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!)

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