This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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Podcast by: Tom Ue
Information Overload in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One
Every day, Wade Watts, the central character of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, checks the Hatchery, “one of the more popular gunter message forums” (32). There, he “scan[s] the most recent message threads, taking n the latest gunter news and rumours”: “The usual gunter clan flame wars. Ongoing arguments about the ‘correct’ interpretation of some cryptic passage in Anorak’s Almanac. High-level avatars bragging about some new magic item or artifact they’d obtained” (32). My central arguments, in this presentation, are that Cline offers powerful warnings about information overload, the accounting for what truly matters, and the use and misuse of information. As Henry Jenkins writes, “the age of media convergence enables communal, rather than individualistic, modes of reception” (26). Jenkins takes, as his case study, the consumers and the producers of the reality television series Survivor (2000-present). With the advent of online forums, participants more readily “share their knowledge and opinions” (28). Jenkins follows Pierre Lévy in arguing for the might of collective intelligence: “Collective intelligence refers to this ability of virtual communities to leverage the combined expertise of their members. What we cannot know or do on our own, we may be able to do collectively” (27). Jenkins’ terms, we suggest, can dexterously be applied to our reading of the gunter communities. The Hatchery and other forums sustain Wade. He visits, amongst a number of forums, Samantha’s blog “Arty’s Missives,” which “had become one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, now logging several million hits a day” (35). Wade reasonably assumes that Samantha’s blog is ripe with “misdirection and misinformation” (35). He is nevertheless hooked. By looking at Wade’s interactions with archives, we show how Cline offers particular insights into more meaningful engagements with data.
About the Authors:
Tom Ue is Co-Editor of Film International and Assistant Professor in Literature and Science at Dalhousie University. He is the co-author of The Worlds of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Routledge, forthcoming). Ue has earned the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and a 2022 Dalhousie University President’s Research Excellence Award for Emerging Investigators. He is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.
James Munday read Mathematics and Physics at Dalhousie University, where he earned the University Medal in Physics and the Sir William Young Gold Medal in Mathematics. While his academic studies have concentrated on STEM, he is co-author of the forthcoming The Worlds of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Routledge), and he has written and presented a number of essays on Cline’s and Tolkien’s oeuvres.
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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at fantastikajournal.com under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.
This podcast is part of Panel 6 Digital Identities: which will take place at 5:40 PM GMT time.
This podcast is presented by Tom Ue. Ue is Co-Editor of Film International and Assistant Professor in Literature and Science at Dalhousie University. He is the author of Gissing, Shakespeare, and the Life of Writing (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming) and George Gissing (Liverpool University Press, forthcoming); the co-author of The Worlds of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (Routledge, forthcoming); and the editor of George Gissing, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). Ue has earned the prestigious Frederick Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship and a 2022 Dalhousie University President’s Research Excellence Award for Emerging Investigators. He is an Honorary Research Associate at University College London.
Hello. I'm Dr. Tom Ue and I'm based in the English department at Dalhousie University in California. This paper is written as co written by myself and by my former student James Munday, who is currently at the University of Waterloo.
Midway through Spielberg’s film, Wade returns to the virtual universe of the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS) to consult the Halliday Journals (see Figures 1 and 2). James Halliday (Mark Rylance) is the OASIS’ co-creator, and when he died, he left behind a quest, the prizes of which are his stock in Gregarious Games and control over the OASIS, collectively worth tens of billions of dollars. Ever since, gamers have been vying to complete this quest. Central to winning, in both the novel and the film, are Halliday’s notes on his favourite literatures, as well as his thoughts and opinions about miscellaneous matters—mostly in the form of criticism. Our arguments, in what follows, are that Cline and Spielberg offer particular insights into archives and that, by looking at their treatment of information, we can deepen our understanding of the roles of repositories and bodies of knowledge in science fiction. In the novel, Halliday releases Anorak’s Almanac, a collection of hundreds of Halliday’s undated journal entries. […] Most of the entries were his stream-of-consciousness observations on various classic videogames, science-fiction and fantasy novels, movies, comic books, and ’80s pop culture, mixed with humorous diatribes denouncing everything from organized religion to diet soda. (7)
The Almanac serves as a sort of bible for gunters. Notwithstanding the little it discloses about the quest, it “seemed to indicate […] that a familiarity with Halliday’s various obsessions would be essential to finding the egg” (7). After all, Halliday created them both, and the book, in excess of a thousand pages, appeared just after the quest was announced. Ready Player One, the film, replaces the Almanac, the digital book, with the Journals, a large virtual archive in the OASIS with walls of transparent windows. Instructions about the quest are sparse. When introducing the Journals, Wade explains: “[Halliday] told us to look in his brain. This was the next best thing” (22:47). Instead of a book that users can download for free, the Journals is tethered to the OASIS: users, via their avatars, visit the building to research the game creator. And instead of written entries, the Journals comprises videos of Halliday’s actual real-life interactions, compiled “from personal photographs, home video recordings, surveillance, and nanny cams. All rendered into a three-dimensional virtual experience” (23:15).
The Journals’ shiny windows emit the OASIS’ artificial sunlight, and the building is as inviting as the flashing neon lights suggest. That the Journals has a transparent exterior lends to the archive an air of openness—users can look in and look out—but neither the Journals nor the Almanac offers an unadulterated view into Halliday’s life and mind. Archives, as Lisa Jardine has persuasively argued, are hardly all that reliable. In “Temptations in the Archives,” she offers, through an account of her paper-chase for a letter by Margaret Croft, “a cautionary tale about the trust we historians place in documents and records, and how badly we want each precious piece of evidence to add to the historical picture” (1). Her account reveals “the essential uncertainty which underlies, and ultimately gives purpose to, archival research in the humanities—in spite of the reassuring materiality of the hundreds-of-years-old piece of paper we hold in our hand” (1; original emphasis). Margaret Croft’s intercepted letter ultimately disappoints Jardine, but her more substantial arguments are about how its contents square uneasily with the narrative that contemporary scholars are telling (14) and how Margaret Anne Everett Green, the Victorian archivist who is our point of access to it and to so many records, is biased. Elsewhere, Green encouraged Geraldine Jewsbury to destroy Jane Carlyle’s letters, leading Jardine to conclude: “The very same women who presided over the painstaking retrieval of the voices of women in the archives for the historical record stood equally vigilant and ready to defend their reputations from the disapproval of posterity. There was a decorum to be observed, in the interests of which even the most scrupulous of archivists might be persuaded to tamper with the evidence” (17). We do well, as Jardine suggests, to be wary of evidence and of the archivists on whose shoulders we stand. Jardine’s findings can usefully be applied to a reading of science fiction. In Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), for example, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) recovers a poisonous dart from Padmé’s (Natalie Portman) attempted murderer (Leeanna Walsman), and yet he can find no record of it in the analysis archives. Obi-Wan learns, from Dexter Jettster (Ronald Falk), that this weapon originates from Kamino, a planetary system located beyond the Outer Rim. As Obi-Wan discovers, this system has been erased from the archive charts because it is the clone army’s production site.
As we have shown elsewhere, Cline’s novels are especially interesting for thinking about what to do with information. Both the Almanac and the Journals promise to reveal, only to conceal: they provide gunters with so much, often too much, information—the former has a whole entry about Halliday’s views on masturbation—but they can just as easily be silent. The Almanac is conspicuously quiet, say, on why Halliday parted ways with his best friend and business partner, Ogden Morrow; and this information is not to be found in any of the dozen biographies or the documentary films over which Wade pores. It is unsurprising that Halliday should wish to suppress elements from his personal life: he happily removes, from his copies of Middletown, all mentions of his father being “an abusive alcoholic” and of his mother being bipolar (103). Nevertheless, Halliday makes his private information vital for obtaining the egg: Kira—whom Halliday loves deeply and who is the reason underlying the termination of his and Ogden’s relationship—is the answer to the final test that Wade must complete (361). Wade is only successful because he is inspired by his recent conversation with Ogden, where he learns that “Kira was the only woman Halliday ever loved”—and because he recalls, from a biography of Ogden, that Halliday “would only address her as Leucosia, the name of her D&D character” (325). Similarly, in the film, the Journals has been cleansed of many personal details. Wade remarks to Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) that, notwithstanding Halliday’s romantic interest in Kira (Perdita Weeks)—they had gone on all of one date—her co-founding of Gregarious Games, her eventual marriage to Ogden (Simon Pegg), and her untimely death, “the name ‘Kira’ is only mentioned once in all of Halliday’s Journals” (38:50). The Journals’ curator, who presumably knows the collection best and who is later revealed to be Ogden, marvels at this omission: “It makes no sense. She was an important part of both their lives” (39:00). Wade goes on: “Halliday purposely removed every mention of [Kira] except for this one. […] I’ve always felt that the biggest clue to the contest was hidden here” (39:16). The Journals provides gunters with information that would not be important or, perhaps, known to Halliday. By nature of its entries being assembled from different video sources taping Halliday’s life, it shows details he does not notice or, in some cases, even see. We cannot always notice every detail of every incident that occurs in our everyday lives.
When Wade visits the Journals to watch footage of the 2029 Gregarious Games office party, for instance, the cleaners in the background are perfectly visible to Wade. Halliday’s focus, however, is directed to the table he’s cleaning, as well as his conversation with Ogden, which centres on Ogden’s reservations about the OASIS and the end of his involvement in Gregarious Games. Halliday’s intense focus can be seen as a kind of defense mechanism: he is avoiding this confrontation with Ogden. Very clearly, Halliday values this memory, or else it would not be in the Journals at all, and this episode also proves important in the egg hunt. But more significant for our arguments, it contains a wealth of detail—and indeed, an excess of information—that would make us overlook the single important line: “Why can’t we go backwards, for once?” (24:57). The Journals also contains an archive of “every film, game, book, and television program [Halliday] ever saw” (23:25). Later, the High Five is presented with the opportunity to experience any of the films that Halliday could have seen on his date with Kira. That the archive keeps track of every film that he has ever seen, organizes it by the week and the year that he did, and notes the number of times he had seen it does not mean that he can or would want to know all this information off hand. Moreover, Halliday cannot possibly have found meaningful (or wish to recall) every single film he has ever seen. Only a handful of references are needed to complete the egg hunt, and it behoves the player to read Halliday’s mind and to guess at what was important for him when he created a particular part of the quest. Amidst this surplus of information, we do well to dwell on Ogden, who knows Halliday best. Ogden is mostly an impartial observer “watch[ing] from the sidelines” (315) in the novel: he has agreed “to protect the spirit and integrity of [the] contest […] and to intervene if it ever became necessary” (314), which he does when he offers sanctuary to the High Five.
Conversely, Ogden is often very meddlesome, if passively so, in the film. In both of Wade’s visits to the Journals, the curator deters him with sarcasm—he recognizes Wade and asks, in the first visit, “And how will you eat up my valuable search time today?” (23:01) despite there being no other patron—and debates with him about the archive’s contents. He does not, in fact, help to navigate the excessive information contained in the Journals, and Wade must do so on his own. Ogden cannot, of course, be in control of the curator all the time, nor can he assist every gunter who visits the Journals. However, it is Ogden himself who verifies Wade’s claim that Kira is only ever mentioned in the Journals once. It is understandable that he should feel surprised: he was an active participant in key episodes in Halliday’s life, and yet Wade knows what is in the archive—and the details of what happened—better than he does. Indeed, Wade quotes Ogden’s comments about Halliday’s and Sorrento’s relationship, oblivious of the fact that Ogden—who may not even remember ever having said this—is standing right beside him. Ogden cannot be impartial in his role as the curator: he searches the Journals for references specifically to “Karen Underwood Morrow.” A more effective search would involve a combination of key terms such as “Karen Underwood,” “Karen Morrow,” “Kira Underwood,” or “Kira Morrow.” The research librarian would not, following Jardine, necessarily trust that all evidence has been catalogued and indexed correctly, and they would look for places where Kira might likely or even possibly appear, including her gaming experiences with Dark Crystal and her marriage to Ogden. Both the curator’s search for the one term and for this specific one reveal his significant biases: he prioritizes the married “Karen” when he searches for her full name instead of “Kira,” the name by which Halliday most often refers to her. The rub is that Halliday had created his archive, and so he may well be using “Kira.” The consequences of this search may be significant: Ogden may obtain far fewer hits, and there may well be much more to the archive than he and Wade realize. Wade proves wiser than Ogden in the end. He recognizes that Halliday misses him: “Kira wasn’t the key. It was you, Mr. Morrow. You were the Rosebud. And Halliday’s biggest regret was losing his only friend” (127:47).
Gunters develop systems to make sense of their reading. Wade keeps a notebook, what he calls a grail diary—following Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)—and it is one of the few physical items that he takes with him to Columbus. Wade writes down not only what he learns, but also his attempts to decipher the egg hunt’s various riddles. It is significant that, at least initially, he conceives of the diary as an escape from the OASIS and all the information contained therein: “Each night after school, I logged out of the OASIS and filled the blank pages of my grail diary with possible interpretations of the Quatrain” (129). By unplugging himself from cyberspace and all its distractions, Wade can better concentrate on the information that he believes to be directly relevant to the hunt. He goes on, however, to discover that his system is unequal to the task in hand. His diary, which he eventually has to digitalize, “had now grown into a vast mountain of data containing every scrap of information [he’d] collected since the contest began. It appeared as a jumble of cascading windows […], displaying text, maps, photos, and audio and video files, all indexed, cross-referenced, and pulsing with life” (211). Cline’s language here is revealing: Wade’s own archive, like the Almanac and the Journals, is organized by a system that he best understands, but unlike them, it is a living collection that keeps on growing. His materials on Pac-Man, an arcade game that Halliday loved, are a case in point. When Wade opens his grail diary for insight into how to play a perfect game, his diary contains:
The original game code. The unabridged biography of the designer, Toru Iwantani. Every Pac-Man strategy guide ever written. Every episode of the Pac-Man cartoon series. The ingredients for Pac-Man cereal. And, of course, patterns. I had Pac-Man pattern diagrams out the wazoo, along with hundreds of hours of archived video of the best Pac-Man players in history. (221-22)
While the Pac-Man patterns are crucial here—Wade has never played, nor even seriously attempted, a perfect game before—he could not have anticipated when he would need them, and so he keeps them, along with much else, with him at all times. Wade’s and his peers’ extensive research into Halliday’s archive makes it all the more difficult to determine what is especially important. If anything can be relevant, then it stands to reason that one ought to have notes about everything. We would go further: the whole purpose of Wade’s diary is to keep relevant information handy, and yet, at the rate in which personal archives like his are growing, there would be little difference between looking up Pac-Man on Google and in Wade’s diary.
It seems impossible to sort through this content, and to sort out what is and what isn’t worth reading. The issue of information overload is not confined to gunter communities. The IOI has amassed a great deal of data on Halliday, enough to make Wade’s grail diary appear modest: “They had things I’d never seen. Things I didn’t even know existed” (290; original emphasis). Still, “Halliday’s grade-school report cards, home movies from his childhood, [and] e-mails he’d written to fans” do not actually help them. Working in this state of information surplus, Wade and Aech are certain that their friend I-r0k would never be able to prove that they are all students on Ludus, even if he “post[s] about [them] to every gunter message board he could find” (128). I-r0k has neither more nor less credibility than any gamer who posts on an OASIS forum. If anything, I-r0k, the “obnoxious poseur” with limited knowledge who “brandish[es] an over-size plasma rifle the size of a snowmobile” (42), has slightly less. Wade and Aech are confident that his messages will go unnoticed in the sea of posts by gunters also claiming to be their “close personal friends” (128). There is considerable freedom of what to do with what we learn. As Jenkins says, collective intelligence “is disorderly, undisciplined, and unruly”: “Just as knowledge gets called upon on an ad hoc basis, there are no fixed procedures for what you do with knowledge. Each participant applies their own rules […]” (53). As Cline illustrates, it can be used for good. In the novel’s final scenes, for instance, the High Five finally clan up. Equipped with an extra life, but pressured to complete the quest before the IOI does, Wade asks Aech, Art3mis, and Shoto for help: “You guys are right. This is my only shot at clearing the Third Gate. There won’t be any second chances, for anyone. The Sixers will be here soon, and they’ll enter the gate as soon as they arrive. So I have to clear it before they do, on my first attempt. The odds of me pulling that off will increase drastically if the three of you are backing me up” (349). Wade assures Art3mis that he would share his winnings, whether or not they contribute, yet as he also indicates, “helping me is probably in your best interest” (349). But collective intelligence can just as easily be used for evil. It has made both the OASIS and the real world less safe for gunters. Sorrento and the IOI scour the cyberspace for possible clues, and, like many gunters, they come across I-r0k’s tip; one of presumably many that, with their seemingly limitless resources, they follow up on. If Daito and Shoto use this knowledge to track down the Tomb of Horrors on Ludus, then Sorrento, as we will see, weaponizes it: he identifies and makes good on his threats to Wade, blowing up his home in the stacks and murdering his aunt and neighbours in the process.
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Ue, Tom, and James Munday. “Tolkien, Cline, and the Quest for a Silmaril.” Methods of Knowing: Historical Research, Creative Writing, and the Past. Ed. Kevin A. Morrison and Pälvi Rantala. New York: Routledge, 2023. 7,864 words. Print.
 Here, and in what follows, we identify the journal in the novel as the “Almanac” and the journal in the film as the “Journals.”