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Ready Player One | Context

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History of Video Games

Ready Player One can be seen as an allegorical warning about what can happen when advanced technologies consume human life at the expense of people's health. As the games developed, culture changed. For example, some people spent less time outside engaged in physical activity, and players became socially isolated as they immersed themselves in complex, three-dimensional games.

The novel draws extensively on early video games from the 1970s and 1980s. The OASIS, presented as the high point of the development of the medium, provides a meaningful contrast to these primitive games. The pioneering developments in computer programming of the late 1950s and early 1960s paved the way for the first true video game, Spacewar!, released in 1962 by computer scientists at MIT. Based on a series of novels, the game became popular in early computing circles.

Many early video games were text-based. Colossal Cave Adventure, the first game of this class, was released in the late 1970s. This game had no graphics but instead consisted of text that a user would read and respond to with simple text commands. Then the American company Atari released an upgraded version of the game that had simple, two-dimensional graphics and required a joystick. This game ran on the Atari 2600 console, the forerunner of video game consoles used today.

In 1978 the Japanese company Taito released Space Invaders. The game became extremely popular and established many precedents for video games that followed. The years 1978–83 are considered by many as the "Golden Age of Arcade Games." This period was characterized by "shoot-'em-up" games featuring crude, two-dimensional graphics.

By the early 1980s the American video game industry had become lucrative. In 1983, however, game production suddenly halted, and many producers went bankrupt. This "Great Video Game Crash" was largely driven by problems in the market and with software development and dubious business practices on the part of the burgeoning industry. While the American video game industry struggled, it continued to flourish outside of the United States. When the U.S. industry started to bounce back, several new home consoles had emerged to dominate the market, including those made by the Japanese companies Nintendo and Sega, as well as a new Atari, the 7800. The games of this era, known as the "8-Bit Era" (1982–94), incorporated developments that have become standard, such as plot, chase scenes, and alternate endings.

The "16-Bit Era" of video games (1987–2000) began with the release of the Sega Genesis console. The new 16-bit technology enabled features such as "faux-3D" scrolling and more complex, attractive graphics. Notable games from this era include Mortal Kombat, Donkey Kong Country, and Super Mario World. These role-playing games incorporated features that are now common, such as quests, items, customized avatars, and experience points.

The "Fifth Generation" of video games, covering roughly the period between 1993 and 2003, incorporated complex, detailed, three-dimensional graphics and story lines for the first time, and developers started to release games on compact discs rather than cartridges.

The "Sixth Generation" (1998–2011), encompassing the period in which Ready Player One was written, saw the emergence of games with online components and the release of the Sega Dreamcast, Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube consoles.

During the "Seventh Generation" (2004–13), high-definition graphics became standard, and the Nintendo Wii offered an innovative handheld motion controller that allowed players to use their bodies to manipulate characters. The "Eighth Generation" began in 2011 with the release of new handheld "micro-consoles," touchpads, and touchscreens as well as games based entirely on the Internet and more realistic three-dimensional graphics.

Virtual Reality

The characters who participate in the OASIS see its world through goggles that provide a virtual reality experience: a computer-generated three-dimensional environment with which a user can interact. Virtual reality was in its infancy when Cline began planning the plot of Ready Player One. The Sensorama, invented in 1957, had been an early virtual reality device consisting of stereoscopic images within an enclosed booth, a rotating chair, fans, speakers, and scent-emitting devices. In 1968 the first head-mounted display device attached to a computer was created. In the 1970s MIT researchers developed an interactive map of Aspen, Colorado, and by the 1980s NASA was using virtual reality technology in its research. In the 1990s some arcade and home video games had just begun to include virtual reality headsets. Cline drew on classic science fiction novels to flesh out his vision of virtual reality in the OASIS.

Virtual reality made impressive leaps around the time the novel was published. In the early 2010s a 17-year-old named Palmer Luckey began building prototypes of the virtual reality headset now known as the Oculus Rift. Oculus Rift was purchased in 2014 by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who believes immersive, three-dimensional technology is the next great wave of computing. The first Oculus Rift headsets, which require a wired connection to a computer, hit the market in spring 2016. Oculus Rift has several competitors. For example, a company called Magic Leap is interested in an "augmented reality" apparatus that will allow users to experience realistic holograms in their field of vision, creating a composite experience consisting of virtual objects as well as real ones. Those involved in the industry predict virtual and augmented reality headsets will become increasingly smaller, more portable, and a part of everyday life—as they are in Ready Player One.

1980s Pop Culture

Author Ernest Cline was a child during the 1980s, and Ready Player One is a novel obsessed with 1980s pop culture. Like Cline himself, OASIS creator James Halliday was a youth during the 1980s, and the media of that era obsessed him throughout his adult life. The pop culture of the 1980s figured heavily into Halliday's design of the OASIS and is the primary subject matter of the quest he designs for his Easter egg. Devoted egg hunters (called gunters), such as Parzival and his cohorts, are similarly obsessed and undertake a self-guided education in the music, books, movies, comics, television shows, and video games of a decade that precedes the years of the book's action by a good 60 years.

Following the politically and culturally radical 1960s and the economic crises of the 1970s, the 1980s ushered in a return to social and political conservatism, along with a flourishing of materialistic ideals and consumer culture. The Cold War was coming to an end, but the anxiety of it still lingered in the national psyche even as the American economy flourished. The darlings of the 1980s were not the hippies but the yuppies: young, college-educated people with good careers and ample purchasing power to enjoy the good life. This is a stark contrast to the bleak, crumbling, postconsumer world void of opportunity that Cline creates for Wade Watts and his peers in Ready Player One.

The 1980s was a decade during which pop culture thrived and was shaped by new and developing media, such as MTV (music television), video games, and enhanced special effects in movies. Media became interactive. Personal computers as well as home video-game consoles were just beginning to become available to consumers. Young people who preferred pencil, paper, and dice to pixels and joysticks gathered around tables to play Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game that continues to be popular today.

Ready Player One abounds with references to specific pieces of 1980s pop culture. Many of the decade's movies and television shows have transcended their time and entered the cultural canon, so they will be familiar to most readers. It was a decade of blockbuster movies, including the continuation of the Star Wars franchise, WarGames, Ghostbusters, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Back to the Future, several of which figure crucially into the plot of Ready Player One. Filmmaker John Hughes explored what it meant to be an adolescent in America in the 1980s in his "teen movies," such as Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. The text mentions television shows such as The Muppet Show and The Simpsons. The sitcom Family Ties is beloved by the novel's hero Wade Watts for its comforting portrayal of 1980s American family life. Schoolhouse Rock, an Emmy award-winning cartoon that used songs to teach school subjects, was popular with children and adults alike in the 1970s and 1980s; in Ready Player One knowledge of one of the show's songs allows Parzival and his cohorts to beat the evil Sixers in unlocking the Third Gate.

New music-related technologies created new sounds and new ways of consuming those sounds during the 1980s. The Sony Walkman, a personal portable cassette player, hit stores in 1979, making it possible for people to listen to their favorite music wherever they were. Compact discs soon replaced cassette tapes following the introduction of CD players in 1982 and a CD version of the Sony Walkman two years later. New types of instruments, such as syndrums, lent the music of the decade its characteristic electronic sound. In addition, MTV forever changed the music scene by pairing images with music; appropriately, the first video that the channel ever aired was the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Television replaced radio as the means by which pop stars rose to the top of the charts. This new format spurred Americans to fall in love with new styles of music coming out of Britain, such as synthpop and new wave. Just like in the 1960s, British artists topped the American charts; the kings of this so-called "Second British Invasion" were groups such as the Police and Duran Duran.

But the popular music of the 1980s was not all pop and fluff. Again, aided by MTV, heavy metal and hard rock music went mainstream, with bands such as Metallica and Judas Priest achieving great commercial success. The Canadian rock band Rush, formed in 1968, developed a brand-new sound for themselves at the end of the 1970s in response to new musical influences, such as ska and reggae beats, and formats, such as 24-hour radio stations, that characterized the scene. Keyboards came to define their sound, which had previously been guitar-driven and which consisted of songs that were longer and more musically complex than much of what was being released at the time. Their seminal concept album 2112, released in 1976, weaves a compelling science fiction story line with repeating musical themes in a seven-part suite. In the story, a young man discovers and learns to play an ancient guitar during an imagined future wherein culture is strictly controlled by a class of priests. Parzival is compelled to reenact this story during the quest as he visits a Rush-themed planet in search of the third and final key.

The pop culture of the 1980s has stood the test of time. It is still discovered anew and appreciated by young people today as well as by those who were around during the 1980s. It continues to speak to the anxieties and joys of postmodern life while inspiring a nostalgia for a time that straddled the new and the traditional, when people were not constantly connected to their cell phones, the special effects of the continuing Star Wars franchise were awe-inspiring, and American prosperity created an interplay between art and consumer culture that celebrated both. By employing the popular culture of the 1980s as the primary motif of Ready Player One, Cline emphasizes the dystopian economic and cultural despair of the 2040s, foiling it against the poignant, reverent nostalgia experienced by Wade Watts and his cohorts for a prosperous and culturally stimulating past they long for but never personally experienced.

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