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  • Ludus, World Building, and the Prescience of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One
  • Tom Ue (bio)

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the face of education. Joyce Lau, in Times Higher Education, is not alone in wondering whether we are currently experiencing a version of the future of postsecondary education.1 As a report reprinted in University Affairs indicates, some 1.6 billion students worldwide migrated to virtual learning in March 2020, and education, as we know it, is expected to change forevermore: the "return" to normalcy will almost certainly witness increases in "blended learning," in the "use of open educational resources," and in the "use of technology for components of learning."2 In this climate, Ernest Cline's New York Times bestseller Ready Player One (2011) is right at home. Set in 2045, the novel sees many characters pivoting from their dystopian reality to the Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS), what the central protagonist Wade Watts, in the very first page, characterizes as "a massively multiplayer online game that had gradually evolved into the globally networked virtual reality most of humanity now used on a daily basis."3 My own journey into Cline's worlds began shortly after the release of Steven Spielberg's feature film adaptation (2018). I read the novel in preparation for an upper-year undergraduate seminar, on dystopian fiction, that I was to teach at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Through close reading of texts by Jonathan Swift, H. G. Wells, Yann Martel, and others, this course investigates and responds to the resurgence of the genre's popularity in our own times and contextualizes this movement in relation to a number of historical, theoretical, and critical frameworks.

My interest in Ready Player One arises out of its hospitality to so many different kinds of interpretations, from Marxist to ecocritical readings, and its insights into critical issues ranging from counterfactual narratives to participatory culture. The novel can productively be read for its contribution to the histories of children and young adult, genre, and science fiction. Since that course, Cline has been at the centre of my teaching and research. I revisited Ready Player One in my first-year classes on reading popular culture (2018–19), writing for the arts (2020), and reading and writing about the economy (2021) at Dalhousie University, NSCAD [End Page 149] University, and Cape Breton University respectively. I have written and co-written, with my brilliant former student James Munday, a number of essays on both the book and the film; and we are presently at work on The Worlds of Ernest Cline's Ready Player One, the first book-length study of Cline. I have explored the insights that Spielberg's film offers for life after the pandemic.4 My aims here are to examine Cline's portrayal of Ludus and, in so doing, to suggest some ways in which he envisions our negotiations with virtual realties. By drawing key support from Cline's descriptions of this planet of schools, I argue for the novel's resonance in this historical moment as we capitalize on the affordances and grapple with the challenges of virtual learning.

Wade introduces us to the OASIS by way of his school.5 Apparently "the most boring planet in the entire OASIS," Ludus "had been designed as a place of learning," and so it lacks "a single quest portal or gaming zone anywhere on its surface."6 Wade attends OASIS Public School (OPS) #1873, seemingly a close approximation of a real thing. Short of stopping to examine one's surroundings, one cannot discern much that is out of place:

My virtual surroundings looked almost (but not quite) real. Everything inside the OASIS was beautifully rendered in three dimensions. Unless you pulled focus and stopped to examine your surroundings more closely, it was easy to forget that everything you were seeing was computer-generated. And that was with my crappy school-issued OASIS console.7

When Wade returns to the OASIS, he finds his avatar Parzival right where he left him the night before, "in front of my locker on the second floor of my high school": "I touched my locker door and it popped open...


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pp. 149-155
Launched on MUSE
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