Ready Player One’s Virtual Reality Future Is an Introverted Dystopia

The fantasy of Ready Player One's virtual reality universe is compromised by it being engineered by and for the socially awkward.

As a socially awkward individual, one of my biggest takeaways from Ready Player One’s VR dominated future is something that I’ve secretly feared all along. When you’re using VR, everyone around you is laughing at you.

During Ready Player One’s opening–and other points of the film–we see various residents of the slum-filled real world engaging in various VR activities. Some of them are quite standard (a little girl playing piano and someone who looks to be in a boxing match) while others are clearly played for laughs (a large woman performing an exotic dance on the stripper pole inconveniently located in her trailer).

The scene itself is shot quite well (Spielberg clearly put his director’s boots on for the film’s live-action sequences), but anyone familiar with the current versions of VR may find themselves wincing slightly. Those people awkwardly gesturing their way through VR worlds? Well, that’s how pretty much everyone looks when they’re using a VR headset.

Thematically, the awkwardness makes sense. Ready Player One occurs in a future where the class divide is more obvious than ever. The poor of the world, who make up the vast majority, physically exist in makeshift slums. However, they truly live in the VR world of the OASIS where everything is awesome. Everyone gets to assume an avatar, visit fantastic worlds largely based on pop culture, and do whatever they want to do.

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If that all sounds fantastic, but it shouldn’t. Ready Player One’s OASIS is essentially a video game. A more elaborate video game that offers an enhanced level of immersion that modern VR titles can’t match, sure. But it’s still basically a video game.

As anyone who has ever been truly addicted to a video game that offers theoretically thousands of hours of content can tell you, it’s not hard to lose your grip on reality after a while. You won’t quite become that South Park caricature of an obese troll glued to his computer living off of nothing but things that are labeled “nacho cheese flavored,” but you may reach a point where you start to resent the real world, because it prevents you from just existing in the world where you would rather be.

Ready Player One’s “real world” feels like it was molded by that resentment. People’s homes consist of whatever they can scrounge together and arrange to support their VR set-ups. Actual interactions between people have been reduced to an extreme minimum. More elaborate social elements like fashion have seemingly been abandoned entirely.

To be honest, there’s something appealing about that future. Anyone who has struggled to “fit in” to the world might find the idea of existing in one where you can be whatever you want to be–or even what you perceive others want you to be–sounds like a pretty sweet arrangement.

The problem is that Ready Player One’s VR future isn’t really a haven for the socially awkward. People still need to exist in the real world to eat, breathe, sleep, and presumably take care of necessary bodily functions. This isn’t The Matrix, where people are blissfully unaware of the fact that there is a real world and they’re just plugged into a machine. This is a world where reality hits every time that headset comes off.

It’s clear that that arrangement has led to an evolved form of social awkwardness within and without the world of VR. The fact that people struggle to interact with each other in the real world shouldn’t be that surprising, but even the supposed oasis of the VR world is compromised by yet another pseudo-class system and the lingering feeling that nothing substantial, not even meaningful relationships, can be built in this world of references where what you already know is king.

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Even the film’s protagonist suffers from that social arrangement. He’s quick to tell a girl that he loves her seemingly because he lacks all social subtlety regarding the evolution of a relationship. When confronted with the real world “flaws” of some of his digital friends, he must think about how he feels about being lied to. Ironically, he does this in a world where “fake it until you make it” has unabashedly been replaced by “fake it until you unplug.”

Sadly, the film’s embrace of the awkwardness of VR is actually one of its most genuine concepts. Anyone who has ever logged into a VR chat room will tell you that most interactions consist of “look at my avatar” while people scramble to dominate the voice channels by blaring the loudest audio file available to them. It’s another in a line of theoretically appealing experiences compromised by the reality of the situation.

There is some promise to a VR-fueled future. Spielberg himself believes there is something magical about the technology’s ability to take you to places you may never otherwise see and dreams of how it can be used by location scouts. The technology is very much worth exploring.

But as a confessed introvert, Ready Player One left me wondering whether or not I’m entirely comfortable living in a future where society has been shaped by the socially awkward.