¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Digital cultures are dynamic transmedia ecologies with access to vast cultural reserves. Modern technologies facilitate the coming together of styles, media, platforms, and peoples to form a network of communication and exchange. Products of this “convergence culture” (Jenkins), from Harry Potter fan fiction to Pokémon Go, often combine the form and content of existing cultural artefacts—old and new. Drawing from cyberpunk literature and digital games, the video game novel is an exemplary product of convergence culture. Labelled both “ludic” (Kuehl, Detweiler, Condis) and “gamic” (Jupin) fiction,  the video game novel tells stories within video game worlds or about video game playing while using the components of games—specifically their rules and boundaries—to entertain and communicate. Not only does the video game novel concern game playing but it can “also require game-playing and puzzle-solving of readers” (Condis 2). To fully comprehend novel heterocosms (cf. Hutcheon xxiv)—their storyworlds—which extend beyond bound pages, readers must traverse a variety of media formats (cf. Jenkins, Convergence 93-130) including online forums, Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), music and video streaming sites, and video game emulators. While it is common for literary texts to include intertextual references, certain video game novels such as the one I am concerned with here, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011), are notable in their ability to motivate and train readers to navigate and even discuss its referents in a particular way. Essentially, Cline’s novel invites its reader to play the game of literature according to its own rules and boundaries. To take part, all you need is the book and access to an internet connection.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 So, what is a video game novel and, more important still, what does it do? This essay proffers an answer to this question by reading Ready Player One as a didactic novel which harnesses ludic techniques to teach its readers about 1980s video game culture through play. Ready Player One is both a story about games and a game itself, which makes it an exemplary video game novel, as does its critical and popular success that was only increased by the recent big-budget film adaptation. A dystopian novel set in 2044, Ready Player One is actually a thinly veiled homage to the age in which Cline grew up, and it is full of references to 1980s film, music, and video games. For all that, the young adult novel is not a pure a nostalgia trip for those of Cline’s era, as critics have frequently suggested. Instead, I argue that Cline’s novel is a gamer primer that should be understood in the tradition of didactic writing—a genre in which “instruction [is] a primary element or tendency” (OED). Didactic writing refers to a diverse number of texts in a variety of periods and traditions such as the moral instruction of Aesop’s tales and William Langland’s Piers Plowman, eighteenth-century women’s conduct material including The Female Tatler and The Female Spectator, nineteenth-century novels exemplified by Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and even twenty-first century self-help and entrepreneur fiction/non-fiction. This perspective reveals references in Cline’s novel as key touchstones with which to educate the reader about 1980s gamer culture. In order to fully comprehend Cline’s novel, to ‘get’ all the references, the reader must be prepared to learn. Cline’s comment in the “Acknowledgments” at the end of the novel are indicative of this goal. He writes:
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Finally, I want to thank all of the writers, filmmakers, actors, artists, musicians, programmers, game designers, and geeks whose work I’ve paid tribute to in this story. These people have all entertained and enlightened me, and I hope that—like Halliday’s hunt—this book will inspire others to seek out their creations [emphasis added]. (374)
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 The contents of the novel’s intertextual syllabus are taught using both narrative and games. “[S]eek[ing] out [these] creations” and arriving at 100% completion of the novel—getting all the references—is motivated in three ways. First, the novel catalyzes the reader’s motivation by reifying gamer communities as progressively countercultural with a narrative that positions gamers as societal saviors. Like much contemporary sci-fi, Ready Player One proposes that the future of humanity rests upon the ethical implementation of technology. Significantly, Ready Player One identifies gamer communities as arbiters of ethical technology implementation in resistance to the tyranny of corporations. It thus contributes to the myth that gaming communities are somehow inherently subversive to authority despite being the foundation of a multi-billion dollar industry that mostly panders to white men.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Second, the novel catalyzes motivation by providing a model for gamer conduct. Events in the narrative and interactions between the characters illustrate a system of exchange and self-fashioning that extends beyond notions of “cultural capital” (Bourdieu) toward a “gaming capital” (Consalvo) in keeping with so-called neoliberal subjectivity. Indeed, I read Ready Player One as inherently imbricated with trends and practices identified by critics as neoliberal. I will provide exposition on my use of “neoliberal” in due course, but for now we can characterize the twentieth-century liberal to neoliberal shift as a resurgence of laissez-faire economics, a further withdrawal of the state intervention in favor of governance by market logics, and a ubiquitous assimilation of both institutional and individual common sense with economic rationality. Notably for the task at hand, economists often mobilize games to explain neoliberal practices. Contemporary reflections on game theory argue that the pedagogy of games—exemplified by the Prisoners’ Dilemma—have been integral to the formation of neoliberal subjectivity, with game playing being “interchangeable with contemporary paradigmatic instrumental rationality” (Amadae 61). In other words, the pursuit of financial gain is analogous to the win-at-all-costs attitude prevalent in meritocratic, non-cooperative game worlds—earn points and ignore the virtual (and sometimes real) consequences. Money, as “the medium of all value” (Amadae i), is gamified; neoliberalism is an intensification of capitalist logics, where financial accumulation is a means to an end in itself, a game played for the sake of the game. In arguing that the novel provides a conduct model for the neoliberal subject, I build on these economic analyses by proposing that Ready Player One speaks to a gamification of value that extends beyond traditional forms of financial capital; Cline’s novel speaks to a desire for unmitigated accumulation in all cultural spheres that are themselves economized and, therefore, gamified. A gamer primer, Ready Player One helps the budding neoliberal subject self-fashion in gaming communities by indicating valuable markers (Cline’s canon of references) and providing a conduct model to acquire and display “gaming capital”—an aggregation of gaming skill, knowledge, and experience. Though in the storyworld “gaming capital” has clear moral connotations (saving the world) and financial connections (winning a trillion dollar company), gamer value markers are clearly intrinsic to the formation and curation of character identity and worth. Seeking out the references and performing gamer knowledge may well be pleasurable means unto themselves, but this essay suggests that the joys of ludic accumulation and gamer self-fashioning via value markers profoundly resonates with market rationality and the seductive power of neoliberalism. In short, Ready Player One isn’t just a game for fun, it’s a game that instructs a gamer ethic—a mutation of Weber’s Protestant Ethic—with auspicious parallels to neoliberal practices.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Third, the novel motivates the reader to emulate the characters’ conduct and gamer ethic by not only being about their competition but also by being a competition itself — it replicates the Easter Egg hunt of the story world in the real world. Starting with an encoded URL hidden in the text, players are led to embody the fictional hunt by completing a series of challenges. Simultaneously, this leads to the formation of an online community of egg hunters comparable to the “gunters” (short for “egg hunters”) in the novel. Further ARGs, forums and websites such as Cline’s blog consolidate this community.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Over the years, critics have taken gaming communities to task over abhorrent exclusionary practices. Cline’s novel received similar treatment. Undoubtedly, in exploring what is essentially the creation of gamer history, questions about representative source selection and identity inclusion are important (cf. Condis). The conclusion that Cline’s novel, in its reference to mostly white, male artists and focalization through a white, male subject position, contributes to the hegemony of heterosexual, cis white men in gaming cultures strikes me as irrefutable (cf. Nakamura). Taking such critiques of the novel as given, I want to highlight two of its other important implications. The first concerns how a twenty-first century print text harnessed the power of a transmedia ecology to create a community. In doing so, Ready Player One formed not only an historical consciousness about 1980s video game culture but also inspired a high degree of popular engagement with its intertexts; the novel actually inspired people to watch, listen to, and play 1980s cultural products. To explore the instructional capacity of Ready Player One is to consider how the novel form can affect change in the digital age. Second, to read Ready Player One as a didactic novel is to consider how members of communities hailed as subcultural fashion themselves. Cline’s novel is a primer that not only educates the reader in 1980s gaming culture but also provides a fan culture code of conduct for gamers young and old. Indeed, for those that were video game players in the 1980s, the novel is still an important selective remembrance imbuing certain cultural artifacts with value—delineating the “right” kind of nostalgia. The phenomenon of Ready Player One expresses—that is, represents and contributes to—an important aspect of gamified, neoliberal digital culture: self-fashioning of identity and worth by incessantly accruing value markers such as Likes, Upvotes, Follows, and other forms of validation (cultural literacy, peer affirmation) as means unto themselves. This essay does not intend to enact a comprehensive discussion of self-fashioning in fan communities, a project which would require further case studies, but offers an important foray. To do so, it draws upon two main thinkers: Wendy Brown to set a working definition of neoliberalism and value, and Byung-Chul Han for his concept of the “project” or “achievement-subject.” Together, they allow me to explain how even apparently subcultural modes of self-fashioning are not easily disaggregated from market logics—gamer conduct being precisely the kind of ethic required for navigating (and perhaps playing) the regime of neoliberalism. As a book about a game composed of a series of smaller games about knowing games that is itself a game that teaches the reader about games and how to play games within a gamer culture that is also one big game… Ready Player One is a paradigmatic literary artifact for the milieu of gamification. In moving beyond moralizing discussions of online communities, Ready Player One reveals what is both compelling and frightening not only about the culture of games but, in the prescient words of Pierre Bourdieu, “the game of culture” (6).
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Set in 2044 urban America, Ready Player One begins after ecological and economic collapse has forced country dwellers across the US to migrate to the outskirts (banlieus) of major cities in search of jobs and internet access. In the subsequent build-up of towering “stacks” of mobile homes, we meet the novel’s teenage protagonist, Wade Watts. Through Wade we learn how the dire state of dystopian existence has driven many people to seek solace in the O.A.S.I.S. (“Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”) (48). The O.A.S.I.S. is “a massively multiplayer online game that (…) gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity (…) [use] on a daily basis” (1).
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Early in the novel, Wade reveals that the creator of the O.A.S.I.S., video game designer James Halliday, has passed away leaving no heirs. Upon his death, Halliday released a video challenging the entire population of the O.A.S.I.S. to find an Easter Egg buried deep within the game. The first person to progress through the series of challenges and clues that lead to the ‘egg’ inherits both Halliday’s vast fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S. Along with this message, Halliday released documents chronicling his life and 1980s pop culture obsessions as clues to the kind of knowledge players would need to succeed. Thus “a new subculture was born, composed of the millions of people who now devoted every free moment of their lives to searching for Halliday’s egg. At first, these individuals were known simply as ‘egg hunters,’ but this was quickly truncated to the nickname ‘gunters’” (8). Wade, whose O.A.S.I.S. user name is Parzival, is part of this gunter assemblage along with best friend Aech and love interest Art3mis.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The villains of the novel are a “global communications conglomerate” called “Innovative Online Industries” or “IOI” (33). IOI abuse their monopoly over many goods and services in the 2044 United States to produce circumstances equivalent to debt slavery. To ‘pay off’ these never-ending debts, people must work virtually in the O.A.S.I.S. for IOI. IOI’s ultimate ambition is to expand their empire to full control of the real and virtual worlds. To do this, they must win Halliday’s hunt within the same rules and boundaries as the gunters. While the gunters want to maintain the freedom of the O.A.S.I.S.—which currently provides not only free access to play but also education—IOI intends to monetize the virtual universe through advertising and subscription fees. If the gunters are the chivalric knights of this tale who play by the rules, then IOI are the unfair deviants that break the “magic circle.” IOI aggregate their collective performance to find the Easter Egg by hiring both players and researchers, spending huge amounts of money (which can be transferred to in-game finances) and threatening opponents in real life. Notably, IOI transgress the boundaries of the virtual game by uncovering Wade’s identity and trying to assassinate him. In short, the gunters’, and ultimately Wade’s, victory over IOI to maintain Halliday’s vision of a free O.A.S.I.S symbolizes a triumph of the individual over a faceless corporation, a free internet over a monetized one, teamwork over cheating and, above all, a game well played.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Ready Player One’s O.A.S.I.S resonates with monopolistic digital platforms like Google whose services are used ubiquitously. On the one hand, the O.A.S.I.S. functions as essential societal infrastructure that provides a utopian escape from economic and ecological collapse, but on the other hand it is a continuous revenue stream for corporations and an advanced method of oppression via data tracking and immaterial labor. Contrary to early cyberpunk fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which fears an effacement of human agency in the face of the determinism of digital spaces, Ready Player One depicts humans as in control of the future implementation of technology. The novel is optimistic about the possibility of an ethical implementation of platforms, suggesting it just takes the right leadership. Consequently, it is only by harnessing the power of technology that the future of humanity can be guided in the right direction. Clearly, corporations cannot be trusted to do this job because their ethics are clouded by their money-grabbing propensities. The stakes are high and the message is clear: that the gamers—as representatives of the young and tech-savvy—are society’s saviors. In the repackaging of the classic tale of corporation vs. counterculture, the narrative reifies gaming communities as antithetical to the tyranny of corporatism.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 This is the first and most superficial component of the novel’s didacticism: an instructive myth teaching the reader that gaming culture is marginal and opposed to evil powers trying to take away fun and freedom. Simplistic but evocative, the novel appeals to the liberal proclivity to uphold the rights of man and resist domination by identifying gaming culture with an ethos of transgression. The moral of the story is: gamers are anti-corporate, gamers are good, be a gamer.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 In a time where tech-entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are venerated as today’s intellectuals and video game streamers like Ninja become celebrities, the geek-as-outcast and geek as antithetical to ‘mainstream’ or ‘dominant’ culture becomes an unworkable paradigm. Ready Player One’s myth, therefore, needs to be distilled by theorizations of subjectivity that cut across supposed cultural boundaries for it to have any purchase on reality. Under the regime of neoliberalism, cultural distinctions become irrelevant: all is subsumed into the flows and circulation of capital. As everything is economized, individuals become less like disciplined subjects and more like faux-free “projects” under the illusion that they are idiosyncratically self-fashioning (Han 1). In reality, the “free” individual marches to the beat of market logics.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 But what is neoliberalism and why should it transform our notions of social and cultural distinctions? As Wendy Brown explains: “Neoliberalism is commonly understood as a set of economic policies promoting unrestricted actions, flows, and accumulations of capital by means of low tariffs and taxes, de-regulation of industries, privatization of formerly public goods and services, stripped out welfare states, and the breakup of organized labor” (61). In his lectures on The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault argues that neoliberalism should also be grasped as a governing rationality that forms new modes of subjectivity, conduct, and social relation. It is thus distinct, Brown argues, from ideology—“a distortion or mystification of reality”—in being both productive and world-making: its economization of “every sphere and human endeavor” forms a society based not on a “justice-producing social contract” and merely organized around markets but, instead, a state oriented by market requirements (62). Neoliberal rationality becomes common sense and its principles govern not only the state but also suffuse all other institutions and expressions of public and private life—including those groups hailed as subcultural. In this way, traditional notions of freedom—often conceptualized as a life devoid of necessity, subjugation, and external compulsion—become impossible. Freedom, too, is submitted to market logics, as it is equated entirely with the unregulated pursuit of private ends and is exercised to “enhance the value, competitive positioning, or market share of a person or firm” (62). The concept is thus stripped of any political valency; even the act of opposing ‘dominant’ institutions becomes another type of competitive positioning in order to enhance one’s value. The community, too, is subsumed. Far from self-realization with others, what Marx defines as freedom—“Only in community [with others does each] individual [have] the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible” (The German Ideology 83) —the community is merely a set of parameters for self-interested competition, just like a game. As the unwitting “genital organs of Capital” (Han 4), relations between human actors amounts to the “relation of capital to itself as another capital, i.e., the real conduct of capital as capital” (Marx, Grundrisse 650). This faux-freedom amounts to what critics, following Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” identify as a new form of governmentality. As Brown elucidates:
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 [N]eoliberalization in the Euro-Atlantic world today is more often enacted (…) through ‘soft power’ drawing on consensus and buy in, [rather] than (…) violence, dictatorial command, or even overt political platforms. Neoliberalism governs as sophisticated common sense, a reality principle remaking institutions and human beings everywhere it settles, nestles, and gains affirmation [emphases added]. (Undoing the Demos 35)
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 As I will expand on shortly, it is already evident how this neoliberal reality principle—ubiquitous self-affirmation via competitive value accumulation in line with market rationality—has profound ludic resonances.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 For now, the consequences of this neoliberal terrain for communities in the digital age are clear. Identifying and engaging with a so-called subculture is not to take-up a stance antithetical to the establishment, nor does it necessarily escape the logic of the neoliberal regime. Instead, the person merely occupies a position in another market with its own metrics of accumulation. The self-interested person—in this case someone who identifies with a subset of gamer culture, the Ready Player One fanbase—seeks to enhance their value in this new market. But what is value?
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Conceptualizing the slippery term ‘value’ in the study of digital communities under the neoliberal regime is complex. Current scholarship on video game culture largely defers to Pierre Bourdieu’s delineation of “cultural capital” in their discussions of value. Typically, we understand capital as a financial asset. For Bourdieu, however, cultural capital is something that improves the standing of those who possess it within a purportedly afinancial system of social exchange in which that thing is valued. Cultural capital refers to the performance of possessing markers—such as having read certain books or recognizing certain music—that allow their possessors access to the privileges of higher classes (Bourdieu 1-2). The historical purpose of, for example, literary study was to provide students with linguistic capital—in the form of “Standard English” as the preferred dialect of upper class communication—and symbolic capital, which gives the student the ability to impress others with their knowledge of canonical literature and thus demonstrate their good taste (cf. Guillory ix). In this way, literary study might advance a student’s social standing in facilitating a display of certain knowledges equated with an upper-class lifestyle. The catch, of course, is that such knowledge is often predicated on access to certain types of education and experience. Therefore, existing financial and class privileges manifest themselves in the form of other symbols in Bourdieu’s delineation of cultural capital. Indeed, the very purpose of the markers of this form of capital could be conceptualized as a gatekeeping method that manifests itself socially and allows the identification and exclusion of those not from similarly privileged backgrounds. Indeed, Nicholas Garnham and Raymond Williams have argued that what ultimately defines cultural capital as capital is its ‘convertibility’ into economic/financial capital (cf. 123).
¶ 23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Unfortunately, transposing Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital onto systems of value in the neoliberal regime is problematic, as it relies upon types of class stratification or, at least, meaningful distinctions between high and popular culture that no longer exist. This does not mean, however, that Cline’s novel does not contain residual assumptions about the alignment of alternate canon formation and an ethos of political transgression. Henry Jenkins’s analysis of internet communities epitomizes such an optimistic theorization. Jenkins argues that the formation of alternate canons and the production of user-generated content is a subversive feature of convergent, participatory cultures. “With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement [and] strong support for creating and sharing creation” members of participatory cultures “believe their contributions matter and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (Jenkins, Confronting 5). Communities that engage in these practices typically transgress culturally dominant standards of “good taste” by constructing a seemingly non-hierarchical system of exchange (cf. 16). In the same vein, Ready Player One portrays its system of knowledge exchange as radically egalitarian. All players with access to the O.A.S.I.S. have access to Anorak’s Almanac—a document released by Halliday on his death to serve as a guide to all his 1980s’ obsessions. Purportedly, therefore, everyone has a chance to be a winner. We can therefore understand both the fictional gunter community in Ready Player One and the community that emerges around the novel as examples of a participatory culture: members are valued for their knowledge of Halliday’s/Cline’s 1980s canon, their video game skills, and their ability to contribute to the community.
¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 This narrative of emancipation—that creating alternate systems of exchange subverts or escapes the neoliberal regime—obfuscates the two important aspects of value circulation. First, alternate systems of value exchange remain economized. Even in these subcultural internet communities, people function as self-interested accumulators. They are not breaking out of neoliberal world-making practices. Second, accumulation of markers does not signify social/cultural bracket access as with Bourdieu’s cultural capital. That is, the accumulation of these markers does not cease to be relevant once the threshold for membership is reached. Instead, these markers are effectively monetized and continue to be currency accrued as a means unto itself. Inverting Bourdieu, rather than accumulating markers to enter a community, we might say that attaining community membership is desirable only insofar as that community facilitates accumulation.
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 To understand what monetized markers mean for gaming communities, it is helpful to consider value in digital culture more broadly. The neoliberal regime enmeshes subjectivity with accumulation practices as if, as Byung-Chul Han forwards, the neoliberal subject were not a subject at all but a project (cf. 1). For Han, “the project subject is a new, more efficient kind of subjeçtivation and subjugation (…). As a project deeming itself free of external and alien limitations, the I is now subjugating itself to internal limitations and self-constraints, which are taking the form of compulsive achievement and optimization” (1). Also referred to as the “achievement-subject,” the project is more complex than homo economicus, a caricature of rational man who attempts to maximize profit and utility as producer and consumer, and it is less clearly related to financial capital than can be understood through the lens of human capital—knowledge, habits, and personality attributes that are ultimately embodied in the ability to perform labor and produce economic value. Instead, the project compulsively accumulates in order to improve itself. Wendy Brown draws similar conclusions when she states that the neoliberal regime produces “a creature who has to manage its value, whether through Facebook or Twitter, or interning for free, or selling its forehead as advertising space. It has to manage its value but it does this for itself. If it doesn’t have any assets, anything it can capitalize or with which it can attract investors, then it becomes not just fungible but disposable” (80). But this is not purely a sterile, rational desire. Brown notes that
¶ 26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 there’s much about financialisation and neoliberalism that’s emotionally and affectively appealing. It’s very, very seductive, and I don’t just mean people are tricked. I’m not talking about false consciousness. I mean it’s exciting and delicious in many ways to think about how to enhance the value of various bits of your self, how to brand yourself, how to attract investors, how to get more likes on Facebook, how to get re-tweeted, how to self-invest and get others to invest in you. (“Feminism, Law, and Neoliberalism” 83)
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 As already noted in identifying the co-emergence of game theory and neoliberal governance (cf. Amadae), there are profound resonances between the seduction of neoliberalism and the joy of playing games. Foucault’s ludic economy analogy provides a lucid corroboration:
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 In short, both for the state and for individuals, the economy must be a game: a set of regulated activities (…) in which the rules are not decisions which someone takes for others [but] (…) a set of rules which determine the way in which each must play a game whose outcome is not known by anyone. The economy is a game and the legal institution which frames the economy should be thought of as the rules of the game [emphasis added]. (173)
¶ 30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 For Foucault, the neoliberal institution does not order subjects through discipline, it sets the parameters for the apparent contingency of free competition. This faux-freedom of the individual is analogous to the player in a game where all play is within set boundaries and is ultimately subsumed into the flows of capital; any activity ultimately becomes part of the game (of capitalism) itself. Tellingly, game theorists frequently compare life to a game or a series of games, sometimes in harrowing ways (cf. Amadae 61). In brief, economized spheres are gamified spheres. And if, as Brown argues, all spheres of life are economized under neoliberalism, then all spheres of life are gamified. To be clear, I am extending this observation beyond the financial economy and arguing that the acquisition of alternate value markers—set by the parameters of a given community—is a practice indicative of and embroiled in the neoliberal “common sense” or “reality principle” that prioritizes market rationality (Brown Undoing 35). Ready Player One, therefore, can tell us something about the fatal attraction of neoliberalism. I believe it has something to do with why we like games so much. As Dana Smith writes of Candy Crush Saga: “Initially, the game allows us to win and pass levels with ease, giving a strong sense of satisfaction. These accomplishments are experienced as mini-rewards in our brains, releasing the neurochemical dopamine and tapping into the same neuro-circuity involved in addiction, reinforcing our actions.” Might, as Brown notes, adhering to neoliberal metrics of valuation, the economization of everything, provide a similar sense of satisfaction? Might acquiring market value be analogous to playing games and accumulating dopamine hits? Might the ethic of neoliberalism be the gamer ethic? Such questions are unanswerable here but provide a generative context for the ensuing analysis.
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Turning now to a definition of ‘gaming capital’ and its textual representation, Brown and Han’s theorizations of neoliberal subjectivity serve as touchstones for understanding the project’s notion of value and the connection between self-fashioning and an incessant drive for value acquisition. Moving beyond the superficial counterculture/mainstream binaries and reification of gamer identity delineated as the novel’s first didactic move, Cline’s novel illustrates how projects go about value accumulation. This is the second key component of the novel’s didacticism—providing a model for gamer conduct and therefore a guide for achievement-subjects looking to invest in the currency of gaming communities.
¶ 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Video games are clearly meritocratic. In the act of play, the trajectory of acquisition is clear to the project: win more games, earn more experience points, acquire more items, etc. It is less obvious how value circulates beyond the player’s private experience of the game. The term ‘gaming capital’ helps explain how forms of accumulation and exchange in and around video game communities occur. Coined by Mia Consalvo, the notion of ‘gaming capital’ is intended to “capture how being a member of game culture is about more than playing games or even playing them well. It’s being knowledgeable about game releases and secrets, and passing that information on to others. It’s having opinions about which game magazines are better and the best sites for walkthroughs on the Internet” (18). Since Consalvo’s use of the term, other critics have developed ‘gaming capital’ to signify the intersecting “cultural, economic, social and symbolic forms of capital that are embodied through the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of the bodily habitus within local sociologies of gaming” (Walsh and Apperley 2). In other words, being a good gamer is not just about being good at video games, it is about being engaged in the community and performing an in-depth knowledge of games and their paratexts—other media and texts that exist alongside games and players. Essentially, gaming capital is a way of measuring the value of activities in the communities that emerge around gameplay.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 In Ready Player One, the most obvious relationship between gaming and capital is the direct conversion of O.A.S.I.S. money to real-world money. Winning contests, performing virtual labor, and acquiring and selling items in the O.A.S.I.S. accrues in-game money which can be used to purchase products in meatspace. Conversely, money earned in the real world is spent on hardware to increase in-game effectiveness (such as more sensitive haptic gloves or a faster internet connection) or on virtual objects and services like weapons and transportation. The consequences of this equivalence are present in the novel with IOI drawing upon their vast resources to aid their cause in the Hunt and with wealthy Aech giving poor Wade money so they can virtually adventure together. But the devastation of translating real into virtual money is staged all the more dramatically in Spielberg’s 2018 film version. Here, in the attempt to win a game, Wade’s aunt’s abusive partner, Rick, splurges all his money on virtual armor upgrades and weapons only to be gunned down in the heat of battle. The real-world consequences are violent. Rick reveals that he has spent the family savings and proceeds to release his ire on aunt Alice and Wade. On an institutional level, the equivalence of virtual and real money also leads to corporate oppression as people in debt to IOI must pay their dues indentured in a small booth performing work online in the O.A.S.I.S. Neither of these examples in Ready Player One are distant from our lived relationship with digital technologies abundant with microtransactions and virtual sweatshops. Indeed, the exchangeability of virtual and real money reveals a central paradigm of neoliberalism: not only the economization of games but the gamification of everything.
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Within the novel’s universe, knowledge about Halliday’s life and interests also become gaming capital with a direct translation into financial capital, as it brings players closer to winning Halliday’s fortune and having control of the O.A.S.I.S. In acquiring the keys to pass through the gates that eventually lead to finding the Easter Egg, players decipher clues and complete challenges. For example, the first challenge of the novel pits players against a non-player character in a game of Joust (1982). The player must be good enough to beat this difficult opponent whom one can only face every twenty-four hours. This skill is only developed by having practiced the game before the challenge. Another example is the “Flicksync” where players must recite, word for word, the lines of a character in a movie (112). For one challenge, Wade plays the role of Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman in Wargames (1983) and, in another, a character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). These performative games require the player to deliver the correct dialogue at appropriate moments; they are awarded bonuses for chaining together correct responses and mimicking the gestures and inflection of the original films. Once again, this is not a game scenario where players can learn by repetition: they must prepare for these tests. To acquire this knowledge and move closer to victory in the hunt, one must study the “canon” (39) constituted by Halliday’s favorite works.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 The rules and boundaries of this gunter game of culture are thus set by Halliday’s journal, Anorak’s Almanac (Anorak being the name of Halliday’s avatar). These texts are treated with an almost religious reverence that imbues them with value above their ludic and aesthetic merits. Many of Halliday’s favorite games come from his childhood in the 1980s, so, relative to 2044, as Wade describes, “these games were outdated digital dinosaurs that had become museum pieces long before [he] was born” (13). Far from “low-res antiques,” Wade sees these relics from the 1980s as “hallowed artefacts. Pillars of the pantheon” (13). Knowledge of the canon is thus significant currency and, as Wade explains, “gunters loved to play the game of one-upmanship and were constantly trying to prove they had acquired more obscure knowledge than everyone else” (43). Here, the self-interested project’s drive for accumulation is most clear. Competition with other gunters reveals how social interactions are codified as arenas in which to take stock of a project’s market share. These interactions introduce an affective dimension to accumulation, as knowledge of the canon has an immediate emotional pay-off: praise and a sense of belonging. In the O.A.S.I.S., possession of gaming capital—in the form of knowledge and game skill—demonstrates worth not only to others but also to the self. There is certainly something comforting about having a primer—Anorak’s Almanac—on how to make yourself worthy.
¶ 37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Ready Player One thus provides a model for conduct in the gamer game of culture: there must be clear markers of value or ‘gaming capital,’—in this case set by Halliday’s journal, and there must be a system of exchange that provides some kind of affective validation of this value—the competitive games of one-upmanship. Together, the prospective currency is first circulated and then minted by a collective human capital investment of time and labor,—an investment motivated in the novel by the promise of Halliday’s massive fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S. With these rules and boundaries set, emulating the gunters, the reader/project can begin to collect the markers of value. However, there is one problem with direct emulation: in the real world, a significant component of this system is missing. There is no massive fortune motivating the accumulation of capital. So why would a reader bother to seek out the constituents of Halliday’s canon? The answer lies in Ready Player One’s transmedia paratexts, which indicate the full force of the novel’s pedagogy.
¶ 39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 The multi-trillionaire founder of the O.A.S.I.S. has entirely dictated the rules and limits of this game of culture. Halliday has used his power to create an Easter Egg hunt incentivizing an affinity with texts he values. Regardless of whether we read Halliday as a social progressive or a lonely man forcing others to share his nostalgia, his institutional position in control of a powerhouse digital platform is timely. Corporate magnates and superstar tech-entrepreneurs are venerated not just for their inventions or market achievements but as bastions of life advice and resources for self-help. Truly, the economization of all spheres under the neoliberal regime means that leading a life of success transcends occupational boundaries and splits between the public and private. From Steve Jobs to Warren Buffet, people want to know when they wake up, what books they read, how much sugar they have in their coffee: people want to know how they live. Essentially, the project asks: how do they accumulate better than me? How can I emulate their methods? Certainly, the memoirs of these success figures are examples of modern-day didactic literature as they are placed alongside self-help texts on bookstore shelves. Such texts and figures are important components in the maintenance of neoliberal worldmaking practices by emphasizing the trials of the self-interested individual and the telos of compulsive accumulation: fame and fortune. It goes without saying that a corporate oligarch’s easy transposition from hedge fund manager to social, cultural, and even psychological instructor is a frightening prospect. Despite the ostensibly egalitarian aims of the O.A.S.I.S. in providing free use, education, and a platform for employment, Ready Player One provides a clear parallel to these real-world developments in Halliday’s transition from introverted tech-entrepreneur to cultural dictator.
¶ 40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 As the Ready Player One fiction bleeds into reality, a similar pedagogical ploy reveals itself: Cline educates his readership in 1980s gamer culture, the era of his childhood. But Cline is no corporate oligarch, nor, like Halliday, does he offer up the control of a trillion dollar company. Instead, ludic tactics with their own reward structures are mobilized to motivate engagement with his gamer primer and its intertexts. This is the third and final component of the novel’s didacticism: teaching games with games.
¶ 41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Learning is enabled by easy access to internet search engines. A similar flattening of learning to the gunters’—in which all users can access the same information—has occurred in the contemporary reading process, only that, instead of the Almanac, we have Google. After Mia Consalvo’s Cheating, we can understand how some reader/players might find value in traversing Ready Player One’s intertexts as an end in itself: different players have different ethics of engagement with a game. Just as one group of players might value completing just a video game’s story mode, another group might aim to gather all collectibles and beat all challenges for a 100% completion rating. Similarly, there are different levels of completion for Cline’s novel from just skimming the book to following all the references. For example, readers might search for and play Joust on an emulator or watch Wargames after reading about it. Here, the project accepts “Halliday’s egg hunt, and by extension Cline’s novel (…) as a classroom wherein student-readers learn about the origins of gamerdom” and begins to accumulate markers “Cline identifies as foundational to gamer culture” (Condis 3). For evidence of this reader engagement, we need look no further than Google once again. A quick search for “Ready Player One references” leads to multiple wiki sites, articles and forum threads documenting all the intertexts in the novel. Similar lists have also been compiled for the film adaptation. In discussion threads on Reddit, for example, this Ready Player One knowledge is most clearly economized. Users disseminating the most obscure knowledge or theories tend to be upvoted the most—the value of gamer capital is quantified numerically.
¶ 42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Claiming that this kind of user engagement came into being without cultivation would, however, be inaccurate. If the canon of references is the Ready Player One syllabus then Cline’s pedagogy is decidedly ludic. Indeed, Cline motivated readers to engage with the 1980s references by creating two new games for players to take part in. The first, which Cline released in 2012 on the novel’s anniversary, was a real-world Easter Egg hunt ARG (Alternate Reality Game), starting within the text. Here, the reader/player was invited to search the novel for an encoded URL—http://anoraksalmanac.com/—that would begin a journey through a series of gates, clues, and challenges, just like in the story. Users deciphered the URL by combining misspellings in English print editions of the novel. This led to a game made about the Ready Player One novel called Stacks and unlocked a QR code: a clue to the next challenge. The second challenge, no longer available, was a Facebook game called Ultimate Collector: Garage Sale in which players had to collect the parts to build a DeLorean (of Back to the Future fame). The final challenge of the Easter Egg hunt required the player to set a world record on a select classic arcade game: Pac-Man, Joust Arcade, Joust Atari 2600, Black Tiger, or Robotron 2084. The prize? A DeLorean, of course. Cline used his well-followed blog to disseminate updates on the challenges and to celebrate player successes. Undoubtedly, this platform of fame via Cline’s Ernie’s Blog added another degree of prestige to the competition, another affirmation of gaming capital’s value. In the end, Craig Queen was the first to make his way through all the gates and complete the final challenge. In the process, therefore, players had to close-read the novel, play games that engaged with the novel’s narrative and intertexts, and ultimately prove their gaming skills by setting a world record, verified by the organization Twin Galaxies, on a classic arcade game.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 In December 2012, in a hat-tip to the foundation of the in-text O.A.S.I.S., Cline revealed the release of another game that allowed users to role-play within the Ready Player One universe via a chat-interface: the O.A.S.I.S. Multi-user Dimension. The M.U.D. has since been shut down, but similar user communities emulating its role-playing formula have replaced it. At the time of writing in 2018, Reddit is hosting forums where users refer to themselves as ‘gunters’ and search for Easter Eggs in the film adaptation. Once again, significant amounts of knowledge about Ready Player One and its intertexts are required in order to effectively engage in the gunter fantasy.
¶ 44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Ready Player One and the games within and around it have therefore spurred not only a community of avid followers but a great deal of participation. As a result, player/readers have built themselves into the novel’s heterocosm by taking part in their own Easter Egg hunts and developing their own narratives in RPGs. Simultaneously, users have contributed to the expansion of the novel’s heterocosm by producing artistic representations of characters, cosplaying, and writing fan fiction. One such product, “Lacero” by Andy Weir—a short story exploring chief bad guy Sorento’s background—is now considered a canonical addition to the novel’s plot. Such responses are indicative not only of the mutability of the parameters of this participatory community but also of the success of Cline’s pedagogy in spreading his subcultural 1980s canon.
¶ 46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 At the start of this essay I asked, what does the video game novel do? I have argued that one function of video game fiction is education, teaching readers about the beginnings of gaming culture in the 1980s, how to conduct oneself in gaming communities, and, ultimately, implicating player/readers in a literary game. It seems that Ready Player One has achieved the goal lain out in its “Acknowledgements”—to get readers to go out and play, listen to, and watch 1980s cultural products. But the novel reveals something more complex than a cause for celebrating the persistent power of print fiction. Indeed, as Angela Nagle notes in Kill All Normies (2017), academic discourse has (should have) moved well past the uncritical appraisal of so-called countercultural products:
¶ 47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Half a century after the Rolling Stones, after Siouxsie Sioux and Joy Division flirted with fascist aesthetics, after Piss Christ, after Fight Club, when everyone from the President’s fanboys to McDonalds are flogging the dead horse of ‘edginess,’ it may be time to lay the very recent and very modern aesthetic values of counterculture and the entire paradigm to rest. (103)
¶ 48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 After all, counterculture too is subsumed into the mutable regime of neoliberalism. In this way, Ready Player One merely depicts and comprises another economized sphere with its own metrics of accumulation. The self-interested project craves the accumulation of value, be it in the form of upvotes, high scores, or knowledge of Halliday’s canon. Here, the didactic novel and the neoliberal subject/project intersect. For the projects who constantly seek to fashion themselves, to increase their market worth, pedagogic novels like Ready Player One are gamer primers—they function as practical conduct guides teaching readers what and how to accumulate in gaming culture.
¶ 49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 It is easy to dismiss the neoliberal regime as a pure control society, as many have done after Gilles Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” Yes, all modes of production including the immaterial are subsumed into the machinations of capitalism. Yes, digital technologies facilitate new, unseen forms of monitoring and oppression. Yes, traditional forms of creative expression, political action, even freedom all lose their valency. But what is often obfuscated by these analyses is what is so attractive about neoliberal world-making. I have gestured throughout this essay toward the appeal of clear methods and metrics to acquire value—whatever that may mean in a given context—and increase self-worth. Ready Player One, as primer, forwards a mode of self-validation through its clear delineation of value markers (gaming capital) and code of conduct (the gamer ethic). By connecting the beginnings of neoliberalism explicitly to games and game playing, I have proposed that, more than exemplary, Ready Player One may well be a paradigmatic phenomenon for the milieu of neoliberal gamification. To return to an earlier question: might the ethic of neoliberalism be the gamer ethic? The two certainly correspond in interesting ways. To claim, as Mackenzie Wark does, that now “the form of the digital game is an allegory for the form of being” (171) would be too strong, however—not all things are gamified, suffering remains and resists. The comparison between pervasive market rationality and the game form is generative, though, for thinking the pleasures of being neoliberal. There is something about the compulsion to accumulate that is devoid of idealism but strangely comforting at the same time: it is not toward anything, it is almost playful—Candy Crush’s dopamine hit. In this way, the economization of games comes hand-in-hand with the gamification of the economy and social relations. But there is no game over, no victory clause, no control over the O.A.S.I.S. on the horizon—it is a game without winning. Truly, as Bourdieu writes, there is no way out of “the game of culture” (6).
¶ 50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 Notably, even five years after the announcement of the Easter Egg hunt, when everyone had lost hope in finding, let alone passing, the first stage of the Hunt, Wade and friends continued to rigorously train in preparation. It is easy to imagine that, had Wade not happened upon the Copper Key, the gunters would have persisted to compulsively accrue gaming capital for the rest of their lives (9). Here, perhaps, lies part of the seduction of ubiquitous economization: at least infinite accumulation stuffs a void of meaning.
¶ 56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Brown, Wendy. “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom in Twenty-First Century ‘Democracies.’” Critical Times, vol.1, no. 1, 2018. https://ctjournal.org/index.php/criticaltimes/article/view/12/7 pp. 60-79
¶ 60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 Condis, Megan Amber. “Playing the Game of Literature: Ready Player One, the Ludic Novel, and the Geeky ‘Canon’ of White Masculinity.” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 39, no. 2, 2016, pp. 1-19.
¶ 66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Foucault, Michel. The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France 1978-1979. Edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell, Palgrave, 2008.
¶ 67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Garnham, Nicholas, and Raymond Williams. “Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of Culture.” Media, Culture and Society: A Critical Reader. Edited by R. Collins et al., Sage, 1986, pp. 116-30.
¶ 78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 Nakamura, Lisa. “Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficult Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, n.pag..
¶ 81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Smith, Dana. “This is What Candy Crush Saga Does to your Brain.” The Guardian, 1 Apr. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2014/apr/01/candy-crush-saga-app-brain. Accessed 23 Nov. 2018.
¶ 83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 Walsh, Christopher, and Thomas Apperley. “Gaming Capital: Rethinking Literacy. Changing Climates: Education for Sustainable Futures. Proceedings of the AARE 2008 International Education Research Conference, 30 Nov – 4 Dec 2008, Queensland University of Technology, 2009.
¶ 86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0  Cyberpunk precursors of the video game novel include William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).
¶ 88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0  This non-trivial effort required to traverse the heterocosm of the video game novel is what celebrated game scholar, Espen Aarseth, refers to in relation to cybertexts as “ergodic” (1). We might, therefore, conceptualize these print video game novels as cybertexts as their narrative extends into cyberspace and across media.
¶ 89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0  Reviewers that had lived through the 1980s appreciated the cultural references on a personal level. For example, Patrick Rothfuss writes: “This book pleased every geeky bone in my geeky body. I feel like it was written just for me” (qtd. In Cline, Ready back cover). Paul Malmont praises Cline for “somehow manag[ing] to jack into the nervous system of some great warm collective geek-dream nostalgia of the ’70s and ’80s” (qtd. in Cline, Ready front matter). John Scalzi describes the book as a “nerdgasm” (qtd. in Cline, Ready back cover), and Christopher Farnsworth describes the novel as “Pure geek heaven. . . . A story that will resonate in the heart of every true nerd” (quoted. in Cline, Ready Player One front matter).
¶ 90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0  For a summary of feminist approaches to game culture, a delineation of the infamous #GamerGate, and a reminder of the persistent violences perpetrated by men against presenting female gamers and game critics, see Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw’s “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity.”
¶ 91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0  I use no transcendent heuristic for identifying a subculture. As “subculture” is a dynamic, shifting term, only the act of hailing a group as subcultural provides a consistent definition. In other words, that which is called a subculture is a subculture. I use the term in this essay to identify those taste cultures which do not align with perceived mass culture from a media perspective. Geek and gamer communities have been consistently referred to by the media as subcultures or subcultural (cf. Thornton).
¶ 92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0  Susan Aronstein and Jason Thompson argue in their essay “Coding the Grail: Ready Player One’s Arthurian Mash-Up“ that Wade’s choice of username, Parzival, is significant and connects the novel to a lineage of interpretations of Arthurian legend.
¶ 93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0  For more on late-twentieth-century perspectives on technological determinism, see Raymond Williams’s Television: Technology and Cultural Form, particularly pages 3-7.
¶ 95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0  Taken from Gérard Genette, Mia Consalvo uses the term ‘paratext’ in an expanded sense to signify “multiple elements involved in the larger game industry” such as magazines, forums, walkthroughs, and advertising (3).