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ready player one

geek culture, videogames, and politics

Clearly, Ready Player One is a work of popular fiction and not one I offer to you as an object of great literary achievement of the kind you might typically read in a literature course. It does, however, present us with the history of geek culture, and not as a historian might present it, but as it was experienced by someone inside it (Cline). 30 years ago, few people would have imagined that our world would become infused with information technologies. At the dawn of the personal computing era no one would have guessed that the average American would be a daily computer user. No one would have thought that geeky kids sitting in their garages with motherboards would one day end up being among the wealthiest people in the world and wholly transform culture on a global scale. Today, it is commonplace to look upon geek culture as white, male, and elitist (though that certainly overlooks the significant Asian influences that we see in the novel, though on the flipside, it is interesting to trace the American influence on post-WWII Japan, particularly in terms of animé). Of course such complaints rely upon generalizations that we can always uncover as faulty (e.g. not all geeks are white and male, not all white males are geeks). If we were to push through with this image of geek culture presented in the novel (tech-savvy; well-educated: lover of sci-fi, video games, etc.) then we’d end up with a very small percentage of people who really don’t correspond to the general demographic of white male Americans (religious, conservative, no college degree, not readers, and certainly not readers of sci-fi, etc.).

So how might we describe the ideology driving geek culture? Probably the best place to begin would be with something like the Electronic Freedom Foundation. The EFF focuses on issues of privacy, freedom of information and operates as a watchdog against both corporate and government power. Or you might consider some like Cory Doctorow or Bruce Sterling (in Ready Player One, Doctorow is the president of the OASIS). These political views might be best described as libertarian, though differently libertarian from the guy whose key issues are gun ownership and legal pot. What is commonly shared is a mistrust of government and corporation. We may not share these politics (perhaps we do). I am not interested in critiquing or defending these views here. Instead, I am interested in thinking through how geek politics and culture emerge together on the unlikely path to become central to American life.

For me this crystalizes right now in the form of MinecraftMinecraft has become a very popular game, but to be good at it requires some very geeky knowledge and dedication. There is a kind of geeky workflow associated with the game: working independently creating worlds, making “skin” and so on; spending hours on discussion forums; and developing a deeper than average understanding of computers and networks. In this sense, it’s more than a game. Not surprisingly, the games we play socialize us in certain ways. Geek culture is a certain kind of socialization. 30 years ago being a geek meant being a social pariah. Today it is something different, I think. Perhaps today the rise of the geeks has led us to view the culture differently, though perhaps no less negatively.

 

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About Alex Reid

Associate Professor and Director of Composition in the English Department at the University at Buffalo

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