Seriously… I am talking about the book Ready Player One. If you haven’t read the book then please stop here and read the book. Some of this will apply to the film but except for the names of the characters, the VR world of the OASIS, and the Hunt for Halliday’s Egg there is little overlap.
So… Warning: SPOILERS!
The Plot Outline
Ready Player One is the story of Wade Watts an impoverished teenager living in the slums of Oklahoma City. In this crumbling society the majority of the population escapes into the Virtual Reality world of the “OASIS”. Wade spends most of his time in this virtual world as his avatar Parzival either attending school or searching for “Halliday’s Egg” – a prize awarded to the person that can decipher the OASIS creator’s final puzzle hidden somewhere in the VR Game. Since Halliday created the Egg Hunt the groups of people searching for the egg investigate his interests and passions – mostly 1980’s Pop Culture. Parzival, the protaganist, is one of these Egg Hunter’s known as Gunters and is fighting against an evil corporate organization known as IOI also searching for the Egg. Halliday created the Easter Egg as his last will and testament and the finder of the Egg will inherit his wealth and complete control of the OASIS.
Now that we have that out of the way… I don’t have any friends that have read the book so I need to get a few things off my chest then I will talk about Parzival and his motivations.
One of the major differences between the book and movie is that in the text the Wade attends school in the OASIS on a planet called Ludas. Most teachers connect school and VR and see the future but in my reading the author, Ernest Cline, is very critical of this potential. Wade is an impoverished teen that would otherwise be in a crumbling real world school and VR seems to offer a better opportunity but Cline hardly writes Ludas as a positive environment. The school is incredibly authoritarian. Instead of allowing the students to have freedom of expression within the walls of this imagined world the school has a strict dress code. During class time the students are forced to “engage” with the class as all other VR internet connections are blocked. The one hack Wade finds is that he can read books in the library instead of paying attention to the teachers. This forced attention is hardly the Edutopia that many would imagine in a VR. Through the character of I-Roq we can see that bullying still an issue. I don’t know about Cline’s education politics but I would guess that he would agree that technology is only a tool and that good pedagogy needs to come first.
Needless to say Wade (AKA Parzival) is not engaged with his schooling and does just enough to get his (worthless) diploma.
One quick side note on the OASIS – Wade describes this virtual world as a Utopian escape. The problem is that from the reader’s perspective (at least mine) the OASIS is just a pretty version of the crumbling real world that Wade lives in. Wade (Parzival) wants to win the Egg so that IOI doesn’t win it and corrupt it by charging user fees and loading the OASIS with advertisements. What Wade doesn’t see is that the OASIS is already a capitalist nightmare. The company running the VR world (GSS which was previously owned by the deceased Halliday) doesn’t charge a user fee but EVERYTHING in the OASIS costs money. Wade barely leaves the school planet of Ludas because he can’t afford transportation to other “worlds” either a ship or a transport gate. Wade still uses the basic free “skin” for his avatar because the others are too expensive. Later in the book Wade (at that point exclusively referred to as Parzival) complains about having to pay “Bullet Bills” for the FAKE ammo that he is using during a mission. In game money can be used to purchase real world items – food, clothes, and even housing. Wade is just as impoverished in the OASIS as he is in the real world until he stumbles across the first of Halliday’s keys. After unlocking this key Parzival earns access to loads of cash and then has access to all of the OASIS. The book fetishizes wealth at the same time it revels in poverty porn.
Let’s get to Wade/Parzival’s Motivations
Ready Player One talks about Halliday’s Egg as an Easter Egg. It is not. “Easter Eggs” are secret or are inside jokes. Halliday’s Egg is a Side Quest. He clearly lets the players know about the Quest and he even gives the first puzzle that can get any of the players started on the quest. For the sake of this post though, lets just refer to the prize at the end of the quest as Halliday’s Egg.
Parzival spends most of his day (even his school time) thinking about the Egg and trying to learn as much as he can learning about Halliday. All of the Egg Hunters (known as Gunters) focus on learning about Halliday and his interests in order to find clues to the puzzle he left on his death bed. Halliday created “Anorak’s Almanac” – a collection of his ideas and interests which focus mostly on Geek culture in the 1980s. Parzival and his fellow Gunters are incredibly motivated in learning about Halliday and eventually the OASIS culture is centered on 1980s Pop Culture. (On a side note, it is kinda messed up that an entire civilization is focused on the arbitrary interests of a single charismatic figure’s childhood interests!) The movie version shows 5 of the Gunters coming together to battle the Monolithic IOI corporation but in the book each character remains firmly independent. The text makes it quite clear that Parzival and those like him are intensley motivated by External reward of winning the Egg and the money. In fact when it looks like he might lose the Egg Parzival lays out his plan to commit suicide.
Andrzej Marczewski’s Gamification Hexad
Because the prize is called “Halliday’s Egg” the initial thought is that Parzival’s motivation would be the “Free Spirit” type. The problem is that the Egg is not an Easter Egg but rather it is a quest. So Parzival is not a Free Spirit. The first parts of the book show little of Parzival acting as a Free Spirit. Rather we see Parzival acting as a “Player” player type. He is seeking the money that comes from winning the prize. He wants to be on the Leaderboard and to win enough money to by a satellite and play video games all day in comfort. Parzival longs for the ability to level up which he cannot do because he is too poor to afford leaving the planet or to purchase the items that would help him in his more challenging tasks. Parzival stumbles across the first “key” and once he has enough virtual cash he goes on quests in order to level up. Of course this leveling up is all done in an effort to become powerful enough to finish Halliday’s Egg Quest.
Readers of the book may point to Aech and Art3mis as examples of Socialiser or Philanthropist motivations. If you have read the book though these characters are friends until the Egg becomes an actual possibility. Aech was Parzival’s best friend and Art3mis was a love interest but he throws them away when the prize is within reach. The assistance each player gives to one another is done reluctantly and in a transactional manner. Parzival gives Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto the guide to the final Crystal Key only as a way to have allies and prevent IOI from laying siege to Castle Anarok. He throws away all of his relationships in order to gain the prize. Parzival is mostly a “Player” player type with a touch of “Achiever”. The one element of Socialiser that does fit Parzival’s type is the importance of social status among the Gunters. There is a constant effort to display superior knowledge of Halliday, to “own” the other Gunters with this knowledge, and to sort “real” Gunters from the posers.
I wanted Parzival to be a hero. I wanted to like him. I wanted to be excited for the possibility of a Virtual Reality world and the promise of better educational experiences. Parzival’s motivations are clearly to gain the prize of Egg and he gets his prize. I wanted to read this book and feel hopeful for the possibilities of VR. Sadly I found the OASIS more dystopian than promising. Finding Halliday’s Egg makes Parzival a literal GOD in the OASIS and in the end he might have found love with Art3mis. The movie gives the viewer a sappy and hopeful future but the book is far more bleak. My guess is that Parzival/Art3mis relationship will be far more difficult for them than any quest in the OASIS. Halliday created a digital opiate to pacify the masses and keeps them in chains.