“It’s the only place that feels like I mean anything. A world where the limits of reality are your imagination.”
These are the words uttered by the male protagonist in the much-hyped Ready Player One trailer which premiered at Comic-Con last weekend. However, he could be speaking for an entire generation of men who have lost themselves to video games.
First things first: Ready Player One is an adaptation of Ernie Cline’s 2011 novel, which I’ve previously described as “Willy Wonka for the World of Warcraft crowd,” a fact the trailer leans into by using an updated version of the Willy Wonka score. The plot centers on a “find my secret, inherit my company” challenge in a dystopian future where the world has been wrecked by various crises (i.e., energy, climate change, famine, poverty, disease, multiple wars) thus leading millions to opt for escaping into a virtual reality space known as the OASIS. People in the OASIS appear as whatever pop culture avatar they want (hello Iron Giant, Gandalf, Harley Quinn, etc.), and because Cline is himself an 80s pop culture obsessive so is the lead character, 18-year-old Wade Watts. That’s most likely him driving that DeLorean in the trailer.
The whole thing is a bit like Occulus Rift on steroids (except those steroids are also on steroids), and Steven Spielberg has turned it into an action-packed tentpole release which is suddenly one of 2018’s more anticipated movies, that is if the 80s nostalgia backlash hasn’t reached critical mass by then.
Looks cool. But what was that thing you said about the film potentially speaking to an entire generation of men who have lost themselves to video games?
Hollywood has a rocky history with reacting to new technologies, far too often churning out adorably ill-conceived cautionary tales like The Net, Johnny Mnmenoic, Virtuosity and that one segment of 1983’s Nightmares where Emilio Estevez’s video game addiction results in him battling a sentient arcade machine:
So, Ready Player One could make some of us nervous since this appears to be the “look where all this virtual reality business is heading” story. In this case, though, there is actually much to comment upon because the type of video game or virtual reality addiction Wade displays in the trailer is all too familiar. As video games have evolved from crude side-scrollers into remarkably engrossing open world adventures addiction has become a bigger and bigger problem, one which Ready Player One forecasts as advancing to a point where we as a society will have almost no choice but to escape into these virual worlds.
As The Economist‘s 1843 Magazine argued earlier in this year in a much-read piece entitled “Escape to Another World”:
Over the last 15 years there has been a steady and disconcerting leak of young people away from the labour force in America. Between 2000 and 2015, the employment rate for men in their 20s without a college education dropped ten percentage points, from 82% to 72%. In 2015, remarkably, 22% of men in this group – a cohort of people in the most consequential years of their working lives – reported to surveyors that they had not worked at all in the prior 12 months. That was in 2015: when the unemployment rate nationwide fell to 5%, and the American economy added 2.7m new jobs. Back in 2000, less than 10% of such men were in similar circumstances.
What does this have to do with video games?
What these individuals are not doing is clear enough, says Erik Hurst, an economist at the University of Chicago, who has been studying the phenomenon. They are not leaving home; in 2015 more than 50% lived with a parent or close relative. Neither are they getting married. What they are doing, Hurst reckons, is playing video games. As the hours young men spent in work dropped in the 2000s, hours spent in leisure activities rose nearly one-for-one. Of the rise in leisure time, 75% was accounted for by video games. It looks as though some small but meaningful share of the young-adult population is delaying employment or cutting back hours in order to spend more time with their video game of choice.
This is a reality which was not lost on Cline when he wrote Ready Player One. Wade is depicted as a sad and lonely figure when he’s not connected to OASIS, and two of his friends from OASIS are Japanese kids who haven’t left their homes for more than six months, a real life phenomenon known as hikikomori. However, the novel also has to deal with potentially vanquishing the evil corporation in charge of the OASIS, thus introducing an additional The Circle-like anti-Apple commentary.
Where will Spielberg go with it? Just how heavy-handed could this get? Or will the “cinematic gamechanger” (as the trailer refers to him) instead choose to emphasize the fun and empty-headed nostalgia of it all? More importantly, will the real Wades of the world even pick up on Ready Player One‘s social commentary, trusting it has one?
Ready Player One is due March 30, 2018.
Source: The Economist