Ready Player One: a fun movie that raises questions about VR

Ready Player One is a classic Steven Spielberg movie: a hugely entertaining, action-driven story jam-packed with 1980’s pop culture references, a movie that only raises questions about (rather than offering insight into) the world of virtual reality.

Check out my radio review of Ready Player One on the Salt + Light Radio Hour here.

Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future of 2045 in Columbus, Ohio, where people live in “the Stacks,” or vertical trailer parks, with the situation so dire that most people spend much of their lives in escape in a virtual universe called OASIS. In OASIS, with one’s self-designed virtual identity, it is possible to do or be anything. Although it might seem like play, in OASIS people can earn their livings or lose everything, to the point that they fall so deep into debt that they are sent to a futuristic version of the Victorian workhouse: a cube where you work off a debt that you might never be able to repay.

Young Wade Watts from the Stacks, spends most of his time in OASIS where he is know as Parzival. The creator of OASIS has recently died and left behind three “Easter eggs” (the gaming world reference for a hidden message, taken from the familiar real-world Easter egg hunt). These Easter eggs, found within 3 challenges, are clues that lead the winner to become the new “owner” of OASIS. The rival VR company has hundreds of gamers working on discovering the first egg, but no one has found it. Wade is determined, along with other “gunters” (short for egg hunters) to succeed.

What makes this movie so entertaining is its countless cultural references to the 1980s, the visually dazzling virtual universe, and the very cool adventures in OASIS (an incredible car chase, dancing in the air, etc.).  The seamlessness of going back and forth between the real world and VR shows the master craftsmanship of Spielberg at work: seamless, brilliant, absolutely amazingly well done. Even someone not familiar with video games can easily follow, and we don’t “lose” a sense of Wade’s character, even though much of the time we only see his avatar. One weakness of the movie, however, is that few of the secondary characters are well-developed; instead they are mostly stereotypes, whether avatars or in the real world.

In one way, I expected much more of this movie because I have a special love for Spielberg’s films:

  • Spielberg directed one of the greatest films of all time, Schindler’s List.
  • He has never made a movie without a gripping story.
  • Spielberg knows how to create entertainment that has “something more” to it—perhaps that “something” could simply be described as a human and/or spiritual depth. My favorite example is the adventure film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which, when looked at from the perspective of faith, traces Indy’s journey of coming to faith in recognizable beats.
  • Spielberg’s journey as a filmmaker, from creating pure entertaining flicks to profound films that explore the height and depth of human experience as well as issues that our society needs to reflect on and examine today.

Disappointingly, Ready Player One doesn’t have the depth that it could, even though the topic—virtual reality—is certainly something that we need to explore as a society. But the attentive viewer can take away more than simple enjoyment from the movie because of its accurate portrayal of virtual reality.

A Window to the Soul?

Ready Player One is classic Spielberg because it is high adventure of a Davidic Wade against an internet company Goliath. The shift from Wade’s individual hunt to the building relationships between Wade and his friends is a welcome development: Wade could not and would not succeed without his collaborators. As these relationships continue to develop in the real world, Wade’s friends bring a shift in the motivation to win. Their quest is no longer just a game, but a cause: to prevent the control of OASIS from falling into corporate hands who will take the commercial aspects of OASIS to a new level of exploitation of its “players” for their own profit.

What is really interesting is the movie’s self-contradictory approach to VR, which rather than offering insight or answers, raises questions:

  • By the end, Wade clearly understands (and states) that it is not good to spend “all” your time in VR, especially for the most important relationships in your life.
  • However, the movie spends most of its time in the virtual world which is so much more visually attractive than the real world.
  • Virtual identity and “real world” identity: how the two can enhance, reflect, or deceive.
  • At the end of the movie, Wade calls on all the players to risk their virtual lives to save the freedom of the OASIS. (In essence, to “save” the VR, they have to “die” to it—or leave it.)
  • What is Ready Player One really saying? The movie doesn’t offer any answers, but it is a great launch point for a discussion, especially with young people and gamers:
  • Is virtual reality a good thing or a bad thing for the human person? for society?
  • What is the movie saying about VR? Do you agree? disagree?
  • For a VR universe, is connecting to it in moderation the answer? What is true moderation when it comes to “living in” or “escaping to” a virtual world?
  • How connected do we “need” to be? What are the risks of spending too much time and energy in VR? How is being connected good for the human person?
  • What are the differences between having online and in-person relationships? What are the benefits of each? the cons of each? What kinds of personal relationships do I have, and how can I improve my interactions with those whom I care for?

Ready Player One is a fun adventure that offers an easy “in” for beginning a discussion on Virtual Reality–what it is, how it affects us as persons and as a society, and what we need to put in place or keep in mind when we engage with a fantasy world. (And while you watch, keep a list of 80’s pop culture references—Spielberg’s Easter eggs perhaps?—and compare lists at the end of the movie!)

“Members of One Another”: Helpful Advice for Catholic Communicators in Today’s Turbulent Climate

Signis, the Vatican-approved organization for Catholic communicators, published a well-written statement for its membership–that is, for Catholic communicators–offering support and a direction for our communication in this time. I am sharing it in full here because it says so much more clearly and eloquently some of what I was trying to say in last week’s post:

 

 

Message from the Ecclesiastical Assistant of SIGNIS on a communication which is sensitive, supportive and close to the victims.

We are living a delicate moment in the Church with the news of thousands of cases of sexual abuse committed against defenseless persons in recent years, accompanied by the abuse of power and of conscience. But it is also a fragile moment due to the public and unjust criticism of Pope Francis by some bishops and cardinals. In both cases, we, as the Body of Christ, want to feel united in facing our pain as a wounded body, and we know how to react, with charity, humility and truth. “So that there are no divisions in the body, but that all the members are concerned about each other. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with
it. “ (1 Cor 12, 25-26).

In his letter to the People of God, last August, the Pope invites us to unite in prayer and penance and in acts of solidarity. ” The extent and the gravity of all that has happened requires coming to grips with this reality in a comprehensive and communal way. While it is important and necessary on every journey of conversion to acknowledge the truth of what has happened, in itself this is not enough. Today we are challenged as the People of God to take on the pain of our brothers and sisters wounded in their flesh and in their spirit.”
In our mission as Church communicators, I believe that today it is especially important not to lose our sense of being a body, and to offer in our media work a communication that builds unity, that resonates with the universal dimension of the Church, that informs with truth and transparency. We can make visible the actions of many communities striving to be authentic witnesses of the Gospel, and maintain the faithful and affectionate support of Pope Francis and the Church program he encourages.

We also need a communication that is very sensitive, supportive, and that stays close to the wounded, confused victims. Today is a propitious time to focus more clearly on our media, “to look in the same direction the Lord looks”, to identify with God’s little ones and the poor, who are his favorites. It is not our job to please those who take on the trappings of power and an overweening self-importance, nor to accommodate material and ideological interests, even within the Church itself—all of this is against the Gospel of the Lord.

The Pope’s letter holds a special message for a lay association like SIGNIS. Francis exhorts all not to engage in any behavior or attitude that reflects clericalism and undervalues the grace of the baptismal faith of all the members of the people of God. ” Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say ‘no’ to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to all forms of clericalism. “

With the grace and strength of the Holy Spirit, let us continue to be cheerful in the mission of being faithful witnesses of the Lord Jesus, working for the community that he wants.

Luis García Orso, S.J.
Mexico, September 21, 2018

 

 

What’s Most Important in Our Communication? 2019 Theme for World Communication Day

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The theme for the 2019 World Communications Day chosen by Pope Francis is: We are members one of another” (Eph 4:25). From network community to human communities. Here is the full text of the brief statement from the Vatican:

 

Theme of World Communications Day 2019, 29.09.2018

 

This is the theme chosen by the Holy Father Francis for the 53rd World Communications Day, to be held in 2019:

«We are members one of another» (Eph 4,25). From network community to human communities.

The theme underlines the importance of giving back to communication a broad perspective, based on the person, and emphasizes the value of interaction always understood as dialogue and as an opportunity to meet with others.

This calls for a reflection on the current state and nature of relationships on the Internet, starting from the idea of community as a network between people in their wholeness. Some of the prevailing trends of the so-called social networks ask us a fundamental question: to what extent can we speak of a real community in the face of the logic that characterizes some communities on social media? The metaphor of the web as a community of solidarity implies the construction of an “us”, based on listening to the other, on dialogue and consequently on the responsible use of language.

In his first Message for World Communications Day in 2014, the Holy Father called for the Internet to be “an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people”.

The choice of the theme for the 2019 Message confirms Pope Francis’ attention to the new communications environment and for social networks, especially, where he is present in the first person with his @Pontifex account on Twitter and @Franciscus on Instagram.

Paolo Ruffini, Prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, commented on the theme in a brief interview with Vatican News. World Communications Day is usually celebrated the Sunday before Pentecost (which will be June 2, 2019), and the actual Message for the day will be released on January 24, the Feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron of writers.

 

I particularly like the emphasis that the message (along with Ruffini’s comments) gives to the essential elements of a genuine human encounter, whether in person or online: dialogue and openness. In his comments, Ruffini pointed out that “the risk that comes with the times in which we live is that of building tribes rather than communities.” This risk has been mentioned before in other communications documents from the Church. In these times of growing polarization, to use media as a way to deepen our understanding rather than as a way to reinforce our own views is vitally important, and something that everyone can do to build up a culture of true dialogue and community.

 

In this 2016 message to the Pontifical Academies, the Pope talks about how artists, in their quest for beauty, can help to transform every day life: “To create works of art that bring us, in the language of beauty, a sign, a spark of hope and trust where people seem to give in to indifference and ugliness.” To speak the truth in love is the first priority of the communicator, but to speak the truth in a way that offers “a spark of hope” seems critical in our roles as communicators. We live in a time of fake journalism, of sensationalist reporting, of the pain and truth of victims of devastating crimes being manipulated for others’ agendas, of a lack of transparency on the part of institutions and persons in positions of great responsibility, of shattering accusations brought before the worldstage (not to the involved parties/communities) without a helpful process beforehand or afterward to resolve them. Any thoughtful person knows how much their words can affect another. Media and social networks multiply the power of just one word in ways unimaginable in the past. Trying to “keep up” technologically doesn’t meant that we have “kept up” ethically. How do we balance the news we publish/share/promote? How can we form ourselves–first of all–and our children–to carry this responsibility in a way that truly builds up the human family?

The Church offers us the principles in an easy-to-understand way in its World Communications Day Messages, but it is up to each of us as communicators to forge our communication in both content and style so that we always hold high the Truth–that Light of Truth that doesn’t just illuminate the darkness of evil, but offers the human family a way forward: a way of hope, respect, and justice.

For Catholic creatives in the Toronto area!

 

Join committed and enthusiastic Catholic Christian artists as we begin to explore Pope St. John Paul II’s Letter to Artists!

(During my brief visit to Toronto, I am privileged to help “launch” the exploration!)

Q & A with Sr. Rose Pacatte on the intersection of theology and film

Continue reading here about how Sr. Rose Pacatte fosters the dialogue between faith and culture. 

Beauty That Saves, Harmonizes, Unites

Interior of the Church of the Resurrection in St. Petersburg, Russia* Photo by Steve Barker on Unsplash

Last week in his short speech when meeting with the patrons of the arts for the Vatican Museums, Pope Francis offered a few nuggets for reflection for those of us engaged with the arts:

“Throughout history, art has been second only to life
in bearing witness to the Lord.
It was, and remains, a majestic road
allowing us more than by words and ideas
to approach the faith,
because it follows
the same path of faith, that of beauty.
The beauty of art
enriches life and creates communion,
because it unites God, man and creation
in a single symphony.
It connects the past, the present and the future,
and it attracts
– in the same place and with the same gaze –
different and far-off peoples.”

♦›

“Contemplating great art which expresses the faith
helps us rediscover
what truly matters in life.
In leading us both within and above ourselves,
Christian art points us
to the love that created us,
to the mercy which saves us,
and to the hope that awaits us.”

♦›

“In today’s troubled world,
unfortunately so often torn and damaged
by selfishness and the thirst for power,
art represents, perhaps even more than in the past,
a universal need
because it is a source of harmony and peace,
and it expresses the dimension of generosity.”

* Also known as the Church of Our Savior on the Spilled Blood

 

For those in the Boston area, I wanted to let you know that on Saturday, October 20th, our Dedham Bookcenter is hosting a Pauline Author Day, at which several sisters who are authors, as well as myself, will be able to meet, to sign books, and to chat with readers. (I’m so looking forward to this because it’s going to be loads of fun–whether you you love to read, love to write, or are simply interested in the intersection between faith and books!) Here are the details:

 

Exploring the Letter to Artists and Self-Esteem for Catholics…

…all while I’m in Toronto! If you are in the Toronto area, I’d love to meet you while I’m visiting! For a full list of events, check my author page.