[DISCLAIMER: There are some minor spoilers of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One in this article. If you have read the book, don’t plan on reading it, or can tolerate discussions of theme that don’t involve major plot revelations, read on! -C.]

What is the cost of success within virtual reality? Is it success in the real world? Or can the former be obtained without sacrificing the latter? Of course we’d need to define “success” in all of this, but since we’re on the subject: can virtual success be considered real success at all?

These are but some of the questions bandied about by Ernest Cline in Ready Player One, a novel that envisions a future in which most people spend more time in a virtual reality world called the OASIS than in real life. After OASIS creator James Halliday kicks off a massive contest to determine the heir of his billion dollar fortune, the young protagonist Wade Watts must utilize his gaming and computing skills as well as his extensive pop culture knowledge to win the contest before more unsavory types do. But if virtual success carries a hefty price tag, what does Wade need to pay to stay ahead of the game?

While Wade Watts's virtual home is quite impressive, his real home is not. Welcome to the trailer park of the future: RVs stacked upon RVs high into the stratosphere.

In his efforts to win the contest and keep billions of dollars from falling into the wrong hands, we find Wade increasingly isolated from the real world, even going months on end without seeing true sunlight. At one point his health deteriorates, his relationships suffer, and while Wade fights on in the worthiness of his cause, he soon feels the sting of the reality of his plight. All this comes to a head later in a conversation with a digitized Halliday, who shares his own regrets about how he spent most of his time.
“I [Halliday] 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?”  
“Yes,” I said. “I think I do.”
“Good,” he said, giving me a wink. “Don’t make the same mistake I did. Don’t hide in here forever.” 
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One (p. 364)
This is more than fiction, folks. More than anything, this is sage advice for us in the real world—advice that every Christian who owns a smartphone, laptop, tablet, or gaming console desperately needs to hear—precisely because Wade’s world is our world. (As in most great science fiction, in Ready Player One we gaze into our future to better understand our present.) Indeed, when we survey our modern age not only of compulsive gaming but also of endless web browsing, nightly binge watching and technological addiction in general, we find that what we need is neither outright acceptance of or prohibition against every “digital oasis” that technology has afforded us, but rather the voice of James Halliday like wisdom crying out: Enjoy technology. Enjoy virtual reality. But don’t hide in there forever.

You should also know that if there’s anyone who has needed to hear this wisdom over the course of their life, it’s me.

You see, I grew up a gamer, and a pretty decent one too. (Allow me to indulge in a little Pauline boasting!) When I was in elementary school, Nintendo Power magazine helped teach me how to read. In junior high, I was a Pok√©mon master who started his own TCG (trading card game) team online, entering underground tournaments using mIRC chat rooms and a tweaked Magic: The Gathering client. (You young’uns have it easier now!) And in high school? I was an avid PC gamer at the peak of his powers. (I am out of my mind to talk like this!) Few people know this, but at one point I was actually ranked the 6th best player worldwide for an action role-playing game called Nox, released by Electronic Arts in 2000. (What, you’ve never heard of the game? All you need to know is that there weren’t just six people who played it. ;)

Behold: Nox, one of Carlo's PC gamer obsessions in high school. It played much like the Diablo series if you must know.

While I didn’t play too many video games in and after college (it’s amazing how busy Christian ministry can get!), I have found it curious since then how easily the fun and brain-bending challenge of strategic video games can reel you back in.

Enter Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft in 2013.

Now some of you know about and even play this game, but for those of you who don’t, it’s an online TCG where you battle other folks around the world with decks crafted from your own digital card collection. Before 2013 I had thought my collectible card game days were over. Well, out of nowhere, I suddenly found myself riding shotgun with Wade Watts again: climbing to Rank 4 on the Hearthstone U.S. ladder, shelling out cold hard cash for booster packs and expansions like Curse of Naxxramas, and occasionally playing without breaks until the early light. (If almost nothing in the last sentence made sense to you, let me answer your question: Yes, wild nerd blood flows through my veins. :))

Now if you think that’s anything at all, here’s the crazy part: Since my discovery of the game, I have installed and uninstalled the game over 10 times in a curious cycle of excitement and disillusionment. At times I would go months without playing the game only to pick it up on a whim, get hooked again, and promptly delete it over the course of just a couple of  days. Why this illogical behavior? Well, for me Hearthstone had become more than a simple pastime—mere recreation had evolved into unhealthy addiction, and I found myself wrestling often with my better judgment. Surely it would be alright to just play a bit each day, I thought. But the game was too addicting. An hour quickly turned into two, and I longed for three or four or more. Hearthstone was threatening to affect my relationships. What's more, I started desiring success and fulfillment in virtual reality more than in the real world. It became clear to me that I was no longer taking dips in a pool of recreation. No—I was becoming James Halliday, pulling up my anchor from the shores of reality and setting sail for pleasure on a barren digital sea.

Today I’d like to think I’ve learned my lesson—the game is currently uninstalled, not because I think it’s harmful per se but because I think it’s harmful for me right now. But I wonder if others have been drifting away from reality today.

Ah, Hearthstone. Why must you be so addictive?

Now you need to understand two things about what I’m saying here:

1) I’m not just talking about gaming, but rather addictions of all kinds and especially those predicated on technology. For never before has it been so easy to get lost in alternate worlds from the comfort of our own homes, whether that world is a Facebook news feed, an MMORPG, YouTube, or our television set. With the advent of the Internet, our opportunities to do good may have multiplied, but so have our distractions. The wise will tread with caution. 

2) Let it be said that I’m not against any of these activities at all! (In fact, over this past year I’ve been enjoying some classic role playing games lately while maintaining my focus. Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy VI, I’m looking at you!) However, the problem comes when we, like James Halliday, find ourselves looking to our digital fixations to satisfy us fully, and the problem comes when we set them up as idols and find ourselves unable to stop bowing down. If that’s the case for anything we do, then we desperately need to consider how to adjust our technological habits for the better.

Think about this for just a moment. What’s your thing? Where do you like to escape? Is it TV, gaming, social media, or something else? Honestly answer these five questions to determine the health factor of your habit:
  1. Do I find myself needing to engage in this task for prolonged periods every day?
  2. Do I find it difficult to stop or curtail even if I want to?
  3. Is it the first thing I think about when I get up? Or the thing that’s on my mind before I go to sleep? (A related question: What is the one task every day that I can’t wait for?)
  4. Does my task interfere with my work, ministry, or personal goals that remain unfulfilled?
  5. Most of all: Is this hindering the health of my relationship with God? Is it keeping me from a desire for prayer and Bible reading?
If you find yourself answering “yes” to one or more of these questions, you may want to ask yourself if finding satisfaction in virtual reality has supplanted the joy of living for Christ in the real world. And if this is the case, then maybe it’s time to evaluate our priorities and do something about it. Because life is short, the needs of a lost and broken world are great, and God’s deep purpose for your life is calling. Don’t satisfy yourself with anything less.

Don't reach the end of your life and wish you had lived it better. No continues here on earth.

Hebrews 12:1-2: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

1 Corinthians 6:12: “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

*If anyone asks me what I thought about the book—I loved it. I could have done without the strong atheistic worldview that asserts itself in Chapter 1, but besides that I found the book not only well-written and enjoyable, but also rife with lessons for navigating our techno-savvy present. I actually cried at the book's end and found myself satisfied and (surprisingly enough) challenged.


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