In Ernest Cline's 2011 novel Ready Player One, the narrator enters the virtual reality world of OASIS to visit a hollow planet filled with thousands of simulated arcades. "Archaide" contains a copy of every coin-operated game ever made, all on perfect simulations of the original cabinet. That's not the kind of thing we'll see any time soon, but if you go online right this minute, you can play thousands of classic arcade, Atari, and MS-DOS games, emulated in a web browser and hosted by the Internet Archive.
The similarity between these things apparently hasn't been lost on the world. In a panel at SXSW, Internet Archive curator Jason Scott said he'd been asked if Ready Player One inspired his work. Cline, his co-panelist, used emulated versions of games like Pac-Man to research his novel, and even watched Scott's documentaries about interactive fiction and BBS communities to immerse himself in the past. Their panel explored the links between OASIS and the Internet Archive, including the latter's value as a guide to the densely packed '80s pop culture references of Ready Player One. "Kids who were not even alive in the '80s will read it, and for them it's a multimedia experience," says Cline. "Any game that's mentioned in Ready Player One, you can pull that game up instantly and play it." By proxy, Ready Player One can become a guide to the Internet Archive. In the larger world of VR, OASIS has become convenient shorthand for a giant immersive world.
Unfortunately, despite being all about archiving in virtual space, Ready Player One's idea of preserving history is terrible.
OASIS isn't just a general-purpose metaverse. It's an escape from the book's dismal future, where the environment is ravaged, the protagonist lives in desperate poverty, and the best employer is an openly evil mega-corporation. With enough resources, you can devote a virtual planet to anything from Star Wars to Dungeons & Dragons. And it's also an elaborate puzzle: OASIS' late creator, James Halliday, has hidden the key to his fortune in a series of easter eggs based on his favorite movies, music, and video games.
Consequently, kids in 2044 grow up obsessed with 20th century pop culture, learning every line in WarGames by heart and becoming experts at Joust in case it might help them decode Halliday's clues. Virtually every planet is a perfect recreation of some kind of ancient media. Conversations revolve around trivia and tribal affiliation — showing off memorization skills and ranking the "best" stuff.
Nothing new is created, nothing old is critically examined
A 2011 essay by Stephen Granade argues against Ready Player One's "uncritical nostalgia," which ultimately celebrates a state where nothing new is created and nothing old is critically examined, just collected and repeated over and over. At SXSW, Cline said he'd tried to imagine a place where his obsessive knowledge of Monty Python quotes was actually a useful life skill; his upcoming novel, Armada, apparently applies the same impulse to video games. His work celebrates the shared cultural references that bind communities together. But it turns collecting and exchanging references into the ultimate goal, not a step towards broader thinking or creativity or even cleverness.
Comparing the Internet Archive to OASIS vastly undersells what we can learn from it. At SXSW, Scott showed off the 1982 game Snack Attack II, co-created by programmer Michael Abrash. Abrash is known today as the chief scientist of Oculus, and tracing his career can help us understand the dramatic shifts gaming has undergone in the past three decades. Scott added another wrinkle: the game is an unabashed Pac-Man clone, part of the wave of lookalikes Atari was fighting in court at the time. "You can show it to people and say, 'Is this like Pac-Man?'" He's apparently gotten split answers, as people make up their own minds about the boundaries of copyright — a question that's still central to archival work, where legal uncertainty makes it hard to tell what's safe to put online. In OASIS, there's no clear sense that history evolved into the present, or that you can do more than revere it. The only question is how to put together the right references, and there's only one right answer. History ended half a century ago, and the nerds have won, forever.
The Internet Archive is a living entity; its curators store everything from obsolete physical media and static web pages to modern browser games and social media updates. The fictional OASIS died the moment that Halliday, as one character in the book puts it, decided that he "wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved." That wish gets deconstructed throughout the book, but never enough to cast doubt on the value of nostalgia, or push characters away from it. In the end, Ready Player One's main draw is the pop culture "nerdgasm" that makes its world so hollow.
Nostalgia can draw us to rediscover the past, and obsessing over the latest Star Wars or Ghostbusters movie doesn't stop most people from making their own art or radically reinterpreting someone else's. Ernest Cline himself is a great example of this: he took a million pieces of '80s kitsch and turned them into a funny, compelling coming-of-age story. But at its core, Ready Player One remains a love letter to one of the creepiest dystopias of our decade. Even if it's a lot flashier than our "arcade planet," we shouldn't want to live in it.