What 'Ready Player One' Tells Us About Toxic Fandom
You may not know a thing about Ready Player One, but you've almost certainly seen some of the many, many criticisms aimed at both the novel and movie. By far the most common is that the story, set in 2044 and about a race to win a nerdy Easter egg hunt in a virtual reality world based on '80s pop culture, is nothing but empty nostalgia, a parade of names you can point at and say "Hey, I recognize that!" It's a fair critique that you're welcome to study up on with any of the baker's dozen of hot takes being produced about the movie every hour (often from sites that originally lavished praise on the book, but more on that in a minute).
At this point, the criticism has almost morphed into outrage. One early reviewer said, "I'm genuinely angry that Spielberg is so careless with his own legacy, slapping in references to Jurassic Park with all the care of a monkey slinging feces." Here's a Twitter thread of people ripping into the movie's posters with level-headed thoughts like "Is this what it's like to watch a culture die?"
Damn, people seem really mad about what would appear to be a harmless orgy of geek references. There's a reason for that, I think: The world has changed.
Ready Player One Was Whimsical In 2011, But Geek Culture Has Since Gone To A Dark Place
Given that roughly 95 percent of the people talking about Ready Player One seem to be basing their arguments on the trailers and maybe a couple of articles they skimmed, it's worth noting that the teenage hero, Wade, isn't obsessed with half-century-old pop culture because he happened to stumble across an Atari 2600. His life revolves around the virtual world because his real world sucks. His parents are dead, he lives in an overcrowded trailer because poverty is rampant, he's overweight because he can't afford healthy food and he doesn't feel any motivation to exercise, the education system is garbage, and so on. 2044 is a dystopia, and assembling an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture is his escape.
That's an important point that's been drowned in the vast roiling opinion sea, and it's a big reason the narrative around the book has changed so much in seven years. The AV Club, in reference to the movie's widely mocked posters, said "Much like Ernest Cline's book, it's a series of references for the sake of references." But back in 2011, their review of the book gave it an A, saying, "for readers in line with Cline's obsessions, this is a guaranteed pleasure." That was, in fact, a different era. In 2011 (before, among other things, Gamergate), we thought pop culture obsession was harmless fun. Being a geek, we were told, had finally become cool. But we've since realized that being nothing but a geek can be hollow, if not outright toxic.
If you look at any modern fandom -- video games, Game Of Thrones, comics, guns, furries, anime, whatever -- you're going to find two kinds of people. There are those who use their hobby as stress release, who play Dungeons & Dragons with their friends on the weekend or who spend an hour before bed working on their Supernatural/Frasier fanfic in which Niles fucks God. But then you have a minority of fans whose entire identity revolves around their fandom, who base their self-esteem on being great at Overwatch or knowing everything that there is to know about anime. The object of their fandom becomes something more, a banner that represents their tribe.
As for how that latter group gets there, maybe they feel alone, maybe they just lack purpose in life. Maybe it's the only thing they've run across they can be unapologetically passionate about. Whatever the reason, there's a line that separates the harmless majority from the zealous fringe who feel like any criticism of their hobby is a personal assault on everything they hold dear. And the people who cross that line often have something broken inside them.
Fandom Can Start Looking Like A Cult
This is why we have people who like video games, and then we have "gamers," who today often get talked about in the same way that people talk about a mold infestation (a scorn which just reinforces gamers' tribalism). They're the guys -- and they're almost always guys -- who respond to even the gentlest criticism of video games with rage, if not threats. They're the ones who'll tell feminist YouTubers that they should be gang-raped to death because their latest video had some issues with the way a particular game fixates on a female character's ass. The Gamergate subreddit is still going strong, with comments calling women who critique games "whining, bitching, lying cunts begging for attention, working full time as professional victims and begging for money." People have been that angry about something that trivial for five years, with no end in sight.
In that span, we've come to realize that's what some of the Wades of the world are like. They're not just escaping while their life crumbles around them; they're lashing out at anyone who notices. Because it's not that game that's being criticized, not in their minds -- it's their identity. Every criticism of of the game becomes a criticism of them, because their sense of self is attached to that franchise. They think they're an oppressed minority under siege from a culture that wants to destroy the only thing that defines them. And then all they'll have left is the life they've been trying to escape.
But The Ready Player One Novel Is Also A Warning About That Obsession
It's true that the book mostly glosses over the toxic influence of obsessive fandom, which is why it looks so simplistic today. Wade (spoiler alert) becomes one of the richest people in the world and wins a one-dimensional trophy girlfriend because he got really good at Galaga and memorized the script to Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Maybe it's meant to be a more optimistic view of fandom, written before we realized how nasty fans could get, or maybe it's just not the most self-reflective story ever told. Lines like "Over the past six years, I'd watched Holy Grail exactly 157 times. I knew every word by heart" would today be a warning sign that maybe you should have swiped left. Somewhere in the world of Ready Player One, there's a woman opining that the whole Easter egg hunt is misguided, and in response a bunch of boys with Joust avatars are calling her a stupid whore who needs to stay out of their culture.
But there's an important lesson at the end of Ready Player One that all the arguments about it have ignored. The creator of the Easter egg hunt, Halliday, leaves a posthumous message for whoever wins his prize. In it, he tells Wade not to neglect reality, because reality, even if it's intimidating and capable of hurting you, is the only place where you can find actual meaning.
Halliday, the man whose massive pop culture obsession fuels the story, died alone and regretful over never finding real companionship because he didn't realize what he was missing until it was too late. Or, in the book's words, "As terrifying and painful as reality can be, it's also the only place where you can find true happiness." The book's very last line sees Wade walking away from the virtual world because his real life is good now, because he's taking care of his body and forging human connections instead of basing his identity around someone else's creations.
Unfortunately, We Tend To Forget How Stories End
The final lesson of the story has been overlooked for the same reason people still think Tyler Durden, Walter White, and Scarface are inspirational badasses. We tend to forget the lessons of the culture we consume. Morals delivered in the final act are less memorable than the cool scenes that precede them, especially if the moral is "It's bad to do the awesome things we just spent the whole story showing you!" The critics only remember the pandering because that's also what made the book a bestseller. It's not like millions of teens read the ending and said, "You know what? At the end of the day, these are just video games!"
So regardless of whether the the Ready Player One movie is remembered as a delightful classic or a pile of pandering garbage, it seems like it's a good excuse to have this conversation. At what point does your enthusiasm for a game or movie franchise, or a celebrity, or political candidate, or firearms, or anything else suddenly bring out the worst in your personality? At what level does your love turn into bitter defensiveness and petty gatekeeping? At what point are you engaging in behaviors so awful that your persecution fantasies become a reality just as a natural consequence?
We should figure it out, because the only thing that both Ready Player One and its critics secretly agree on is that this isn't healthy.
You know what is healthy and can relieve a lot of stress? Having a small countertop garden, like the Aerogarden.
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