A professorial review of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One

April 7, 2018 (updated April 13, 2018)

This is the sixth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

(Spoilers)

 Why Ready Player One matters (though I wish it mattered more)

Along with Westworld and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One signals the coming of age—or maybe the coming into that weird period between gawky adolescence and the moment you discover your friends drew all over your face with a sharpie when you passed out—of what might be called “the videogame movie.”

I see this as a maturation of the market for these kinds of stories as well as what a “videogame movie” might do, whether it’s telling stories about the increasingly widespread presence of videogames in our lives or thinking about the unique storytelling capacities of the videogame as a medium.

In this review, I’m not going to say much about how “good” a movie RP1 is. For what it’s worth, I enjoyed it, and will maybe see it again in 3D IMAX (I saw it in standard 2D) if I can convince the kids. It has rollicking energy for most of its 2-hour, 20-minute run and was funnier than I expected, but the characterization is paper-thin, the romance between Parzival and Art3mis even more feeble than in the Cline original, the plot full of holes, and one of the Asian characters somehow knows how to do karate stuff. I give it a generous B+.

What I’m reviewing here isn’t the quality of the movie, but what it does with videogames and videogame culture, including (1) flattening the sociohistorical dimensions of Cline’s novel, (2) its fumbling of politics, (3) the treatment of gender and female characters, and (4) its “message” about videogames and online community.

Even with a full-body VR suit and these stupid 3D glasses, it’s awfully flat

For worse and better, Cline’s novel is a Wikipedic repository of 1980s cultural trivia. Regardless of how one feels about that (and lots of people hate, hate, hate it), those references serve a purpose, two actually. They celebrate 1980s white, middle-class nerd/pop culture as an evergreen source of resistance to the alienating effects of globalist capitalism. And they immerse the reader in the pathologically obsessive-compulsive behavior of the gunter community. We may not like how Cline does what he does, but he does it for a reason.

Not from the 1980s

Though it has its fair share of 1980s references, Spielberg’s RP1 is no paean. Indeed, two of the more memorable images don’t come from the 80s: the Iron Giant that Aech builds in their garage comes from Brad Bird’s 1999 film, and the dance that Wade and Art3mis perform at the Distracted Globe is set to the disco beat of the Bee Gee’s 1977 mega-hit “Stayin’ Alive.” The majority of games referenced in the film are from games released after the 1980s; notably, Mortal Kombat (1992) and Doom (1993). There are no references to tabletop roleplaying games, interactive fiction, or old games played on old computers. As a consequence, the gaming culture that birthed the OASIS and that provided the young Halliday a sense of pride and security is erased.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. The movie begins with a Big Gulp-sized exposition dump courtesy of a voiceover by Wade (Tye Sheridan). And while Wade fills us in on all things OASIS—and we are dazzled by all the fun photorealistic CGI things one can do in it (including, yes, please, climbing Mount Everest with Batman)—he doesn’t mention the energy crisis, the collapse of the global economy, the nuclear annihilation of national capitals, the pandemics, refugees, or myriad other catastrophes against which Cline set the adventures of the High Five. Presumably for reasons of narrative economy, the first part of the novel—where the reader learns about Wade’s desperate personal situation and his bone-deep cynicism—is jettisoned. But those are the “philosophical” pages of Cline’s book. And it is in those pages that the reader has crammed down their throat learns all kinds of stuff about 1980s nerd and pop culture, a culture that is not just about videogames, but sitcoms, music, table-top roleplaying games, MTV, magazines, hacker culture, computers, interactive fiction, and movies. It is in those pages that we come to understand the abuse and precarity of Halliday’s childhood and the reasons for his narcissism.

Climbing Mount Everest with Batman is my coffee and donuts

The flattening of history is evident on an even deeper level. In a previous post, I defined the notion of “procedural adaptation,” which refers to the way a film or book or comic remediates the mechanics of videogames for purposes of storytelling, characterization, or thematic development. Westworld, for example, constructs its narrative around the mechanics of respawning. Spielberg’s RP1 shows little interest in the rich range of game mechanics explored in Cline’s novel. And it doesn’t spend a moment on the integration of videogames with social media, big data, community building, bullying, and the like. Ready Player One hangs a limited roster of game mechanics—with special emphasis on shooting—on the tried-and-trusty framework of the summer blockbuster. And it ignores forms of play that privilege mindfulness, quiet persistence, and collaborative problem solving. For Spielberg, videogames = action.

Which makes Ready Player One a popcorn-friendly action movie, but a dumb videogame movie.

Welcome to the rebellion! So, what are we rebelling against?

As I’ve argued elsewhere, one of the several problems with Cline’s book is its politics—its libertarian leanings, for one thing, but especially its failure to understand that if the OASIS were truly a place where half the people alive in the world spent their days learning, working, socializing, and playing, it would be rife with political movements, messaging, and activism. That ideological and authorial failure extends to Cline’s characterization of Art3mis who, though she occasionally takes Wade to task for failing to recognize his social responsibilities, is not involved in any kind of political organizing and never mentions, say, endemic starvation in her blog.

Bae Guevara

Which is why I was so thrilled by the moment in the film when Wade is kidnapped, bundled to a seedy warehouse with a pillowcase over his head, and discovers, Art3mis, sitting on a camp chair, rubbing her hands together, auburn hair tossed over one eye. “Oh, here comes the politics,” I thought. And when Samantha Evelyn Cook hit her line with just a touch of vocal fry–“Welcome to the rebellion . . . Wade”—I thought, “Go! Go! Intersectionality!” But the promise of that moment is squandered. Though it appears Art3mis is part of some kind of, um, clandestine indoor-camping cadre, we never learn its purpose or principles, never see it accomplish anything.

Thanks for the invite, Art3mis, but what exactly are we rebelling against?

Perhaps it’s just too many advertisements. In one of the film’s best lines, Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) brags to the IOI board that, if they can win control of the OASIS, they will fill 80% of a player’s view with pop-ups—just shy of the amount that would trigger seizures. (Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of the film’s visual design . . .) Sure, Sorrento’s a stereotypical villain, entirely willing to blow up a housing block, hire a trained assassin (Hannah John-Kamen) equipped with requisite bad-girl bangs, or chew the green-screen scenery. But he comes across more like a bad-ass apple than an expression of systemic greed.

Bangs are peaky blinders for girls

But what was I expecting? Cline’s politics are muddy; Spielberg’s corny.

The joke about the 300-pound dude named Chuck is still awful

Among the more infamous faults of Cline’s book is its treatment of gender. TBH, I find the argument that Cline’s novel is transphobic a bit hyperbolic. It ignores the way Cline frames the book as a story told by a young, cis, white male whose subjectivity has been deeply wounded and whose masculinity is entirely precarious. But for sure, the novel fails to delve into one of the most exciting things about virtual community: the ability to determine who we are and what we look like regardless of our appearance IRL. And one of the novel’s best characters—Aech—is revealed as transgender at the novel’s conclusion, rendering them an afterthought rather than an opportunity to cast some shade on Cline’s glittering straight-white-male nerdtopia.

So, there’s this “joke” in the book about attractive female avatars being the catfish disguises of a “300-pound dude named Chuck who lives in his mother’s basement in suburban Detroit.” It’s a stupid line, transphobic and trafficking in one of the more fatigued stereotypes of videogame players.

And joy! It’s in the movie! But, curiously, the line isn’t Wade’s, but Aech’s, who uses it to tease their friend when they discover the latter’s crush on Art3mis. And, equally curious, the person who is most surprised by Aech’s IRL identity isn’t Wade, who seems to take it in stride, but Art3mis, who stares agape for a comic beat before pivoting to the sorry state of Aech’s van. There’s nothing especially cringeworthy here, though as Slate‘s Laura Hudson rightly notes, Art3mis plays the utterly conventional female role of providing an amoral male hero a reason to be committed to a cause, complementing the fridging of Wade’s Aunt Karen earlier in the film. And if it didn’t make me cringe, I did have a certifiable “Wai-wha?!” moment when Art3mis, having jumped and climbed her way across the swirling zombie void in The Shining sequence, didn’t take Karen Underwood in her arms and give her a big third-act-hetero-action-adventure-rescued-the-girl-so-role-the-credits kiss. I mean, it’s just a game, right?

Frankly, I’m not sure where to land on the question of gender. Should we be surprised that three old men (Spielberg, Cline, and script co-writer Zak Penn) have trouble imagining a world where the differences between avatars and IRL identity is taken for granted? Where people accept that our identities are fluid, situational, a matter of choice rather than law, a function of our own eyes rather than the beholder? Should we be surprised that they don’t understand that when a queer woman says something sexist or transphobic, it can still be sexist or transphobic?

And should we be surprised that there is something very wrong about the film’s treatment of female bodies? In Cline’s book, Art3mis and Aech are described as curvy, heavy women. Wade describes Art3mis as “short and Rubenesque. All curves” (35), and Aech describes herself as a “fat black chick” (319). In the movie, not only is Art3mis played by the winsome Cook, but her OASIS avatar is even skinnier, and her inhuman thinness is amplified by the way her avatar moves, her limbs extending, her costume flowing ahead and behind in contrast to Wade’s more grounded, weighty, action-hero movement. And Lena Waithe, who plays Aech, is hardly “fat.” To Cline’s credit, he affirms in his book a fat-positive sensibility and highlighted the deleterious health effects of playing videogames all day (Wade characterizes himself as overweight and out of shape). But the film has none of that. And that’s a sexist shame.

Rubenesque

(Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces [1630-35])

Not Rubenesque

Also not Rubenesque

That said, the film does make a few positive changes to the plot of the book that distribute the action-adventure agency to the High Five’s non-male members. Though Art3mis spends a few Princess-Peach minutes trapped in the IOI castle and must be rescued by the other High Fivers, she demonstrates grit, wit, and improvisatory skill after her escape. Likewise, Aech’s identity is revealed more quickly than in the book, enabling her to play a bigger role in the film’s final act, both in the OASIS and careening around the streets of Columbus.

And let it be said that for all that is wrong about Spielberg’s Ready Player One, there is one thing that is utterly and completely right: Lena Waithe.

If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right

Kids, put down those controllers and march bravely into the great outdoors to, um, watch movies

So, no surprise, what the movie has to say about videogames is corny and underinformed. The production team would have greatly benefited from some expert advice—ideally from a feminist/queer expert—on online community and virtual reality. It would have benefited from the advice of videogame players who play games other than first-person shooters.

The moral of Spielberg’s Ready Player One is that we need to get out in the real world and connect with each other.

Or at least see movies where people get out in the real world and connect with each other.

But why should we? The movie doesn’t show us a thing about the negative effects of online life, and is thoroughly ignorant about the way online life empowers individuals and communities, the way online life enables individuals and communities to define their situations, practice problem-solving, enact alternative worlds. I mean, if the OASIS can be anything you want it to be, then one would expect there to be entire planets devoted to, say, queer futurity. And where, my dear OASIS search-engine-host, can I find Planet Themyscira?

The cornball ignorance of Ready Player One is captured in its final line. “We closed the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Wade tells us as he spoons into Art3mis. Now, don’t get me wrong: I love to cuddle with my partner in the slanting late afternoon sun as much as the next person, but I also love to march with her to protest moronic gun laws, to work with students to develop their creative writing and coding skills, and do my best to think about who I am and what I want to be as a person, a professional, and a member of my family and my community. And I love to play videogames with her. But were my business housed in the OASIS (see Chris Plante for a smart read on this), were my students located in cities and villages thousands of miles away, were the activists with whom I was collaborating scattered across time zones or in situations that required the anonymity of an online environment, I’d suit up an avatar army, charge whatever castle Wade was hanging in, and demand my rights to be online any damned time I want.

A gamey thought or three on Game Night

March 15, 2018

This is the fifth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

(Spoilers)

The Game meets This Is 40

Yesterday, I watched Game Night at a mall cineplex. I liked it. It’s bubbly fun, it stars the ever-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, the perfect complement to popcorn and a cold IPA, a see-it-enjoy-it-forget-it experience. But being a curious scholar who fears no accusation of overthinking, I thought I’d put down a few words on the film and its approach to videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture.

     

If you don’t know the premise, think David Fincher’s The Game meets Judd Apatow’s This Is 40. A cute, highly competitive couple (McAdams as Annie, Bateman as Max) host a weekly game night with a small group of friends. They are surprised one night by the arrival of Max’s even more competitive, far more glamorous brother, Brooks. Long story short, Brooks arranges for the group to play an augmented reality game (imagine one of those murder mystery parties with real guns and fully committed actors) that comes with a very sweet prize: a 1976 Corvette Stingray. But things go sideways when real bad guys show up, Max and Annie and their friends don’t realize it, and action-adventure hilarity ensues. No irony there—Game Night easily surpasses Mark Kermode’s “6 Laughs Test.”

Wait, where are the videogames?

No video games

Videogames are not a major presence in Game Night. In fact, the movie pointedly ignores them in favor of non-digital games: bar trivia, charades, board games, Pictionary, Never Have I Ever, and so on. The opening credit sequence features a slow-motion rain of iconic game pieces (a noose from Clue, a house from Monopoly, a die, a Scrabble tile, etc.), but there’s nary a game controller in sight. And though we see Annie and Max dancing at their wedding on an arcade dance game à la Dance Dance Revolution (tbh, Michael Cera and Ellen Wong did it better in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), videogames are pretty much a non-presence in the movie—until the third act.

Incidentally, in addition to being avid game players, Annie, Max, and their friends are inveterate pop culture nerds, especially when it comes to movies, references to which abound (Lamorne Morris’s Denzel Washington impersonation is solid) and accumulate as the movie proceeds. Not incidentally, those references come even faster when the characters realize that they’re not actually playing a game and the movie shifts from slapstick domestic comedy to action-adventure comedy.

In the middle of this realization of the reality of their situation, in the middle of this transition from one genre to another, and, I note, in the midst of a transition from one form of play (board and social games) to another (sports like bare-knuckled boxing, football, car racing, and shooting), Annie and Max get into a Very Serious Conversation About Their Future. You see, they’ve been trying to get pregnant, but Max’s sperm aren’t up to the job. He’s stressed out and so are his little swimmers. And, it turns out, he maybe kind of sort of doesn’t want kids. He’s still holding on to the fantasy of being a hyper-wealthy jet-set winner like his brother.

So, of course, Annie and Max talk about Pac-Man.

Pac-Man fever

Annie reminds Max about the time they played the game obsessively, following their typical do-or-die-trying drive to be the best. Annie reminds Max that the strategy they followed was to only eat the dots, leaving the delicious, bouncing fruit alone and therefore avoiding unnecessary risks. (N.B. a perusal of online Pac-Man guides do not indicate this is in fact a winning strategy.) Though Max laughs at the obviousness of the metaphor, Annie isn’t deterred. They agreed, she reminds him, to keep their heads down and pursue a simpler life, a life like their parents, a life in a middle-class cul-de-sac, a life of small pleasures and good friends, a life of game nights. That’s what Pac-Man taught them.

As a videogame scholar, I find moments like these fascinating. No doubt, if you’re looking for grand statements about the medium, you’re going to want to dive into Westworld, Halt and Catch Fire, Reamde, Ready Player One, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and so on. But these kinds of minor or incidental references to videogames often tell us more about what videogames mean than texts that aim for the grand statement. And I think Game Night has something kind of interesting to tell us.

If you’ve read the last part of my post “What is videogame literature?”, you’ll recall that I identified seven ways that videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture can be represented in texts. In Game Night, we see the diegetic representation of videogame players (Annie describing the act of playing the game, the shot of Annie and Max playing the dance game). We see figurative representation (Annie uses Pac-Man as a metaphor for a life of striving and achieving). But we also see what I call procedural adaptation, but with a weird little spin.

I define procedural adaptation as “the duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc.” In Game Night, the mechanics of Pac-Man—repetitive movement through a maze, constant pursuit, sudden reversals of fortune, increasing difficulty—aren’t really adapted. Instead, the description of the videogame and their strategy for playing it crystallizes what has already been happening in the movie, transforming retrospectively the slapstick action and car chases we’ve been watching into a videogame. And it transforms the way Annie and Max play the game.

Another way to put this: The Pac-Man conversation shifts the movie’s meta.

Romancing the meta

A whole bunch of cheaters, but in a fun way: from left, Lamorne Morris, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in “Game Night.” (Warner Bros.)

Game Night is a very “meta” movie, almost annoyingly so. This is a movie that is very aware that it is a movie. Moreover, it is aware that we’re aware that it is aware that it is a movie. So, not only do references to other movies abound in the dialogue, not only does the film borrow liberally from the meta-movie tradition—think David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, Mel Brooks—but it also plays with our expectations, especially as it moves to the conclusion. Wait? Is this still a game? Oh, okay, no. Oh, it is ! Wait, what?

Not coincidentally, Game Night is also about a very “meta” group of friends. They get great pleasure from commenting on themselves and their situation, expressing both genuine friendship for each other even as they comment on the nature of that genuine friendship and their expression of it. (Sharon Horgan as Sarah and Billy Magnussen as Ryan are especially good with this stuff). I’m reminded a bit of relationships I had with friends in college: a whole lot of sarcasm, a whole lot of love. Brooks’s arrival amps up the irony by throwing Max and Annie literally off their game and everyone else into a swamp of epistemological uncertainty.

Annie, Max, and their friends are “meta” in another way. They cheat. Not in a, you know, evil way. More of a trash-talking, bending-but-not-breaking-the-rules, just-between-friends kind of way. When we first meet Max, he’s buying a round of drinks for the teams playing bar trivia, but the shots for his team aren’t vodka, but water. When Brooks is kidnapped, Annie and Max don’t try to solve the riddle he leaves behind. Instead, they ransack his bedroom to find his iPad, then track his iPhone to a nearby bar. Meanwhile, Sarah and Ryan find the receipt and drive over to the headquarters of the game company. When they need to get access to police files, they all team up to lie to their neighbor, playing on his pathetic desire to join them in a game night, then lie again to gain access to his computer.

Ryan and Sarah, cheating

In other words, Annie, Max, and the gang are inveterate performers, continually judging each other’s performances as players and neighbors, continually deceiving each other to get a little advantage, to hide a bit of semi-legal relationship infidelity, to throw somebody off their rhythm, though never so much that it would cause anyone harm. Brooks’s arrival casts all of this carefully calibrated meta-play into disarray.

And this is where we reap the bouncy, bouncy fruit of the Pac-Man reference.

You see, you can’t cheat at videogames the way you can at, say, Hearts or Monopoly. Because videogames are software programs, they don’t allow players to, say, peak at the cards or slip a couple $500 bills under the board. When I play soccer, I can pull the shirt of an opponent and, if the referee doesn’t see it, it won’t get called. But when I play FIFA 18, if I foul an opponent, it always gets called, no arguments allowed. Likewise, when we play Pac-Man, we can’t cheat, but we can deploy a meta. As I explained in an earlier post, “A useful way to think about this broader range of activities is in terms of ‘metagaming.’ Conventionally, metagaming is defined as the analytic and strategic activities not designed into the game rules but that emerge when players develop a history with a game and the players who play it.” Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux expand this notion, arguing that metagaming is one of the fundamental “conditions of twenty-first century play,” an approach to play that isn’t just about rules and strategies, but about “[a]ttitude, affinity, experience, achievement, status, community, competition, strategy, spectatorship, statistics, history, economy, [and] politics.”

So, let’s be clear: we’re not diving into Hegel or Alain Badiou here. The lesson of Game Night is a simple one. By shifting the meta from board games and sports (all of which have an end condition–you either win or you lose) to Pac-Man (which goes on and on, its map repeating, for all intents and purposes, endlessly), Annie and Max no longer play as ironists, no longer treat relationships like game pieces, no longer judge everything by winning or losing. The life lesson of Game Night is unadulterated sentimental cornball: we should value each other not because we’re winners or losers, but because we have fun playing together and it’s always more of the same and that’s okay. As a result of the change in their meta, they not only learn the truth about Brooks, but come to appreciate their creepy neighbor who, we find out, has been playing with the characters all along, hiring the thugs who kidnap Brook.

At this point, the movie kind of breaks. Not that it’s not entertaining, but it becomes a fairly conventional, if still fun and funny, action-adventure comedy. Pac-Man isn’t mentioned again, and the group goes back to playing their weekly game night.

So, what does Game Night have to say about videogames?

It’s not the fruit, but the Pac-Dots.

Game Night’s diegetic, figurative, and procedural representation of Pac-Man serves to affirm the simple pleasures of play, the value of honesty, and the purity of competition. By shifting from board games and sports to a game that cannot be affected by the emotions, relations, or objections of the player, the film shifts the focus from the game to those who play it. And that strikes me as just the right lesson to learn from a movie whose ambitions aren’t any greater than having a bit of fun.

Videogames and literature: An annotated syllabus (Part 1 of 2)

This is the fourth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?

(Spoilers)

TEACHING AND LEARNING BETWEEN VIDEOGAMES AND LITERATURE

For the last several years, I’ve taught undergraduate and graduate courses that explore videogames as works of literature. In those courses, we explored all kinds of thing, including the often delicious tension between rules and fiction (thanks, Jesper Juul!); the ways videogame designers construct narratives, characters, and worlds; how videogame fictions change as they are told and retold in different media or by different players; how videogames represent race, gender, sexuality, and class; and so on.

In other words, when I’ve taught video games as literature, I’m applying to videogames the same kinds of critical tools that I would apply to novels, plays, poems, and movies.

No, I’m not imposing a literary model on videogames. (I saw a few of you starting to move towards the comments section . . .). Rather, I’m asking a question in full acknowledgment of the distinct nature of the videogame medium and the history of critics imposing a literary model on videogames:  How can the tools of literary criticism help us better understand videogames?

And I’m asking what I think is an even more interesting question in response: How can videogames help us better understand literature? And part of that understanding is recognizing the limits of literary criticism and the literary model.

But as rewarding as that approach was, I was having trouble not being distracted by all the fun, interesting, occasionally mind-blowing literary stuff about videogames I was finding in, of all places, literature: in Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series and Hazel Newlevant’s buh-rilliant collection of short graphic fiction by women gamers, Chainmail Bikini; in Neil Stephenson’s Reamde, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and the stories collected by Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams in Press Start to Play; in television series like Halt and Catch Fire and Westworld; in movies like WarGames and Edge of Tomorrow (or whatever the spork that movie’s called).

      

It wasn’t just novels and movies that got me thinking along these lines. I was working with students who were creating their own videogame literature: fan fiction that shipped Overwatch characters; intense conspiratorial conversations about obscure points of Dragon Age lore; livestream performances on Twitch; poems about Pokémon and the art-deco tragedies of Rapture; cosplay that brought 16-bit heroes and villains into the halls of our Humanities and Social Sciences building. Why wouldn’t I incorporate those kinds of texts into my thinking about videogames?

So, last spring, I decided to take a different angle, to think about videogames not only as literature, but in literature.

By looking at books, movies, fan fiction, television, plays, and other kinds of aesthetic texts in conversation with videogames that are “literary,” I thought I might generate some useful insights into what videogames are, how they affect our day-to-day lives, our relationships with each other, the ways we see and hear the world, the way we imagine time, space, love, learning, and so on.

The results were exciting. The graduate courses I taught in the Summer and Fall of 2017—and the students who took them with me—proved inspirational. They’re the reason I started this blog.

Many of you have asked me to share my syllabi, so I thought it would be a good idea to post this, a version of the course I taught in Fall 2017. I’ve cut the boring stuff—attendance policies, grade scales, semester assignments—and annotated it to clarify my purposes, reflect on the choices I made, and give at least a taste of what my students and I explored and discovered together.

In this post, I describe the big picture: the framework, objectives, texts, and rationales that drove my decisions. In the second half, I’ll delve into the week-to-week schedule.

COURSE OVERVIEW

The premise of the course is that videogames are an ascendant, if not hegemonic medium. They’re a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry, a hobby, a part of our everyday lives (How many steps did I take today? How many likes did I get?), a tool for learning and teaching, a body of tropes and stereotypes (Looking at you, misogynist nacho-addicted guy in mom’s basement), a tool for the expression and negotiation of social and political power, and, last but not least, a medium that represents ideas and emotions, comments critically on who we are, and tells powerful, memorable stories. So, I think we need to pay smart attention to what videogames are and how they are shaping who we are. And that attention needs to be focused on the games themselves and the representation of games, players, and player culture in other kinds of texts.

I organized the course around two questions.

First, “How do videogames tell stories?” Narrative is a powerful cultural and ideological force, so understanding the particular ways that video games—in all their diversity—construct imaginative fictions is a vital and fun thing to do. Do all videogames tell stories? Of course not. But, apologies to Ian Bogost, when videogames tell stories, they do so in fascinating, beautiful, significant ways.

Second, “What are the stories we tell about video games?” Video games, gaming, and video game players are a common subject of novels, short stories, movies, fan fiction, comics, blogs, and television series. A critical examination of these can help us gain a better understanding of the significance of video games to our selves and our communities. And it can help us gain some intellectual and pedagogical traction on how video games are changing the way we tell stories, how we think about subjectivity, how we imagine time and space, and how we negotiate the media ecology of our moment.

Ultimately, I wanted to learn more about what video games mean to our culture right now, to get some kind of a grip on a medium and a culture that is changing as quickly as the technologies on which we play games and the people who make and play them.

COURSE GOALS

  1. To identify, explore, and critique the genres, procedures, and tropes used by video games to construct fictions—characters, worlds, narratives, themes, and so on. In particular, we will explore how video games construct character and shape the ways players identify with those characters, especially as that concerns race, class, gender, and sexuality.
  2. To identify, explore, and critique the representation of video games, gaming, and players in novels, short fiction, comics, movies, and television series. What kinds of stereotypes do we find in these texts? Where do we see representations of games and gaming being pressured or constrained by the storytelling conventions of older media?
  3. To identify and explore the ways that video games and literature are part of a shared media ecology. When we play video games, we don’t just play the game itself. We participate in a “convergence culture,” to recall Henry Jenkins’s term. “Playing a game” can also include visiting websites, dressing up as our favorite character, watching live streams, writing comments in response to blogs and videos, reading fan fiction.
  4. To develop expertise in and understanding of the discourse of video game criticism, particularly the kinds of criticism being promoted by “middle state” publications. One of the best things about contemporary video game culture is the opportunities available to anyone who has an opinion. That’s also one of the worst things about contemporary video game culture. Together, we’ll learn how to express our ideas thoughtfully and in conversation with others who do so, too.

WHAT DID WE PLAY?

Unlike previous courses I’ve taught on videogames, I didn’t include a single AAA title (though some might consider Portal AAA). When I play videogames wearing my velvet, tasseled English Professor hat, I’m attracted to games produced by individuals and small companies, games that are both fun to play and fun to think about. As a rule, I favor games that push me to think about what I’m doing and how I’m doing it, that “queer” game play in some fashion or that include characters who challenge conventional understandings of race, gender, sexuality, and class. I tend to emphasize ethics in my courses, too, so the games I prefer as a literary scholar and critical theorist typically have an ethical dimension to them, either in terms of the decisions that have to be made in game or the issues they raise for those who play them.

But there are pragmatic reasons for my choices, too.

First, the games I choose are relatively short and require relatively little skill to play. Not all my students play videogames. So, in the same way that I need to consider the challenge (and time) it will take a novice to read a dense, difficult text by Jacques Lacan, Gertrude Stein, or Suzan-Lori Parks, I need to think about the challenge posed by a first-person shooter like Bioshock or the time it takes to get to the narrative good stuff in Skyrim.

Second, anyone teaching videogames needs to think a lot about access. Few students own game consoles. And while I can presume that students have personal computers and phones, I can’t presume they are all have the same kinds of computers and phones. So, as much as I love Dear Esther, I would have rather included What Remains of Edith Finch (Steam). Alas, the latter is not available for those who play their games on Macs. What it came down to was this: Every game had to be purchasable via Steam and had to be playable on both PC and Mac.

Third there is the question of cost. While there are educational benefits to exploring widely, the expense of such exploration can severely strain the checking accounts and financial aid of students. The students I teach, both graduate and undergraduate, aren’t rich.

So, in light of my educational objectives and the material constraints of my teaching situation, these are the games we played:

The Beginner’s Guide (Davey Wreden, 2015)

A great example of what is sometimes called a “walking simulator,” meaning you don’t do much as a player besides guide the camera through various environments. In this case, a narrator gives you a kind of guided tour of a series of brief games created by a designer he deeply admires, even obsesses over. Complexities emerge. (Steam)

A Dark Room (Michael Townsend, Amir Rajan, 2013)

I first played this on my phone while traveling from Portland to Pittsburgh on a very crowded plane. That trip ended up passing quickly. A Dark Room is basically a no-frills resource-management game with a simple, text-based interface. Build a fire, collect some wood, trap some animals, build a building, attract workers, collect more wood, build another building, and so on. But what develops from this is something genuinely surprising, the kind of twist ending that doesn’t feel at all forced, even though it casts everything we’ve done to that point into an entirely different light. (App store)

Dear Esther (The Chinese Room, 2012)

Another “walking simulator,” this one taking place on an isolated, windswept island somewhere in the Hebrides. As we explore the island’s nooks and crannies, a narrator reads letters to someone named Esther. What unfolds is a melancholy, strikingly beautiful tour of a landscape that is both in the world and of the mind. In tone and style, I’m reminded of Samuel Beckett’s lonely late plays: Eh, Joe and …but the clouds… (Steam)

Device 6  (Simon Flesser/Simogo, 2013)

A bit of deviously clever, highly polished puzzle-solving candy floss. This phone game nails the arch tone of classic paranoid 1960s movies and television like The Prisoner. I chose this game because I like the way it gets players to treat their phones like material objects (flipping them this way and that, swiping that way and this), its outstanding sound design, and the witty way it plays with text. One of my favorites is when we walk up a spiral staircase that is made out of the words we’re reading telling us we’re walking up a spiral staircase. (App store)

Dys4ia  (Anna Anthropy, 2012)

How could someone interested in videogames, gender, and sexuality not include this classic queer game by one of the most outspoken and insightful queer game designers out there? Based on the rapid-fire, off-kilter play style of Warioware, it presents a series of simple games that give just a little bit of insight into the day-to-day life of a transgender woman in the midst of her transition. Canonical. (itch.io)

Gone Home (Steve Gaynor, 2013)

I taught this game the first time I taught a videogame course and I’ve taught it in every course since, including my sections of general education humanities literature. Another one of those “walking simulators,” we play as Katie Greenbriar, fresh back from a trip to Europe and presented with a simple question: Why aren’t our parents and sister home? As we explore the house, we gather clues, assemble the story, and experience one of the loveliest coming-of-age/coming-out-of-the-closet stories you could imagine. There’s a fairly massive body of criticism out there, too, so it’s a good game to teach if you want to introduce students to the field of games criticism. (Steam)

Horse Master: The Game of Horse Mastery (Tom McHenry, 2013)

I stumbled on this game as I was looking for a second interactive fiction game that would complement With Those We Love Alive. I think it’s brilliant. We play an ambitious horse master intent on creating a creature of magnificent, uncanny horror in order to launch ourselves into a life of unending fame and fortune. Imagine a pet simulator designed by William Burroughs. Pro tip: go with the Carolina Coffinbreath. (itch.io)

Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer, 2013)

Crack sauce for the English major videogamer, Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure set in a contemporary, though magical-realist landscape around Lexington, Kentucky. It is densely intertextual, referencing the plays of Beckett and Ibsen, the novels of Steinbeck and  Márquez, the photography of Russel Lee, the scenography of Beowulf Boritt, the installations of Nam June Paik, the fashion of Loretta Lynn (see above) . . . you get the idea (for a near-comprehensive list, see Magnus Hildebrandt’s meticulous three-part essay). But what really makes the game are the characters: an alcoholic trucker on his last delivery, a television-repair woman burdened with history, a brilliant architect forced to work as a thankless bureaucrat, a little boy and his giant-eagle brother. There is a moment in Act 3 that may be the single most beautiful thing I’ve experienced as a game player. Act 4 is a disappointment, so I don’t teach it. (Steam)

We explored three other digital fictions by the makers of Kentucky Route Zero, who have managed to put together a remarkable, consistently off-kilter transmedia fiction set in the magical millennial ruin of their fictional Kentucky. These include The Entertainment (2013), Limits and Demonstrations (2013), and Here and There Along the Echo (2014). The lattermost may be my favorite, in part due to the performances of Will Oldham and Poppy Garland. You can experience it simply by calling 270-301-5797. And Cardboard Computer keeps pumping out the good stuff. The fifth and final act of KR0 is forthcoming (I hope it’s better than Act 4, which I found laborious and overwritten), they’ve just put out a perfectly bizarre emulation of a 1980s all-access cable show, Un Pueblo de Nada (and rumor has it that the fifth act takes place in a haunted television station).

Portal   (Valve, 2007)

We awake to find ourselves in the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, forced to solve a series of increasingly difficult and dangerous puzzles designed by a malicious artificial intelligence named GLaDOS. Armed with our handy “portal gun” and equipped with a pair of cybernet super-jump boots, we eventually discover the secret of this installation: The cake is a lie. All the elements converge: brilliant design by Kim Swift, crackling prose by Erik Wolpaw and Chet Faliszek, and an unforgettable performance by Ellen McLain as GLaDOS. But it also evinces some of the problems that face videogame storytellers. The articulation of game challenges and narration is pretty blocky (enter a room, listen to GLaDOS, solve the puzzle, listen to GLaDOS). (Steam)

With Those We Love Alive  (Porpentine, 2014)

Alice O’Connor’s review nails it: With Those We Love Alive is “a game about how we create ourselves in the space we’re allowed by society, and how we respond to its demands and the many forms of violence that surround us. It’s about the roles we have to play, and the choices other people make for us. It’s about complicity and complacency. It’s about abandoning hope and finding it. It’s about the routines and demands of bodies. It’s about being so, so tired.” We play a gender-fluid artisan sold by our parents into the service of a monstrous Empress, biding our time before we escape with a long-lost lover. The game’s designer, Porpentine does so many clever things within the limits of the Twine software, including incorporating the player’s body into the action: From time to time, we’re asked to draw sigils on our bodies to represent specific moments and memories. (Free to play)

The B list

There is only so much time in a semester. And even though I’m the teacher, I want to learn about new games, too. So, that means there are many great games that are fun, interesting, and align with the course objectives, but there wasn’t time or I want to take a break from them.

Inkle’s 80 Days has been a regular on my game courses from the beginning (and was included in the summer version of the course). It does what it does so well, both in terms of the world it builds (a progressively minded steampunk reversioning of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days) and the delicious prose of Meg Jayanth [LINK]. It’s got a great combination of play mechanics—part click-and-go interactive text, part resource management, part role-playing game, part emergent map construction—which make it a really useful text for the teacher who is looking for a “one stop pedagogical shop.” Just thinking about this game makes me want to play it again.

I want to play World of Warcraft with my students. So. Very. Badly. The particular way WoW connects (and fails to connect) story, character, and theme to gameplay, the rich storylines and mythos, the vibrant and problematic quality of player discourse, the opportunity for a group of students to develop their own lore—what’s not to love? Well, one thing: It takes time to experience Azeroth, to unpack its fictions, to learn the ins and outs of trade channel trash talk, to acquire the skills to delve into dungeons and raids. So, as much as I’d like to show off to students Daisypain, my oh-so-epic feral druid, she’ll have to wait a bit longer.

I also have a dream about a unit on Spec Ops: The Line, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Spec Ops is a shattering experience, and I’ve been trying for years to find a place for it on a syllabus. And to teach it as a text that signifies on and adapts Coppola’s movie, which signifies on and adapts Conrad’s book? Yes, please. But I worry that the punchline isn’t worth the joke, if you know what I mean.

WHAT DID WE READ AND WATCH?

This is the part of the course that I felt least confident about. Though I’ve been voraciously reading and watching every text I can get my hands on, I don’t yet have a good sense of the field as a whole. I struggled with my criteria. Should I teach only texts that are obviously and consistently about videogames? Should I include texts that make only passing reference but, if approached in the right way, might open up in interesting ways? For example, in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), one of the characters (Bill Paxton’s scene-stealing Hudson), in a moment of desperation, cries, “Game over, man! Game over!” This seemingly incidental reference to games got me thinking about Hudson as a stereotypical white male videogame player and Aliens as a movie that thoroughly wrecks the heroic kill-em-all model of a certain kind of videogame.

But efficiency is a rule here, too. I needed a diverse body of texts, so it made sense to include two anthologies. I needed the texts we read to evidence the seven tropes of videogame literature. I needed texts that articulated the core critical concepts of the course. One of those was remediation, so the two Scott Pilgrim texts made sense, especially since I was relying on Drew Morton’s smart reading of the Scott Pilgrim metatext.

Here’s the final list:

Jon Bois, 17776 (SB Nation)

I’m assuming you haven’t read Jon Bois’s 17776. So, why don’t you go ahead and read it, then come back when you’re done. Here’s the link. I’ll wait.

You see what I mean? With the sardonic humor of someone who has spent a lot of time sitting around table with other inebriated sports wonks deep-diving into stats and bags of MSG-laden crisps, but with truly sympathetic insight into our simple desire to hang out with each other and ignore the fathoming terrors of being, Bois explores the existential significance of games. In addition, he does something I find especially intriguing, in light of my interest in how literature adapts the procedures of videogames and the cultures of videogame players. Bois builds his speculative fiction on the principles of glitch play. By breaking a few simple rules about human existence, football becomes something very different.

Check out Bois’s other experiments in what we might call “glitch-spec fiction.” He takes two popular sports videogames, sets a few parameters to fail mode, then writes about them in the terms and tropes of conventional long-form sports journalism.

All Is Lost (which explores the slow death of professional basketball via NBAY 2K)

Breaking Madden (the title is self-explanatory)

Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (Broadway Books, 2012)

As I’ve discussed elsewhere and elsewhere, I consider this is a deeply problematic text, which is one of the reasons I assign it. Plus, it’s a really fun book to read, it captures so much of the current zeitgeist around videogames, and Cline uses all seven videogame literature tropes.

Hazel Newlevant, ed, Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers   (Alternative Comics, 2016)

This has become a go-to text in my videogame courses. Newlevant assembled a kick-ass collection of short graphic stories that explore the gamut of female player experience and, just as important, the gamut of female player identities. The stories aren’t just about videogames—some of my favorites are about tabletop and live-action roleplaying games—but they’re always about the relationship between play and gender.

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together  (Oni Press, 2004) and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010, Dir. Edgar Wright)

   

I like both of these texts. They’re fun. They’re a perfect example of convergence culture and remediation. But, to be honest, I don’t find either of them all that substantial as explorations of videogames, players, or game culture. In the future, I’ll probably go with something else. Maybe this is where I do the Spec Ops/Apocalypse Now unit! On the other hand, a unit that pairs Edge of Tomorrow and its source text, Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill could be a winner, too. And I’m tempted to go with Cline’s Ready Player One and Spielberg’s film adaptation.

Daniel H. Wilson and John Joseph Adams, ed. Press Start to Play (Vintage Books, 2015)

Another killer anthology, providing a lot of variety and a range of illustrations of those seven tropes of videogame literature. Though a few of the stories are a tad slight, most are wickedly wrought and emotionally compelling. A few (Jessica Barber’s “Coma Kings,” Austin Grossman’s “The Fresh Prince of Gamma World,” T.C. Boyle’s “The Relive Box,” Cory Doctorow’s “Anda’s Game”) are rib stickers—they’ll stay with you

Westworld (HBO, 2016)

But of course. One of the smartest explorations of videogames, players, and player culture around. Problematic in all the right ways. That said, I came this close to subbing this one out for the second season of Halt and Catch Fire (that’s the one where Cameron and Donna run their own game company). And then there are the several episodes of Black Mirror that explore the dystopian side of videogames.

And, of course, lots of theory

I’m a theorist at heart and our undergraduate and graduate curricula emphasize theory and theorizing, so every course I teach includes a lot of texts that explore the formal, social, historical, political, and ideological dimensions of literature and culture. The basic framework of the course was provided by Jesper Juul’s brilliant Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, a book that is rarely out of arm’s reach.

For details on what we did with Juul’s book and the many other shorter critical texts that I included in the syllabus, see part two.

A defense (sort of) of Ready Player One (Part 2 of 2)

 

This is the third in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”

(Spoilers)

In my previous post, I reviewed some of Ready Player One’s (RP1) many flaws: its cringe-inducing treatment of race, gender, and sexuality; its incoherent vision of online community; its ahistorical and politically homogenized sound track; and the way it leans in to libertarian beliefs about the nanny state, meritocracy, and rugged individualism. But, most importantly, I underlined how important it is that we not confuse Ernest Cline, the book’s author, with Wade Watts, its narrator.

(Not Wade Watts)

(Not Ernest Cline)

In this post, I will argue that RP1, as flawed and inconsistent as it is, presents a more consciously critical view of video games, nerd culture, and virtual community than readers have generally acknowledged. The key to my reading is the concept of trauma.

Gamifying trauma

Riffing on the work of his philosophical hero Hegel, Karl Marx wrote that the events of history tend to appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Ernest Cline one-ups Marx: In Ready Player One, the events and personages of history repeat once more, as a video game.

Halliday’s Hunt–the Easter egg quest whose winner will inherit an unimaginable fortune–gamifies the 1980s. It transmogrifies the decade’s video and roleplaying games, music, television, and movies into a nerd-friendly high-stakes Arthurian quest. But the Hunt makes no mention of the “other 1980s,” the 1980s of AIDS, accelerating climate change, rising income inequality, the radical deregulation of global markets, the militarization of the police, the rise of transnational corporations, the intensification of the war on drugs, or mass incarceration.

In case you didn’t hear, the 80s sucked.

But this isn’t to say Halliday isn’t aware of all that. He writes about it constantly in his journal, known to gunters as Anorak’s Almanac. And this isn’t to say that the gunters aren’t aware of it, either. How could they not be? It’s all around them.

It’s the structure of that awareness that I find fascinating. In its labyrinthine, self-aggrandizing sadism, Halliday’s Hunt mirrors the anxious, passive-aggressive subjectivity of a hyper-intelligent, socially anxious, sexually insecure, libertarian-leaning, creative, precocious, ingenious white-male nerd who finally gets the chance to give it to the jocks. But it also mirrors the subjectivity of a helpless child suffering unending emotional abuse at the hands of his mother and father, a child with nowhere to run and nobody to help him, desperately seeking escape and affirmation in games and coding. Halliday’s Hunt mirrors the precarious subjectivity of a Midwestern boy with abusive parents and dwindling opportunities living in a town sliding into post-industrial ruin.

To play Halliday’s game, the gunter must play Halliday’s trauma.

What do I mean by “trauma”? Put simply, trauma is an event that is profoundly, inescapably painful, shocking, and distressing. It comes in many forms: a child abused by their caregiver, a community surviving a months-long military siege, a town flattened by a tornado, a worker harassed by a supervisor. But trauma isn’t defined by what it is so much as by what it does to its victims—and what its victims do. Indeed, two people might suffer the same experience, but only one of them be “traumatized” by it. The traumatized suffer not only from the event directly but also from the failure of the emotional, symbolic, physical, social, and cultural tools they have to make sense of their suffering, to cope with the pain, to find a path to healing. And that failure leads to a variety of post-traumatic symptoms. For the individual, this might include loss of trust in others, the inability to sleep, or compulsive-obsessive behavior. For communities, this might include endemic alcoholism, chronic depression, and poor physical health. (The literature on trauma is massive. For a literary-critical approach, see this. For a more accessible, healthcare-oriented perspective, see this.)

Do fanboys dream of electric sheep?

If anyone understands fear and desperation, it’s Wade Watts. When we meet him, he’s hiding, shivering and starving, behind a clothes dryer in the double-wide he shares with a dozen others, perched near the top of an Oklahoma City “stack,” a high-rise shanty town of trailer homes, RVs, and repurposed shipping containers. “I was the only child of two teenagers,” he tells us, “both refugees who met in the stacks where I’d grown up. I don’t remember my father. When I was just a few months old, he was shot dead while looting a grocery store during a power blackout” (15).

(From Ready Player One, Warner Bros. Pictures)

Wade was raised by his mother, an OASIS sex worker, who, despite her efforts to block out the noise, could not keep him from hearing her “talking dirty to tricks in other time zones” (15). A loving, dedicated caregiver, she was also an addict. When Wade was eleven, “she shot a bad batch of something into her arm and died on our ratty fold-out sofa bed while listening to music on an old mp3 player I’d repaired and given to her the previous Christmas” (19). He then moved in with an abusive aunt, who treats him less as a family member than a sure source of government aid. Poor and overweight, he is a target of bullies.

The pain of Wade’s personal trauma is exceeded only by the apocalyptic trauma all around him: “the ongoing energy crisis. Catastrophic climate change. Widespread famine, poverty, and disease. Half a dozen wars,” cities vaporized by nuclear explosions, “[p]lants and animals . . . dying off in record numbers” (1, 17). Like so many others, Wade has no hope, no ideals, no agency: “Maybe it isn’t a good idea to tell a newly arrived human being that he’s been born into a world of chaos, pain, and poverty just in time to watch everything to fall to pieces. I discovered all of that gradually over several years, and it still made me feel like jumping off a bridge” (18).

Like Halliday, Wade escapes his misery by playing games, watching television, listening to music, scribbling page after page in his journal. And like Halliday, his obsessions make him feel special, chosen, elite. And aside from the relatively well-adjusted and well-off Art3mis, the other “High 5” are in the same boat. Aech is homeless, kicked out by her homophobic mother, roaming the Fury Road highways of the post-apocalyptic U.S., unable to share her IRL identity with her best friend. Shoto and Daito are hikikomori, agoraphobes who do not leave their rooms, dependent on their families and friends to feed them, socially isolated.

In his 2011 review in USA Today, Don Oldenburg compared RP1 to “Willy Wonka meets The Matrix.” But in light of how damaged Wade is, in light of his cynicism, his loneliness, his addictions, his desperate efforts to connect with others, and his inability to understand why they reject him, he reminds me less of Charlie Bucket or Neo than the damaged child-men in Philip K. Dick’s novels: Jack Bohlen in Martian Time-Slip, Rick Deckard in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

You can’t go home again and again and again and again and again . . .

In Anorak’s Invitation, Halliday tells the world, “I suppose you could say that [the egg is] locked inside a safe that is buried in a secret room that lies hidden at the center of a maze located somewhere . . . up here” (5-6). That pretty much nails it. The Hunt is a kind of procedural manifestation of Halliday’s troubled subjectivity—his elaborately designed defenses against the pain of his childhood and the global disaster of 2044 provide the architecture of the Hunt.

The Hunt is composed of three challenges. The first to solve all three will be rewarded with Halliday’s Bezos-level fortune and control of the OASIS. Each challenge is a byzantine mash-up of video game and RPG arcana, 1980s pop culture trivia, and Halliday’s obsessions.

For example, the first challenge requires the gunter to locate a virtual recreation of the Dungeons & Dragons module Tomb of Horrors (1978), evade its traps and tricks, and enter the throne room at its center. There, they find a powerful wizard who challenges the gunter to a 2-out-of-3 game of Joust (1982), an arcade game in which the player controls a knight mounted on a flying bird. If they beat the Lich, the gunter is rewarded with a key and yet another riddle: “What you seek lies hidden in the trash on the deepest level of Daggorath” (84). The dedicated gunter will quickly recognize this as a reference to an old computer model (the TRS-80 aka the “Trash 80”) and computer game (Dungeons of Daggorath [1982]). The truly dedicated gunter will recall that the TRS-80 was Halliday’s first computer, and Daggorath the game that inspired him to become a designer (85). Putting two and two together, they realize they must travel to the planet Middletown, where they will find a virtual recreation of Halliday’s childhood home, which they enter, walk to Halliday’s bedroom, boot up the Trash 80 therein, and successfully complete Daggorath. At that point, a transdimensional gate opens in the wall . . .

. . . through which they climb and discover the final challenge: A first-person video-game adaptation of the movie WarGames (1983), in which the gunter must precisely duplicate the dialogue, gestures, and movements of the film’s protagonist from first-person perspective.

Yes, Art3mis, “Halliday was one crazy, sadistic bastard” (308).

Do you see the potent contradiction here? The Hunt allows Halliday to share his fear, pain, and loneliness to anyone interested in inheriting a bajillion dollars. But that grandiose egotism (what is more egotistical than altering the world economy by forcing everyone to play your game?) is, at the same time, deeply hostile. Halliday hides his pain in a labyrinth festooned with brutal traps that can be survived only by those who suffer and obsess like he did.

Halliday will share his life with you, but only if you’re as good at games, music, and movies as he is. And if you take one wrong step, you’re dead.

(Who wouldn’t want to play Joust with this guy?  Image of the lich from the original Tomb of Horrors module, by the incomparable David A. Trampier)

That volatile concoction of self-aggrandizing egotism and sadistic self-disguise is exemplified by planet Middletown. Designed personally by Halliday, its surface is dotted by “256 identical copies” of his childhood town, “spread out evenly across the planet’s surface” (101). Each of the copies is an idealized representation of 1980s midwestern life, its residents friendly, its sky clear, time moving neither forward nor backward on an endless autumn day.

But in the midst of each of those 256 Middletowns is an empty house, Halliday’s childhood home. “For whatever reason,” Wade tells us, “Halliday had decided not to place NPC re-creations of himself or his deceased parents here” (103). Yes, there is a portrait on the wall of the Halliday family, a portrait that doesn’t “hint that the stoic man in the brown leisure suit was an abusive alcoholic, that the smiling woman in the floral pantsuit was bipolar, or that the young man in the faded Asteroids t-shirt would one day create an entirely new universe” (103). But of course, the portrait does hint at all that. Wade knows what Halliday endured. That silence, repeated 256 times, speaks volumes.

In its planetary scale and monomaniacal attention to detail, Planet Middletown crystallizes the loneliness, immobility, and passive-aggressive egotism that enabled James Halliday to turn misery into triumph. The nested, labyrinthine challenges map the contours of a desperate escape transfigured into an Arthurian quest. But it is an Arthurian quest set in a gothic mansion.

Planet Middletown is nostalgic, perfect, and, like a gothic mansion out of Jane Eyre or Northanger Abbey, riddled with secrets, concealed doors, hidden passages. Halliday’s Middletown is a planetary Potemkin village, a gamified memory that denies the shuttered storefronts, the impoverished single mothers, the addicts, and the endemic depression and violence of the American post-industrial terrain captured so memorably in Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir of life in Middletown.

Like the Des Moines, Iowa, of Philip Dick’s Ubik, the nostalgia curdles the moment one touches it.

(Image by martinacecilia)

Ready Player One is the perfect video game novel of our moment—which is why it kind of sucks

Let me be perfectly honest: I feel deeply ambivalent about Ready Player One. On one hand, it crystallizes a history of video games, video game players, and video game culture that speaks not only to the privilege enjoyed by straight, white, institutionally secure men and the children who want to be like them. It speaks to the profound personal and social insecurity that haunts their every step.

On the other, it fails to consistently signal the connection between that insecurity and its treatment of gender and race and its naïve, ahistorical, apolitical vision of virtual reality and globalized game culture. And it is perfectly designed to tweak the fantasies of fanboys and Gen-Xers. I’ve read it before and I’ll read it again. I’ll see the movie several times. I’m a sucker for its charms.

So at whose feet do we lay this delightful monstrosity? Are we reading Wade’s traumatized subjectivity, his precarious masculinity, his whiteness? Or are we reading the ambitions, fantasies, and half-formed critical consciousness of Wade’s creator, Ernest Cline?

I don’t think that’s a question that can be conclusively answered. And that’s what makes Ready Player One an exemplary text of our current video game culture and our current sociocultural climate.