© 2018 by Rob Favre

The flaw in flawless fictional worlds

August 17, 2017

I recently finished reading Ready Player One. It had a couple of cool ideas but it felt like I was reading fan fiction, the tone was all over the place, and I basically skimmed all the parts with dialog because each time the characters spoke I hated them more. But, whatever. Ernest Cline has sold thirty trillion books and has Steven Spielberg making his book into a movie. I have... none of those things. He must know something that I don't.

 

But beyond the basic problems I had with the book, something nagged at me as I was reading that I couldn't quite put my finger on. A few weeks later I finally realized what it was, the thing that rang false about the whole virtual construct of the OASIS.

 

There weren't any bugs.

 

Every location is immaculate and beautiful, perfectly rendered, a flawless replica of whatever real world location or movie set or game level it's drawn from. All the spells and armor and spaceships and robots and liches and artifacts and scenes from Wargames interact seamlessly. All the various models of hardware, from decks to goggles to treadmills to gloves, interact flawlessly with every part of the simulation - no compatibility problems. I can't recall a single example in the entire story where there was a single flaw in the simulation of millions of players across thousands of virtual planets.

 

This is problematic for two main reasons.

 

First: I've worked in the software business long enough, and played enough video games, to know that bugs are inevitable in any system. The more complex the system the more likely there are to be scenarios that aren't tested or accounted for, and the simulation in the OASIS has a staggering level of complexity, with an astronomical number of interactions. Somewhere in there would be a flaw that the creators hadn't noticed or thought to test, unless the creators were literally gods. And even if, through some miracle, the code of the system itself were flawless and airtight, it has to interoperate with networks and infinite combinations of hardware configurations. Anyone who's tried to pair a bluetooth device knows how fickle hardware can be.

 

But there is a second problem with this flawless virtual world as presented in the book, and to me, this is the thing that really drains the life out it. If there were really a virtual simulation that contained a prize of the magnitude described in Ready Player One, only chumps and hobbyists would be trying to win it by actually playing the game. The bad guys wouldn't bother setting up a whole organization of players and researchers to learn obscure nerd lore, or trying to coerce the good guys into giving up the secrets they'd discovered; they would hire the best hackers they could and find glitches or exploits that would give them some advantage. The real-world stakes as presented in the book are so high that millions of users spend years searching for a way to win the prize; there is a 100% chance that some of them would have skipped playing the game, and played the meta-game instead.

 

And yeah, I get that the point of the book wasn't to accurately model what would happen if there were a giant prize for winning a computer game. It was to cram a bunch of nerdy references together and be able to geek out about them. But the references could have been the means to a more interesting and thoughtful end, instead of an end unto themselves.

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