I've made no secret my love for Warcross or my disdain for Ready Player One. Both are sci-fi books that deal with virtual reality and gaming, but they have very different target audiences and entirely different approaches to talking about technology and gender roles.
For my Children's Literature class - one of the last classes I took in college - my final paper was about a book for youth that taught an important lesson. I chose Warcross because of the impact Marie Lu's writing has had on me and because of what the book means.
Though both books are essentially about the same thing - a virtual reality world and game where everything is at stake - Warcross is the book you should read, not Ready Player One.
For the sake of the discussion, I will be discussing things that can be considered spoilers, though I will not outright reveal any major plot points unless they are pertinent to my point. If you're completely against spoilers, I would suggest coming back to this blog post after you've read both books.
Both of these are the first books in a duology. Warcross (2017) and Wildcard (2018) take place in the not-so-distant future, where technology has advanced because a boy genius revolutionized the way everyone can interact with it. Ready Player One (2011) and Ready Player Two (2020) takes place after society has crumbled and the only thing that makes life bearable is VR.
Being complete, Warcross does have an edge story-wise. It's done with its arc and the characters have all reached their final growth points as far as we know them. The announcement of a sequel to Ready Player One came as a surprise to most people because it was long considered a sci-fi standalone, and one that ended rather well. Personally, I have no plans to read the sequel, but I will be keeping an eye out for what people say about it and whether it was necessary.
I do want to make a disclaimer that I have a bias against Ready Player One because of how much I felt alienated while reading it, but that's also why I think it's not the right book for people to be reading if they want something about virtual reality and gaming.
Taking the time to understand the authors' histories plays an important role in my argument that Warcross is better than Ready Player One.
Ernest Cline, a middle-aged white man, wrote a brilliant story that encompasses a lot of history in video games. From the first 8-bit games that existed to modern FPS (first-person shooter) games that all culminated in a VR world that was everything at once. At the center, a game-maker who would leave his legacy to someone who could solve his riddles. Riddles that depended on extensive knowledge of video games throughout his history and general history. Most of which are actually focused on games that we don't play anymore.
I have no problem saying that Cline did lots of research before writing this book. He was an "obsessive gamer" by his own admission during the 70s and 80s, and later worked in information technology before he became a screenwriter and sci-fi novelist. But that's also where the problem lies. There's so much good stuff that he crammed into one book. All of which he wrote in a way that alienates younger generations and women.
On the other hand, Marie Lu, an author who has always been close to my heart, grew up playing video games and actually worked in the industry for Disney. She was a concept artist for about five years with Disney's video game division, where she met her husband. This first-hand experience with gaming allowed her to create and explain an immersive VR world without making readers feel like they're dumb for not knowing or understanding the technology. It also makes her an adept writer of what VR gaming feels like and how it works for the players.
Lu's personal experience with being in the gaming industry gives her a great background for writing a female character who loves to code - something most people would consider to be a male-dominated hobby and profession. Yet, Lu incorporates her passion in a way that encourages young girls reading the duology to explore a love for science and technology, giving them a strong female role model to follow.
video games and knowledge
When I was reading Ready Player One, I constantly found myself mildly ashamed that I didn't always get the old game references. The main character, Wade, talks about the games like everyone should know them because, in this universe, everyone does. So many people are searching for the ultimate prize that pretty much everyone has memorized decades of game trivia related to the creator of the VR world. And though I'm not the most well-versed in video games (I mostly play Sims 4), I can understand a decent amount of it. Still, this book made me feel bad for not understanding everything about games that were created before I was born.
Inversely, Warcross was incredibly easy to understand. I have a very minimal grasp of coding. I can just about remember how to start and end a line of code, and that's it. And somehow, Lu explained her VR world and all the technology around it so easily that I never felt lost. Everything made sense and I could understand how it worked. The game of Warcross intrigued me and made me wish it actually existed because I would love to play it.
It's interesting to compare the two because Ready Player One hinges on an extensive history of what video games were and how that played into the overarching VR universe. Meanwhile, Warcross takes the idea of a game and turns it into a vast world of technology that goes beyond gaming, and actually works to alter other kinds of technology too. It's not about what gaming has done in the past, it's about what technology can do in the future.
main characters & gender roles
And that, my friends, is why Ready Player One isn't actually geared toward teenagers and young adults, but rather toward middle-aged white men, like Cline himself. While this book is great and has opened the doors for VR in popular literature, it's mostly a reflection of the "glory days" of video games i.e. anything before the 2000s. As readers coming into this book, we're thrown into a world of information that does have value, but feels more like a chance for the main character, Wade, to show off how smart he is and how much time he's dedicated to obsessively memorizing trivia and old games. He talks about things he discovers like it makes him better than everyone else, and when he figures out a clue, he credits it to how he's studied everything there is to know about the VR's creator.
Of course, this also gives him a complex, making him believe and act like he's better than everyone else when he solves the first riddle that gives him a lead on the final prize. Wade grows in fame and popularity, earning money because he was the first gamer to crack the riddle. Sure, I think he deserves some praise for that, but not so much that it gets to his head. And once it's in his head, Wade becomes an intolerably toxic teenage boy, believing that he's entitled to anything he wants - including "the girl."
In Warcross, Emika is a bounty hunter by day and a gamer by night. But her first passion is coding. It helped her escape bad foster homes and gave her a skillset that benefits her day job and accidentally propels her into the world of Warcross. She knows she's a good programmer and hacker, but those skills aren't displayed fully until she accidentally hacks into a live Warcross game that's being broadcast to millions of people internationally. And that brings her to the attention of the man who created the game and the tech, Hideo Tanaka.
Though Hideo is regarded as the genius, certainly in terms of his education and what his tech has done for the world, Emika is in many ways his equal. She understands coding as well as he does and impresses him with her ability to spot errors that eluded the rest of his tech team. It's one of the many reasons he hires her for a secret job, but more than that, it's an example of a woman holding her own in a field dominated by men. Emika continues to prove her skills as a gamer and hacker by quickly picking up Warcross on a professional level and hiding her mission from several other skilled hackers. All without needing a man to show her what to do.
the nerd and the romance
Wade's obsession with the final prize and the girl of his dreams turns him into an obnoxiously frustrating main character to read from. Before they meet, he spends hours reading her blog and tracking her online movements, convinced that they would be a perfect match if they knew each other. This stalking behavior normalizes the inappropriate nature of his actions, rewarding him with the girl in the end because "it'll all work out and be fine as long as she likes you back eventually."
His thoughts are constantly surrounding video game trivia, how great he is, and how the girl he likes should like him back. Oh, and how he's a better gamer than her just because he solved a puzzle before she did - even though she found it months before him. He's just better than her because he's a guy, and that's also why he continues to solve the rest of the puzzles before she does and why he comes up with the endgame plan without her input. When he expresses his feelings for her, a girl already established as one of the best female gamers in the VR world, she turns him down gently and he spirals into a pit of self-loathing, self-pity, and bitterness toward her rejection. Yup, that's all it took for him to completely alienate his friends and allies, while also abandoning his quest to find the prize at the end of the riddles.
And what does that show readers? That a guy deserves to get the girl because of his vast ancient video game knowledge and he likes her. She should be flattered. Which she is, by the end of the book. His plans and obsessions (and turning himself hairless in the process - don't ask) somehow become qualities she's attracted to and they happily watch the sunset together as a couple. It's the perfect ending for every guy who think he should get the girl just because he likes her and "deserves" it.
There's little explanation as to why Art3mis finds Wade attractive after his temper tantrum at her rejection and repeatedly immature behavior. I can remember little of why she ends up having feelings for him and agrees to meet in person. What I do remember is telling her over and over again that she deserves better and being frustrated when she reciprocates his feelings at the end of the book. She ignores the red flags that wave frantically around Wade's head and somehow falls for the boy who hid and sulked for months when she turned him down.
The truth is that Wade does little to nothing to prove that he's mature enough for a relationship. Frequent temper tantrums lead his best friend and fellow gamer/treasure hunter, Aech, to call him out on several occasions. Not that any of it matters because Wade only does what Wade wants and thinks is best. But he saves the day and wins the prize, so that means he also gets the girl.
On the other hand, Emika and Hideo's romance is born first out of a mutual love of coding and programming. They bond over their shared interests and how they found their passions, becoming friends despite Hideo's insistence at keeping their professional relationship a secret. Over time, they grow to care for each other as people and as equals, making their relationship an example of what a healthy romance looks like.
They have their bumps as the duology goes on, but nothing to the level of toxic behavior. Hideo never acts like Emika is less that him just because he's a genius billionaire, and Emika falls for the family man behind the serious CEO. There's no assumptions on Hideo's part that Emika will or should return his feelings. Instead, he shows his care through encouraging her and opening up about his personal life, knowing that it's something he's hidden from the greater public. Of course, it never hurts that he's attractive.
I think the comparison of the two books and their approaches to romance are strong examples of the kind of role models Wade and Emika are. You can argue that not every reader will see Wade's example as something to emulate, but you can't disregard the book's reward for his toxic behavior and personality. One could say that Emika conveniently fell for the richest man around, but it's his personal life that truly draws her to him.
2011 and 2017 were very different times in terms of representation in media. For it's time, Ready Player One does a decent job of including a somewhat diverse cast. There are gamers/treasure hunters from all over the world, one of the secondary characters is a POC, and there's a character in the LGBT+ community. It's not the best showcase of diversity, but it's something.
Meanwhile, Warcross features both a main character and a love interest who are people of color. Specifically, Emika is Chinese and Hideo is Japanese. The book also includes secondary characters who are POC, members of the LGBT+ community, and a gamer with a physical disability. All of these things are normalized among conversations between characters and shows that anyone can be a skilled gamer, hacker, or programmer.
And of course, the race of the protagonist is going to have an impact on the resolution of the story. Wade is a straight white teenaged boy and Emika is a straight Chinese teenaged girl. In one, the white boy saves the day because he's a nerd who memorized trivia and spent his life playing video games, and in the other, a programmer saves the day because she appeals to the humanity hiding behind the technology. That might be over-simplifying the endings a bit, but you get the rough idea without me spoiling either story completely.
Wade could be one of thousands of white male gamers, but Emika is a rare female gamer and programmer in the industry. As such, Wade's character does little more than glorify the obsessive playing of video games and memorizing old trivia, while Emika becomes a role model for young girls who might have an interest in science and technology.
Ready Player One may have walked so Warcross could run, but that doesn't excuse it of the problematic elements within it's story. We're no longer in a time and place where toxic male behavior should be glorified and rewarded. Instead, we're in an era of girls and women leveling the playing field because we're just as skilled and talented.
When it comes down to what it encourages and represents, Warcross will undoubtedly stand above Ready Player One as a book for younger generations.