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Wade’s OASIS avatar appears in his virtual high school. Even his avatar is poor, as the OASIS uses its own currency, that is described as “one of the world’s most stable currencies.” His avatar’s appearance reflects his poverty. It has the default clothes available to all players. In the OASIS, Wade is known as Parzival, named after Percival, the knight who found the Holy Grail. No one uses their real names on the OASIS, other than at school where it is required, thus everyone is guaranteed anonymity. Wade is not looking forward to graduating, as he cannot afford college. He has instead decided to dedicate his life to winning Halliday’s contest.
Wade reflects on his time in public school in the real world and how he was bullied for being overweight and awkward. He jumped at the chance to attend online school after sixth grade, which transferred his avatar to the online planet of Ludus, where all public schools were located, and violence between players was restricted. Wade also describes the unified villains of the OASIS, the Sixers. The Sixers are agents of a large communications company, IOI, that employs a significant number of people whose sole job is to search for Halliday’s Easter egg. Wade also describes regularly reading Arty’s Missives, a blog run by fellow gunter, Art3mis (pronounced “Artemis”). He has a cyber crush on her but has never met her. Before class begins, Wade is hailed by his only friend, Aech, via an online chat connection.
Wade enters a virtual, carpeted basement that is the chat hangout hosted by his friend, Aech. The Basement is decorated with 1980s memorabilia, a television, and vintage gaming consoles and is frequented by other gunters that Aech has invited. Aech is represented by a large, male, Caucasian avatar. Aech is also a senior in high school but attends one of the schools on the other side of Ludus. He is one of the most successful competitive gamers on the OASIS, and thus is wealthy. He and Wade are friends due to their mutual obsession with Halliday’s contest. Aech’s wealth allows him to travel between worlds on the OASIS, something that Wade rarely can afford to do, to search for the Copper Key.
Wade and Aech debate 80s movies. Each of them insults the other’s favorites while they debate whether the movies are required knowledge for gunters. Another avatar, named I-r0k, descends the stairs and immediately starts insulting Wade. While Wade’s avatar is low level and has few possessions, Wade knows a great deal about Halliday and 80s trivia. While I-r0k belittles Wade’s inability to travel and level up his avatar, Wade repeatedly points out I-r0k’s lack of knowledge. I-r0k eventually leaves the basement, defeated, and Wade gets a notice that his class is about to start. He makes plans to watch 80s movies with Aech after school.
Wade sits through his History lesson in school and remarks how advanced the digital school is. Teacher’s can take virtual field trips. He talks about the methods that other avatars use to travel within the OASIS. Many own their own spaceships, modeled after different sci-fi shows and games. Initially, the OASIS was programmed with several hundred worlds, but after its success, other intellectual properties were added, including Star Wars, Star Trek, and Firefly sectors. There were also fantasy-based worlds, including Middle Earth, Magrathea, and Discworld. Each was populated by NPCs (non-player characters), “computer controlled humans, animals, monsters, aliens and androids with which OASIS users could interact.”
Wade points out that Ludus, where the schools are located, does not offer any adventure or monsters, and so he has great difficulty gaining experience points to advance his avatar to higher levels. Wade knows that he will have to venture to dangerous worlds as a gunter. He has traveled a few times, getting his avatar to level three, but worries that if he misses any more school while questing elsewhere, he will be expelled, have to return his OASIS equipment, and return to public school in the real world. With the world entering the third decade of the Great Recession and unemployment at an all-time high, Wade does not know what he will do to acquire the funds necessary to pursue his goals as a gunter.
The theme of the fluidity of personal identity is introduced when Wade enters his virtual high school in the OASIS. The bullying that Wade faces in real life explains why Wade assumes the real-life identity of a loner—to protect himself emotionally. His transition to online school and subsequent transfer to the planet of Ludus give Wade a glimpse of what is possible if he ever obtains the resources to fully change his identity to suit his desires. Although Wade controls certain elements of his identity at school, his ability to take on his preferred OASIS identity is limited by his circumstances. Wade chooses the name Parzival for his avatar, which is one element of his online identity as someone capable of finding the Easter egg. To Wade and many others, the Easter egg is like the Holy Grail that will provide eternal happiness and infinite abundance.
The introduction of IOI establishes a stark contrast between solo gunters (a shortened term for egg hunters) and the Sixers. While gunters, like Wade, view the hunt as an adventure, the Sixers view it as just another corporate task. Individual gunters run the gamut of personalities, ages, races, genders, avatar styles, and game-playing styles. The Sixers lack individuality and personal expression, as demonstrated by the fact that they are all known by numbers and all use the same avatar. This lack of individuality presents the Sixers as one unit in which each individual is interchangeable. The Sixers can be likened to a hive of bees in which many bees have the same job, and the loss of one bee doesn’t affect the overall functioning of the hive. By persisting as a solo gunter, Wade proves that he possesses grit and persistence, traits that eventually prove successful against the Sixers.
In the OASIS a balance between friendship and competition can coexist but is sometimes tricky, as seen in Wade’s relationship with his only friend, Aech. Although Aech is wealthy, he doesn’t care that Wade is poor or that his avatar is a low level, although these differences could very well prevent people from becoming friends in the real world. Wade and Aech connect over their obsession with the hunt even though they are technically rivals. In their friendship, Wade and Aech offer each other mutual support while being playfully competitive, demonstrating that the OASIS can cultivate true friendship and that friendship doesn’t necessarily have to be ruined by competition. However, just as Wade’s friendship with Aech illustrates how friendship and competition can coexist, the friends’ reluctance to talk about specific details of the hunt prove the balance between friendship and competition can be tricky. Both Wade and Aech seem aware that talking about specific details could strain their friendship so they choose to play it safe and maintain the balance between their friendship and competition.
While the OASIS should be a tool of parity in an otherwise disparate world, it is systemically kept from becoming one. While providing public education in a virtual environment provides extraordinary potential for learning opportunities and field trips, the social stratification that exists in the real world also exists in the OASIS. The resource limitations imposed in the OASIS prevent the OASIS from creating parity. People of limited means, like Wade, are unable to access the opportunities for higher education, personal growth, and an expanded worldview that should be created by the OASIS. Since the OASIS is virtual and able to be accessed anywhere, it would be possible for it to offer more free opportunities for self-improvement, but the idea that the OASIS creates equal opportunities is just an illusion. In fact, the OASIS is just a virtual version of the disparate world that everyone already lives in.