Ready Player One (2017): Part 1 of 2
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline; Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Cinematographer: Janusz Kamiński
Producer: Donald De Line, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg, and Dan Farah
by Jon Cvack
I’ve mentioned before that Steven Spielberg has struggled to evolve with CGI; best reflected in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) where he seemed to ignore Dr. Malcolm’s advice from Jurassic Park. He was too busy wondering if he could make anything happen, he never thought if he should make anything happen. Almost every computer generated scene felt needlessly large; down the warehouse in the opening scene, throwing back to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) which threw back to Citizen Kane (1941), though while both pull off a practical facade of vast boxes filling a gigantic warehouse, The Crystal Skull just paints ten times the number in with a massive vista; in some ways operating antithetical to cinema in failing to use the frame for anything beyond spectacle.
War of the Worlds (2005) was pretty fun to watch, but again - having seen it before I understood the craft - I realized it’s because it too relies on Spectacle rather than cinematic technique; I like Minority Report (2002) and A.I. (2001), though they’re far from my favorite Spielberg. While some want to argue that Spielberg’s lost his touch, I’d easily put Bridge of Spies and The Post somewhere in my Top 100 of the new millennium; coincidentally when Spielberg abandoned the CGI and returned the purest form of craft.
Knowing little about the book, when I saw Spielberg was doing "Ready Player One" (2011) - as I much as I wanted to hope it’d be awesome - I had little faith left. I figured it’d be another overwrought CGI love fest, in which Spielberg abandoned his magic touch once again.
I had heard about the book both from a friend who explained the basic premise, and Ezra Klein when he had Jaron Lanier on his podcast to discuss the future of virtual reality (an episode which I highly recommend and definitely kickstarted me into a fascination with artificial intelligence; specifically the book "Superintelligence" (2014) which, while a tough read, is one of the most alarming books I’ve ever read). The story explores the idea that if jobs became increasingly automated, a universal basic income was introduced, and virtual reality creates a vivid enough environment, why would anyone want to live outside of it?
Ezra Klein had mentioned another book on his podcast quite a few times called “Finite and Infinite Games” (1986); a pretty popular book in Silicon Valley. I picked up along with "Superintelligence", figuring they’d be similar enough. It compares a philosophy of life to both finite and infinite games (a finite game being defined as one which has a beginning and end, such as checkers or Call of Duty, while an infinite game never ends, such as World of Warcraft or other MMOs). Author James P. Carse’s says that it’s better to approach life as an infinite game and compares the two possibilities with everything from health and well being to politics and the economy. For instance, Hitler and other authoritarian leaders all had long finite games in mind; wanting to destroy their opponents in order to expand their control versus an infinite game which is to try and secure and maintain alliances that minimize conflict and help everyone.
I was expecting more from the book, as it seemed to read like a mixture of self-help and some cryptic pseudo philosophic treatise that could provide answers to life’s grand question. I assume following it after an in-depth and analytic philosophical investigation about artificial intelligence wasn’t the best idea. However, when I consider how it applies to Ready Player One and why Ezra Klein made the comparison, it does provide at least an introductory explanation of what the world could be like.
For my sociology minor in college, I was able to take a class called the Sociology of Play; in which the teacher who had at least a mild addiction to World of Warcraft, walked us through the cultural, structural, gender, and political aspects of video game play. The other three quarters of the time was spent playing this game. I had long considered World of Warcraft a bird’s eye view game - per the likes of Command and Conquer - rather than the third person massive multiplayer online game (MMO) that it is. I recall starting the game in the middle of a field, beyond confused of what to do, trying the first few missions, leveling up, and discovering how vast the world was.
For those who haven’t played, the game involves going on missions to destroy every type of villain you could imagine, along with some non-aggressive quests which help you power up, which allows you to have better equipment, which allows you to fight increasingly harder villains, which gets you more points to level up further. Each level then requires even more points to level up and so the game goes on for what feels like forever. I’ve forgotten the exact number, but I think after playing for four months or so in the class, I leveled up to the mid-teens (which my teacher found unimpressive compared to the diehard WoW students who weren’t even sociology major/minors, but rather took the class that they loved WoW so much). At a maximum of 90 level points (at the time, that is; each expansion pack raises the number), I hardly made a dent, as again, each level takes far more time than the previous. My college professor had two characters fully leveled out, which means that he must have literally spent thousands of hours playing the game; as he was on every night, and the only reason I was even able to level up to my abysmal number was because he helped me out on quests no matter what time I logged in (as a level-90 he was able to kill the villains I faced with a single click).
Somewhere deep within one of the worlds is a marketplace where people trade the weapons and items they find, everything from shoes to armor to wands, powers and potions. Similar to Magic the Gathering, you could imagine in the days of Venmo (which didn’t exist when I was in college) that there would be a decent dollar amount of some of these things; as acquiring them could expedite your leveling up at exponential rates rather than having to expend all the time. We later learned about paid player farms, where users would earn slave wages to level up and sell characters, allowing the purchaser to play the game without the frustration of dying so often.
It was the first time I grasped where video games and virtual reality was going. The world was so vivid and seemingly endless, with thousands upon thousands of quests and things to discover that I grasped the addiction. To this day, aside from when I finish up a long project and need a mindless break, I never play video games. Video games have gotten so good and have taken most of the lessons from World of Warcraft and created an experience that could grab any individual. Similar to World of Warcraft, most games now operate on a reward based program; in which you earn points and “flare” for accomplishing missions or goals which allows you to buy better ingame hardware. Many governments are now trying to regulate the game designers in order to prevent them from offering too many ingame hardware purchases knowing that the game itself is addicting enough to convince young minds to spend ridiculous sums of money on seemingly worthless purchases.
In the Sociology of Play class we watched the documentary Second Skin (2008) which follows a bunch of WoW and other MMO game players who had become fully addicted to the platforms. Some live in their parent’s basement, consuming junk food, and developing an entirely digital community of friends.Others have met their spouse and some find it hard to fit sleep within a full time work schedule and the need to keep on playing. An article in the Chicago Tribune explores this exact issue, highlighting how some insurance companies are starting to cover treatments for video game addictions; which, according to a clinic in Illinois, is treated the same as drugs and alcohol. As one researcher says, the difference between slot machines and video games is that the former provides hope for a big reward, while video games provide a steady and never ending stream of rewards; making me wonder if, in the long term, video games could be more damaging, as often a big win in gambling will pull someone off machine (it always has for me and my family), while a never ending (i.e., infinite) series of small wins in a video game offers no definitive conclusion.
These are the ideas I wanted to be explored or at least touched upon in the film; mildly confident the film would ignore them. I was completely wrong. This movie in some way explores each and everyone of these ideas; operating with all of the philosophy and potential that the convergence between virtual reality, artificial intelligence, social media, and game play stand to provide moving forward.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Not too bad for an exposition overload
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