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Ready Player One | Themes


Through the lens of a video game quest, Ready Player One wrestles with big questions about what it means to be successful and self-actualized in a world full of peril and challenge.


Ready Player One deals extensively with the theme of obsession, a defining trait of many of the characters, including James Halliday and the gunters Wade Watts (Parzival), Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto. James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, lives his life pursuing two obsessions: 1980s pop culture and his work as a programmer. As a youth the brilliant Halliday was a poor student because he devoted all his time and attention to "computers, comic books, sci-fi and fantasy novels, movies, and above all else, videogames." After founding the company GSS, Halliday "programmed incessantly, often going without food, sleep, or human contact for days or even weeks."

Despite Halliday's reclusive life, his obsessions have a profound impact on the world around him even after his death. When the OASIS is released in 2012, it quickly becomes a primary pastime for the majority of people and even a substitute for real life. People take refuge in the OASIS and neglect the serious problems facing the planet. After Halliday's death in 2040, the short film Anorak's Invitation, which contains his intentions and instructions for the contest, soon becomes "the most scrutinized piece of film in history, surpassing even the Zapruder film" (the footage shot as President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963). Wade says his "entire generation would come to know every second of Halliday's message by heart." Because it is "crammed with obscure '80s pop culture references," Halliday's film spawns widespread copycat obsessions with '80s pop culture.

Wade, Art3mis, Aech, Daito, and Shoto become the top five gunters on the scoreboard because they have devoted their lives to two obsessions: Halliday's beloved '80s pop culture and finding the Easter egg inside the OASIS. Their single-mindedness is a badge of pride. Wade and his fellow gunters are "constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than anyone else." These obsessive gunters look down on the "poseurs," such as I-r0k, who dabble rather than devote themselves to the cause.

Although obsession results in success, it springs from a desire to escape an unhappy and meaningless life. Wade says hunting for the egg "saved [him]" by giving him "a reason to get up in the morning." Before finding the Copper Key, he'd "devoted all of [his] free time to learning as much as [he] possibly could." He admits, "I was obsessed. I wouldn't quit. My grades suffered. I didn't care." Art3mis is similarly obsessed, confessing to Wade when she meets him in the Tomb of Horrors, "I can't sleep. I can't eat. My grades are going down the tubes" because of her obsession with obtaining the Copper Key.

Ready Player One explores obsession as a path to success, but the characters who are most obsessed hide behind their fixations to avoid facing themselves and their lives in all their "terrifying and painful reality." Obsession can lead to greatness, but it also has a cost. It takes courage to live a balanced life, and Wade finds this courage by the quest's end. Released from his obsessions, he loses interest in the OASIS for the first time in his life.

Personal Transformation

Ready Player One deals extensively with the theme of personal transformation. The OASIS is seductive because it enables people to transform themselves in many ways. On a superficial level, people can design an avatar more attractive than their real-life selves. Wade Watts's avatar, Parzival, is a better-looking version of the real-life Wade: "He was taller. And thinner. And more muscular. And he didn't have any teenage acne." OASIS users also make more strategic use of the simulation's capacity for physical transformation. Following her mother's lead, Aech, who in real life is a black woman, designs her avatar as a white male. Aech's mother believes "the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to both women and people of color," and she runs her own OASIS-based business as a white male avatar "because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given."

In real life Wade has no friends and is bullied by his peers. In the OASIS he finds the confidence to stand up for himself. Through his obsession with the quest, he transforms himself into a gunter; his success in this role gives him more confidence than he ever feels in the outside world: "In real life I was nothing but an ... agoraphobic shut-in with no ... genuine human contact," he says, but in the OASIS "I was the great Parzival ... People admired and looked up to me ... I was a legend. Nay, a god." Part of the quest requires gunters to transform themselves for a short while into characters in popular '80s movies. Wade finds himself acting as the Matthew Broderick character in WarGames and as a character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Wade begins fiddling with his real-life identity when he hacks into the United States Citizen Registry and transforms himself into the fictitious Bryce Lynch. Unlike Wade, Lynch has "an immaculate credit rating, and a bachelor's degree in Computer Science." Wade leverages this fictional identity to negotiate the real world with greater ease. Later he deliberately transforms himself into an indentured servant at IOI to subvert the organization from within.

Wade's incremental and metaphorical transformation into James Halliday, his hero, threads through the narrative. In pursuing the quest, Wade finds himself inhabiting the same mental and physical spaces Halliday inhabited during his life, which is how Halliday has set up the quest. Wade learns to think like Halliday and appropriates all his cultural references and obsessions as his own. To clear the First Gate, a gunter must enter Halliday's childhood bedroom and play a game on his old computer. Happytime Pizza, where Wade acquires a quarter that gives him a second life, is another setting from Halliday's life, as is Middletown Lanes, the bowling alley containing the Second Gate. The Third Gate requires gunters to enter Castle Anorak, the headquarters of Halliday's avatar, Anorak, and a place that was previously closed to everyone else. At the end of the quest, Wade finds himself in the office where Halliday worked for much of his adult life. Anorak gives Wade his signature robes as well as his powers in the OASIS, his personal fortune, and control of his company. Wade's prize, metaphorically speaking, is becoming a new, better version of James Halliday—one who doesn't neglect his real life and hide inside a video game.

Wade's experiences as an avatar inside the OASIS lead to a deeper personal transformation. Having succeeded at the quest, Wade is fully transformed: he loses interest in the OASIS and begins his first-ever romantic relationship. The confidence he acquires in the virtual world becomes a defining characteristic of his real life. Cline seems to be pointing out that our selves undergo constant transformation as a result of our experiences, but we have some choice in how we are transformed. Personal transformation can provide a superficial escape, but it can also lead to self-actualization.


Escape is a major theme of Ready Player One. Escape in the text often takes the form of escapism, a retreat into fantasy to avoid reality. Humanity escapes itself by retreating into the OASIS, which is more pleasant than dealing with the serious problems facing the planet. Wade escapes the alienation and meaninglessness of his life by studying 1980s pop culture and playing old video games, which cause his "worries to instantly slip away as [his] mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen."

Religion is sometimes criticized as a form of escapism, represented here by the "super-religious" Mrs. Gilmore, Wade's sole real-life friend. Wade sees religion as "a total crock" but acknowledges parallels between her escapism and his own; he understands that Mrs. Gilmore uses religion as "a pleasant fantasy that ... kept her going—which is was exactly what the Hunt was for me."

Indeed, Wade plans to use the prize money to escape Earth entirely, leaving the planet behind on a spaceship for somewhere better. At the end of the quest, James Halliday confesses to Wade that he created the OASIS to escape the real world, which he found terrifying. Halliday expresses regret at his escapism and urges Wade not to make the same mistake.

Wade does not only escape into the OASIS; he also makes several real-life escapes that allow him to achieve success. For Wade, winning the contest is his "one chance of escaping the stacks," the impoverished slum of vertically stacked trailers where he lives. The money he makes after finding the Copper Key allows him to leave Oklahoma City for the first time and rent his own apartment in Columbus, Ohio. This move is important for another reason: IOI knows he lives in the stacks, and he must leave after an unsuccessful attempt on his life. He escapes the stacks but imprisons himself in his apartment. As he becomes more deeply absorbed in the quest, he longs to escape his own physicality and resents "the tedious business of cleaning and exercising my physical body ... Everything about it contradicted my other life."

Escape also can be strategic and necessary. After hacking the IOI database, Wade escapes IOI headquarters by impersonating a janitor. Warned by Wade that the Sixers are after them, both Art3mis and Shoto escape from their homes. Ogden Morrow offers his home in Oregon to the team of gunters, and they go there to escape the uncertainty of homelessness and to focus on winning the quest. Sometimes escape is necessary and positive; when misused, however, it can prevent personal growth, innovation, and advancement.

Independence and Collaboration

The twin themes of independence and collaboration are prominent throughout the novel and represent strategies different characters use in the quest. Some gunters are independent, relying entirely on their own knowledge and strength in the quest. Other gunters form groups called clans that collaborate in the quest. The Sixers, the antagonists in the story, are a corporate clan. The megacorporation IOI gives them unlimited financial support, and their collaboration borders on cheating: different individuals operate the same avatar, switching quickly in and out of the haptic rig during difficult challenges inside the OASIS. Independent gunters such as Wade, Art3mis, and Aech hold the Sixers in contempt and find their strategies extremely distasteful. Daito says, "The Sixers have no honor." Ogden Morrow, cocreator of the OASIS, agrees; he believes the Sixers' "sole purpose is to exploit loopholes in the contest rules and subvert the intention of Jim's will."

At the start of the quest, independent gunters such as Wade and Aech pride themselves in their fierce independence: "If you were a solo, you didn't want or need help, from anyone ... Clans were for suck-asses and poseurs." Wade lacks the funds to travel to the Tomb of Horrors, where the Copper Key is located, but he refuses to ask his best friend, Aech, for financial help: "If I couldn't reach the tomb on my own, I didn't deserve to reach it at all." However, they gradually learn to work together. At first it is largely unintentional, and the five gunters remain wary of collaboration. When Wade finds the Copper Key, Aech piggybacks on his success, realizing the key must be on planet Ludus since Wade is stuck there. When the five gunters meet for the first time in the Basement chat room to discuss the threat posed to the quest by the Sixers, Aech implies that collaboration might not be "a terrible idea," but Daito responds, "Yes it would ... My brother and I hunt alone. We don't want or need your help." However, they find themselves collaborating in small ways in spite of themselves: Wade gives Art3mis a hint that allows her to beat Joust and access the Copper Key; Aech gives Wade a clue about the location of the Jade Key; Wade, Shoto, and Daito go on side quests together; Wade urges Shoto and Daito to keep the powerful Beta Capsule artifact to assist them in their hunt for the egg.

The need to unite against the Sixers, as well as the very design of the quest, eventually forces the independent gunters to collaborate fully. When the Sixers establish a protective sphere around Castle Anorak and the Third Gate, Wade sends a message to his friends with explicit instructions for clearing the Second Gate and finding the Crystal Key. He does so not only to grant them a lead over the Sixers, but also because he realizes, from a clue he receives at the Second Gate, the contest is not designed to permit fully independent gunters to succeed. Yet the Sixers, whose entire strategy is based on collaboration, fail to unlock the Third Gate because they aren't as intuitive as the genuine gunters, failing to realize it takes three keys rather than one. This delay allows Wade, Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto to battle the Sixers as a real team, defeat them, and unlock the Third Gate. Even after Sorrento kills Shoto's avatar and the Cataclyst kills the avatars of Aech and Art3mis, they continue to collaborate with Wade as he moves through the Third Gate because they are patched into his experience with video and audio feeds. The final challenge is the video game Tempest, and Wade succeeds at it only because Art3mis knows how to manipulate a bug in the game to secure extra lives. In the beginning, these gunters find independence to be the only honorable course. By the end of the quest, they have discovered a new sense of honor based on collaboration and cooperation.

Questions for Themes

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