Virtual identity in Ready Player One and Facebook Spaces

Despite its allusions to a dystopian future society, Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One never really sets out to make any sweeping cultural statement. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. It is a fantastically enjoyable read, and will almost certainly translate well when Steven Spielberg brings it to the big screen in 2018.

There is one moment in the novel I feel that should have been expanded on though. Here, society is obsessed with a VR experience named the OASIS. In the OASIS your avatar need not look like you, or even be human. The protagonist, Wade, discovers towards the end of the story that his best friend Aech (whom he has only met in VR) is not the white male depicted in ‘his’ avatar, but a black female named Helen Hill. This pivotal moment is glossed over quickly by Cline, with a brief explanation provided by Helen that her mother had suggested she purport to be a white male in the virtual world to rid herself of misogynist and racist stereotyping.

Now, in a novel more preoccupied with nerd-centric references to 1980s pop-culture and the inception of video games, this is perhaps not the platform where one should expect to glean great insight into the future of identity in online spaces. It did feel like a missed opportunity to expand on this point thought, and I would love to hear any recommendations of other fictional works that deal with this topic in a more detailed and nuanced way.

Posters like this one have been blu-tacked outside computer rooms of schools for at least a decade.

The concept that you might purport to be someone that you are not when online is by no means a new concept or problem. But as the internet landscape shifts, the concept of online identity will only grow in importance. I feel I need not postulate on the concept of a separate ‘social media’ identity people portray, as this has been covered ad nauseam. Instead, I will consider the possible longer-term trends in virtual perception.

From the mind of Mark Zuckerberg or Charlie Brooker?

Enter Facebook Spaces. To put it simply, I’m yet to meet someone who isn’t at least somewhat unnerved by it. It is the first iteration of Facebook’s foray into social VR, featuring floating torsos and heads hanging out in theme parks, floating over rivers and playing chess. More than anything, Facebook Spaces probably illustrates the long road consumer VR still has ahead of it, but I’ll save that analysis for another time.

Aside from the user-adoption issue of Facebook Spaces, the question of identity appears. Bluntly: do you have to be ‘you’ in Facebook Spaces? Rachel Franklin, head of Social VR at Facebook says:

“I like to think of [the avatar] as your VR incarnation of your Facebook self; it’s more of an extension [of yourself]”.

This seems to imply that your avatar should, to some unknown extent, resemble you. But would this be enforced? If so, how? If Helen Hill wanted to be portrayed as a white male in Facebook Spaces, would she be allowed to do so?

Even in the most simplistic virtual expressions we now have the opportunity to reflect our real-life physicality

I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is James Halliday, and I don’t think we will all be spending our time hanging out in his strange virtual universe within the next five-year window. However, if you, like me, remember fiddling about with HTML code for your Myspace page on your family desktop, you might consider reflecting on how far the concept of online identities have come within just a short timeframe. And how far they may yet have to go.