I recently read Ready Play One in anticipation of the movie release in March. Multiple people told me the book was a fun read and the moving sounds good (I had to read the book while trying to avoid the trailer until I was done). I liked the book though there are some issues that stuck out to me.
Ready Player One is a quick read that is a lot of fun. The book relies heavily on the nostalgia factor bringing is copious references to 80s music, pop culture, gaming, computers, and more. I enjoyed the story as the tale is told of a futuristic America where the world has fallen into disarray and overpopulation with Virtual Reality gaming being the only saving grace for the world.
My biggest complaint about the book is that the story is rampant with 'deus ex machina' events. This term was introduced to me a few years ago and now I cannot seem to not see this plot device in many stories. Translated directly to Latin, the term means "god from the machine" and is used today to reference plot points in a story that seemed to be impassable until some miraculous, lucky, or downright ludicrous twist quickly solves what was previously a HUGE problem. The Wikipedia article does a great job of explaining the origins of the term.
There is a little bit of this going on early in the book when the main character Wade (Parzival) just happens to have all the right skills to get through the challenged set forth by James Halliday. What really ruined the story for me was the almost nonchalant nature of Wade's infiltration into Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and subsequent "I planned this all weeks ago" escape. There was no mention of this earlier in the book, this is a classic example of 'deus ex machina'. I would have appreciated at the very least a few events earlier in the story that were left unexplained only to come back at this point in crazy realization of the genius of the main character. That is not what happened and as such, this major plot twist felt cheap and contrived.
On the good side, I had to sit near a computer to tread this book because the author, Ernest Cline, continued to reveal interesting (and true) trivia about many of the 80s references I felt closest too. Each time there was a new revelation, I was off to Google to see if this was true and how I could see for myself. I mean who knew Rush had an entire album that was basically a sci-fi fantasy novel set to music?
The Real World
More interesting than the story is the implications that Cline makes for the real world. The book was published in 2011, back when virtual reality (VR) was mostly a gimmick and/or a sci-fi dream and definitely was not a mainstream technology. Oculus, one of the earliest leaders in the VR industry was not even founded until 2012. Cline was predicting that the future of the world is one that is not worth living in and that the facade of technology would be the thing to wash away a deteriorating planet and society.
This begs the question: If VR can provide more value/hope/happiness/etc than the real world, where should we live? This is the same argument that folks had when Guitar Hero came out. In the hours of time spent playing the game, kids could have been teaching themselves to play a real guitar. That being said, if VR can provide such a realistic simulation of the things we want to do, why spend the time/money/energy to go do those things in the real world when using VR to accomplish those things at home is cheaper, more comfortable, and faster.
In the years since the book was published VR has come a long way and we are even closer to the future the Cline was envisioning. At Christmas, I had the opportunity to try out a VR rig. Of course the initial reaction is one of amazement and joy; the family gathered around, watching us each take turns navigating a digital world, laughing at the absurdity of a person waving around in the middle of the living room to dodge invisible bullets. After playing for a few minutes, the only thought I had was, 'we are going straight to the future from Ready Player One.' Is this the future where humanity enslaves itself willingly only to discover the brutal truth too late? I cannot imagine the life I live only being played in VR, I can imagine a future where the masses would rather experience life in VR than actually doing.
This technology is too powerful and awesome (not cool, but awe inspiring) to ignore for both good and bad purposes though.
Cline does highlight some of the outstanding uses for VR in the world of outreach and education. The highlight of this in the book is the education system enabled by VR. Students from across the globe are able to remotely attend classes on an education planet in the VR world. This means kids from all walks of life and of any background can attend school as an avatar of their choosing. Think of the barriers this would break down in the school system. No arguing over what schools get better funding, no issues with the differences in education experienced by diverse schools versus highly segregated schools, access to education from anywhere, the list goes on.
Similarly, in the real world, the military is using VR to train troops prior to combat, doctors are using VR to train for surgeries before they happen and to provide rehab to patients of traumatic injuries, the possibilities are endless.
It seems that we are precariously perched between a future where VR ceases to be a 'virtual' reality and instead becomes 'the' reality and a future where VR enables humans to attain a broader and higher prosperity than we ever thought possible.
I suspect that we will end up somewhere in the middle. Doing so will require us to think through the implications of our decisions around VR (there has already been a VR sexual harassment case) and how the virtual world is linked to the real world.
Right now, VR is still a nerdy gamer thing to most people. The rapid development of platforms is only going to continue to push VR into the spotlight and expand the collective understanding from a gaming system to a limitless technology that needs to be addressed as more than a gaming console.