Not How We Look, but How We Play: Facial Deformity and Video Games...

Many of us struggle with our appearance, particularly our faces. We want to be attractive, but we don’t feel that way. And faces can be important to understanding each other; movements of the eyes and lips allow us to share warmth or heartbreak. But when we are uncomfortable with ourselves, we hide behind a mask of indifference, hoping to please others or protect ourselves by playing a role. Sometimes, however, masks allow us to genuinely share who we are without fear of rejection, and video game avatars have allowed me to do just that. As someone with hemifacial microsomia—a lopsided face—feeling respected for who I am deep down is challenging. People with facial deformities or blemishes relate to others in ways that may be difficult to understand (the recent movie Wonder helped demonstrate this). Many of us grew up experiencing funny looks and hearing less-than-kind remarks. Most kids eventually learn that it is not polite to ask, “Why does your face look funny?” but by the time a person’s peers reach that stage, the question has already been internalized. (As an adult, however, I sometimes appreciate the candor of people who politely inquire.) In fiction, disfigurement can be a sign of being destined for something amazing, like Harry Potter’s scar, but often it is a symbol of shame or villainy, like Batman’s Two-Face. Video games create worlds where those who look strange can interact normally through digital masks. Video games that include underrepresented characters allow players to enact aspects of their own stories. Many have enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn because they know what is like to be an outsider like Aloy. Similarly, Overwatch’s Symmetra is on the autism spectrum. Finding ourselves in these stories, being characterized as heroes instead of villains, reminds us that...

Ready Player One and Forging Real Relationships Apr13

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,...

Reading Ready Player One: Teamwork Mar23

Reading Ready Player One: Teamwork...

Ultimately, the last chapters of Ready Player One contain its strongest message: victory is not only for the strong; it goes to those who maintain hope, those who love, and those who remain faithful to one another, even to the bitter end. Without the hope and tenacity of Parzival/Wade, for example, who was willing to give up his life in the last section to save his friends, and who maintains that mindset until the end, our heroes would never have been able to overthrow their opposition. Without Og’s love for and faith in Halliday, the ephemeral creator of the OASIS, the spirit of the game would have been lost to the greed and divisiveness of the Sixers. And without the faithfulness and teamwork of Shoto, Artemis, and Aech, Wade never could have made it past the Third Gate. The Sixers, on the other hand, though they move as a massive, powerful corporation, make the fatal error of rejecting even the premise of teamwork. At the core of the IOI’s identity is domination, which cannot be present in the loving and unified. Unwilling to work together or sacrifice himself for his “team,” Sorrento views his cronies as expendable; this is clear when his avatar is killed, and Wade imagines him “kicking one of his underlings out of a haptic chair so he could take control of a new avatar.” Nothing is more important to the Sixers than winning the egg, because the egg and its subsequent wealth symbolizes domination for them. For Wade and company, the egg means something quite different. They are each fighting against the powers that be to preserve the value of the individual, the value of the overlooked. When small forces of good join together to fight against daunting forces of...

Reading Ready Player One: Courage Mar16

Reading Ready Player One: Courage...

Wade’s bravery in this section blows my mind; as someone who has historically taken the safe route instead of the sacrificial one, his courage is foreign to me. But Wade puts himself in unimaginable danger almost without a second thought. Though some might see his willing “surrender” to IOI and indentured servitude as reckless, one particular line from Wade makes me think otherwise: “I didn’t test the IOI passwords until the second night of my indenturement. I was understandably anxious, because if it turned out I’d been sold bogus data and none of the passwords worked, I would have sold myself into lifelong slavery.” Wade knows the stakes. At this point, he is no longer simply an avatar, someone who is brave in the OASIS and cowardly in the “real world.” What he has built up in the OASIS has now come to fruition in his being: Parzival’s bravery has become Wade’s. When I step back and consider how Wade is leaving the safety of his lifelong pacifier, the only place where he has ever felt ‘himself,’ I can see how monumental his act of courage is. And though it might seem like his courage initially falters when he is led outside into the pallid desolation of the real world, his fear is not an unexpected thing. And Wade’s fear can exist alongside his courage. His entire identity is in the OASIS, but he is willing to give all that up on the chance that he can infiltrate IOI and save his friends. Though he is tagged like livestock, confined to a jail cell, and forced to work a mind-numbing job, he still sticks to his plan, maintains his humour, and pulls off what can only be considered a great escape. Stepping outside the...

Reading Ready Player One: Friendship Mar09

Reading Ready Player One: Friendship...

What’s worth more than seven billion dollars? Wade can’t think of anything. He believes his chance of winning Halliday’s Easter egg is gone when Sorrento and the Sixers are the first to clear the Second Gate, and he doesn’t see much point in living in a world that IOI controls. But then he gets a visit from Shoto that changes his perspective. Daito and Shoto, or “Daisho,” are one of the great duos in nerd culture, in my opinion—up there with Fred and George Weasley, or Han Solo and Chewbacca. You don’t find one without the other. They proclaim themselves brothers, even though they’d never met in person. Though only one person can win Halliday’s prize, Daito gives up his opportunity to collect the Jade Key to protect Shoto. These displays of friendship make Daito’s real-world death heartbreaking, and I bet Shoto feels at least partly responsible, since their team-up is what helped them stay at the top of the leaderboard. Maybe he’s wondering if their friendship was worth pursuing when it ended in tragedy. Maybe he’s tempted to shut himself off from the world again, like he did before meeting Daito. But he makes a different choice. Shoto doesn’t meet Wade to tell the story of Daito’s death just to warn him about IOI and its real-world reach; he could’ve sent him a video or an email to accomplish that. He also didn’t need to tell Wade his real name, which not even Daito knew. But something about this tragedy made Shoto reach out. For some reason, he is completely honest with Wade, and a bond is forged. IOI’s challenge is a personal one, now, and perhaps Shoto’s vulnerability and honesty—something none of the hunters have attempted with each other until this point—will...

Reading Ready Player One: Loneliness Mar02

Reading Ready Player One: Loneliness...

Everything falls out beneath him after Wade confesses his love to Art3mis. Art3mis, full of concern about the basis of their relationship and desiring to put the contest for the egg as her focus again, ends all connections with him. Heartbroken, Wade retreats into frustration and sadness before diving headlong back into the contest. He buys state of the art equipment, shaves every inch of hair off his body (don’t ask), and spends day and night trying to decipher the clues that will lead him to the next piece of the puzzle, the jade key. But even with a singular focus in his life again, Wade doesn’t seem any happier. He longs for something more, something beyond what he can disguise under an avatar and username. Virtual reality can only provide him so much; it doesn’t cover the dissatisfaction Wade feels with who he is outside of the OASIS: “In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified video game.” Before he met Art3mis, Wade seemed content with living a life focused on his desires and wishes. What changed? Wade’s obsession with the hunt for the egg is understandable. Who doesn’t want to play endless video games and watch your favorite pieces of media day in and day out, with only yourself to worry about? A hedonistic lifestyle is all about pleasure; why worry about others when you can live in self-indulgence? Living for you brings elation in the moment, but it’s what happens afterwards that sucks, when you feel a sense of emptiness, when all that energy you poured...

Reading Ready Player One: Trust Feb23

Reading Ready Player One: Trust...

Life is lonely when you trust no one. When Wade enters a chat room with Nolan Sorrento, the Head of Operations at IOI, I wasn’t surprised to learn that Sorrento is hungry for power and will stop at nothing to get the Egg. But I was surprised to see a similarity between him and Wade—neither of them trusts anybody, and nobody trusts them. Sorrento’s relationship with IOI is made clear when Wade “agrees” to work for the IOI as long as they fire Sorrento: “‘I don’t want to be second-in-command,’ I said. ‘I want your job, Sorrento. I want to be in charge of the whole shebang. Chief of operations. El numero Uno. Oh, and I want everyone to have to call me El Numero Uno, too. Is that possible?'” Although Wade is just asking to make a point, the IOI agrees with his demands. Surprisingly, Sorrento doesn’t sound that upset when he relays their agreement to Wade’s terms; I’m not sure if it’s because he knows Wade is playing with them, or if it’s because he knows his relationship with the company is about power and usefulness, not about trust. It’s later, when Wade meets with the High Five, that I notice Wade’s situation isn’t all that dissimilar to Sorrento’s; he has no one on his side. The Five aren’t willing to work together—even though a unified force stands a better chance against the IOI—because of distrust and greed. Wade isn’t even willing to share information with Aech, his best friend. As Daito says, “Only one person can be the first to find the egg and win the prize.” Discussion Questions Why do you think Sorrento isn’t upset when the IOI agrees to fire him? Would you propose an alliance if you were Wade? Are you afraid...

Reading Ready Player One: Hope Feb16

Reading Ready Player One: Hope...

The pessimism in me says solving world hunger is a fool’s dream. And yet that’s what Art3mis plans to do if she finds Halliday’s Easter egg. “Once we tackle world hunger, then we can figure out how to fix the environment and solve the energy crisis,” she says to Wade when they first meet. Wade’s plan makes more sense to me: “I’d have a nuclear-powered interstellar spacecraft constructed in Earth’s orbit . . . Then I’d invite a few of my closest friends to come aboard, along with a team of doctors and scientists, and we’d all get the hell out of Dodge. Leave the solar system and start looking for an extrasolar Earthlike planet.” There’s no hope for this planet or the people on it—especially in Ready Player One’s scenario where the Earth is basically dying—so we might as well give up and start over, right? Yet, I wonder if Art3mis’s plan is the wiser of the two. Wade’s idea is to give up, but Art3mis’s is to repair what is broken. If we translated this to a current-day issue—should we nuke the Middle East and build new cities without strife or should we work to make peace amidst people who may never agree? Or even something simpler—should we give up on a friendship or marriage because it gets difficult, or work through the strife to strengthen the relationship? Is Wade’s solution really a solution at all? Won’t starting over eventually bring the same problems he is facing now? Perhaps attempting to renew what is broken without tossing everything out really is the better course of action. I might want to start over, like resetting a video game where I’ve made too many mistakes, but if I work with what I’ve got maybe hope will...

Reading Ready Player One: Society Feb09

Reading Ready Player One: Society...

Reality often sucks. For many, just attempting to make a living takes more effort than they can muster, and most countries have a very clear upper and lower class. In North America, where the middle class is still a dream we are attempting to keep, it gets harder and harder to maintain hope that things will improve. Poverty increases, debt is at an all-time high, and if we don’t run out of fossil fuels soon, their use will probably ruin our climate to the point that we can’t live like we do anyway. Ready Player One depicts a world in the not-too-distant future that attempts to answer the question: what will North America be like if we don’t change anything? “At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a way that was cheap, legal, safe and not technically addictive.” The OASIS provides the escape from the brutal reality of life. For the rich, it’s a place to fulfill the desires that reality can’t or won’t offer, and for the poor it’s a chance to be an ideal version of yourself. How do you escape uncomfortable realities? The OASIS is a chance to travel, to adventure, and to escape drudgery. It’s a place where the obvious hopelessness of poverty can be circumnavigated through questing and avatar apparel. It’s such a successful escape, that even the in-game currency is more stable than anything else in the world. But not only does it offer an escape from reality, but an enticing puzzle as well; when its founder, James Halliday, died, he left controlling interest in the OASIS and his billions of dollars to the player who finds an easter...

Reading Ready Player One: Identity Feb02

Reading Ready Player One: Identity...

Though Ready Player One will soon be released as a movie, the novel has biting social and political commentary, tropes that have come to be expected in science fiction. It also focuses heavily on the individual in a world where people’s importance has been snuffed out by corporate greed. Because each player in the OASIS, an immersive, mega-internet experience, must create an avatar in order to interact in that virtual world—taste, preference, and representation are key plot points in the novel. The first chapters introduce us to Wade, the novel’s protagonist, who attends a virtual school. Though students are limited to human avatars, “no giant, two-headed hermaphrodite demon unicorn avatars,” they have relative freedom a far as body type, hair colour, and dress. Wade himself chooses an avatar which he dubs “Parzival” that is not so dissimilar from his corporeal self: “My avatar had a slightly smaller nose than me, and he was taller. And thinner. And more muscular. And he didn’t have any teenage acne. But aside from these minor details, we looked more or less identical.” Wade modifies himself in this virtual world so that he looks more “desirable,” but ultimately does not choose an entirely different form. Other characters choose to mask, hide, or completely change their identities via their OASIS avatars. Our narrator writes, “People rarely used their real names online. Anonymity was one of the major perks of the OASIS. Inside the simulation, no one knew who you really were, unless you wanted them to. Much of the OASIS’s popularity and culture were built around this fact.” If I had the power to be seen and heard in any manifestation I desired, what might I choose? Students in Wade’s school are even able to turn off the “real-time emotion...

Virtual reality check Oct02

Virtual reality check...

As the world we live in grows and shifts, so do the ways we avoid it. Video games have come a long way since their genesis on the tiny screens of archaic supercomputers. Today, millions of people spend millions of hours inhabiting virtual worlds. But as games get better, some players stop wanting to log out. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline takes readers on a journey that will cause them to rethink today’s developing technologies. Ready Player One takes place in a near future where a major war has left much of the planet devastated. Most people live in poverty in major cities; food, power, and shelter are privileges not afforded to everyone. The only redeeming feature to this reality is the OASIS. More formally know as the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation, the OASIS is, for all intents and purposes, a video game on an unfathomable scale. The OASIS is so large and successful that virtually all business, including attending school and working, takes place within the digital world. Life isn’t a game. There are no 1-ups or bonus levels, no cheat codes or speed runs. Players enter the OASIS with an immersive visor and pair of gloves that allow the user to physically interact with the digital world. The story follows young hero Wade Watts on a journey to answer a series of riddles and puzzles in order to find a treasure of immense magnitude. His journey takes more than a year, and Wade needs to spend more and more time in the game to accomplish his goals. As his adventure escalates, he eventually upgrades his visor and gloves to a top-end gaming rig complete with full body immersion and direct-nerve interfaces. He spends more time in the OASIS than he...