I’M USED TO the comparison. Nearly all of the reviews of my new novel Bash Bash Revolution (2018) mention Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011). But, when the trend was reversed, when a review of Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Cline’s book ended with a mention of Bash, I decided to find out just why so many people saw a connection between what USA Today described as “Willy Wonka meets the Matrix” and the book I’d pitched as “an update on The Catcher in the Rye only with Donald Trump, nuclear war paranoia, and Pokémon Go.”
In his review of Ready Player One for the Guardian, Alfie Bown wrote: “A new gaming novel Bash Bash Revolution, released this week, is in some ways the antithesis to Ready Player One.” Having seen the movie and read a good amount of Cline’s book (it really is a page-turner, especially for a Gen-Xer familiar with ’80s pop culture), I’ve decided this description is apt. That is, while I don’t fully agree with Bown’s assertion that the movie depicts a gaming culture not dissimilar to the alt-right, I do concur that “the movie presents technologies of gaming only as a way to realise existing desires.”
Spielberg’s Ready Player One is conservative, but what it conserves isn’t a reactionary vision of an imaginary past but rather our current moment of seemingly ubiquitous consumer capitalism.
With that adjustment to Bown’s argument, I can more easily understand why he would say that my book is the antithesis of Cline’s, as the characters in Bash Bash Revolution aren’t working to own a VR version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory but are instead tasked by the AI with overcoming a society dominated by clickbait, Amazon drones, and commodity production generally.
There are a variety of ways that my book works like Cline’s, only in the opposite direction. Here are a few examples:
- In Cline’s book, the protagonist escapes from his dreary, miserable existence into a VR world known as the OASIS, whereas in my novel the protagonist tries to escape from the grip of augmented reality and hold on to his dreary teenage existence.
- In Cline’s book, the characters set off to discover a video game Easter egg that will grant them title to the huge corporation that owns and controls virtual reality, whereas in my novel an AI discovers that augmented reality is the key that will overturn all corporations and give it, the AI, control over the characters.
- In Cline’s book, CEO Nolan Sorrento wants to corrupt virtual reality with subliminal and other advertising messages in order to maximize ad revenue, whereas in my novel an AI uses demographic data to create subliminal messages that will corrupt and control his users.
These differences, however, are really only symptoms of the more significant opposition between the two books. The main difference between Ready Player One and Bash Bash Revolution isn’t to be found in plot points, in the characters’ temperaments or development, or in the pop cultural references we deploy. The most significant difference between Cline’s book and my own really has to be understood as the difference between virtual and augmented reality.
At this point, I want to refer to a few ideas from a philosopher whose lectures have become popular over the past couple of decades — namely, the Slovenian psychoanalyst and provocateur, Slavoj Žižek. In his 2004 lecture and film “The Reality of the Virtual,” Žižek opined:
Today everybody is talking about virtual reality, but I think that virtual reality is a rather miserable idea. It simply means let us reproduce in an artificial digital medium our experience of reality. I think that a much more interesting notion, crucial to understanding what goes on today, is the opposite. Not virtual reality but the reality of the virtual.
What Žižek was talking about, what he was driving at, was the very simple idea that our illusions, ideologies, and myths not only influence what we do in the real world but also are the only way we can even start to understand reality. Žižek wasn’t interested in recreating reality in a virtual or artificial way because he thought reality itself was already partially artificial or virtual.
More recently, Žižek has moved away from using virtual reality to describe his big philosophical idea and has, instead, resorted to referring to augmented reality. In a recent essay about Pokémon Go, Žižek — who has probably never played a video game except for when his children demand it — asserted that:
[t]his augmented reality mode is what makes Pokémon Go different from other PC games: Instead of taking us out of the world and into artificial virtual space, [augmented reality] combines the two; we look at reality and interact with it through the fantasy frame of the digital screen.
Žižek’s point is that Pokémon Go is merely a variation on how we already come to know the world. For Žižek, we are always already playing Pokémon Go. We are always already engaged with virtual realities that aren’t out there in the world beyond us but in here with us. We are always seeing the world through a screen of fantasies.
Ready Player One operates on the presupposition that there is a real world out beyond the OASIS of our digital imagination. Cline imagines that this real world is authentic, healthy, and ultimately good. By contrast, my novel, centered as it is on augmented reality, proposes that the real world is already riddled with virtual entities and fantasies even before the digital devices are booted up.
In Bash Bash Revolution, I tried to imagine what might happen if reality was no longer augmented by the economic, political, or social myths that we all know so well but was instead replaced by augmented-reality versions of video games.
This difference probably does make it the antithesis of Ready Player One.