Courtesy of Warner Bros. Enterta
Where are all the anonymous online trolls?
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One is being billed as a science fiction adventure, which makes sense. Most of it takes place in a Virtual Reality playground in which anything is possible. The playground — an immersive video game known as the OASIS — is the brainchild of James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a reclusive, awkward genius who designed it to bring people together. The movie believes in his vision, depicting the OASIS as a pop culture melting pot where everyone can be the purest version of themselves.
The OASIS is enticing because it could be real, but it loses much of its impact because one of its major aspects is entirely unbelievable. A social media platform that remains civil without any formal moderation is the most fantastical element of Ready Player One, and that overlooks everything we know about the Internet.
Though the OASIS is an exaggeration, the core idea isn’t all that far removed from technology that currently exists. Its social component, meanwhile, is very much a part of our present. Twitch is a social media site — one that facilitates social interactions through video games. Every social media platform allows users to construct composite identities and project any traits they wish. You can already make your favorite anime character your avatar on Twitter and splash your Facebook wall with obscure memes from the 1980s.
The point is that we don’t have to speculate about human behavior in a digital landscape. We already know what it looks like. People collect pop culture ephemera and decorate with signifiers from their favorite franchises. They form friend groups based on those signifiers, using references to identify other people with shared interests. Even the primacy of the OASIS’s in-game currency isn’t all that farfetched.
Players have found ways to turn in-game coin into real world cash through industries like gold farming in games like World of Warcraft — and that’s before many of those games codified the virtual to physical cash transactions into the games themselves. It’s not too much of a stretch to think that people would have more faith in a stable game currency than they would in a national bank during a dystopia.
Since we know so much about online communities, we also know exactly where Ready Player One falls short. It’s about what’s missing. Specifically, the movie depicts the OASIS as a digital utopia where everyone gets along, and that’s where it tips from speculative science into the realm of science fiction. The OASIS doesn’t seem to have any toxicity amongst its player base.
Of course, that kind of Silicon Valley optimism is not without real world precedent. In the movie, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is on a quest to find an Easter Egg that James Halliday has hidden somewhere in the OASIS. The first challenge hinges on Halliday’s disdain for rules. To obtain a key, players must finish a dangerous race that seems impossible until Wade finds an alternate path, literally going backwards in order to move forwards.
He finds the clue he needs in a pivotal scene from Halliday’s past, in which Halliday tries to shirk the responsibility of managing his creation. He doesn’t want to tell people how to live their lives, and therefore wants there to be as few rules as possible in the OASIS (for the sake of argument, we’ll ignore the inherent contradiction of saying such things about a computer program written in code).
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Halliday’s stance is markedly similar the public stance of companies like Facebook and Twitter, whose CEOs cite freedom of speech to justify the lack of oversight on their platforms. They see the Internet at its best; a glittering library that gathers and disseminates the cumulative knowledge of human history.
The OASIS is the epitome of that kind of thinking. It’s the platonic ideal: a social media network where oversight is unnecessary because all of the users have a mutual respect for one another and are acting in good faith. The community regulates itself — if there are moderators, we never get see them.
It’s an appealing picture, one I’d certainly like to believe. The only trouble is that it’s not borne out in reality. We know the Internet is a terrifying breeding ground for trolls, white supremacy, fake news, and other social ills. We know — beyond a shadow of a doubt — that the utopia simply does not exist.
To suggest otherwise in 2018 is disingenuous. No matter how desperately we want to believe, bad people don’t stop being bad people when they log on. The real world is filled with millions of prejudiced individuals who carry their prejudices with them whenever they respond to a post on Facebook. From doxing to swatting to death threats, online abuse is invasive. When there are no consequences to discourage toxic behavior, it subsumes the whole culture of a space.
Like Facebook and Twitter, Ready Player One doesn’t see a problem. It sees possibility, depicting the Internet as it could be rather than what it is, failing to grapple with humanity’s darker impulses. It’s telling that the employees of Innovative Online Industries (IOI) — the corporation that serves as the primary antagonist in the film — are immediately identifiable due to their featureless uniforms and the lack of any pop culture adornments. They’re the players who’re not having fun; soulless, easy-to-avoid drones who’ve removed themselves from the social aspects of the experience.
In reality, there is no way to distinguish those with bad intentions. A troll can show up in the same Master Chief armor as a social worker, and there’s no way to tell them apart until someone starts spewing racist bile and harassing other players. Malice can hide behind a friendly face — because a love of Monty Python is not an accurate measure of a person’s moral fiber.
Those intent on causing harm can use their anonymity to slip past our defenses, and for more sadistic trolls, even the shame of exposure is seldom a deterrent. Vile behavior is the norm, an undeniable fact of life lived on the Internet.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Ready Player One in not wrong to suggest that we should be skeptical of corporations like IOI, which wants to gain control of the OASIS in order to datamine its customers and bombard everyone’s headsets with targeted advertisements (the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal is the latest reminder that Silicon Valley works for shareholders, not the public interest).
The movie is equally astute when it observes that the digital world can spill over into the real one, as it does when IOI tries to have Wade killed. However, Ready Player One is blind to the comparable threats that real people in its audience face from other civilians, and the Facebooks of the world won’t be able to fix the problem until they recognize that public danger.
In 2011, a blockbuster that overlooked the dark web would have been fanciful but benign, another feel-good Hollywood flick that wants to uplift rather than interrogate. In 2018, that seems naïve to the point of recklessness. Wade would indeed be able to find companionship and support through his experiences in the OASIS, and it’s inspiring to think that a single rallying cry could summon an army for a climactic showdown against an evil dystopian overlord. Sadly, the Internet writ large lacks that kind of cohesion.
Though many online interest groups have organized around specific causes, that energy is scattershot, as likely to be (mis)directed at other users as it is to be harnessed for a single collective purpose. In that regard Ready Player One is propagating a fallacy. It presents the dream without the nightmare, telling audiences they’ll be able to combat threats to our digital security because those threats will be obvious and monolithic.
That notion is comforting but inaccurate. The worst aspects of Internet culture are far more insidious; daily micro- and macroaggressions propagated by other individuals. As unfortunate as it is, that’s what’s missing from Ready Player One. The technology in the OASIS is ambitious but attainable. The absence of toxic behavior, on the other hand, is wildly implausible.