The central question posed by Ready Player One is whether reality is necessarily better than illusion, particularly if reality has become an increasingly nightmarish place. In the world of the novel, a global energy crisis, poverty, and famine mean that the vast majority of the world’s population live extremely difficult lives. This is certainly true for Wade: he is poor, both his parents are dead, and he is forced to live in a cramped trailer with his cruel Aunt Alice. As a result, Wade avoids existing in reality as much as possible, instead choosing to immerse himself in a massive simulation: the OASIS. Although Wade is still relatively poor and powerless in the OASIS, the game is a far more pleasant place than reality. It affords many more opportunities than exist in the real world and overall offers a better quality of life. For this reason, it is not just Wade who spends all the time he can logged into the game—most of the world does, too.
Although the OASIS is the main example of an illusion to which people retreat in order to avoid reality, other kinds of illusions appear in the novel, too. Some people, such as Wade’s neighbor Mrs. Gilmore, turn to religion as a means of escape from the horrors of their day-to-day existence. Wade is disdainful of religion because he believes that it is little more than a fairy tale—or, in other words, an illusion. This is somewhat ironic, considering that Wade himself is so invested in an illusion (the OASIS) and for most of the novel he doesn’t believe that there is any value in engaging with reality more than is absolutely necessary. On the other hand, the OASIS is arguably a far more concrete, tangible illusion than religion, providing a much more convincing and viable escape from reality than religion can offer.
The novel also calls the distinction between reality and illusion into question. Wade spends so much time inside the OASIS that it is arguably more real to him than reality itself. He goes to school and has a job inside the OASIS; it is also the place where he hangs out with his only friend, Aech, and where he falls in love with Art3mis. What’s more, the OASIS has a substantial impact on the real world. Daito, Aunt Alice, Mrs. Gilmore, and Wade’s neighbors are all killed by the IOI as a result of events within the OASIS, and Wade narrowly avoids the same fate. Halliday’s Easter egg hunt, meanwhile, does not only offer glory within the OASIS, but also bestows on the winner Halliday’s entire fortune, a decidedly “real” prize. When a simulation like the OASIS is so all-consuming and so closely tied to real life, is it really accurate to call it an illusion?
Although Ready Player One does blur the distinction between reality and illusion, overall the novel emphasizes the importance of maintaining a connection to reality. After Wade finds the egg, a simulation of Halliday appears, explaining that his greatest regret was shying away from the real world so much. He tells Wade that he never felt comfortable in reality, but that he wished he’d forced himself to spend more time there, because reality may be the only place it is possible to find true happiness. Taking Halliday’s advice, Wade has his first proper, real-life conversation with Art3mis (whose real name is Samantha), during which he confesses his love for her. The novel ends at this moment, thereby underlining a sense of hope in the possibilities of the real world.
Reality vs. Illusion ThemeTracker
Reality vs. Illusion Quotes in Ready Player One
Playing old videogames never failed to clear my mind and set me at ease. If I was feeling depressed or frustrated about my lot in life, all I had to do was tap the Player One button, and my worries would instantly slip away as my mind focused itself on the relentless pixelated onslaught on the screen in front of me. There, inside the game's two-dimensional universe, life was simple: It’s
just you against the machine. Move with your left hand, shoot with your right, and try to stay alive as long as possible.
Luckily, I had access to the OASIS, which was like having an escape hatch into a better reality. The OASIS kept me sane. It was my playground and my preschool, a magical place where anything was possible.
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. I'd heard that if you accessed the simulation with a new state-of-the-art immersion rig, it was almost impossible to tell the OASIS from reality.
The moment IOI took it over, the OASIS would cease to be the open-source virtual utopia I'd grown up in. It would become a corporate-run dystopia, an overpriced theme park for wealthy elitists.
The more I'd learned about Halliday's life, the more I'd grown to idolize him. He was a god among geeks, a nerd über-deity on the level of Gygax, Garriott, and Gates. He'd left home after high school with nothing but his wits and his imagination, and he'd used them to attain worldwide fame and amass a vast fortune. He'd created an entirely new reality that now provided an escape for most of humanity. And to top it all off, he'd turned his last will and testament into the greatest videogame contest of all time.
I quickly lost track of time. I forgot that my avatar was sitting in Halliday's bedroom and that, in reality, I was sitting in my hideout, huddled near the electric heater, tapping at the empty air in front of me, entering commands on an imaginary keyboard. All of the intervening layers slipped away, and I lost myself in the game within the game.
Morrow stayed on at GSS for five more years. Then, in the summer of 2022, he announced he was leaving the company. At the time, he claimed it was for "personal reasons." But years later, Morrow wrote in his autobiography that he'd left GSS because "we were no longer in the videogame business," and because he felt that the OASIS had evolved into something horrible. "It had become a self-imposed prison for humanity," he wrote. "A pleasant place for the world to hide from its problems while human civilization slowly collapses, primarily due to neglect."
There was no furniture in the cube-shaped room, and only one window. I stepped inside, closed the door, and locked it behind me. Then I made a silent vow not to go outside again until I had completed my quest. I would abandon the real world altogether until I found the egg.
Parzival: I've had a crush on you since before we even met. From reading your blog and watching your POV. I've been cyber-stalking you for years.
Art3mis: But you still don't really know anything about me. Or my real personality.
Parzival: This is the OASIS. We exist as nothing but raw personality in here.
Art3mis: I beg to differ. Everything about our online personas is filtered through our avatars, which allows us to control how we look and sound to others. The OASIS lets you be whoever you want to be. That’s why everyone is addicted to it.
"You don't live in the real world, Z. From what you've told me, I don't think you ever have. You're like me. You live inside this illusion." She motioned to our virtual surroundings. "You can’t possibly know what real love is."
Standing there, under the bleak fluorescents of my tiny one-room apartment, there was no escaping the truth. In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit. A recluse. A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek. An agoraphobic shut-in, with no real friends, family, or genuine human contact. I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified videogame.
But not in the OASIS. In there, I was the great Parzival. World-famous gunter and international celebrity. People asked for my autograph. I had a fan club. Several, actually. I was recognized everywhere I went (but only when I wanted to be). I was paid to endorse products. People admired and looked up to me. I got invited to the most exclusive parties. I went to all the hippest clubs and never had to wait in line. I was a pop-culture icon, a VR rock star. And, in gunter circles, I was a legend. Nay, a god.
When you owned your own world, you could build whatever you wanted there. And no one could visit it unless I granted them access, something I never gave to anyone. My stronghold was my home inside the OASIS. My avatar's sanctuary. It was the one place in the entire simulation where I was truly safe.
The first text adventure game I'd ever played was called Colossal Cave, and initially the text-only interface had seemed incredibly simple and crude to me. But after playing for a few minutes, I quickly became immersed in the reality created by the words on the screen. Somehow, the game's simple two-sentence room descriptions were able to conjure up vivid images in my mind’s eye.
In Marie’s opinion, the OASIS was the best thing that had ever happened to both women and people of color. From the very start, Marie had used a white male avatar to conduct all of her online business, because of the marked difference it made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given.
"Listen," he said, adopting a confidential tone. "I need to tell you one last thing before I go. Something I didn't figure out for myself until it was already
too late." He led me over to the window and motioned out at the landscape stretching out beyond it." I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn't know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life. Right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real. Do you understand?"