Ernest Cline's Ready Player One is a satisfying recapitulation of a favorite SF trope--the underdogs pitted against the evil establishment. In this case, Wade (aka Parzival), and his friends eek out a meagre existence in a dystopian near-future while spending most of their time in a vast, online world--the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS). OASIS was the brainchild of an eccentric computer genius (and 1980's nostalgic geek), James Halliday; when he dies without heirs, his will remits his entire online empire to someone who can complete a series of puzzles and quests, find three keys, and win Halliday's "easter egg" (a nod to Warren Robinett and "Adventure"). Of course, finding Halliday's egg becomes an obsession for a generation of children raised on OASIS, but, of course, not just them. The world's largest Internet service provider (Innovative Online Industries) has developed an entire "Oology Division" devoted to researching Halliday and finding the egg. And they're Microsoft-ruthless. The resulting corporate monopoly over both Internet and Internet content would turn "OASIS" into a mirror-image of the corporate oligarchy Wade and his friends inhabit in the real world.
The resulting, fast-paced shenanigans (without giving out any spoilers) will be familiar to SF readers--and to people who watched Cline's "Fanboy" (2009). The novel is drenched--suffocated--by a miasma of popular culture references to the 1980's. For people of a certain age (in other words, people like me), it may bring moments of welcome nostalgia, but I felt agonizing embarrassment as I went through this novel--and yet I read it anyway. Wade and his friends are nothing if not dedicated students of the 1980's: researchers and fans. Much of this tracks the obsessions of the characters in "Fanboy". Wade's success owes much to his exhaustive "research": arcane references to D&D, perfect games of Pac-Man, knowing the entire script of Mont Python's The Holy Grail. Ready Player One is a nerd primer, a gateway drug to cos-play.
But there's another reason to focus on the 1980's: media and commodification. During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan gutted FCC oversight of media, paving the way for the obnoxious, media monopolies that plague us today. In this, the equally desultory 1996 Telecommunications Act was entirely consistent with this pandering to corporate interests (McChesney 2004). The desolate landscape of mass media in the United States today is testament to the self-destructive path of American late-capitalism, and to the government-corporate collusion which fuels its agonizing paroxysms.
In the midst of the corporate plundering of the public sphere, the growth of the Internet seemed like anarchic panacea. Never mind that the Department of Defense bankrolled it with ARPANET--the hagiography of the Internet is premised on its anarchic beginnings, and the valiant efforts of a select group of digerati to defend those freedoms from corporate takeover (Lessig 2006).
Ready Player One unfolds against these assumptions. OASIS is the ultimate, anarchic space--the biggest MMORPG ever, with "haptic" gear to make the virtual reality co-extensive with our physical selves. The corporations that seek to control it by finding Halliday's egg embody all the characteristics we've come to know and loathe: homogeneity, lack of creativity, outright criminality. It is entirely natural that we would root for Wade and his friends against the faceless, corporate stormtroopers from Innovative Online Industries.
But who are we really rooting for? Wade's hero--the eccentric, gaming tycoon, Michael Halliday, is the archetypal Silicon Valley entrepreneur--the Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Those brilliant Ivy-league drop-outs who are the poster children for would-be entrepreneurs, the creative class, critics of higher education, liberals, conservatives: an empty, commodified sign waiting to be filled with our own capitalist desires for success. But, to point out the obvious--aren't these also uber-capitalists with a monopoly death-grip over their respective corners of our information society? Apple is not exactly synonymous with personal freedoms, is it? Unless I'm mis-reading all of those EULA's. Is the question here the "right" kind of capitalist? Do we find some monopolies more palatable than others?
There's a similar string of debate in gaming studies. World of Warcraft (and other MMORPG's) are most certainly capitalist enterprises, with Blizzard Entertainment and Linden Labs profiting off both players and the content they produce. That said, there's still a strong feeling that this is more "free" than, say, if Second Life got bought out by Time Warner.
In a recent article in European Journal of Cultural Studies, Harambam, Aupers and Houtman take on the question of capitalism and gaming, framing the debate as one over successive levels of capitalist penetration, what they term "orders of commercialization". "First-order commercialization" here is the most benign--the "game as a commodity". Here, players find their autonomy most assured, since they are allowed to pursue their play within the game without overt reminders that they are, in fact, consuming a commodity. But with "second-order" and subsequent levels of commercialization, the heavy hand of neo-liberalism is more visible--in the real world markets that allow one to profit from selling avatars, and in the creation of a virtual space as a commericial space (as in Second Life). But it's what Harambam et al term "fourth-order commercialization" that evokes the strongest, negative reactions from informants: "the plain, open and legitimate colonization of virtual game worlds by 'real' economic powers" (313).
It's this level of capital penetration that Wade and his friends oppose, but it's unclear that they represent a real alternative. Does it ultimately matter if one group controls the monopoly over another? To put it another way: if Wade wins the egg and becomes an instant trillionaire, is the world substantially different? Ultimately, the debate is one over two levels of capitalism--a "lower" level capitalism allowing players the illusion of freedoms, or a "higher" level that reveals the commodification at the heart of the entire gaming enterprise.
But is one really more moral than another? The difference between them comes down to the level of mystification: with higher levels of corporate penetration, the veil between the virtual and the real is lifted. When we can take a break from epic battles to take our avatar shopping at Walmart, then the corporations have won. But wasn't it corporate all along? The only difference is one of strategy, with the overt commodification of the virtual piercing the illusion of corporate-controlled fantasy, but also, perhaps, setting the grounds for its own destruction in the disillusionment of players who realize they've been played.
As Second Life and other virtual worlds witness demonstrations and direct action that parallel that of the occupy movement in our physical world, it's worth asking what alternatives these occupiers are advocating. Outside of rose-colored evocations of LamdaMOO, can we really imagine a MMORPG outside of capitalism? What would that look like?
Harambam, Jaron, Stef Aupers and Dick Houtman (2011). "Game Over? Negotiating modern capitalism in virtual game worlds." European Journal of Cultural Studies 14(3): 299-319.
Lessig, Lawrence (2006). Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0. NY: Basic Books.
McChesney, Robert (2004). The Problem of the Media. NY: Monthly Review Press.