Ready Player One is a movie about people who flock to virtual reality worlds that overload the sense, in an attempt to escape the dreariness of their day-to-day real lives.
While the reasoning and circumstances for venturing into VR might be different from what author Ernest Cline and director Steven Spielberg imagined, Ready Player One’s Oasis, the virtual world where millions of people live out their fantasies, kind of already exists. VRChat, a social environment RPG that debuted on Steam in February 2017, found a community of like-minded people who wanted to spend their time in the game, building relationships and leaning into a version of themselves they could explore without abandon.
Wade Watts, the lead character in Ready Player One, explains the Oasis as a place where people can be who they want to be. The world is a utopian fantasy, full of folks who all seem to get along without prompting from anyone. It’s an unrealistic portrayal of how people on the internet operate in 2018, where armies of organized trolls purposely try to ruin others’ experiences and examples of misogyny and racism can be found on just about any website with a simple search or refresh of a comments section.
We wrote this week about the lack of a visible moderation presence in Ready Player One, but what’s so jarring about the film is how much of doesn’t jibe with what we know about VR worlds now, thanks to VRChat.
The biggest disconnect between Ready Player One and VRChat is the idea that everything in the Oasis is organized, and flows with the same natural moral guidance that walks us through our own lives. Ready Player One imagines a virtual world that upholds real standards, but VRChat proves that’s not the case. Part of what makes VRChat such an entrancing experience for some, a dissociative playthrough for others, is that everything is random.
VRChat’s most well-versed visitors avoid public servers, because they know it’s going to be nothing but a sea of Ugandan Knuckles echidnas and anime avatars using vile or sexually explicit language just to get a rise out of people. Everyone tries to talk over one another and almost nothing makes sense. VRChat is confusing because the concept explored in the game — and in Ready Player One — is a confusing one. How does a world where thousands upon thousands and millions upon millions of players operate when people are constantly re-creating their own guidelines of what that game should be?
These are different from the terms of service, which we can assume exist in the Oasis, even though they aren’t discussed in Ready Player One. VRChat’s community runs its own weekly paper, keeping players updated with what’s happening in the virtual world and holding groups accountable for acts that players don’t appreciate. There is some kind of self-regulation happening as people try to make sense of the constant chaos. There’s no sign of self-regulation happening in Ready Player One. Things just exist and everyone seems OK with it all.
There’s also the general purpose of the worlds as they’re marketed toward users. The end goal in VRChat isn’t to have anyone “win” the game; it’s just to create a world that people want to keep coming back to. Ready Player One, however, divides the Oasis into two groups. There are people who want to leave behind the gloom of the real world by living in the Oasis, sure, but there are also people who want to win the game. The Oasis becomes a game. People are hunting each other in hopes of attaining personal fame and glory — and winning the keys to the kingdom, becoming the sole owner of the virtual world left behind by creator James Halliday.
The only goal in VRChat is to navigate the complex world without getting lost. People use VRChat for role-playing games — something that would be incredibly popular in the Oasis, but which Ready Player One never touches upon. Many players also use VRChat for creating shows that they then broadcast on Twitch or upload to YouTube. Ready Player One doesn’t demonstrate anyone streaming, but we know that it exists because Watts comments about watching his crush, Art3mis, on Twitch. It’s hard to imagine that no one would try to use the Oasis, and the character they’ve created in it, for their own personal and financial benefit by creating a series. Yet there’s no mention of popularity or stardom in Ready Player One beyond a leaderboard.
In fairness, Spielberg couldn’t have put all of that into the film even if he had wanted to. Ready Player One is about Watts’ attempt to win the prize and take over the Oasis, defeating the evil internet provider at the same time. But there’s something inauthentic about Ready Player One’s decision to ignore what VR looks like today, and how the culture of VR is operating. What makes VRChat so inherently interesting is watching people figure out how to address the moral and ethical norms that change when people take on the persona of their favorite character in-game and drop their real name.
Ready Player One never delves into the interesting philosophy of VR. It never tries to understand the culture of VR, instead focusing on the fanboy optimism of what VR could be. It feels uneasy and inauthentic, because we’ve been learning about what the VR landscape looks like — and how people act once they live inside it — for years. VRChat reminded us that VR, just like any other game or platform, isn’t ideal. There are challenges that the community and developers need to address, to figure out how VR transitions from being an amusing, bewildering, inscrutable funhouse into something sustainable and comprehensible.
I have a feeling it will still end up resembling something closer to VRChat than the Oasis — even by 2044.