an award-winning journalist. Her work has appeared in Paste, The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Albumism, Vinyl Me Please, and the blogs at Yacht Rock and Barrelhouse. She is the managing editor for The Freeman’s Journal/Hometown Oneonta in Cooperstown, NY, and the host of the weekly #RecordSaturday live-tweet @libbycudmore. She lives in Upstate NY with her husband, their cat and a lot of Steely Dan records.

8 thoughts on “Ready Player None: Toppling the Diseased Colossus of Geek Culture

  1. And if any of you had bothered to finish the book or watch the movie, you’d know that the point of being immersed in a video game world was to prepare everyone to –change– the real world. That’s the takeaway.

    You’re gonna carry that weight.

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