READY PLAYER ONE is the cinematic equivalent of the comet heading for the dinosaurs. The film and novel take place in a dystopian future, but its cultural obsessions seem to stop at the 2000s. It’s a world where proving your knowledge gets you rewarded. A world where geeks are defined by what they know. The film’s vision of the future is ludicrous, but I felt that I had seen it before.

In 2010, comedian and actor Patton Oswalt wrote an article entitledWake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die. In it, he discussed a hypothetical future where the pop culture landscape had become all-consuming that it’s self-referential. Ultimately, its indulgent nature would become a geek ouroboros and disappear up its own ass forever. It wasn’t until I saw READY PLAYER ONE that I felt like I began to truly understood what Patton Oswalt’s point was.

There are aspects of the article that make Oswalt come across as a nostalgic gatekeeper. He decries the idea of all culture being permanently available to everyone. According to Oswalt, the internet creates Etewaf-Everything That Ever Was-Available Forever. To Oswalt, the term “geek” and “nerd” mean nothing when your hobbies are no longer niche.

From a 2018 perspective, when super hunk Joe Manganiello openly, and delightedly, discusses his Dungeons and Dragons character, can we really continue to hold the stereotypes that exist about the types of people who play DnD? When the highest grossing films coming out of Hollywood are either Star Wars or Avengers adjacent, can we really claim, as READY PLAYER ONE does, that these are properties exclusively for geeks?    

Everything, Always, Forever

Ready Player One

The consequence of Oswalt’s Etewaf theory is everything lasts forever. If everything lasts forever then does culture become stagnant? Will pop culture atrophy until everything in media becomes a Funko Pop encased in amber?

Coming at this from the opposing side is Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One. The novel centers around a Willy Wonka-esque quest to discover the secrets of a video game called the Oasis. Following the death of Oasis’ creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a worldwide hunt for an Easter Egg inside the game leads Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) into a larger adventure against a faceless corporation who wants control of the Oasis.

If Oswalt’s theory is that too much pop culture makes us stagnant, Cline’s novel seems to argue that knowing the most about every bit of pop culture ever makes you the best person to ever do anything ever. The book spends literal pages listing the inane pop culture minutiae for no reason other than Cline to show off stuff that he knows. Cline’s version of being a geek is about the recitation and memorization of things that someone deemed part of the “nerd canon.”

READY PLAYER ONE Celebrates and Rebuffs Nostalgia

Who Defines a Geek?

Though Oswalt and Cline are looking at pop culture in different directions. One wants pop culture to blow up and start over, while Cline wants the world to drown in geek media. While both see Geek Culture in opposing ways, both seem to value the idea of gatekeepers. Both believe that the title of “geek” should belong to a few special people who put in the work to become a geek.

What makes the film difficult to swallow is what defines “geek culture” in our modern parlance. Anything that resembled redeeming qualities of geek culture when Oswald wrote his article was washed away with the rise of Gamergate and the Alt-Right. This idea was harmless in 2010-2011 when Oswalt’s article and Cline’s book were published. In 2018, it can’t help but remind me of the ethos of GamerGate.

Vox writer Constance Grady wrote an excellent break down of how the toxic attitudes of GamerGate tainted Cline’s novel. Suffice to say, the idea of being a gatekeeper was taken to an extreme by this group. GamerGaters have latched themselves so strongly to a Geek identity, particularly the aspect of being an “outcast” that anyone unlike themselves (typically women) should immediately be questioned about their true “geek cred.”

It is this exact ethos that makes up the backbone of READY PLAYER ONE

The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

Ready Player One

A fundamental shift in our culture began with the release of the first BLADE film in 1999 and X-MEN in 2000. Comic book films proved they could please the nerd crowd and mainstream audiences. Most of all, they could be profitable. At that time I was in middle school. Movies like this changed the course of my life.

I’m now 28-years-old. When I was a kid, I had a few friends, but I definitely fit the profile of “outcast nerd.” I liked reading, and I loved comic books. I would ride my bike to the dingy comic shop that never had new comics, but had an endless supply of back issues. I’d spend every penny I earned picking up random issues of comics that I thought looked cool. I had no guidance, no gatekeepers, no idea what I should or shouldn’t read. That was the most valuable education I ever received.

I was a geek, but I was still alone. None of my friends read comics, so the idea of being a gatekeeper was bizarre to me. I didn’t want to keep all this newfound comic knowledge to myself. I had to share it. When the first of the Sam Raimi SPIDER-MAN films was released around middle school, I became the resident Spider-Man expert and told everyone how I felt. I wanted everyone to love comics.

The Ever-Shifting Goalposts of Calling SJW

Alpha Nerds

What I never had to deal with in my life were any people who questioned my geek cred. There were no geek bullies that tried to make me feel I wasn’t a true fan because of a hole in my knowledge.  This attitude is not anything new in geek spaces. Even though geeks don’t typically identify in stereotypically masculine ways, there’s still an alpha male mentality, especially on the internet.

For geeks, knowing the most about your obsession makes you the “best geek.” Does it really have to be this way though? The one thing that saved READY PLAYER ONE from becoming an embarrassing, masturbatory trainwreck is Steven Friggin’ Spielberg. The movie is ultimately the best version of itself that it could have been.

It avoids a lot of the pitfalls of Cline’s novel with its endless lists of pop culture references (one scene even seems to be poking fun at Cline’s writing style), but it can’t help but feel…hollow. READY PLAYER ONE is a lot like eating at Wendy’s. It’s a tasty burger, but did you really get anything out of it?

The Poor Balance of READY PLAYER ONE

Ready Player One

Spielberg’s film rejects much of the ethos of Gamergaters, but that is likely to go over the heads of the hateful “ethics in journalism” Avengers. The film never questions the legitimacy of Art3mis/Samantha’s “geek cred” because she’s a girl. The movie’s 5 person team of heroes also features three people of color.

Though it’s worth acknowledging that the two Asian characters Sho & Daito, (Philip Zhao and Win Morisaki) tread into stereotypical territories at points, but considering Spielberg also gave us Shortround and y’know everything in THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, I suppose it could have been worse? Will any of that matter to the GamerGater types who see this movie as their Black Panther? No.

READY PLAYER ONE isn’t BLACK PANTHER for nerds because BLACK PANTHER is already BLACK PANTHER for nerds. And for non-nerds. It’s for everyone. Even the film’s final message seems contradictory to what we just spent nearly two hours sitting through. The film concludes with Wade and his friends deciding the Oasis should be shut down twice a week. In this time, people can return to the real world. If the film wants us to believe that reality is more important than fantasy, then how can it justify its own existence?

A movie that ends with a 30-minute cavalcade of fictional characters punching one another can’t also tell its viewers to take a break from geeky things once in awhile. READY PLAYER ONE fundamentally fails to live up to its own message

No More Gatekeepers

Here’s the most important lesson I had learned without gatekeepers: you can’t let your obsession define your personality. In high school, I got into theater. I learned to love acting and became more and more interested in film. My hobbies grew into set building and lighting design, and I kept reading comics but became friends with more and more people who didn’t have geeky interests. I shared comics with them, and they shared their obsessions with me. Trying to prove who knew the most about a topic wasn’t fun for us, but sharing our geeky loves was.

I’m getting married next week to a woman who never cared about comics, but our first date was to see CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. She helped me hunt down every back issue of the John Ostrander SUICIDE SQUAD and Steve Gerber’s HOWARD THE DUCK. Because of her I’ve become fascinated by the insane world of THE BACHELOR and shows like SCANDAL. We’ve pushed each other out of our geeky comfort zones.

You don’t realize just how many people are geeks until you tear down the gates keeping them out.

Episode 88: Marvel’s Muslim Superheroes – Ms. Marvel, Monet St. Croix, and Dust

The Future of Geeks

I currently teach at a high school with kids of every race and religion. I see young of kids of every race shout “Wakanda forever!” and “I never freeze,” I see Muslim girls get so excited over just the existence of Ms. Marvel. Students of every gender ask me questions about the Infinity stones.

I have daily discussions with a trans girl who loves all things comic book. When you only let yourself live in your insular geek bubbles, your own personal Oasis, you don’t get to see how these properties can be enjoyed by so many different types of people. Imagination is for everyone. Passion for art is for everyone. Don’t let the gatekeepers win. Don’t be a gatekeeper yourself. Share what you love and open yourself up to new things.

I think it’s only appropriate that I sum up how I feel about all of this with a quote from STAR WARS:

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

Geek culture doesn’t have to die, but our preconceptions about it have to. What I’ve come to realize is that the biggest flaw of READY PLAYER ONE is that Cline made Wade Watts just like him. He’s a heterosexual white kid obsessed with the 80’s. Is the face of geek culture really going to be a heterosexual white kid in 2044? No.

It will be kids of every race, it will be kids who identify with every letter of LGBTQ+, it will be kids of every gender, it will be the young and the old. It will be open and wonderful, but only if we destroy the arbitrary rules that define who is a geek.

Geeks and Nerds are anyone and everyone.

4 Comments

  1. Colleen Etman

    April 5, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Okay good article and fair point but I swear you quote Kylo Ren too much

    Reply

    • Brian Long

      April 5, 2018 at 8:55 am

      Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

      Reply

  2. Erna Weli

    April 5, 2018 at 4:40 am

    Hahahahahaha:

    >>I’m getting married next week to a woman who never cared about comics, but our first date was to see CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. She helped me hunt down every back issue of the John Ostrander SUICIDE SQUAD and Steve Gerber’s HOWARD THE DUCK. Because of her I’ve become fascinated by the insane world of THE BACHELOR and shows like SCANDAL. We’ve pushed each other out of our geeky comfort zones.<<

    How can you respect yourself if nobody respects you (or your opinion)?

    "We`ve pushed each other out of our geeky comfort zones." Are you serious? How are you even able to write such things?

    Reply

  3. Lilly

    April 4, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    “I have a vision of what geeks should be like.” Actual geeks respond: “No, and stop trying to contaminate and screw with our culture.”

    Reply

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