Takeaways from 8th Grade Summer Reading: Ready Player One

Before the Summer let out for the 2017 year, our school's Middle/Upper School librarian sent out an all-call for books our 8th grade kiddos might take interest in for Summer Reading. Being the nerd I am I offered up Ready Player One by Ernest Cline as a potential candidate and I was asked lead a book discussion when the kiddos got back.

Of the various 8th grade choices, it ended up being one of the smaller reading groups. The group makeup was 6 students, 2 of which were newly enrolled students that hadn't read the book, leaving 3 geeky boys and 1 girl. That is to say, this is a pretty small sample size. Still, this post is some of my takeaways from our group (in no particular order).

For anyone else doing any kind of book discussion/analysis of this book, my librarian sent me this useful site with gobs of information.


That taken care of; if you aren't familiar with it, Ready Player One (RPO) is set in a not-so-distant futuristic world that all around kinda sucks: wrecked economy, depleted resources, over-population, increased crime, corporatocracy rule of sorts, pseudo dystopian ad nauseam. One of the few things society has going for it is this super-popular system called the OASIS where MMO game meets second life through the use of virtual reality gear where users can log in and experience a vast universe. So popular it's pretty much supplanted the Internet as we know it.

Game developer and creator of OASIS, James Halliday, passes away after years of being a recluse and leaves his last will an testament to world. He was working on game within his game... Complete my golden ticket Easter Egg quest, own OASIS and all of its monetary assets, here's a vast collection/almanac of my musings, and have a clue on me to get you started. Everyone goes into a frenzy of sorts, but no one figures out a thing. Years go by and the hype dies down until our protagonist Wade Watts (aka Parzival) solves the first clue. Hype reinstated, race begins again for everyone including evil giant corporation IOI who wants to own OASIS and make even more money than it already has.

The catch of the book... Halliday is a huge pop-culture buff, particularly of the 80's (with a sprinkling of 70's and 90's in there). This is Cline's modus operandi for spending most of the book making a variety of pop culture references across movies, music, television, anime, video games, etc. 

With that out the way, on to my observations based on the students' reactions.

The boys enjoyed it; the girl felt it was "meh"

Not too many ways to spin it, RPO is written from an adolescent boy's perspective. The male students of the reading group didn't necessarily relate to Wade, but they certainly related to what he was doing and how he was doing it. For what's it's worth, it was unanimous; their favorite part of the book was the culminating robot fight in the final chapters.

While he has his moments of feeling things out and professing his love for Art3mis, he's a fairly flat character otherwise. Worse still, he absolutely carries the qualities of a condescending know-it-all twerp throughout his monologue in the book. Not unlike some chatter a gamer might hear in an online match. For my one female student, she simply couldn't relate. Couple this with the fact that the book is a sea of 80's pop-culture references this particular audience unfamiliar with, it simply wasn't an enjoyable read.

None of the students actually looked up any of the references

I was curious to know if any of them had. Being more of a product of the grungy 90's there were quite a few I didn't know, but oftentimes I pulled up good ole' Google search to get some familiarity. My students here were simply uninterested.

That level of sophisticated VR is probably far off, but an MMO focused on VR might not be

We all agreed, the VR experience of OASIS is no where near any kind of consumer availability... but VR itself we think could have a hit game in the next 5 to 10 years... and maybe even less, assuming the price for ownership comes down and the interest in it starts to drive up. And if Google Trends is any indication, it looks like it is:

Not exactly scientific, but certainly provides some indicator of rising interest. That large pop you see toward the end of the graph was December/November of 2016, which makes me think the consumer interest is absolutely there. A separate trend search over the last 5 years for "virtual reality education" is also showing some increase in the last year and half as teachers imagine ways to utilize it in a classroom setting (I think Google Card Board certainly boosts this a bit). 

My prediction here is that we won't see anything like the OASIS, for quite some time, but will likely see several MMOs come of it. Maybe even some existing ones will take a harder stab at it.

I did get a kick out of their reactions when I showed them Nintendo's Virtual Boy.

Everyone, including the kids who didn't read the book, would watch the movie

You haven't watched the trailer? Get to it, this post will wait for you to come back

Welcome back. The kids all felt like this showed a lot of promise. I could see it go either way... but clearly someone knew what they were doing when they included the Iron Giant, all the students immediately recognized the icon and were nothing short of stoked (the Iron Giant did not make an appearance in the book).

It was a good teachable moment to them about the potential costs of intellectual property and the range of creative license we're likely to see in a movie like this.

The effect of more sequels, remakes, and pop culture references? Not much

Feeling a little out of place heading a book group, I called up my good librarian friend for some ideas. She's worked a lot with the age group I'd be with so I figured she'd have some invaluable feedback, and thankfully I was right. She gave me more ideas that I had time to cover. But one thing she threw out there struck me; the 70s, 80s, and 90s all had a very definitive feels to us and the 2000's maybe a little less so. I daresay this book was built on other people's content.

For the last couple of decades we've seen waves of blockbuster sequels and television reboots. More so than we felt we had growing up in the 90's. So how does it make them feel to be constantly surrounded by remakes, sequels, and other generations' pop culture references? If my small group is any indication, no big deal!

They enjoy the fact that they can enjoy content rooted in previous 'versions' in a ways that are more relevant to them (something I'd say RPO as a book doesn't do, but the movie may).

It was all just a game for them

Despite Wade's early book descriptions of OASIS, the kids readily identified it as a game. Understandably so, the book focuses on the game aspect of it far more than it did of the "Second Life" aspects that existed in the world. After all, not everyone of the dystopian RPO world wanted to game, but they did want the escape.

Their parents are scared of technology

This was more found out through organic conversation, but their parents are scared of technology. The kids in this group have a small obsession with Roblox and a little bit of Minecraft and their parents are convinced they'll get a virus playing it. That or the parents are just saying that so they'll play less (their observation, not mine). Nevertheless it made for some good conversation about how older generations historically do fear technology. 

When asked about how they think they'd fear technology in the future, they really couldn't really see it being a problem. This may be a lack of vision of how the future will be different, but it may also be because they are true digital natives. While I had a Nintendo as long as I can remember, and a modem-connected computer as a mid-teen, these guys haven't known a world without smart phones.

How they defined their own generation: electronics and selfishness

Last takeaway from this group; the 80's had a goofy feel to it, with synth heavy music, colorful fashion and the like. The 90's had grunge, flannel shirts and torn-at-the-knee denim, and so on. So what about this decade? The kids literally said electronics and selfishness (with an emphasis on material possession and shopping). 

My sample size is small and likely a little more on the geeky side of their overall class, so I don't know that it's representative, but none-the-less, that's what I got.

Final thoughts

Overall it was a good time getting to hear their thoughts on the book.  When asked if they had interest in reading something similar to this in a sci-fi setting, they didn't show much interest. However they did all have a general interest in technology. With a little questioning, I learned they all seemed to have a love for zombies. 

I made recommendations to them for the first book of a series called Feed by Mira Grant (thank you again my librarian friend, who recommended it to me years ago). With a female protagonist to boot, plenty of zombies, and an interesting take on technology with a heavy emphasis on media and connectivity, this book seemed right up their ally. We'll see if any of them decide to read it!


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