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Exploring gaming and how it cannot replace reality -The Asian Age


Usually, I don't read or watch media based on video games, which is funny as I am a gamer myself. I have my reservations; most of the times they have a male protagonist and over sexualized female characters leading the show. In recent Japanese animations, getting trapped in a game or living through adventures in a game has become quite the treat and they are formulaic animes (yes, I do not like Sword Art Online). 

The only exception to this rule I found was the original .HACK called .HACK/SIGN.  That anime deals with a lot of issues in real life, including gender politics, disabilities and the abilities of games to trap us in fantasies that soon become nightmares. I wasn't interested in Ready Player One though I had gotten the book.

I thought the book may have been based on the same formulaic stuff they were showing in animes. I was happy that I was somewhat proven wrong. Ready Player One's movie is directed and produced by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay written by Ernest Cline, the author of the novel, and Zak Penn.

The film explores a world in 2045, where the game OASIS has taken over basically everyone's reality as people love to play this game rather than experience real life. Wade Watts, known online as Parzival, is a poor, orphaned young man who plays and competes in the OASIS. The OASIS's original creator, James Halliday, has passed away but he has hidden three keys.

If one finds the keys one gains ownership of the OASIS. When it was announced, people were scrambling high and low to find this Easter Egg that the keys will open. However, after five years many people had given up because they couldn't even finish the first challenge. Until, Perzival and his friends start winning.  This article contains spoilers for the film and the book.

I love nerd /popular culture but I don't think anyone should dedicate their life solely to it. While watching the movie I was wondering, should I get every reference? Should I understand all the semantics? Of course, I got many and I liked that I could understand terms like "camper" move, which at times substitutes the term "zerg."

I mean I was happy seeing The Iron Giant, Gundam robot, MechaGodzilla, the chestburster from Alien franchise and also Tracer and Chun-Li from Overwatch and Street Fighter, respectively. However, I wondered if knowing all the characters was that important or knowing everything was that significant. Some critics wrote that the movie validates nerd culture, that knowing such things may lead to success to future and they were skeptical of that. I partly agree. Though knowing about games and popular culture has helped me in some ways I also feel that not knowing some things is not necessarily bad.

Some aspects of nerd culture help me research on things independently, such as playing the fourth Prince of Persia made me look up Zoroastrianism and Marvel's Loki piqued my interest in Norse mythology. These things can be enjoyed on their own.

However, popular culture cannot always be an end in itself. Popular culture entails postmodernist elements meaning it does borrow and get inspired by narratives other than itself. So, knowing about those elements is actually important. Parzival name is a derivative of the character who went to search for the Holy Grail. Art3mis, another character, is named after Artemis, the goddess of the hunt in Greek mythology. 

In the interactions between Parzival and Art3mis we realize that games may not always be therapeutic. Art3mis mentions her father died because of debt caused by the loyalty centers made by IOI, a rival gaming company. He bought endless gear and always planned on working the debt off but got sick and passed away. Art3mis wants the Easter Egg because she doesn't want IOI to get the OASIS. She says this after Wade confesses his love for her, which she finds premature and not based on reality. 

Though the two do go through hardships later on that make them love one another, Wade must see Art3mis more than an online avatar. In the real world, she has a huge birthmark on her face, has red hair, and is also someone who lives in poverty. She isn't exactly glamorous as her online persona but she is resourceful and intelligent. Additionally, her real name is Samantha Evelyn Cook.

It is when Wade is with Samantha sit on a rooftop in the real world he realizes everything is slower in real life. There are no instant upgrades, no adrenalin fueled missions, no need to level up. It has its peace and it can actually be a sanctuary. The real world must be lived from day to day and it must be endured.

Even if they are hardships there are tangible feelings, spaces, the sun, the night, the weather - everything follows the laws of nature and everything can be fully experienced. Digital spaces are great but they cannot fully substitute reality.

A Fandom writer, Ayo Norman-Williams, complained about Helen Harris's avatar being changed in his article, "How 'Ready Player One' Glosses Over Gender and Race Issues." Harris is Wade's best friend in the Oasis, and his avatar name is "Aech", which is pronounced as "H." Harris's avatar in the film is a large cyborg like orc though in the book it was a cisgendered, straight, White male avatar. Harris is actually an African-America, lesbian girl.

The movie retained her queerness and race but there was a reason why Harris chose a male avatar. It is something gamers face: she saw there was preferential treatment towards White male characters so she chooses this. Also, she could escape homophobia by acting like a straight male character. These issues do happen in gaming. Marginalization in the real world may manifest itself in online spaces so changing Harris's character was not a good plot point.

James Halliday in the end states that he built the OASIS to escape reality. In the real world, he found it hard to make connections with people and make friends. So, he thought in a virtual game he would prosper. In my experience, online friends can be really good friends or actually people you wished you never met.

There are two levels of extremes there that can sometimes seem negative. Similarly, playing games all the time may not make everyone famous or get them rewards. Halliday admits that reality offers things his game can't - a decent meal for one. He also says reality, despite its seeming flaws, cannot be substituted by a simulation. Reality validates the real and virtual spaces cannot always do that. You can feel the rain in the real world; you can only recollect that feeling seeing it in a video game.

Wade realizes that Halliday's avatar is not merely an avatar, it does not feel it is merely an artificial intelligence. This implies that Halliday had uploaded his consciousness into the OASIS and the person winning the Easter Egge hunt will also set him free. When Wade asks if he is dead, he says he is.

His old self takes the digital representation of his younger self and leaves meaning now death is final for him. So, being trapped in the game made Halliday ultimately realize the shortcomings of simulations and the need of a body. Reality means one has a body; the importance of having a physical body to feel things and to even express basic human emotions such as love has been heavily explored by Posthumanism, a literary discipline. Halliday realized the real cannot be replaced and that OASIS cannot replace his physical body.

After Wade and his friends win the Easter Egg hunt and share ownership of the OASIS they make new rules. They allow Halliday's friend to stay as a consultant of OASIS and they also ban loyalty centers run by IOI that used its consumerism based schemes to lure people to almost gamble away their money.  The third rule was unpopular, but they said the OASIS would be offline on Tuesdays and Thursdays because people need to live and experience reality.

I love gaming but I cannot replace reality with gaming. I understand where popular culture helps me and where it is not necessary. We must all strive to have a balance in our lives. Games are fun and it can be really completive and challenging but I feel we should not be escapists. We are only given one life in the real world and that is why it is precious. We can always branch out and do various things. So gaming has its charms but reality is irreplaceable in the long run.


The writer is a copy editor at The Asian Age