In Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the bestseller Ready Player One, the lines between heroes and villains are clear, because the bad guys are faceless soldiers driving identical cars, while the good guys have shown off their creativity by customizing their personal avatars and rides. But the message of individuality over being part of a collective rings hollow in a world where the heroes are part of a monoculture imposed by the immersive game’s creator, who decreed that to learn its greatest secrets, players must consume and analyze all his personal favorite pop culture. The crowds of players look diverse on the surface, but they’re all sporting designs that would be pleasing to a white, straight American man who came of age in the 1980s.
Ready Player One is the most egregious example of a mainstream story homogenizing gamer culture, but it’s hardly alone. The gaming industry generated $108.4 billion in 2017, and the Entertainment Software Association’s 2016 annual report showed that 41 percent of regular gamers are women, and that the average player age is 35 for men or 44 for women. But most gamers are still depicted as being cut from the same mold: smart kids and young men who are obsessed with science fiction, fantasy, comics, and the internet, and don’t like leaving the house. They don’t have many real-world friends, and they play games because they’re good at them, which makes them feel special.
Watch the trailer for Netflix’s Kiss Me First, and you might think the show, which was originally broadcast in the U.K. in April, was a queer, female-driven remake of Ready Player One. It shares some of the sleek virtual-world look of Spielberg’s film, right down to the elfin player avatars. But they’re actually about as different as two pieces of entertainment about players of a popular VR game can be. In Kiss Me First, the writers’ only reference to nerd culture comes from the protagonist, Leila (Tallulah Haddon), who names her character in the game Azana Shadowfax, after Gandalf’s horse in Lord of the Rings. When she discovers a hidden pocket of Azana, it has nothing to do with her significant game skills, or a need to protect the virtual world from some outside existential threat. She just finds a community of very lonely people in need of help.
The players all have different reasons for spending so much time in Azana. Leila is the closest thing to a conventional nerd among them, and she’s a high-school dropout who got into the game while caring for her terminally ill mother. She’s brought into Azana’s secret, close-knit in-game community by Tess (Simona Brown), aka Mania, who takes Leila out clubbing on their first night together in the real world. The membership also includes a troubled veteran, an abused resident of a group foster home, and a queer kid who lives a life of luxury and neglect. When they get together in-game, it’s not to fight the biggest battles Azana has to offer, or show off their characters’ skills. They mostly hang out in a particularly pretty corner of the virtual world to chat about their problems, flirt, and talk about the possibility of meeting up in the flesh.
Azana seems to be inspired by World of Warcraft. Within the show’s timeline, the game launched just a year after the popular MMORPG. But beyond a few showy gameplay scenes in the first two episodes of Kiss Me First’s six-episode first season, the series is mostly focused on the sense of community that social games provide. It’s the opposite of The Matrix: Leila starts off flying around and facing down machine armies, then finds a world she enjoys more, where she just does mundane things like ice skating, or walking through the woods. The show is loosely based off Lottie Moggach’s novel of the same name, where the characters meet through a chat forum rather than a game. And in the adaptation, that might as well still be the case. Azana’s motion-capture, computer-generated world provides dramatic visual shifts from the real world, but the focus is just on the dialogue between characters.
Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One touches on the complex relationships that can form between players — characters Sho and Daito pretend to be brothers within the game, but have never met outside it, even though they live close to each other. And the protagonist, Wade, considers a character named Aech his best friend, even though they’ve only ever interacted in the game world. There are similar dynamics in play in Kiss Me First. One player becomes infatuated with a woman he meets in the game, and wants to form a relationship with her in real life, but she’s a lot more cautious, and won’t tell him where she lives. Everyone’s happy to chat within the game’s public spaces, but Leila’s attempts to contact one player through private chat are quickly rebuffed.
It’s a shame that the show spends so much time focused on the sinister machinations of the group’s leader, a cross between the subject of a To Catch a Predator episode and Jesse Plemons’ character in Black Mirror’s “U.S.S. Callister” episode, because the more mundane scenes about virtual communities are far more compelling. At one point, the group learns that one of their members is taking a break from the game. His reasons, and the timeline for his return, are as mysterious as they usually are within a gaming group that doesn’t know each other well. Members of the secret area show off, jockey for attention, and swap romantic attachments. As the plot heats up, one player arrives in the game and finds all her friends offline. She’s left to deal with the brutal loss of being alone in the place where she retreats when she wants to feel less lonely. Perhaps the most unrealistic thing in the whole show is that when Leila gets torn away from her usual in-game activities, she has one friend asking her what’s up, rather than a guild leader threatening to kick her out if she doesn’t show up for their next big raid.
Kiss Me First is just six episodes long, and only Leila and Tess get much character development. But that almost seems appropriate, given that it’s a show about the way people get to know each other online. Sometimes those relationships bloom into long-term friendships in the flesh. At other times, players can interact with each other in a game for years, and only know a few key things about each other. But those pieces of personal trivia are likely to go deeper than knowing each other’s favorite Star Wars film. It’s common for people chatting with each other in games to let the biggest personal things slip — that they’re studying to get their MBA, that their husband recently had a heart attack, that they’re depressed. Whether it’s a free mobile game or World of Warcraft, social games bring together people who are looking for a distraction from their often wildly different lives. How they interact can be as complicated as any relationships that formed without any pixels involved. And who they really are typically bears little resemblance to how their avatars look. Kiss Me First is far from a perfect show about video gaming, but it’s a realistic portrayal of how sometimes the most significant things people seek or get out of playing have nothing to do with the game itself.
Kiss Me First debuts on Netflix USA on June 29th, 2018.