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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The 1980s is the most obvious motif in Ready Player One with references to 1980s movies, TV shows, music, or video games in nearly every chapter. The references to the 1980s serve many functions in the novel. Firstly, the references are closely linked to the theme of nostalgia for happier times. The 1980s are romanticized in the novel even though it was a relatively primitive time for technology. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture because immersing himself in it was how he escaped reality. Wade also explores many recreations of locations from the 1980s, such as arcades and pizza places. Some of his challenges take place in imagined locations from the 1980s, such as settings from video games and movies. Wade uses his obsession with the 1980s to feel connected to Halliday even though he has never met him. Even the title of the book is an allusion to the coin operated video games of Halliday’s youth. Clearly, the extensive discussion of the 1980s also tells the reader that the book’s author, Ernest Cline, possesses extensive knowledge of the decade as well.
Throughout the novel there are contrasts between dystopias and utopias. The real world is a dystopia. There is an energy crisis, climate change, famine, poverty, and disease. Wade’s description of the stacks at the beginning of the novel brings his dystopic existence into focus immediately. Given its name, the OASIS sounds like it would be the ultimate utopia. However, it has both utopian and dystopian elements. In the OASIS, users can be whoever they want, do whatever they want, and travel to many different planets. However, their ability to do so depends on their real-world resources. Wade is unable to afford these luxuries at the beginning of the novel. Even so, his OASIS school, in which he uses a default avatar and is stuck on one planet, is still a far cry from the school he attended in person. At the end of the novel when Wade sees Morrow’s mansion, it seems like utopia compared to Wade’s life in the stacks. The mansion is expansive and lavish—a far cry from anything Wade has ever experienced in real life. The references to dystopias and utopias in both the OASIS and the real world imply that no place is completely one or the other.
Throughout the novel, Wade cycles through feelings of despair and hope, which influences his actions. Wade’s feeling of despair or hope is almost always affected by external events. When Halliday’s Easter egg hunt is announced, Wade is full of hope for a better future, and his hope is renewed when he is the first person on the Scoreboard. The word “hope” is even one of the three words inscribed above the Third Gate, which tells the reader that Halliday also had hope that the winner of the hunt would use the prize for the good of humanity instead of for selfish desires. Conversely, Wade experiences deep despair when he is left by Art3mis and when he is pushed down the Scoreboard by the Sixers.