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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Nostalgia for happier times permeates the entire novel with almost constant references to the 1980s and James Halliday’s childhood. Halliday used his obsessions with 1980s media and pop culture to escape his unhappy family life. He immersed himself in these interests, and as the world fell apart later in his life, he used these obsessions as a crutch to ignore the less pleasant aspects of life. At the very core of Ready Player One is Halliday’s Easter egg hunt, and the hunt itself is based on Halliday’s love for the first video game he ever owned. He received this game as a Christmas present in 1979, which was obviously a bright spot in his otherwise unhappy life. The game, Adventure, was played on the Atari 2600, and Halliday found the Easter egg hidden within. Wade, who experiences a similarly unhappy childhood, experiences this nostalgia vicariously through Halliday’s interests. Even though Wade was not alive during the 1980s, he uses 1980s movies, shows, video games, and music as a way to experience a happier time in human existence. Nostalgia is used to escape, just as the OASIS itself is used as an escape.
In Ready Player One, the idea of personal identity is explored as something that is not permanently fixed. We often think of identity as something relatively stable. People assign themselves labels that inform their identity, and they don’t often change. If the reader were to label Wade in the real world, they might call him a student, poor, smart, and a loner. However, personal identity is fluid in this story because the OASIS allows people to assume nearly any identity they desire. They change it at will, unlike the real world where identities are more stable. This fluidity of personal identity is really a form of freedom. It gives individuals control over how others view them and the ability to control their appearance. Every character in the novel manipulates the appearance of their identity. Wade begins the story limited to the most basic avatar because he lacks money. By the end of the story, he can choose any avatar skin he wants. Aech presents herself as a white male despite being a Black woman. Art3mis appears much like she does in real life, but her avatar does not have the birthmark that covers half her face. Halliday presents himself as a tall, robed wizard named Anorak. In the OASIS, assuming a new identity doesn’t require any real effort. It is simply a few clicks or keystrokes away. Although each of the characters chooses online identities that represent how they wish to see themselves, they cannot ever escape their real-world identities. By the end of the novel, the characters must come to grips with their own personal identities when they meet each other in real life and are forced to show themselves as they really are.
There is a constant conflict between reality and illusion, and users of the OASIS are not always able to distinguish what is real. Humans spend most of their time in the OASIS, and to them, it is reality. Users of the OASIS can experience almost any reality they want within the hundreds of OASIS worlds. Although these experiences seem real, they are only an illusion. The limits of the human body force everyone to face reality at least part of the time as they must exit the OASIS to eat and sleep. The conflict between reality and illusion is first addressed in Chapter 1 when Wade explains how upset he was when he realized the truth of his life. In this case, it was the OASIS that helped Wade arrive at what he considers the truth. Before his education in the OASIS, he had no idea how bad his life actually was compared to the lives of people in the past. When he had these realizations, he felt like it was a “kick in the teeth.” Although the OASIS is not real life, all of Wade’s most important possessions are related to or exist within it. Another example of the conflict between reality and illusion occurs in Chapter 18. Wade professes his love for Art3mis only to have her reject him. Wade believes that their relationship is genuine, but this belief turns out to be an illusion when Art3mis pushes him away.
In Ready Player One, large corporations are oppressive and control almost everything, leaving individuals essentially powerless. Throughout the world, there is a large disparity between wealth and poverty. The novel postulates that large corporations make it seem impossible that any regular person with limited means could ever compete against them. The IOI uses its immense power and resources to try and win Halliday’s hunt, which makes it very unlikely that an individual like Wade could win. The IOI forces people to work as part of the Sixers, which grows their ranks unfairly. The IOI uses their power to attempt to bully Wade into helping them find the egg, and they blow up his trailer when he refuses. They also murder Daito to stop him from getting closer to the egg. This power imbalance makes for an unfair competition. However, Wade is an underdog because he achieves success despite the huge power imbalance between himself and IOI. In Chapter 34, the power imbalance is illustrated in the climactic battle. Wade has earned everything he could possibly need in the OASIS, but even then, IOI has the upper hand. Sorrento uses the robot Mechagodzilla, which is twice as large as Wade’s robot, and he still has a team of Sixers standing by his side. This symbolizes the stark imbalance of power between the two.