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Ready Player One and Forging Real Relationships} ?> One of the first things you learn from the book-turned-movie Ready Player One is that once you log in to the OASIS, you can look, sound, and act however you want. The opening of the film pans around a number of different scenarios—an old woman wearing a VR visor boxing an invisible foe, a young girl playing piano through her haptic gloves, and a woman pole-dancing for an audience we can’t see—all of them doing something in the real world that looks very different in the OASIS.
That’s the tantalizing point of a digital world; when you’re unhappy with how you look, just log in and change it. We even see our hero, Parzival (the OASIS avatar of the real-life Wade Watts), turn on the “wind effect” to his anime-styled hair because he thinks it will look cool.
Parzival’s heroic journey requires sifting through a library’s worth of obscure pop culture knowledge to solve a set of complex riddles. Before long, an evil corporation takes notice of his success, and the hunt to save the (digital) world is on.
Parvial’s closest in-game allies are Aech and Art3mis, his best friend and love interest respectively. Parzival treats these relationships very differently.
Art3mis is the clumsily-written caricature of a “cool gamer chick” who earns Parzival’s naive trust and affection because she’s (almost) as good at clue hunting as he is. After a handful of interactions, Parzival decides he’s in love with her. She rightfully rejects the idea, telling him he doesn’t know anything about her other than what she wants him to know. Parzival has only ever known the extreme version of the “first date” self she’s chosen to show him and he can’t possibly know her well enough to truly love her. In the book, Parzival has the benefit of reading her blog posts for a few years, giving him at least a bit of context for her personality. In both versions, however, Art3mis is hesitant to share any details of her real life with him, and the movie condenses their “romance” further, to the point where until he meets her during the first challenge, he’s only heard about her distantly.
By contrast, Aech is a cyber-orc deathmatch champion who wields Master Chief’s assault rifle and has earned Parzival’s friendship through years of sharing interests, conversation, and dreams. Aech and Parzival’s relationship is far more realistic; they treat each other like real friends. They make jokes about each other, they’re playfully competitive, and they don’t just tell each what they want to hear. Like so many geeks before them, they’ve built a friendship based on mutual respect, intentional community, and obscure Monty Python references.
When Wade finally meets the player behind Aech, he’s shocked to learn she’s an African-American gay woman who’s a decade or so older than he is. But after the initial surprise, he realizes that he’s gotten to know Aech (and Helen, the woman playing him) very honestly and intimately over the years, and though her body may not have been what he expected, she’s still the same person he’s got to know over the years.
Online relationships are capable of being real ones; they just face a lot more barriers. Aech is one of the handful of people Parzival trusts in the whole OASIS; they spend years pouring over possible solutions to the challenge together and he still doesn’t know a single thing about her physical identity. But her appearance doesn’t matter to him; it’s the trust they’ve built that does.
The foundation of Parzival’s friendship with Aech is very different to the one for his unfounded affection for Art3mis—the former is a healthy relationship that required time and vulnerability. Our humanity makes us flawed beings, incapable of the perfection that the OASIS simulates. Art3mis knows this better than anyone, understanding that Parzival’s affection is only toward the parts of her she amplified in the OASIS, not her real identity.
A person is more than the sum of their parts. We should never let one flaw, strength, attribute, or quality define our identity, but having the self-awareness to recognize our weaknesses will always benefit our self-image and how others see us. It’s with that self-awareness that we can choose to be vulnerable with others, admitting our weaknesses and hoping we will be accepted.
If we have complete control over how others see us, like in the OASIS, we lose the imperfections that make us human. We become nothing more than avatars of ourselves, an artificial humanity that can no more love itself than it could accept the love of someone else.
Whether it’s online or in the real world, I prefer to strive for relationships like Aech and Parzival’s. Theirs is built on a foundation of truth that will last. If we believe we can have a real relationship with someone when we don’t let them know us, we’ll find that it’s not an OASIS that awaits us, but a mirage.